Holiday 2012: Solutions for Photographing in Cold Weather

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As wintertime approaches and temperatures begin to drop, certain precautions and preparations should be taken in order to improve your photographing experience during this most beautiful time of the year. Wintertime provides a unique opportunity to photograph your surroundings, either nearby or whilst traveling, in a manner unlike any other time of the year.


The quality of light and activities taking place during this season are undeniably special, as are the weather-related conditions that bring an extra challenge to your everyday shooting. Unlike photographing during milder times of the year, the weather in the winter can have a dramatic effect on the performance and ability of the equipment you use. Stemming from the decrease in temperature to the increase in moisture (snow), the elements are at their proverbial peak during this time of year and can all wreak havoc with your normal methods of shooting. Ensuring preparedness can benefit your shooting and mean the difference between truly capturing the pulchritude of the season, versus suffering a frigid technological breakdown.

How the Cold Affects Your Camera

Just as any other battery-reliant electronic device suffers in the cold, cameras, and especially their batteries, perform at less than full capacity in low temperatures. Batteries suffer in the cold due to the fact that the chemical reaction that occurs in order to provide power is slowed down in colder temperatures. This affects the overall output, because they will lose capacity more quickly due to the fact they are not able to facilitate the production of energy, once their process has been slowed down too much. The best way to work within this constraint is to carry backup batteries in an inside coat pocket while shooting in the cold. By having fresh, warm batteries available you will be able to quickly switch batteries as they lose power at a faster rate, due to the low temperature. Once a depleted battery is brought back to room temperature, it should function regularly again.

Another viable option, if your camera supports it, is to use an additional battery grip to provide longer-lasting power. Many battery grips support the use of AA batteries in place of the lithium-ion battery pack, which are more commonly available and easier to swap more frequently. Battery grips also support the use of the same rechargeable battery your camera accepts, and sometimes up to two of them, for a wide range of power options.

In addition to battery issues, other electronic components of your camera may also act more sluggish or begin to fail if working in especially harsh climates. One of the more notable examples of this is your camera’s rear LCD monitor. As it starts getting colder, the monitor will often exhibit slower refresh times, color shifts, loss in clarity and it may potentially even flicker or black out. All of these functions will return to normal as your camera warms up again, but in order to avoid them altogether it is best to limit your dependency on the screen while shooting. By using your camera’s optical viewfinder and skipping the “chimping” step of shooting, you can alleviate these LCD anomalies altogether and also conserve overall battery life.

If your camera does not feature a built-in optical viewfinder, an auxiliary optical or electronic viewfinder is a suitable substitute. Obviously, the accessory electronic viewfinders will necessitate some battery draw, but can be used more sporadically and be removed for warming when compared to a built-in electronic viewfinder. It should also be noted that even if your rear monitor does black out on your camera, assuming you still have battery power, your camera will likely still function, albeit without access to menus or many custom features.

Another consequence of photographing in the extreme cold of wintertime involves transitioning back into a warmer indoor environment after shooting outdoors. Similar to the way a cold beverage develops condensation on the outside of its vessel on a warm day, your cold camera can develop condensation once it enters a warm room. This small production of water is not of huge concern, but if possible should be taken into account, since any moisture from within your camera body cannot be wiped clean as easily. In worst-case scenarios, condensation overtime can lead to mold or fungus that can result in image-degrading effects, if occurring in a lens, or even corrosion if it is occurring within a camera body. A simple solution to alleviate the condensation from building on your camera equipment is to place everything inside a sealable plastic bag before going indoors. This will result in the condensation building up on the outside of the plastic bag, while everything inside remains dry as it warms up to room temperature.

Specific Tools for Shooting in the Cold and Wintertime

Rather than preparing for certain functions to inevitably fail on your camera while shooting, there are also a number of options that feature freeze-proof methods of construction to help better survive the cold unscathed.

