The ﬁrst thing you need to consider when photographing in the winter (or at least, in snow conditions) is the temperature. Sure, you’re all bundled up, but what about your camera? The batteries in your digital camera don’t react well to the cold, it reduces their output. That’s why your mom always kept new batteries in the fridge, right? Keep your camera warm by carrying it under your coat, as close to your body’s warmth as possible. And carry extra sets of batteries in a warm place too.
Keep extra sets of batteries stashed in pants pockets or in the camera bag in van. Rotate the batteries to give them a chance to warm up again. Otherwise, cold batteries act like dead batteries.
Though most digital cameras are speciﬁed by their manufacturer only for operation down to a temperature of 0 degrees C (32 degrees F), most will work perfectly well at much lower temperatures. They aren’t rated for lower temperature work because they aren’t tested to fully meet all speciﬁcations at those temperatures and because there are some problems that can occur as detailed below 0 degrees C but most of those problems can be avoided. Electronics actually often work better at lower temperatures, so there’s really no issue with the electronic circuitry.
Battery – Exposure to extremely low temperatures will drain the battery more quickly. It’s impossible to measure just how much more quickly the battery will drain, but it could run out of power anywhere from two to ﬁve times as fast. To decrease the effect of the cold on your battery, remove it from the camera and keep in a pocket close to your body. Only place the battery in the camera when you’re ready to shoot. It’s also a good idea to have an extra battery or two ready to go. Use these tips for extending battery life as well.
Camera – Although the entire camera may work more slowly and intermittently in extreme cold, one of the biggest problems the camera may suffer is condensation. If there is any moisture inside the camera, it could freeze and cause damage, or it could fog over the lens, leaving the camera unusable. Warming the camera should ﬁx the problem temporarily. You can try removing any moisture from the camera by sealing it in a plastic bag with a silica gel packet.
If you’re using a DSLR camera, it’s possible that the internal mirror could jam because of the cold, leaving the shutter unable to work. There really isn’t any quick ﬁx for this problem, other than raising the temperature of the DSLR camera.
Coming in from the cold – A major problem with cold weather shooting can occur not while you are outside, but when you come back into a heated area. Very cold air is very dry, but air in a heated room usually contains moisture. In fact, many homes use a humidiﬁer during the winter months to keep the air moist because it’s more comfortable for people. If you bring a very cold camera and lens into a room with warm, moist air, moisture will condense out of the air and onto the cold surfaces. The problem isn’t so much the moisture you may see on the outside of the camera or lens, but the moisture which condenses on internal parts. Electronics and moisture don’t mix well and you really don’t want condensation on the inner elements of lenses either.
The good news is that the moisture will eventually evaporate if the equipment is allowed to warm up to room temperature, but it can take a long time. You can gently warm the gear with a hair drier on a low setting to speed things up, but a much better procedure is not to let the moisture condense in the ﬁrst place. If you do get condensation on a camera, remove the batteries and don’t replace them until you are sure the camera has dried out. Just because a camera is “off” doesn’t mean that electronics are safe from damage. Many cameras are just in a “sleep” state when off, with power still applied to some components.
You can avoid problems if you seal your camera gear in an airtight plastic bag before you bring it inside. It will then be surrounded only by the very dry air from outdoors.You may get some condensation on the outside of the bag, but the camera/lens will slowly warm up in dry air inside the bag and will stay dry. Self sealing freezer bags work well for this, but any bag which you can seal will be OK. Just be sure to put the camera/lens in the bag before you go indoors. Once you’re indoors, it’s too late!
LCD – You’ll ﬁnd that the LCD doesn’t refresh as quickly as it should in cold weather, which can make it very difﬁcult to use a point and shoot camera that has no viewﬁnder. A very lengthy exposure to extremely cold temperatures could permanently damage the LCD. Slowly raise the temperature of the LCD to ﬁx the problem.
Hand Warmers – One way to keep your batteries warm is to wrap a small hand warmer around the section of the camera that contains the batteries (usually the handgrip for DSLRs). Hand Warmers are small packets containing iron powder mixed in with a few additional chemicals such as charcoal and salt. When the packet is opened and exposed to air, oxygen reacts with the iron (to form iron oxide – which is rust) and that reaction releases heat. The reaction is quite slow and the heat can last anywhere from 6 to 24 hours depending on the size and design.
Since these are intended to be used to warm hands and feet, they don’t get really hot, so they are usually safe to use next to a camera. Carrying a few extras for your hands and feet might be not be a bad idea too! If you don’t want to wrap one around your camera and you keep your camera in a bag when you’re not shooting (see “cold soaking,” above), you can place a hand warmer in the bag next to the camera. It may not raise the temperature in the bag much, but even a few degrees can help.
Clothing – Winter photography is amazing – and you don’t have to be cold just because it’s cold outside! With the right clothing and actions, you can stay warm and cozy for the entirety of your time with us.
Under Layer – This layer is the most important! We wear polypro under layers (breathable, soft fabric that isn’t cheap but it’s so worth it). Even if you don’t have fancy polypro, any type of long johns is better than nothing. They should ﬁt you snugly without a lot of baggy area so that you can wear them under a variety of clothing. Avoid cotton, as it retains moisture and makes you cold. Also, Nylons are NOT the same as long johns or poly pro base layers, and will make you cold!
Middle Layer – For longer, outdoor activities like photography and snowmobiling, we wear a more ﬂexible, non-cotton type of pants – like you would buy in an outdoors store for hiking. Even the zip off into shorts kind is acceptable (though we won’t be using them as shorts in this season). On the top, another long -sleeved, non cotton shirt layer is good – one slightly heavier than your underlayer.
“Next” Layer – Another layer on the top is preferable – like a sweater or light ﬂeece. Fleece is king!
Outer Layer – Snowpants or ski pants are great for the outdoor adventures. Use pants that are made for snow, not just any waterproof outer layer. Snowpants don’t let moisture soak through or snow stick to the outside so no matter where you sit, lie, or fall while outside you aren’t going to get wet – they are also insulated. For the top, a parka or winter jacket with a hood is ideal – it provides added protection for your neck even though you will have a hat on. Jackets made for skiing or snowboarding are the best kind because they won’t let snow stick and make you cold.
Footwear – Multiple layers of non-cotton socks are the way to go. One layer, if it’s the right kind, is ok but more layers of thinner socks are better. We start with a thin, cold-weather sock and then a slightly thicker sock over the top. We like the kind that go up to our knees because there’s less chance of snow sneaking in between your boots and snow pants and actually touching your skin. Boots are so important and should be paid close attention to. Sorel is a good brand, as is North Face. A huge boot rated to well below zero is great for this tour. Boots that only come to your ankle are not sufﬁcient in any type of Yellowstone snow conditions, even in the city. They should be taller. Often the warmest type are described as a “pack boot”.
Head – Real winter hats, that cover your ears, are a must. It is preferable that the hat have ear ﬂaps (warmer) but beanies are ﬁne too, especially if you have a hood on your jacket. Scarves are really nice, especially for wearing around Anchorage with less layers – they really keep the cold from creeping in around your neck!
Hands – Excellent gloves are recommended. You may want to wear a glove liner under your gloves so that when you take your hand out of the mitten to adjust your camera, your ﬁngers are not exposed.