The Perks and Pitfalls of Cold Climate Captures - what to watch out for and how to be prepared
With all the nice weather we've been having in the Northeast, winter seems like a distant memory at this point. But is our attitude about winter a hearty "good riddance", or more of a bittersweet goodbye? Here's my theory:
As much we complain about snowstorms and frigid temperatures, I believe that anybody who chooses to remain in New England either loves winter (publicly or privately), or loves to complain about winter. We are gluttons for drama and can’t get enough of these seasonal extremes. As photographers, and especially here at BlueHour, we are eternal optimists, and will always look for the positive spin on things, all while freezing our asses off.
So here’s why we love winter:
- Ice and snow transform a landscape from mundane to extraordinary - If you don’t believe me, check out the pictures and videos that Allie and I made on our visit to the waterfalls of upstate New York a few weeks ago. Waterfalls and streams take on a whole new character when rimmed with ice formations, and a blanket of white can really add interest to natural features like trees while simplifying many compositions by covering up messy underbrush and debris.
- The sun stays lower in the sky throughout the day in winter than at other times of the year. This creates a warmer and more aesthetically pleasing light than the harsh overhead light of summer. If you love the “golden hour” light, winter has a lot more of it.
- The sunrise is much later, so you don’t have to get up as early! And, BONUS, the sun sets early enough so you can finish your sunset shoot and still have dinner at a reasonable hour. This is particularly important if you are planning to shoot at both dawn and dusk on consecutive days.
But I don’t need to remind you that winter is, for lack of a better word, cold.
And cold affects not just the people holding the cameras, but wreaks havoc on cameras themselves. In my years of taking my camera out into the adverse conditions of winter, here’s what I’ve noticed, and what I do to fend off the chill.
- In cold temperatures, battery life is drastically reduced.
I’ve shot with many kinds of cameras over the years, and I’ve found that mirrorless cameras, with their lower capacity batteries, seem to be more affected by this curse than DSLRs. When temps are in the 20s Fahrenheit or colder, I’ve seen my Sony A7r ii battery dive from 50% to empty in a matter of minutes. Needless to say, when shooting in conditions this cold, a spare battery is a must, and better yet, several. I carry four fully charged batteries for my Sony every time I head out. And I will take this opportunity to coin a new phrase: Proactive Battery Management (PBM). Keeping your spare batteries in a warm pocket means at least they’ll be at max capacity when you load them into your camera and be off to a better start than batteries that are stored cold to begin with. And you’ll find that when you take the cold, discharged battery out of your camera and put it back into your warm pocket, it will “recharge” itself and be ready for more shooting later on.
Random camera error messages and autofocus problems.
There’s really no telling what problems can crop up on any given day, but be ready for anything. It’s rare to encounter any truly catastrophic and permanent equipment issues on a typical winter shoot, but I have seen my camera’s autofocus system refuse to work all of a sudden, probably because the AF motor decided to freeze. In any case, be prepared to manually focus if you need to. If you’re a landscape photographer, hopefully you are already doing this consistently anyway. I’ve also seen cameras flash an “error” warning on the LCD and refuse to shoot completely. A problem like this can really put a damper on your day, but it’s usually temporary, and is almost always resolved by warming the camera back up.
- Snow and ice getting on the lens and ruining your shots.
Taking pictures during snowfall is trickier than people think, because the instant the snow hits your lens, it melts, and then you’re taking all your pictures through water spots, which just creates blurry, messy images. I like to deal with snow the same way I deal with rain: I cover my camera and lens with a clear shower cap (available for free from your next hotel room). By using a clear cap, I’m able to see my subject, and even compose my image while my lens remains protected from snow. When I’m ready to shoot, I quickly remove the cap and rattle off a few shots before putting the cap back on. Even with all this cleverness, lenses invariably gather an unacceptable amount of moisture after a while, so it’s important to carry several lens cloths with you. Once you’ve used a lens cloth a few times during a snowfall, it gets damp enough where it’s just smearing the water around your lens instead of absorbing anything. So in times like these, it’s nice to carry an actual microfiber towel (the kind they sell to polish cars) to sop up water from your camera and lenses.
And what about protecting the most important piece of gear: the photographer?
- Flip-top gloves/mittens - “glittens” if you will. The question of what is the best pair of gloves to wear for photography has taken years for me to answer, but I think I have finally found the ultimate solution. We have always known that mittens are warmer than gloves, but they just don’t have enough dexterity to be useful for photography. And gloves, especially ones that are slim enough to allow for button pushing, are just not warm enough for winter use. Fortunately great strides have been made in the realm of handware in past decade, and we now have the best of both worlds. Flip top “glittens” have the warmth of mittens for when you are just waiting around or walking. But when it’s time to shoot, they flip open to reveal your fingers underneath. You’ll even have the dexterity to screw on a filter! On the truly frigid days, wear a pair of thin liner gloves underneath so that your bare skin will never be exposed. Touching frozen metal with bare skin is a surefire recipe for frostbite.
- Insulated winter boots. No, not Uggs. I’m talking about waterproof ones with actual hiking soles, like Sorels. Feet are the human body’s status indicator. Cold, wet feet undoubtedly belong to a cold, miserable person. So keeping your feet protected with proper boots means you can tromp across ice and snow all day and even stand in a shallow stream or two and still shoot away to your heart’s content.
- Hand warmers and body warmers, like the kind made by HotHands. These are my secret weapon against cold. Stuff these inside your gloves, in your sweater, in your boots, anywhere they’ll fit. They get incredibly hot, last a remarkably long time, and at night you can toss them all into your sleeping bag and have your own little furnace. Buy these in bulk - you’ll use ‘em up. I buy the 40-pack on Amazon.
So here are your winter photography lifesavers:
- Handwarmers and body warmers
- Waterproof insulated winter boots
- Lens cloths
- Microfiber towel
- Glove liners and gloves/mittens, or better yet, flip top mittens
- Multiple spare batteries for your camera
- Clear shower cap