Tips for taking Photographs in Winter without being completely miserable

Tips for taking Photographs in Winter without being completely miserable

Camera Equipment: I have used my camera gear in temperatures well below freezing on multiple occasions and have never had any malfunctions with the camera or lenses due to cold weather.  Accessories, on the other hand, do not stand up as well.   Cold air makes plastic on items like remote releases quite brittle, making them prone to breaking. In very cold temperatures, keeping the front element of a camera lens or filter clean can also be challenging in certain environments. When waterfall spray or steam (like from a hot spring in Yellowstone) hits cold equipment, the droplets can freeze instantly. In these situations, I have found that using a hand warmer to heat up the filter or front lens element and melt the ice is a good option for cleaning off frozen spray or droplets.  If ice is forming on your gear, it might be time to put it away and go inside. Also, if your camera is not weather sealed, be careful when photographing in snowy conditions and plan to keep your camera as dry as possible.  Melting snow can get into your camera and cause damage to the camera’s internal components.  In snowy conditions, you can drape a microfiber or regular hand towel over your camera and lens to keep the snow off gear.  In a pinch I have taken a washcloth or hand towel from my hotel room to use during the day for this purpose.  This is almost always enough to keep the camera completely dry and is much easier to use than a cumbersome rain cover. Battery life:  Battery life decreases significantly in cold weather. Always bring along extra batteries, so this does not become an issue. If you only have one battery, keep it in an inner pocket to keep it warm until you need it or in a mitten with a handwarmer.  This will serve dual purpose keeping your hand and battery warm!  Warming up a cold battery with a handwarmer or by putting it in an inner pocket might also help give a dead battery some extended use in a pinch. Tripod and Accessories: In freezing temperatures be aware that your tripod can become frozen shut. If the temperature is below freezing and your tripod gets wet, make sure to thoroughly dry the legs before collapsing them. Carbon fiber also gets brittle in cold weather, so treat this piece of gear with some extra care.  I have also had them freeze because the oil that helps the head move is too cold. Some people use baskets, like those on the ends of ski poles, when using their tripod in snowy conditions. This can be cumbersome though.  Since I’ve ever personally had an issue with just sticking my tripod in the snow and stabilizing it, I forgo this option. For photographing on ice or slick ground, some tripod manufacturers offer spikes, some retractable, to help your tripod stay put. These can be especially handy when standing on an ice-covered lake on a windy day. When going inside:When going from the cold outside to a warm inside location, make sure you leave your gear in your bag. Taking cold gear out in a warm car or room will start the process of condensation.  Trust me condensation is the last thing you want to happen to the inside and outside of your camera and lenses. Leaving gear inside a closed bag whenever going inside until the whole bag and its contents warms up to room temperature is the best solution to this problem. With using this approach, I haven’t had an issue.  However, in a pinch you can use silica gel packs and ziplock bags to dry out any gear.


 Let’s face it kneeling on ice in below freezing windy weather can be unpleasant if you are not dressed properly!

Choosing the right clothing and personal items is the most important aspect of staying warm while outside. After spending a couple of winter weeks in Yellowstone National Park and staying relatively warm, I can give decent advice for what worked for me.  I recommend these items or similar ones as a place to start, with tweaking based upon your own needs.  I include links below just for informational purposes, not as a recommendation to purchase specific pieces of gear.

General Principles:

First of all, you should have a basic understanding of what causes hypothermiahow to protect against it, how to identify the symptoms, and what to do about it.  Here is a quick primer.

Stay away from cotton! Do not wear cotton base layers or socks. Cotton does not wick away moisture, leaving you vulnerable to the cold. Let’s say you work up a sweat hiking up a trail.  Then stop to take pictures.  Well, your body will cool down and the cotton will leave a layer of cold, wet material right against your skin.

Dress in layers, especially if you will be hiking/snowshoeing/skiing and then waiting around for a photograph. Layers allow you to stay comfortable when moving and when standing still. A base layer will help wick away perspiration, a middle layer will help provide insulation and an outer layer can help keep you dry (and provide wind protection, depending on the weather).

Wind will have a major impact on how warm you feel. Keep in mind the same jacket that feels warm on a windless day can feel invisible on a windy day. Having a breathable, windproof and water-resistant outer layer for your top, bottom, and head does a great job in helping you stay warm even in the coldest conditions.

Overall, choose clothing that is comfortable.  Be careful of picking tight clothing as it can constrict your movement and actually make you feel colder.

Specific Clothing Considerations:

Hands:Touching your camera gear will make your hands cold. I wear two pairs of gloves – a thin inner layer and a thick outer mitten. The inner layer is flexible enough to change settings on my camera and tripod and the mittens help keep my hands warm during the downtime. I almost always keep my left hand in both the glove and the mitten, using my right hand for the majority of the work. Depending on temperature and conditions, I will also have a hand warmer in both mittens.  This way I can keep my extra battery warm and easy accessible and also warm up that right hand if it spends any amount of time outside my mitten.  I always keep extra hand warmers accessible for myself, my lens, battery or even for others.

Upper Body: For the coldest weather, here are my layers: a camisole or tank that I would wear for summer exercise,  a wicking base layer, a mid-weight middle layer, and an insulated outer layer.  Make sure the outer layer has an insulated hood, repels water, and is windproof.  I like the 3-in-1 jackets because you can always pick which layer you want or use them both on extremely cold days.

