Winter Photography Tips Part 2

This is part two of my blog on winter photography tips. In the first part I discussed ways to get better pictures during winter. In this part I'll give some tips on keeping you and your photo equipment in good working order while out shooting those beautiful winter images.

Lonely Tree by 29k Productions

First of all, protect yourself! Dress comfortably warm, but retain your mobility. Dress in warm layers, and learn to recognize the signs of hypothermia. Nothing is going to ruin your winter photo excursion more than turning into an ice cube! This goes for your car too. You want to have it fully ready for winter and packed up with some emergency supplies such as a first aid kit, a warm blanket, even a snow shovel. Just in case. TheSimpleDollar has a good list of things. Even if you're not planning on going somewhere terribly out of the way, I think you should always carry at minimum an extra pair of boots/shoes and socks.

Another bit of gear you could definitely use in your cold weather kit is a pair of fingerless gloves. These come in many varieties, but the best are the ones where you have a part that can cover up your fingers in-between shots. There are lots of inexpensive mitten-style ones that do this, but one of the greatest innovations of all time in my opinon are the gloves that allow you to just uncover your thumb and index finger. Check 'em out at B&H. These gloves keep your entire hand warm, but allow you to just uncover your thumb and index finger, giving you easy control over your camera's controls. These are also handy for working a touch screen phone during the winter.

Don't over-estimate your winter outdoor abilities: error on the side of caution!

Lots of Snow by 29k Productions Red Car in the Snow by 29k Productions

Next, protect your camera. You're going to see some mixed advice here. In researching to make sure I wasn't going to miss any obvious advice for you, I discovered that a lot of people actually recommend keeping your camera as warm as possible due to possible malfunctions from the cold weather. That's simply ridiculous, unless you're planning to shoot in truly extreme weather conditions. Mark of the Landscape Photography Blog noted that he took his Canon 5D mk II to Hokkaido, Japan during the winter. Sub-zero temperatures, 3-4 feet of snow everywhere, temperatures down to -17o C. The 5D is only rated to 0o C. But his functioned just fine in those extremes. Reputable camera manufacturers are always a little conservative on their operating temperature ratings.

Therefore, I am going to recommend keeping your camera relatively cold, or at least at a pretty consistent temperature. No putting it under your jacket! It's going to be tempting, but warming and cooling your camera will cause condensation, which can make it unusable. If you need some extra protection for your camera while you're out, I recommend carrying your camera bag or sealing it in a plastic bag when not in use. You can even cut a hole in a plastic bag just big enough for the front element of the lens, so you can keep your camera and lens protected, but still have quick access.

Keep your car cold. Just as you don't want to stick your camera under your jacket between shots, you also don't want to stick it in a warm car, because of condensation problems. If you're already dressed for the cold, you should have very little problem keeping comfortable in a cool car. When you're done shooting for the day there's no problem letting it heat up a little more. A plastic bag works just fine for helping prevent condensation in the camera, but even putting it back in the camera bag and letting it warm up slowly over an hour or two (this works for when you get home to your warm house too) will be perfectly fine.

No matter how tempting, never blow the snow off of your camera. Brush it off (another reason to keep it cold). You don't want your warm breath freezing to any part of the camera.

Christmas Portrait by 29k Productions Dog in Idaho City by 29k Productions

While you need to keep your camera cold, you should keep your batteries warm! The electric current from a battery is generated when a connection is made between its positive and negative terminals. When the terminals are connected, a chemical reaction generates electrons to supply the current. When the battery is cold, less current is produced because that chemical reaction is slowed. As the battery drains with use, if it's super-cold it will quickly reach the point where it can't provide enough current to run your camera.

Don't worry, you're not actually losing your charge when your battery is cold. Just heat it up a bit, and your battery will be back to normal. If you're going to be out for awhile in the cold, be sure to take some extra batteries with you. Keep the spares in an inside pocket for warmth. You could also put them in the same pocket as a chemical hand warmer. Then simply rotate the batteries out of the camera as they get cold.

If you're out at night doing long exposures and you find that rotating warm batteries in just isn't cutting it for a super-long exposure, just take a small chemical hand warmer or a normal-sized one doubled over and rubber band it around your camera's battery compartment. This should be more than enough to keep your battery warm while not warming up the rest of the body and causing condensation.

My final bit of advice for winter photography is regarding your tripod if you use one. If you're going to be panning and tilting the tripod head, I highly recommend using one that is gear-based or ball-mounted. A fluid head is nice during the rest of the year, but a frozen fluid head is a broken one. Trust me on this and learn from my mistake. I'm looking at my own ruined tripod head from a few years back right now. Be careful with the tripod's legs during the winter. Depending on the construction the legs and joints on the tripod can become very fragile in cold conditions and you can easily damage them. If you're in deep snow, start with the legs just slightly apart. As you push it gently down into the snow, the legs will spread as it sinks. This also helps hold the tripod steady. If you don't have a carrying case for your tripod, you can wrap the legs with pipe insulation, which will make them a little easier on your hands in the cold.

To sum it up:

  1. Be safe
  2. Keep your camera cold
  3. Warm your camera up slowly when you're done shooting
  4. Keep your batteries warm
  5. Have chemical hand warmers
  6. Be careful with your tripod choice and use
  7. Have fun!

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