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Winter Light

It Might Be Cold Outside, But the Light is Oh-So-Warm

By Matt Sleima

Ever since childhood, I have always much enjoyed winter. Bundling up and going out for a walk, particularly in a nature setting, in the crisp, clean winter air is for me a refreshing treat for the senses and balm for the soul. A walk through the falling snow in particular, is a simple pleasure I eagerly look forward to whenever the sky turns that particular shade of gray that hints of a snowfall in the offing. The look of the world gloriously bedecked in the pristine splendor of a fresh snowfall is always spiritually refreshing, and for me, a highlight of the winter season.

One of my pleasant winter memories takes me back to when I was a boy of about ten or twelve years. My parents took us all on a trip to visit family in Montreal, Canada This was an exciting journey for a kid from New York City. Even to a New Yorker, this place was really cold. One of the sights we took in was a park featuring a make-believe palace built totally out of blocks of ice. I don't think we have a photograph of it, but the memory of it remains vivid in my mind even after the passage of many years.

Admittedly, not everyone feels this way. When I mention my outlook on winter to various friends, family members, and acquaintances, the response is often a quizzical look and a raised eyebrow, as if to question the sanity of anyone who could possibly enjoy a time of year that brings with it traffic delays, driveways to shovel, vehicles to clean, and higher heating bills. These practical souls yearn to escape, even if temporarily, to warmer climes where they can trade their heavy outerwear and boots for polo shirts and sandals or golf shoes. I empathize with these good souls, and hope that one day they too will come to look beyond the relatively minor inconveniences that winter brings with it, and open up to appreciate the freshness, grandeur and beauty that can so enrich and refresh us this time of year.

As well, the winter sports, such as skiing, ice skating, snow tubing, etc. offer exciting opportunities to have a great time with friends and family. Going out to the football game all bundled up, possibly including a pre-game tailgate supper, can be another opportunity for camaraderie and a source of pleasant memories. For the photo pro, great shots of winter sports and competition events, especially their highlights, can be a sought-after and lucrative commodity.

So whether you are a professional photographer who earns his or her livelihood from the crafting of quality images, an amateur who enjoys the creative potential inherent in photography, or simply want to capture happy memories with family and friends, the winter season provides unique photo opportunities.

Besides the special shots that winter opportunities can provide, the sunlight at this time of year casts everything in a pleasant light that is hard to find at the warmer times of the year. If you've ever gone out shooting at sunrise or sunset, you already know how sweet the light can get. As the sun drops towards the horizon its rays start sneaking into all the nooks and crannies within the landscape. The color of the light gets warmer as well, a result of having to pass through deeper layers of atmospheric haze before reaching our little patch of heaven. Whether you're shooting landscapes or cityscapes, nothing beats sunrise and sunset.

During the summer months, if you want warm, soft light, you have to roll out of bed real early and/or head out well after dinner to catch the light right after sunrise or right before sunset. If you live in a latitude and longitude comparable to the New York metropolitan area, from about 7:30 in the morning to about the same time in the evening you can pretty much say good-bye to warm and fuzzy pictures. The sun is simply too high in the sky. Sure you can add warming filters, a polarizer, and various grad filters into the process, but as the sun approaches midday, the light gets downright glary. At high-noon in June, everybody looks like a squinting raccoon (poetry, anyone?). Your camera's fill-flash helps, but there's still a harsh look about things.

That said, there's something of a paradox about taking pictures during the winter months as compared to taking pictures during the summer.

In the summer the air is hot, but the light, with the exception of sunrise and sunset, tends to be harsh and cold. In the winter, however, the air may be cold, but because the sun never climbs too high in the sky this time of year, the light is warm and pleasant throughout the day.

While there are accompanying technical challenges that cold, and sometimes wet, weather face us with as photographers, there are as well corresponding solutions to overcome or work around them that allow outdoor winter shooting to be pleasant and hassle-free.

Tools and Tips for Cold Weather Shooting

A fundamental problem faced by current cameras of which the vast majority are engineered with electronic features, and especially digital cameras, is shortened outdoor shooting time caused by cold-induced battery failure. Current battery technology is not yet successful in producing a battery whose power capacity and runtime is not significantly diminished by cold weather, so the lower the temperature the shorter the runtime.

Depending on the equipment you are working with, there are a couple of solutions available to you. If you are professional or prosumer-level photographer, the cameras and equipment you use will often have power input jacks that enables connection to an external power source, either AC or a DC power pack, via a connecting cable.

While many photographers are familiar with using a power pack to ensure uninterrupted shooting during long photo sessions, their winter advantages can sometimes be overlooked. Keeping a power pack on your belt or slung over your shoulder underneath your coat or parka while outdoors, will ensure that it stays cozy and warm and thus works to its full capacity, enabling you to shoot for extended periods of time outdoors even in very cold weather. For convenience, the connecting power cable can be run through your sleeve, so you are not hampered by a dragging power cord.

