Cold-Weather Photography Tips From the Pros

As we head into the winter months, our adventures will likely take many of us into high mountains or across vast plains covered in ice and snow.  Whether you’re riding skis, a snowboard, or a dogsled, taking pictures is pretty much a given. Unfortunately fridged temperatures at this time of year offer a special set challenges that can make even a simple snapshot a daunting task. But with suggestions from a few of the world’s leading cold-weather photographers, pros and amateurs alike can deliver strong images even under the most intimidating cold-weather conditions.

The Burden of Batteries

The challenge of course is getting those images into the camera. As in any low-temperature environment, whether in Antarctica or the northern most shores of Lake Superior, there are a wide variety of important factors to keep in mind when it comes to taking pictures.

“Cold weather takes its toll on everything,” said Chris Gibbs owner of C5 Adventure Photography, based in Cambridge, Minnesota.  “Everything from battery power, moving parts of the camera, or just the awareness of breathing when taking photos. It can frost up the back of a camera really quick.”

Gibbs shoots pictures throughout the year but takes great pride in creating images that reflect the harsh extremes of winter near his home.  In addition to deep snow and massive formations of freshwater ice, he captures the action at cold-weather sporting events from cyclocross racing to dogsledding. Working with equipment that requires electricity to work Gibbs, who prefers Canon, said his first priority is battery life, which tends to fall as fast the temperatures around him.

“Without battery power, nothing works,” he said. “I usually keep a set of batteries inside my coat close to my body.  In extreme cold, I have had to change batteries with every click of the shutter.”

Left without insulation most batteries will loose power rapidly. So you have to keep them warm. But when it comes to the cold, top shooters, such as Paul Zizka of Banff, Alberta, say the camera itself requires few if any mechanical changes to make better pictures.

“I have found that modern gear performs extremely well in cold temperatures and personally I don’t make any specific modifications when heading out in very cold temperatures,” Zizka said.  “All effects of the cold on the gear are short-lived. I am more concerned about the potential of the gear temporarily not working (due to ice buildup on the lens or battery discharge) than damaging anything permanently.”

When Temps Shift

Cameras today can withstand a lot of abuse when it comes to the cold. The primary concern most photographers have when shooting in the worst weather are sudden shifts in temperature that will likely result in condensation. Making the transition from the outdoors where it’s chilly to the warm interior of a tent or a ship’s cabin without the proper precautions can cause a real problem.

“Doing this can lead to condensation on the inside and outside of your camera which is detrimental to the electronics,” Gibbs said. “Keep your camera cased until completely warmed up.  You can even put the whole thing in a big zip-loc bag until warm.   I once was on a winter trek and my camera was cased, I had been using it in temps around -20F.  The next day, a weather system moved in with warmer temperatures and I took my camera out and instantly it fogged up.  My case had insulated my cold camera all night and when exposed to the warmer weather, condensation occurred.”

A foggy lens will instantly shut down your plans for taking pictures. But more serious is the moisture that can compromise the camera’s sensor and disrupt the connection between the lens and the body.

“That moisture can get inside the electronics and it can also cause dust to “weld” to the sensor,” said photographer Bryan Hansel, based in Grand Maris, Minnesota. “Welded dust takes lots of work to remove from the sensor and if you aren’t used to cleaning sensors it can be nerve wrecking.”

Mind the Moisture

A Nikon shooter Hansel has an incredible talent for cold climate landscape photography. With a particular skill in capturing the light displayed by the Aurora Borealis he has a great deal of field experience taking beautiful pictures in harsh environments. He cautions the camera students he instructs to be careful of moisture in all its forms.

“When I teach winter photography workshops, I often find that the participants don’t realize that their breath will condensate on the cold metal of their cameras and the cold glass of their viewfinders and LCD screens,” Hansel said. “Even though I remind them not to breath out near the camera, I always see people wiping off frost. Inhale, frame the shot and don’t exhale until you pull away from the camera.”

