Technical Tips For Winter Photography

Winter photography can be both incredibly rewarding, and incredibly challenging. While the cold and snow makes for beautiful scenery, it simultaneously creates an obstacle to getting out and enjoying it with your camera. Over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to shoot in all kinds of cold conditions, and I’ve learned a few technical things that have helped me create beautiful winter images. I’d like to share a few of those in the hopes that it will encourage you to get out and enjoy the season with your camera.

This post is focusing primarily on technical tips; that is, I’ll be talking about the gear side of the equation. In a subsequent post, I’ll talk more about composition techniques and other aspects of creating beautiful winter photography.

#1: Get several good sets of gloves for different situations

Purchasing gloves for winter might seem obvious, but the real question is what kind of gloves you want to have for photography. When using a camera, having thick gloves can hinder your ability to use the controls, but thin gloves won’t protect from the cold as much. What to do? I have two different pairs of gloves that I use for different situations: a thick pair of down gloves that cover my hands fully and a light pair of photography gloves that allow me to expose just my index finger and thumb. If it’s not too cold, I’ll use the photography gloves alone. In extreme cold (see image below for an example), I’ll use both together, and pull out my shooting hand with the light glove still on. There are also advanced gloves with lots of options (even heating! nice!), but these tend to be more expensive. Just make sure you prepare your hands for the conditions you’ll be shooting it. Even when frostbite isn’t a threat, it’s good to be as comfortable as possible.

The temperature was 0°F with a -20°F windchill when I took this picture. Good gloves (and a face mask, and jacket, etc.) were a must!

#2: Use a weather cover for your camera

Photographers naturally shy away from taking their gear out in the rain without proper protection, but it’s easy to let this reservation slide in the snow. However, snow can end up doing damage to your camera just as easily as rain. I know from experience! Once, during a snowfall event in Tokyo, I went out shooting all day. My camera was supposed to be weather sealed, and it was snow, so I figured the camera could handle it. Unfortunately, the snow melted and entered into my camera’s circuitry, causing significant problems and forcing me to pay for an expensive repair. Unless you know for certain that your camera is fully sealed, or don’t mind taking the time and money to repair it, make sure your camera is covered when it’s snowing. It’s a bit of a hassle to shoot this way, but it’s much better than the alternative.

It was during this outing in Tokyo that snow entered my camera and ruined the internal circuitry. Glad I got the image, but would have been nice to save the repair money!

#3: Keep your camera warm

Just like your body, cameras will struggle to operate at full capacity in cold weather. Especially once the temperatures drop below freezing, cameras can become sluggish or even stop working altogether. Even if the camera itself would work, the battery may struggle to provide power in these conditions. If you’re going to be out in the cold long enough, it is good to have some way to keep the camera warm. This can be as simple as holding it close to your body, or you can even attach hand warmers to it. You can also keep a spare battery in a pocket in your jacket, so it’s ready if needed. This isn’t typically an issue unless you’re dealing with extreme cold, but it’s worth keeping in mind as you prepare.

#4: Use spiked feet for your tripod

Most tripods come with rubber feet, and in many conditions that works great for keeping the camera steady. However, in icy conditions, rubber feet will slip just like tires. To avoid this problem, you can use metal spiked feet instead. Many tripod makers will include spiked feet in the box. My Benro Series 3 tripod came with rubber feet attached, and a set of 3 spiked feet that I could change to if needed. I have used that feature a lot this winter. A past tripod I owned had an interesting feature wherein the rubber feet actually had holes in the middle, from which a small spike could emerge with just a few twists. That was very convenient, although dirt and gunk would easily build up inside this area. At any rate, just make sure you can keep your tripod stable on the ice. Even an expensive carbon fiber tripod becomes useless if it’s sliding around while you’re trying to shoot!

I took this image on top of ice which had built up at the edge of the stream. Spikes for both my shoes and tripod were necessary to get this image without getting wet!

#5: Let your camera readjust to warmth slowly

If you wear glasses, you probably know the story: a sudden change in temperature, such as moving from an air-conditioned building to a hot summer day, quickly fogs up your lenses so you can hardly see. The opposite is true as well; going from cold conditions to warm in a short period will also produce condensation. Your camera lens is just as susceptible to this phenomenon as eyeglasses. This can cause problems inside the lens, which can lead to buildup on the glass where it cannot be cleaned. In my experience, the easiest way to avoid this is simply to keep your camera in your bag for a while after you come inside (either at home or in the car). If you were only outside for a few minutes it won’t take as long to warm up, but when you’ve been in the cold for hours, it can take quite some time to return to normal. After one particularly cold excursion, I pulled my camera out two hours later and it was still cold to the touch! If you want to get the images off the camera quickly, use an SD card reader and simply remove the card from the camera while keeping it in the bag.

#6:  Keep the lens hood on

When it’s snowing, it’s easy for snow to get on the front of the lens, which can cause blurry spots in your image. If you’re shooting with a longer lens, make sure to keep that lens hood on. Unless the wind is really whipping the snow around, this will generally keep snow off the front element. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work as well with wide angle lenses, since the lens hoods are much shorter. In that case, using the bill of a hat or even your hand might help. Just make sure that nothing is visible in the shot, and that you don’t bump the camera while you’re shooting. Once you’ve taken an image, be careful to check it for spots on the camera’s screen. It can be a pain to keep snow off the lens, but it’s much easier to do that on site than it is to fix a big spot in post.

#7: Take care of your (human) body

It can be easy to get focused on protecting your gear and forget to protect yourself. This means more than just covering your hands – it means protecting your whole body. Even aside from obvious things like warm jackets and pants, you might also want to look into gear like microspikes for your boots. I’ve found this simple little tool to be incredibly helpful, as it keeps me from sliding around on frozen lakes and gives extra grip when I’m hiking in the woods. I also have several different face masks I use, depending on cold it is. Even aside from safety concerns (which should always take precedent), all of this can benefit your photography as well. The more distracted by conditions you are, the less you will be able to focus on what you’re shooting. If you’re staying warm, you’ll be more prepared to enjoy the scene.

These are a few of the things I’ve learned over the years that have helped me create solid winter images. There are also many photographic aspects you need to consider, and I’ll discuss those in a future post. But before you begin thinking about how to photograph wintry scenes, you first need to be prepared to get out in it. Hopefully, this will help you do that!

Thanks so much for reading, and I hope you found this helpful. Until next time, stay safe, stay warm, and happy shooting!

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