Lower Body: I start with a wicking baselayer (either lightweight or midweight, depending on the weather) and add windproof and water resistant pants.  I have a pair of Isis brand that I love.  They have a nice outershell and a thin lining.  If it’s not going to be THAT cold, I’ll wear these alone.  For colder days, I’ll wear a base layer tight under them for that perfect added warmth.  If you prefer a thin outer layer for waterproof protection with warmer layers underneath, that’s fine too.  You need to figure out what works best for you and your body.

Feet: Good boots are such a worthwhile investment!  I have something similar to this.  Well, the older version that I got on sale in the spring.  They work pretty well for me and my cold feet.  I made sure to try them on with 2 pairs of socks in the store to ensure they were large enough.  So far I have been very happy with them and they keep my normally cold toes pretty warm!  I wear liner socks and a thick wool sock or on a really cold day 2 pairs of thick wool hiking socks.  My feet tend to be cold so this system works for me, but may be too warm for others.

These boots will work for winter hiking, snowshoeing, and just standing around. If you plan to be out and about in below freezing temperatures, something with a 400g insulation should be a good place to start. If you will be in really cold weather and will not be active, something warmer (like the Baffin arctic line-up or Sorel) might work better. Don’t skimp on good boots!  Make the investment and you’ll be much happier.  Make sure the boots you do get are not too tight, and NEVER wear cotton socks!

Headwear: I have a nice wool hat with fleece around the inside ears that keeps me pretty warm.  In colder, wet or windy weather I will put my jacket hood over it to keep warm. I always wear a scarf too.  That keeps the wind from going down by back and making me cold.  It also can be pulled up over my nose and mouth on super cold days.  Some might prefer a balaclava topped with a hat or hood, but I find them too constricting.


The Ten Essentials:As with any hiking trip, you should bring along the Ten Essentials, which include a topographic map, compass, hydration, extra food (including high calorie snacks), extra clothing, a firestarter, matches, sun protection, a pocket knife or multitool, first-aid kit, and a headlamp (with extra batteries). If you are venturing very far beyond your car, also take some time to familiarize yourself with essential practices for safe winter travel.  Prepare for your trip by checking trail conditions, checking avalanche conditions, and sharing your plans with a responsible friend or family member.   Be sure you know how to read your map and use your GPS if you bring one along.  Winter navigation can require some special skills, as snow can obscure familiar landmarks and during a storm, your tracks can become covered quite quickly.  This is especially true for photographers who may be venturing out before sunrise and returning after sunset.  It is also wise to consider your options for emergency shelter should you find yourself spending an unexpected night outdoors. Thermos:  Staying hydrated and well-fed helps your body stay warm, so take the time to stop for drinks and snacks.   In addition to water, having a hot drink in really cold weather is nice. I always carry a Thermos and it does a great job of keeping beverages hot for a full day out in cold weather.  In really cold temperatures, regular water bottles freeze, so look into insulated options.  They make winter camelbacks as well with insulated hoses. Remember water freezes in cold temperatures and can burst a water bottle just like the pipes in your home. Hand warmers: Handwarmers are probably my favorite piece of winter gear. Once they heat up, a handwarmer provides real warmth and can feel so comforting on a cold hand. They can also be helpful for melting ice off of a filter or warming up a frozen tripod. A handwarmer will heat up more in a closed pocket, which is a good way to refresh one that you have been heavily using. They make a foot warmer version as well which is handy to keep those toes warm. Gaiters: I don’t usually wear these unless I am definitely snowshoeing or skiing as my outer water resistant layer is good enough when pulled over my boots.  However, gaiters can be nice for preventing things like snow, slush, and rocks from making their way into your shoes. Gaiters made for winter use are often water-proof or water resistant. They help keep your shoes and pants clean and dry, which can help increase your comfort and safety in the winter. Microspikes: Microspikes are small metal spikes held together with a rubber binding that fits over a shoe or boot (if you have no idea what I am talking about, do a quick search and you’ll be enlightened). They are useful when hiking on snow-packed trail or icy surface because they offer excellent traction. Yaktrax like these are also a decent option. Microfiber Towel: I also carry a small microfiber towel and it often comes in handy during all the seasons. In summer I have used it dry my feet after a river crossing. In light snow, I use the towel to cover my camera and lens to keep it dry.  A towel also comes in handy for drying off a wet tripod or other gear, and shielding the front of the lens from snowflakes or drizzle between shots. Snowshoes:  These come in handy to get out into deep snow and to amazing winter scenery.  Using them is basically like hiking.  I have the MSR Evo Ascent snowshoes and I use them with my regular hiking poles.  You can get baskets for your poles too, if you prefer. If you want to buy snowshoes and need some tips, here is a helpful guide from REI. A few words about the expense of all these items…Given the harsher conditions, good winter gear can be more important to safety and survival than gear for other seasons.  Going out ill-prepared can have big consequences so these items are worth the investment for reasons beyond comfort.  For those photographers on a budget, I know that most of the items I discuss above are expensive (and sometimes shockingly expensive).  Take your time to acquire the gear that works best for you.  You can also check sites like geartrade, your local consignment stores and craigslist for great used gear at discount prices. I am a firm believer in buying quality items once and saving in the long-run.    If you are looking to save money, a lot of online outlets offer great deals on previous year models, often with little difference other than the item’s color.  You can also shop in late winter or early spring for discounts on that season’s gear.  This will help you prepare for the next winter!  Costco also offers good deals on base layers, decent snowshoes, gloves, wool socks, and handwarmers by the box.  Shop around and you’ll find what you are looking for! Do you have any other advice for photographing in cold weather? If so, please share your ideas below!