Quantum Instruments
Battery Pack - Turbo 2X2 Ni-MH

Lumedyne HV Tinycycler - High-Voltage Battery Pack for Flashes

At B&H, we carry an extensive line of quality power packs and connector cables by Quantum Instruments, Digital Camera Battery, Bescor, and Xtreme Power. These companies have been around for a while and have a reputation for manufacturing dependable, quality equipment that will give you the power to get the job done. Many models are light and compact. As an aside, some of these units can also power a flash unit along with the camera. Power packs are available for many, if not most, digital and film SLRs. Our sales associates can assist you in finding the right unit for your equipment.

If your favorite camera is a point-and-shoot model that does not have any external power connector, an easy solution is to keep a spare set of batteries warm inside your coat or vest pocket and swap the cold , failing battery for a warm one as needed. Once warmed up you can swap it back into the camera as needed. Needless to say you can perform this same swap-out procedure with the battery in your DSLR.

At B&H we carry spare rechargeable dedicated batteries for all the cameras we sell, both batteries branded by the camera manufacturer as well as those produced by third-party vendors, such as Impact, Bescor, and CTA. A third-party battery will generally work as well as the manufacturer-branded product. If you’re not sure which batteries work with your camera, simply type 'Battery Finder' in the Search box on the B&H homepage, and follow the prompts.

For cameras that use AA or AAA cells, the most practical solution is to use rechargeable nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) cells. These batteries are cost-effective and are available either packaged together with a quick-charger or separately. A noteworthy feature of these batteries is that they have no memory, so you don't have to be concerned about recharging them even if they haven’t been fully discharged. They are guaranteed by the manufacturer to be rechargeable hundreds of times. Current generation NiMH cells have higher capacities that provide much longer runtime than older NiMH batteries. At B&H we carry rechargeable NiMH cells from most every major camera manufacturer, as well as Impact, and CTA.

Condensation on equipment is another issue that can easily be worked around. Photo equipment will "sweat" when brought from the cold outdoors to the warm indoors, and will continue to do so until it reaches room temperature, and will need to be carefully wiped down when brought inside. Wiping condensation from a lens can result in smudging, if not done carefully. As well, moisture can get into the many nooks and crannies of the camera controls.

A simple and very effective solution is to place the camera into a zipper-type food-storage bag before taking it inside and squeeze out as much air as possible and leave it in the bag until the equipment reaches room temperature. This way, the condensation will form on the bag, not on the camera, leaving the camera dry and ready for immediate use.

If you find yourself shooting in damp, tropical climates, the opposite approach works equally well. If your equipment spends appreciable time in a chilled, air-conditioned environment, place your gear into ziplock bags before heading outdoors and keep the bags sealed until they stop sweating.

As many photographers - both professional and amateur - know, a camera tripod can be an extremely useful photo accessory. As a pro, you know the value of getting the camera positioned just so to get the shot exactly the way you want it. For the rest of us, aside from allowing us to take quality posed shots, it allows us to get into the memories too, using the self-timer that many cameras are equipped with.

When the mercury really heads south, standard aluminum tripods can tend to bind and be hard to manipulate as well, as being uncomfortable to handle since aluminum is very conductive to cold. Anyone who has done any outdoor shooting in the wintertime, say, in Minnesota, or elsewhere in cold climes, understands this well. My local photo guru has his share of horror stories, among them struggling with an aluminum tripod in temperatures only a polar bear can love.

Fortunately, tripods manufactured from newer-technology materials such as carbon-fiber and basalt, aside from their advantages over aluminum of greater strength and lower weight, are far less conductive to cold, and will not bind even at extremely low temperatures. Carbon-fiber is a bit more than a third the weight of aluminum, and basalt is slightly more than half the weight of aluminum, yet each can hold an equal load for its' size.

Bogen / Manfrotto 055MF3
Magfiber Pro

Induro C014 Carbon 8X C-Series 4-Section Carbon

An extensive selection of carbon-fiber and basalt tripods is available at B&H from a number of manufacturers such as Gitzo, Bogen-Manfrotto, Slik, Giottos, Induro and Benro each of whom offers a full line of tripods, monopods, and heads. There is a wide range of tripods to choose from that is geared to suit the needs of photographers at all levels, from rank amateurs to top-flight professionals. For shooting in the snow or on ice, "snowshoe" leg tips and spike leg tips are available for many tripods.

For the traditionalists among us, take a look at the line of wooden tripods by Berlebach. Berlebach has been manufacturing wooden tripods for about one hundred years, to a very high standard of quality and with innovative design. Wood is a poor conductor of heat and cold, making these tripods more comfortable to use in hot or cold weather. Wood is extremely effective at absorbing vibration, better than other tripod materials. And as with carbon-fiber and basalt tripods, wooden tripods are non-conductive of electric current and magnetic fields.

A useful accessory during inclement weather during any season is a rain cape, slicker, or rain cover for your SLR or point-and-shoot by Ewa-Marine, Aqua Tech, or Aquapac. There are a number of models available that will accommodate various size cameras and lenses, some very reasonably priced. If you already own or wish to consider investing in one, an underwater camera housing works just as well in the rain and snow as it does underwater. See our website for a wide selection of underwater housings, both by camera manufacturers and third-party vendors.