Cameras

Most cameras are cold proof to a certain point (usually 32°F), with the batteries often being the culprit of improper functioning; however, there are certain cameras featuring freeze-proof certifications, deeming them more apt to handle extremely cold climates. The Pentax K-30 DSLR features full weather sealing against water, dust and the cold down to 14°F. This rugged build quality makes it ideal for use in snowy conditions without the need for additional coverings. Additionally, through the use of an optional battery holder, the K-30 is able to accept AA batteries as its power source, making for greater convenience when changing batteries more frequently, due to the low temperatures. Other newly released cameras that possess weatherproof constructions are the Olympus OM-D E-5 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3. While neither of these cameras has full cold-proof construction, their rugged magnesium-alloy construction as well as weather- and waterproofing make them a suitable tool for many winter applications, as long as you maintain a backup battery supply.

In addition to weatherproof interchangeable-lens cameras, there is also a host of rugged compact cameras that all support use in freezing conditions (to 14°F) as well as offer waterproof and shockproof benefits. These cameras thrive in inclement weather without any additional accessories required. Options are available from Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax and Ricoh. For more details on these small but tough cameras, refer to this B&H InDepth Holiday 2012 article for a full roundup.

Lenses

Essentially all lenses will function in colder temperatures. However, just as with cameras, the fewer electronics you make use of, the safer you are for guaranteed performance. In a lens’s case, this equates to using manual focus lenses in order to lose the dependence on an autofocus motor. If temperatures become too cold, a focusing motor can begin to operate more slowly and can also be more prone to focus hunting due to the possibility of not receiving constant full power. A manual focus lens is entirely mechanical, and as such, cannot fail due to temperature.

Another consideration to note is that there is less daylight time during the winter months, which either leads to shorter photo sessions or the need to account for shooting in darker environments. With the latter in mind, it is helpful to work with faster lenses (having a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or greater) in order to compensate for the lack of overall brightness during the early and late hours of the day.

Light Meters

Due to winter’s unique light quality, relating to the shallower angle at which the sun is shining, light measuring becomes a bit more complex during winter months when compared to general conditions in the other three seasons. Skies are often overcast and when there is snow on the ground, the scenery becomes difficult to meter from, due to an increase in the overall contrast of the scene (i.e. the exposure value difference between a tree and a white sky and ground is often more than a single exposure can handle). This type of lighting scenario is where a handheld light meter truly shines and can outperform the meters built into your cameras. These auxiliary meters give you free reign as to the direction from which you take an exposure reading, and are far easier to use to determine lighting ratios than your camera’s meter.

It should also be noted that reflected-light meters traditionally take readings of light at an 18% reflectance; this is to say that they interpret all tones, either black or white, as a middle gray (18% gray). This calibration is applicable if photographing a scene containing an equal amount of dark and bright objects, since the exposure metering will be averaging to expose for a middle gray. Where this averaging of exposure fails, though, is in situations where you want the scene to appear mostly black, like a nighttime scene, or mostly white, like a snow scene. If you are photographing in a snowy scene and take a general meter reading of this predominantly white subject, your native exposure will render it as middle gray (i.e. underexposed). A tool to help achieve a proper exposure in difficult lighting conditions, such as those during wintertime, is a gray card. These tools provide a swatch of 18% gray material from which you can meter in order to determine the overall best exposure under specific lighting. In order to home in on the gray card within a scene, you will need to selectively meter the gray card without taking into account other regions of the composition. This can be done best with a dedicated spot meter or by using the appropriate spot meter attachment on your meter. Additionally, many digital cameras integrate a spot-metering option in case you are not using a handheld meter.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters

Another exposure-related tool that is especially suitable for wintertime photographing is a graduated neutral density filter. Similar to a standard solid ND filter, a graduated ND filter’s purpose is to reduce the exposure of a scene in order to promote a longer exposure. The difference between the two is that a graduated ND filter only provides this exposure-reducing density across half of the filter substrate. This is useful for holding back specific regions of the scene that are brighter than others to allow for a more controlled overall exposure. Due to the prevalence of white during the winter, either snow or overcast skies, these regions can often become significantly overexposed due to the compensation required for other, darker regions of the image. The effects of many filters can now be accomplished during post-production, to an extent; however, a graduated ND filter’s benefits are difficult to accomplish in a computer since the original exposure will likely have either under- or overexposed regions that are beyond recovery.

