Winter is coming to those of us in the northern hemisphere. Here in the U.S. Midwest, we’ve already gotten a sneak peek with snow and single digit temps.
Recently, I was asked to give a talk at the Through The Lens Photography Club in Grove City, Ohio and shared some ideas about safety, gear, techniques, and subjects for winter nature photography. I’ve compiled all that info into three blog posts to share with you.
This first one is all about gear and safety. The second has tips and techniques unique to winter nature photography. The third is a bunch of ideas for winter subjects. All of this info is geared towards shooting close to home and day hikes in parks and recreation areas. If you’re planning a long, overnight trip, that’s a whole different adventure that requires a lot more info than is given here. If you’re interested in purchasing any of the gear I mention, please consider using the product image links below. They are Amazon affiliate links – they don’t cost you a penny, but help support this site.
If safety is your only concern then you won’t go outside in the winter. It’s cold, dark and slippery out there. But with reasonable precautions you can venture out and enjoy stunning scenery with fewer crowds and create some beautiful photos. You are entirely, 100%, and without exception responsible for your own safety. The info in this post is based on my personal experience and your mileage may vary.
The weather is the first place to start. Knowing the current conditions and the forecast for the time you’ll be out will help you make smart decisions about where to go, how to get there, and what you’ll need to bring.
Knowing the road conditions along your route is also important. In the U.S. many states have Department of Transportation web sites with real-time road and traffic conditions.
For example, here in Ohio we have https://www.ohgo.com/ A web search for your state’s name and “road conditions” is a good way to find these sites.
If, like me, you’re the adventurous type and own a four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicle, remember they may help get you moving in snow and ice, but they won’t help at all in stopping on snow or ice. All cars are four-wheel-stop. Leave plenty of room between you and the cars ahead of you.
What to wear, what to wear?
In the winter cotton kills. That is not a joke. Cotton absorbs moisture and then, like a dog with a toy, it holds on to that moisture. Water is twenty-five times more efficient than air at sucking the heat out of your body. Sweat soaked cotton puts you at risk of hypothermia. And keep in mind, it does not even have to be below freezing for someone to suffer hypothermia.
Wait, wait! Don’t take a vow of indoor winter solitude!
You want to wear layers and, as you might have surmised, the base layer, what we used to call long underwear, should not be cotton. Wool or synthetics designed for outdoor recreation are best for what’s next to your skin. The heavy weight, fleece lined set from Lapasa (at right) are what I currently use.
For your lower half, ski pants are great for winter photographers. They’re waterproof, tough, usually have zip-up pockets and you can get thinner, lighter uninsulated versions or insulated for extra cold days. The unlined ones are also great for waterfall photography in the Spring and Fall.
Up top, a fleece layer should go next and then a waterproof outer layer or “shell”. If temperatures rise or you’re just getting warm from hiking in snow with 30 pounds of camera gear on your back, you can remove either the fleece or shell. Similarly, I usually bring two hats as well – a warm, ear-covering winter hat and a baseball cap in case I start to overheat from hiking in all these layers.
Keeping your feet warm and dry is easy with tall waterproof boots and scuba socks. The socks not only keep your feet warm, but eliminate blister-causing rubbing too. And if snow or water does make its way into your boots, the scuba socks will still keep your wet feet warm. You can wear them over a regular pair of socks for extra warmth. They are much thicker than socks so size your boots accordingly.
Finally, depending on conditions, I use a couple different kinds of gloves. If it’s not bone-crackingly cold, I wear a thin pair of liner gloves (on the left). If it’s really cold then I go with the long, insulated, waterproof gloves (on the right). If it’s snowing or I’ll be scrambling off trail then I add a pair of nitrile gloves under my regular gloves to insure my hands stay dry.
Nitrile are a bit more expensive than the cheap latex versions, but they’re also stronger and don’t stick to the inside of the regular gloves nearly as much as the latex. You can find them in local drug stores, hardware stores, or super markets in friendly-doctor-blue or serial-killer-black.
Having a fresh set of dry clothes, especially socks, waiting for you back at the car is always nice. Throw a hand warmer in the bag with the clothes before you set out and they’ll be warm, too.
There are a few more things I always bring with me on winter photo shoots.
Gallon sized zip top plastic bags are number one. You know how glasses fog up when you go back in the house on really cold days? That condensation happens to cameras too, on the outside where you can see it and on the inside where you can’t. While you’re still outside in the cold, dry air, put your camera and lenses inside a bag and zip it up before you get in the car or go in the house. Let them warm to room temperature before you take them out of the bags. Leaving the camera and lenses inside a zipped up camera bag or backpack is also pretty effective if you don’t have the zip top bags.
In snowy conditions, you can put an unzipped bag over your camera and compose and manually focus your shot through the bag. When you’re ready to click the shutter, take the bag off and hold it like an umbrella above the lens to keep the snow at bay then slide it back on.
Hand warmers are also really, um, handy. Most of them last six to eight hours. If you’re only out for an hour or two, put the partially used warmer in a zip top bag and squeeze out as much air as you can. Contact with air is what generates the heat. They should still work for a few hours when you take them out the next day. They’re also great for keeping batteries warm and you can rubberband one to your lens to prevent fogging during time lapses or to prevent frost while shooting in misty conditions.
Staying hydrated is easy to overlook in the winter. Bring a water bottle or, better yet, an insulated container of hot tea. Caffeine can have a mild diuretic effect, but it will not dehydrate you. If you want to fill that vacuum bottle with coffee, or hot chocolate, go for it.
