He couldn’t ignore a triple dog dare. But you knew what was coming next. One lick and Flick was stuck to that flagpole. Stuuucck. Stuck! The whaling and crying was epic.
That classic scene from “A Christmas Story” sums up the trouble with shooting in freezing weather. Moisture. While you probably won’t be stuck to your camera (unless you decide to lick a metal part), shooting in freezing temperatures can be tricky thanks to moisture.
One of Dad’s most popular landscape photos “Canadian Mountain Wilderness” took him to the far frozen parts of Canada and Colorado. To capture the images that would be merged into one photo required dangling above a partially frozen river and braving temperature around -15 degrees. (You can read the full story here .) Moisture abounded in the forms of snow, splashing river water, ice and sleet.
When Dad and I venture into such chilly, wet conditions, we always make sure our gear is protected from those obvious moisture sources by using a rain cover. Aquatech and Lenscoat make rain covers for a variety of cameras and lenses. Naturescapes.net and B&H also carry a wide variety of jackets that keep your gear nice and dry.
Even if it’s not snowing or sleeting, another form of moisture can cause a headache for photographers. Condensation forms on the outside of the camera when it’s brought from a very cold location to a warm location. It can even form inside the camera if you changed lenses while outside. Like Flick and the flagpole you know that’s a train wreck waiting to happen.
When we shoot in cold weather, we do a couple of things to keep the moisture away from our very valuable gear. First, don’t change lenses outside. Avoid getting invisible moisture trapped in the camera body by sticking to one lens while outside. Condensation doesn’t have a chance to form inside the camera in warmer locations if you just shoot with one lens.
Second, we put our camera gear in Ziplocs or large, sealed garbage bags before moving from a cold to a warm location. The condensation will form on the outside of the bags rather than on our gear. For the same reason, we also use waterproof containers for our camera cards.
Dad followed this practice when shooting “Deep Snow Chase”. Temperatures dipped to -20 degrees at Sun Valley Ranch near Grand Junction, CO on the day of the photo shoot. Dad shot for 30 minutes and then covered his gear with garbage bags as soon as he was done to prevent condensation from forming. Then he gradually warmed up the gear by putting the cameras in the unheated wood shed for about an hour before bringing them into the coldest part of the cabin. The next morning he removed the bags and was ready to shoot again.
Those tips should take care of the moisture issues. But that’s not all you have to worry about when it’s cold outside. I mean really cold, like negative temperatures. Your camera, full of nifty but delicate electronics, gets a bit testy when the temperatures dip below 32 degrees.
You may notice sluggishness when snapping photos. The LCD display may be slow or even gray out. And the batteries may stop working all together even if you just charged them. But that’s nothing compared to the days of film. When the film froze, it became brittle and actually broke. Be glad you don’t have to deal with that nightmare.
If you’re heading to the frozen tundra, pull out your owner’s manual for any gear you’ll be taking to check the temperature ratings. That will help you trouble shoot any potential cold problems before you’re frozen like a popsicle without many options. Knowing your gear’s limitations before you’re in the field helps ensure you get the photo you really want.
Batteries will be your biggest worry. They tend to shut down in extreme cold even if you just charged them. We always take extra batteries that we put in Ziplocs and stuff in coat pockets to keep them warm. Once the “drained” batteries warm up the charge returns, so it’s good to have multiple warm batteries you can rotate through the camera. We also take multiple cameras if it’s going to be a long shoot. You can rotate the cameras just like the batteries.
During Dad’s photo shoot of “A Winter Pack Trip” -10 degree temperatures and a huge snowfall the night before made shooting interesting. But Dad was prepared. He brought two cameras in case one of them protested the low temperatures. The Novatron flashes on the building and in the fence light were triggered by slaves and powered by batteries that Dad kept warm. All of these things ensured a successful photo shoot.
It goes without saying that you’re just as important as the camera gear. Depending on the severity of the temperatures where you’ll be working, hats, facemasks, gloves, boots and a super duper coat are definitely in order. Hypothermia and frostbite are always a danger if you’re unprepared.
One of Dad’s models came very close to hypothermia during a snowy photo shoot. He wasn’t wearing enough layers for the 10,000’ elevation and a snowstorm dumped on the mountains. Thankfully Dad and his assistant were able to not only get the guy down to the ranch house, but also warmed him up with a very long, hot shower and then layers of blankets. So make sure you bundle up before heading out.
We do have one other piece of clothing we love, a special pair of gloves. These puppies are thin and have a textured surface that helps you grip dials and switches on your camera. Foxgloves Grips are a cheap price to pay for fully functioning (and not frozen) hands in the field. You can buy them here.
Dad says, “Your feet and your hands are the things that take you down. Don’t let them get wet or frozen or you’re gone. Felt-lined boots with rubber socks and warm gloves are a must.”
If you plan ahead you can have a successful cold adventure that doesn’t involve flagpoles or fire department rescues. We’d love to hear about your cold-weather photography escapades. Drop us a line and tell us all about it.