Graduated ND filters are available in a wide variety of densities (1/3rd of a stop up to 10 stops), and should be paired depending on the contrast between the bright area in your scene and the darker areas. The design of these filters places the density over half the filter, while leaving the other half clear. This enables you to darken the bright areas while building up the exposure in the darker regions in order to produce an all-over even exposure that will exhibit a greater dynamic range. The transition point between the dense and the clear portion of the filter needs to be considered, and is most commonly placed on the horizon or other strong line across the composition in order to avoid a distracting line cutting through the scene. These transition lines are also available in different gradations; either soft or hard. A soft-edge filter will give transition from full density to clear without a clear line of demarcation between the two areas; a hard-edge is just the opposite and is a well-defined line between the dense and the clear regions. Graduated ND filters are available in both circular and rectangular formats, but, unless used for very specific purposes, rectangular filters are the preferred option since you will be able to vary where this transition line is set in your scene. With a circular graduated ND filter, you will essentially be forced to keep your horizons in the center of the frame in order to disguise this transition line.

Tripods

Coupled with the desire to be photographing a winter landscape, and potentially in less light than summer provides, a tripod is a useful tool to have with you during these months. Tripods are most commonly available in two different material types: aluminum or carbon fiber. Both materials offer suitable support for your camera. However, in the case of a metal-legged tripod, it is also an effective conductor of the cold temperatures. Just as with other metal surfaces, aluminum can be difficult and painful to work with in freezing conditions. A sound solution for this issue is through the use of tripod leg warmers, which are available for numerous tripod models in different sizes, colors, and patterns. These sleeves offer a soft, padded covering around the legs to both ease the shock of the cold metal as well as provide more comfort when carrying a tripod over your shoulder.

If using a carbon fiber tripod, you will be spared from the discomfort of touching a cold surface; however, carbon fiber does have its cold-related drawbacks as well. In the case of working in extreme situations, carbon fiber can become brittle and even crack or shatter. The leg warmers will help in this instance, too, but special attention should be given, regardless, if working in especially low temperatures. Furthermore, a solution for both problems is to use a wooden tripod, which offers a tremendously high level of stability and resistance to the effects of cold temperatures, but at the expense of it also being the heaviest of camera support options.

Another crucial aspect of using a tripod in frozen conditions is its inclusion of spiked feet, or the ability to accept accessory spiked feet. If working on icy surfaces or other uneven terrain where rubber feet could slip, it is necessary to have the ability to dig into the surface you are working on in order to get the most stability from your tripod.

Waterproof Backpacks and Cases

A waterproof bag or case is a necessity if photographing in any sort of wet conditions, like snow, for protection and insulation of your equipment. Since most camera gear is not highly water resistant by nature, keeping it in a water-resistant bag while traversing wet areas is the second-best alternative.

Lowepro has two options available that combine waterproofing benefits with the added functionality of being able to hold winter-related gear. The Rover Pro 45L AW backpack is a large backpack that is ideally suited for mountain activities as it, in addition to holding a DSLR, lenses and accessories, can also carry certain necessities such as a tent, poles, sleeping pad and more. This pack also features an all-weather cover that will protect the interior contents from the harshest conditions. A lighter weight and smaller option is the Photo Sport 200 AW backpack, which features the same all-weather cover and ability to carry an array of gear, in addition to your photo equipment.

Another viable choice for a protective backpack is the Contrejour 40 from Clik Elite. This bag features reinforced straps specifically designed to carry skis or a snowboard in addition to your photo equipment. An aluminum frame is integrated into the design of the pack to provide more support while carrying, and a fold-away rain cover gives complete water resistance. Featuring the same design and features as the Contrejour 40, but in a slightly more compact size is the Contrejour 35. This pack shares the same 330 denier rip-stop Cordura and 1680 denier ballistic nylon construction, as well as the 3L hydration compartment, ChestPort accessory attachment system, and weather-resistant, fully lined seams.

If you require something significantly smaller than a full-size backpack, a chest carrier or holster is a useful option that gives you the benefit of quick access to your camera while still providing a hands-free method of transportation. Clik Elite features their Probody SLR Chest Carrier and Telephoto SLR Chest Carrier systems, both of which can hold a fully loaded SLR-style camera and lens tight against your body while still providing water resistance for hiking in the snow. A more open-air option, but offering even faster access to your camera, is the Cotton Carrier Camera Vest ONLY. This vest-style harness also holds the camera tight to your body, although it removes the full covering to promote quicker switching between shooting and carrying positions.

