Even before Halloween, we have eight inches of snow on the front meadow. Living in the Sierras and working a lot in the Arctic, you could say I have some experience photographing in cold extremes. In fact, you could actually say I love working in these environments. I’ve put together a few pointers over the decades that might just help you enjoy working in what otherwise seems like a hostile world. Here are some quick tips for you.
1. Watch your breath!
When the temperature dips, our breath can be our own worst enemy! Camera bodies and lenses get cold really fast, and when they do our warm breath instantly fogs up glass. The biggest problem is often the eyepiece. The slightest breath and you can’t see for minutes, and usually they are the most important minutes! It just takes one good fogging and you’ll remind yourself to stop breathing (around the eyepiece that is). When heading to cold temps, I put on the Nikon Anti-Fog eyepiece, which works really well. I don’t use it all the time because its fine tooth surface scratches easily. But when it’s cold out, it’s a lifesaver.
2. From Head to Toes
Realize that most of your body heat is lost through your head, so hair or not, keep it covered. And when it comes to spending time in the field, you must be comfortable, which means keeping fingers and toes warm! I have a set of gloves with me that I can wear depending on how cold it is (visit my website to see them all). I have a variety of socks, again depending on how cold it is, but I only have one set of boots. My Ice Kings have served me for nearly two decades and even though we affectionately call them gun boats, they make it possible for me to spend hours upon hours comfortably shooting in the snow and cold! And final tip—don’t fill up on lots of hot coffee before heading out (hope you understand why without my getting graphic).
3. The crunch can get you.
The pretty white stuff is a mixed blessing for photographing wildlife. It bounces light, making shooting all day long often very doable. Frequently it makes it easy to find critters since they stick out against the white. But it also crunches with every step, announcing your presence. There is no way around this (crawling is no fun in the snow), so you just have to be aware that the world knows about your every step. You can lessen the noise by walking toe first but if you have really deep snow, even this won’t help. Your subject will tell you quickly if it’s an issue, so you need to watch it. And learn to stop, wait, and be patient. That’s when the “from head to toes” tip pays off!
4. Firmly plant one leg.
Snow is a very unstable platform. Be it from our stance to that of the tripod, firm footing is important. When shooting in snow, I tend to stomp one foot down in the snow (if not both) to pack snow under my feet, giving me a sturdier platform. And when using a tripod, I always push the front tripod leg down into the snow, past the surface. Resting all three legs of your tripod on the surface of the snow is not much different than working on mud. The surface tension at some point will give way and there goes your stability. This often happens at the worst moment. Pushing that front tripod leg through the surface is the key to avoiding this problem. And try to keep any of your tripod knuckles out of the snow.
5. A white towel is your friend.
A clean, dry white towel can be your best friend. When snow hits your gear, it tends to remain frozen until you warm it with your breath or touch. Use that white towel to SWAT that snow off. Don’t wipe it! You want to move it before it melts and you don’t want to force it into crevices of our gear where it will do damage. And if you’re getting in and out of a vehicle, use that white towel to cover your gear inside the vehicle to prevent condensation from forming.
6. What does your camera think?
Does your camera care that it’s cold out? Really cold? Our modern cameras really don’t have issues with the cold. It’s not like the old days with film cameras and film, when we had to winterize our camera bodies and worry about film breaking. Technology has come a long way, as well, with battery power no longer being sucked to death in the first few minutes of exposure to cold. My general rule of thumb is, if I can handle the cold, so can my gear!
7. What color is your snow?
Snow is something we think of as white. But when it’s snowing, snow is actually gray, not white. Snow reflects the color it sees from the heavens and that is either whitish-blue on blue sky days or gray to dark gray with overcast, snowing skies. And you can change that color with exposure, polarizer, or combination of the two to tell your story your way. Going sledding with the kids when it’s snowing? That’s a happy time, so you want the photo bright and the snow white. Overexposure will change that gray snow to white. When the storm is on its way out, but you want to say it’s just coming, underexposure will change that bright white snow to stormy gray snow. It’s your photo, your story, tell it your way!
These are just some of the things I think about and do when I head out to the cold, winter environment. These are the basics that with more time in the snow you can expand upon and make your own. When those clouds blow in, I hope you embrace the opportunity and take your camera out for some playtime in the winter wonderland!
Moose’s true passion has always been and remains photographing the life history of our endangered wildlife and wild places. Along the way Moose has been honored for his photographic passion: a Nikon Legend Behind the Lens, Lexar® Elite Photographer, recipient of the John Muir Conservation Award, Research Associate with the Endangered Species Recovery Program, just to name a few. He was part of Epson’s Finish Strong ad campaign. He shares his knowledge through his writing, being published in over 133 magazines worldwide, author of 25 books including his latest, Taking Flight and best seller Captured. He lectures across the country to thousands upon thousands of photographers every year.