Winter is arguably one of the prettiest times to be an outdoor photographer; winter white can transform an otherwise lifeless brown landscape into a magical wonderland. However, winter is also one of the most challenging times to be outdoors shooting. Frankly the biggest limiting factor in winter photography is personal comfort (for me anyway, I’m a wus). If you’re not comfortable you won’t be free to think and see creatively and certainly won’t want to stay out for the sweet light. Here is some practical advice, much of it learned at the school of hard knocks, that can help improve your winter photography.
-Shoot right after a fresh snowfall. By timing your photo outings with the end of a fresh snowfall event (especially important in the northeast and lower elevations) the landscape will look its best. The fresh snow hides all the dirty old snow and coats the limbs of trees in white producing some beautiful patterns and contrast. It also helps to tame issues with extreme dynamic range. When the landscape is completely coated in white the dynamic range is more compressed than when only part of the landscape is coated in white. You might not even need to use those fancy grad nd filters.
-Bring at least two fully charged batteries. Keep one in the camera and the other in an interior pocket close to your body. When the camera’s battery starts to wane (due to cold) simply swap the cold for the warm battery. Place the cold battery in an interior pocket close to your body and allow it to warm back up. You’ll be surprised how well a battery will perform again once it warms back up. You can keep this rotation going for quite a while, perhaps all day.
-Using a tripod in the snow is a real pain in the arse. If you can pack the snow down before you set up the tripod I recommend doing that. If the snow is really deep try pushing the legs down into the snow before fully extending them to the sides. This way as you push the tripod down into the snow, the snow will push the legs out the remainder of the way and ultimately you’ll get the tripod deeper into the snow. Otherwise, the outward force of the snow could damage the legs and you won’t be able to get as sturdy a placement.
-Aclimate your camera! Before bringing your camera back indoors or into a warm car place it in a sealed plastic bag. If you bring a cold camera inside a warm environment you’ll cause condensation to form on or worse inside the body and lenses. By placing it in a sealed bag first, the condensation will form on the outside of the cold bag and not your camera. Allow the camera and/or lenses to warm to room temperature before taking them out. If you leave your camera in a dedicated camera bag or pack, don’t open it indoors until the interior of the bag has acclimated, you’ll be surprised how long this can take (sometimes hours). All that foam padding that protects the camera also serves as insulation, not only keeping out the cold but keeping it in as well.
-Keep your hands warm (duh). Hands can get cold super fast and wearing heavy gloves or mittens limits the dexterity needed to operate a camera. I like to keep a set of chemical hand warmers (aka Hot Hands) in my jacket pockets. I’ll then wear only a thin pair of liner gloves for full dexterity when handling my camera. When my hands start to get cold, into the pockets they go to warm up. If you don’t let them get too cold you can warm them up quickly and avoid the discomfort of numb fingers. When I’m done with the shot and ready to move on I put a warmer glove or mitten back on.
-Keep your tootsies warm. There’s only one thing worse than cold hands, cold feet. Feet sweat a lot, even in winter and when they do your socks and boot liners will get damp. When this happens there is almost no way to keep your feet warm, even in sub-zero rated boots. A lot of mountaineers and winter backcountry enthusiasts will use a vapor barrier sock to keep moisture from permeating their insulation layers. I’ve always found vapor barrier socks to be super uncomfortable. Here’s a tip I learned back in my ice climbing days. Before you put your socks on in the morning coat your feet with an antiperspirant spray (not deodorant!). This will prevent your feet from sweating and thus keep your feet dry and warm. Plus they won’t be stinky either!
“Summit Path,” Hungar Mountain, Vermont, Canon 5D, 24mm, f16 @ 1/20 sec. ISO 100, polarizer