Similarly, a belt holster method of carrying your camera, such as the Peak Design Capture Camera Clip System with Arca Plate or the SpiderPro Single Camera System from Spider Camera Holster, give way to quick access to your camera and lens while offering a hands-free carrying solution ideal for hiking. If you prefer to carry your camera via the more traditional means of a camera strap, the BlackRapid Sport Extreme Sport Strap (available in both right- and left-handed versions) gives more security and stability than a standard strap through the use of a sliding 1/4”-20 fastener. Similarly, Joby’s UltraFit Sling Strap (for men or women) is a sling-style camera strap that provides a secure connection to your camera through the 1/4” tripod socket.

If you already have a carrying solution for your camera and are looking for just a bit more protection and added security against the elements and harsh conditions, LensCoat’s BodyBag camera pouches are constructed from neoprene to add more insulation to your camera during travel, and provide protection against dust or dirt entering the camera body and lens configuration. Similarly, the TravelCoats lens coverings also feature neoprene construction for general protection and insulation, and are available to fit a wide variety of specific lenses. These lens coverings are especially useful in situations in which the metal lens barrel of your lens can become extremely cold and difficult to use (similar to aluminum tripod legs). Along the same lines, Delkin Devices’ Snug-It Pro Skin Camera Protectors are form-fitting silicone enclosures for a wide variety of camera bodies that help to prevent scratches or dents, while still offering full access to all camera controls.

Gloves

In addition to providing insulation and protection for all of your camera gear, you also need to be prepared yourself for the cold climate. When shooting outdoors while carrying and using equipment, it is a good idea to be wearing gloves whenever possible (it goes without saying that you'll need warm clothes, socks, outer garments and waterproof footwear). The main issue against wearing gloves while working is the fact that it becomes cumbersome to manipulate camera controls and even simply release the shutter with a standard pair of gloves on. Gloves from Freehands and AquaTech, on the other hand, feature openings for your thumb and forefinger in order to overcome this problem. This additional afforded control, coupled with the Thinsulate or fleece insulation, makes either glove an ideal choice for efficiently photographing in the cold while keeping your hands warm.

If you have more questions about cold-weather photography, warm up to one of our Sales Professionals via live chat, over the phone at 1-800-606-6969, or visit the comfortably heated B&H SuperStore in midtown Manhattan.

Add new comment

It would have been nice to get advices on how to protect the camera AFTER the photo session, when the photographer brings it inside, in warm temperature.

Condensation resulting from the cold-warm transition can harm the camera. I heard that wrapping it in a ******* bag, while still in the cold temperature is a simple, inexpensive way to protect the sensitive gear: the bag act as a barrier between the condensation and the camera.

Are there other proven "tricks" ?

Regards.

I've never heard of wrapping a camera in a ******* bag as a means of preventing condensation. From experience, preventing the dramatic shifts (such as keeping the camera inside a coat or pocket when not shooting) in temperature is the best defense. Should a drastic change be inevitable, allowing the camera to air out and not trap moisture in (******* bag) is the best approach.

Putting your camera in a ******* bag (and sealing) is a good way to prevent your camera from condensing. This way humidity from warm room air is not setting on cold camera body.
I red it in a camera user manual (do not remember exactly which one).

Yes... It does work. I am in South Mississippi and even with our minimal temp extremes but high humidity it is still a problem and the ******* bag does work.

For shooting with a camcorder in cold (Ski hill in Wisconsin) my camcorder has a case. I cut holes in it for the lens and buttons I use, and pack it with handwarmers to keep the camera warm. It worked perfectly

I live in Canada's arctic and go out with a canon 5d3 taking pictures of the northern lights all the time. I find a bag a pain. I just take out the batery and card. I let the camera dry out a few hours and warm up the card with my hands and load into the card reader within a minute. The 5d3 has fairly good weather proofing with the L lenses I use so I am not too worried about condensation on the inside, it is mainly the outside that gets covered in ice when I come in the door.

F-Stop bags are by far the best for outdoor winter photography. They are extremely durable, lightweight, waterproof, and have lots of storage for camera and camping gear.

Some sound advice and great tips but I must say, 14 degrees above is hardly extreme cold. I often shoot at -40 and colder. Camers still work but things like shutter release cables, tripods and other things get pretty brittle.