If you’ll be out for hours then you’ll also want to bring some snacks. I live on protein rich snack bars, like Cliff Bars, in the warmer months, but they suck in the winter. Kept in your backpack, they turn into teeth cracking bricks. You can keep them in a pants or inside jacket pocket, but they’re bulky and uncomfortable. In the winter, I prefer to carry a bag of mixed nuts. They don’t harden as much as bars, they’re calorie dense, high in protein and good fats, and low on carbs. In a real pinch they make good fire starters too.
A basic first-aid kit should be part of your photography kit year round. Throw a little disposable lighter in the kit if it doesn’t have one. A roll of electrical tape can be super useful too for patching small holes or preventing you from becoming a soleless photographer. It probably won’t do anything for your soul though. Walking sticks, or a monopod, are great year round too, In winter they can be especially helpful for maintaining uncertain balance on slippery surfaces and for testing snow depth and ice strength.
Paracord is another safety measure I’ve started carrying year round. It’s light weight but super strong and can help you get in to or out of high, low, or slippery places and to rescue clumsy people. You can even use it to create an emergency rescue pulk if your hiking companions are really, really clumsy. The rope will only be useful if you familiarize yourself with at least a couple basic knots and hitches.
Walk This Way
Crampons, or shoe spikes, are another winter photography must have. They stretch over or tie on to the bottom of your boots and give you much better traction on ice – like snow tires for your feet. There are different styles. Some have a rubber base that’s easier to use and some have a more durable metal chain base. Both work very well on flat ground or going uphill. Going downhill, the all over spikes can be tricky if you’re not used to them. If you don’t lift your foot enough, they might catch and you could trip. With all over spikes I prefer to go downhill with my feet angled perpendicular to the slope, just in case.
If you live in an area where the snow can get more than a few feet deep, snow shoes can take the place of shoe spikes. The longer the snowshoe, the more weight it can hold. When choosing a size, make sure you include the weight of all your clothing layers and backpack full of camera gear. Like an all-wheel-drive vehicle, snowshoes can give you a false sense of invulnerability. Post-holing, breaking through the surface snow and sinking, is bad enough in regular boots. sinking in snowshoes is much worse when the snow collapses into the hole and covers the big, flat surface your foot is tied to. Post-holing is not only frustrating, but it is exhausting too. Late winter and early spring are when you’re most likely to have a problem. To avoid post-holing, you can hike early, before the sun has started to weaken the snow. Around mid day, try staying in shaded areas as much as possible. By late in the day, look for areas where the sun has melted the snow to a shallower depth. Hiking poles are very handy when snowshoeing, not only for balance, but for testing snow strength too. If your poles are adjustable in height, make sure the locking mechanisms are tight before heading out – having a pole collapse on you is not just aggravating, it’s potentially dangerous.
So You Wanna Take A Picture
So if the point of all of this is getting out and taking photos, maybe I should talk about some winter photo gear, too.
First, if you look deep in the manual, somewhere your camera’s manufacturer will list a minimum operating temperature. This number takes many things into account like battery life and condensation. It’s an estimate that tries to ensure peak performance and reliability. If you’re taking precautions like I outlined above then you don’t have to worry about the condensation. The minimum recommended temp for my camera is 32F/0C, but I’ve used in temps as low as 0F/-18C with no ill effects.
In addition to your camera, lens and tripod there are a few things that make outdoor winter photography easier. The first is extra batteries. Cold drains batteries. Keep your extras in a pants or inside jacket pocket to keep them warm. If it’s really cold, I’ll pop the battery out of the camera each time before returning it to my backpack and pop it back in when I get it out. When your camera says a battery is exhausted, put it in a warm pocket for a few minutes and it will come back to life.
If I’m going to be out all day in the cold, I also carry a lipstick phone charger( left) in a warm pocket and keep a spare USB charging cable for my phone in my camera backpack. Of course, you want to make sure the charger is, you know, charged before you head out. If your camera can charge via USB then you can also use the charger for it.
These chargers are rated in milliamp hours (mAh) which measures their capacity to deliver electricity over time. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do math. Any charger rated 5000mAh or higher is enough to fully recharge most modern cell phones. The larger, flat power banks (right) are heavier, but have much greater capacities and usually come with multiple USB ports for charging two or more devices at once. If your power bank has multiple USB ports, they may be different colors. If one is blue and one is black, try the blue one first – it is the more recent USB version and will charge your device faster.
In the winter, never blow on your camera to remove snow. The moisture in your breath will condense on your lens and camera making things worse. To remove snow get a rocket air blower (left). To remove water you can use a microfiber cloth, but they can streak. And if you don’t keep them clean, then you just smear old dirt on your lens.
I prefer KimWipes. The wipes are made for scientific instrument cleaning and won’t damage your lens. I throw a handful in a small zip top bag in my backpack. And if things really go sideways and you need to build a fire, they make easy light kindling if you roll a bunch into a tight bundle.
If your camera will be out of the backpack for long stretches in the winter for videos, long exposures, or time lapses then you may want to consider a lens warmer. I use a DewNot heater that’s made for telescopes (left). It’s a little heating pad that velcros around your lens and prevents condensation. The DewNot does require a big rechargeable 12V power bank.
If I were to buy one now, I get one of the less expensive USB powered models like the one on the right. It can be powered by something like the flat power bank I listed above.
To Be Continued
In the second part of this series I’ll be sharing some shooting tips and techniques to help you improve your winter nature photography. And in the third part I’ll be sharing a ton of ideas and instructions for winter photography subjects. Check back soon and thanks very much for visiting!