Fortunately most cold environments tend to be fairly dry with very little moisture to worry about other than snow. But a good adventure photographer has to prepare for all contingencies. On a boat off the coast of Antarctica his new film Mission Antarctic, Camp 4 Collective Director of Photography Renan Ozturk and his crew not only had to deal with freezing ocean spray but also the corrosive effects of salt water.

“Salt is something different. You have to take tape and tape over all the ports in your camera that aren’t being used,” Ozturk said. “And a lot of the time if for some reason it does get wet you got these emergency drying sessions with the chem-wipe cleaning rags. Sometimes if it gets wet and starts to corroded you have to take a pin and carefully scrape everything off.”

Working the White

Apart from low temperatures cold weather photography often includes another unique challenge: shooting in an environment that’s mostly white. The reflective surface of snow throws off a tremendous amount of light and perhaps brings with it the necessity to make corrective adjustments of aperture and shutter speed.

“The most common is to slightly overexpose your images when dealing with a snowy landscape,” Gibbs said.  “Your camera sees all that white as useable light and will try to expose accordingly giving you a dark image.”

But Corey Rich, a photographer in South Lake Tahoe, says the modern camera is capable of making most of those setting changes automatically.

“It used to be that when shooting film you have to do all kinds of exposure compensations to get your camera to expose correctly on snow or on ice,” Rich said. “That for the most part is a thing of the past. Except for really tricky situations, the camera metering sensors are so smart that they typically compensate for that white surface. The camera does that calculation.”

Digital photography takes out a lot of the guess work making the process much less complicated and hopefully far less intimidating than it used to be back in the days of film. But every so often a manual adjustment can help get an image that better reflects the photographer’s vision of events as they unfold.

“Snow (especially when fresh) in particular can increase the tonal range of a given scene dramatically, making it challenging to capture detail in both the brightest and darkest portions of that scene,”  Zizka said. “And sometimes that warrants a different approach to the capture.”

When there’s lots of white snow and ice, for example,  Hansel says the camera’s automatic meter can get confused and sometimes over expose the shot.

“I either keep my exposure dialed in using manual mode or I use spot meter mode and dial in 2 stops of exposure compensation,” he said. “When I want to take a picture, I meter the snow –  the 2 stops of compensation compensates for how snow fools the meter into the proper exposure – and then I lock in the exposure with the exposure lock button. After that it’s compose and click.”

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Cool Shots, Warm Shooter

In photography composition is key. But never is the composure of the shooter more critical than when taking pictures in the cold.

“Winning images are rarely a product of a freezing photographer,” said Zizka. “Get the gear you need in order to enjoy the moment, not just to capture it.”

Obviously proper footwear and clothing are necessary to be comfortable when shooting out in the cold. But all the high-tech camera equipment in world won’t do the photographer any good if he or she can’t click the shutter at just the right moment because of frozen fingers. When on assignment working with world-class skiers and snowboarders Rich knows that his ability to perform is just as important as the athletes he photographs.

“No matter how tough you are bring hand-warmers and mittens if you’re going to be working outdoors for a long period of time,” he said. “When it’s cold your creativity starts draining out of your body if you can’t function or if you can’t manipulate the camera.”

In many ways cold weather photography is not unlike shooting pictures in any other environment. With even basic digital equipment and proper attention payed to lighting, subject selection and composition compelling high quality images can be taken by almost anyone with the talent, skill and patience to pursue them. As with any artistic endeavor it takes practice and that’s up to the shooter.

“The cameras don’t feel the cold. It’s us humans that break down,” said Rich. “By far one of the hardest things about shooting outdoors is just physically dealing with the temperatures and holding a camera when your hand is static and you’re holding something that is incredibly cold.”

Regardless of the temperature or altitude at the core of adventure photography is the person behind the camera. And whether in Antarctica or at the local ski hill expedition budgets and big mountain backdrops are only part of the equation.

The Joy Trip Project is made possible thanks to the generous support of MAKO Surgical Corporation

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