Olympus Stylus 790 SW Pentax Optio W30

If you are just starting to consider outdoor photography and haven't yet purchased a camera, and anticipate shooting a lot in wet conditions e.g. rain, ski slopes, at the beach, fishing trips, etc. you may wish to consider purchasing a fully waterproof camera, such a the Pentax Optio W30, or Olympus Stylus 790 SW. Both of these point-and-shoots are waterproof, and the Olympus 790 is freezeproof and shockproof as well. B&H carries these cameras, as well as accessories for them to help enhance your shooting experience.

If you are a video enthusiast - whether consumer, prosumer, or professional -rain capes and slickers are available to keep your expensive equipment dry during wet weather or wet sports. Ewa-Marine, PortaBrace, Petrol, and Kata manufacture a wide selection of waterproof camcorder covers that will allow you to take your camcorder where the action and fun are, regardless how wet or nasty the weather.

Although not in a particular category by themselves, there are a number of noteworthy products available at B&H that can enhance the enjoyment of your outdoor winter shooting and activities.

Wind Watch Pro II

The Wind Watch and Wind Watch Pro II by Minox are both handy electronic devices that provide weather information such as wind speed and temperature. The Wind Watch Pro II also includes a barometer, a hygrometer, and an altimeter. Additionally, both units tell time as well. The Wind Watch is waterproof and the Wind Watch Pro II is water resistant. Being able to calculate the wind chill factor, and being aware of impending rain or snow can help you schedule and plan your winter outdoor activities.

Bushnell WeatherFX

Also useful for scheduling for your outdoor activities, as well as keeping an eye on the weather year round, are any of the three WeatherFX weather forecast stations by Bushnell that provide either a three-day, a five-day, or a seven-day weather forecast. Each is a handsome wall-mountable unit that displays weather information on a large easy-to-read LCD screen, and includes a satellite-synchronized digital clock as well. The weather information is obtained from AccuWeather and is updated every fifteen minutes. There are no subscriptions to buy.

Domke OutPack Dri-Safe All Weather Case Large (DODSLY)
Domke OutPack Dri-Safe All Weather Case Small (DODSSY)

In addition to the soft waterproof camera cases mentioned earlier in this article, Aquapac makes an extensive line of waterproof cases for many items, such as mp3 players and small personal items like keys, money, and mobile phones that can be slipped onto a belt, hung around your neck or strapped to your arm. Domke, in addition to their camera cases, makes a number of waterproof soft cases for photo and electronic gear or any personal items, called the OutPack Dri-Safe. Any of these cases are a useful addition to your summer outdoor sports gear as well.

Pelican Silica Gel is a useful accessory to have in your camera or gear case (or for that matter, your tool box or gun case) during the hot or cold seasons. The gel absorbs moisture that forms inside the case in a humid climate or when the case is taken from the cold outdoors to the warm indoors. The silica gel is contained in an aluminum canister, and changes from blue to pink when it needs to be reactivated. Reactivation is a snap in any oven.

Pelican 1200 Watertight Case with Foam

And speaking of Pelican cases, look no further if you need to transport your gear in cases that keep out 100% of the elements, not to mention defy all but deliberate destruction.

HPRC AMRE-2550WICO LongLife Combination Kit
HPRC AMRE-2550WICO LongLife Combination Kit

For keeping rain, snow, and just about anything else that can harm your gear itís tough (no pun intended) to beat resin cases. A terrific assortment of cases, with or without dividers or foam, are available under the AMRE label from HPRC to fit most all cameras, video gear, and other sensitive equipment you might be hauling around these days.

Porta Brace POL-MVX200/XH Polar-Mitten Heated Camcorder Case
Porta Brace POL-MVX200/XH Polar-Mitten Heated Camcorder Case

If you have a yearning to head out into the winter wonderland with your camcorder you might want to check out PortaBrace Polar-Mitten Heated Camcorder Cases, which are designed to keep your hands and fingers toasty down to minus 50-degrees Fahrenheit.

As an experienced photographer knows, taking a custom white balance is a recommended practice to help ensure proper color exposure. While B&H carries many white-balancing accessories by a number of manufacturers such as Porta-Brace, WhiBal, Lastolite, and X-Rite, the ones that stand out for outdoor use, winter or year round, are the ExpoDisc or the ExpoCap. The ExpoDisc provides a totally neutral color balance, while the ExpoCap gives a slightly warmed image. They are translucent lens covers that simply snap onto your camera lens like a lens cap. They feature metal and plastic construction, and the ExpoDisc comes with a lanyard for hanging the device around your neck. They are waterproof, easy to clean, and easy to use. While white-balance aids are useful devices at any time of year, the bright conditions often present when shooting a snow or summer scene can make any of these devices particularly useful.

To bring it all together, whether you are shooting polar bears in the wild on an Arctic expedition, or taking shots of your kids in front of the polar bear cage at the zoo, we have the gear and accessories to make your winter photography pleasant and profitable.

Please email feedback on this article, or suggestions for future topics, to emailfeedback@bhphotovideo.com