Photography in the winter can produce dramatic and beautiful images of snow-capped mountains, forests draped in crystal sheets of ice, or birds huddling beneath a rooftop out of the driving sleet. But photography in cold weather is much more challenging for photographers and equipment than warm weather shooting.
Everyone knows to wear a coat or sweater if you're going to be outside for any length of time in cold weather. The face and hands are the most endangered body parts in cold weather photography. But photographers can't completely muffle their faces or hands or they won't be able to handle their camera and other equipment successfully. To keep most of your face warm while shooting, try wearing a ski mask to reduce the amount of skin exposed to cold wind and wintry weather. A ski mask will not only keep your face warm, it will help reduce the amount of hot air you breathe onto your camera, which conflicts with the ambient temperature to cause condensation.
Keeping your hands warm is particularly problematic for photographers in the winter. Gloves keep your hands warm between shots, but often you'll have to remove your gloves to handle the camera or equipment more easily and accurately. Bare hands expose your fingers to cold and wind, which can cause numb fingers and frostbite. Depending on how cold the weather is, you may even risk having your fingers freeze to the metal on the camera, which can damage your skin and the equipment.
To solve cold-finger problems, try wearing gloves in layers. Wear silk or fine mesh gloves first, or use glove liners. Over these thin gloves add a pair of fingerless crafters gloves for more warmth on your palms, which will cut down on hand fatigue. Hunters' gloves have a removable fingertip section, which can add still another layer that leaves your fingers free. Finally, top all the layers with regular cold-weather heavy gloves. Because you will have to remove these while shooting, be sure to bring a cord to hang them around your neck to prevent losing them.
Your fingers will still get cold while you're shooting, but the extra protection will stave off damage to your joints and skin until you put your heavy gloves back on. In bitterly cold or windy weather, try keeping a chemical heat pack in your coat pocket to quickly reheat your hands between sessions.
Pay extra attention to your feet when shooting outside in cold weather. Even when you wear well insulated boots, your feet can become damp if you walk in snow higher than the tops of your boots. Wet skin is a major cause of damage from cold weather, and damp socks inside cold shoes are a recipe for disaster when you get home and take your boots off. Keep extra socks with you at all times in case you have to change them while you're out shooting. Another good thing to keep on hand is a couple of kitchen dish towels or hand towels so you can dry off your feet before changing your socks.
A common cause of injuries during winter shooting is photographers not paying enough attention to their surroundings while focusing on a subject. And in cold conditions, almost any surface can be covered in ice, which is often completely invisible. Be sure to pay attention to where you are about to step, and wear shoes or boots that have heavy soles with good traction, in order to avoid a nasty fall that could injure you or ruin your equipment.
Protect Your Equipment
Batteries lose their charge more quickly in cold weather. So be sure to carry spare batteries for all of your equipment. Lithium batteries carry a charge better than older style batteries. You can keep spare batteries in your coat pocket, your camera bag, or other relatively warm spot out of the extremely cold temperatures. But be sure not to keep batteries in a too warm spot, or they could cause condensation when you place them inside cold equipment.
Condensation is a particularly troublesome problem for photographers. Just like your rear view mirror fogs up when you get inside your car because of your body heat and breathing, condensation can fog up your camera lens and the inside of your camera when temperatures change rapidly. Condensation is water forming on surfaces that are significantly colder or warmer than the surrounding air. So if you are outside shooting in cold weather and take your camera into an area where the air is warm, condensation will form if the camera is colder than the dew point. By the same token, if you take your camera out of a warm room or car into cold weather, condensation can form.
The best way to avoid condensation is to bring your camera through extreme temperature changes gradually by sealing it inside a bag containing the same temperature the camera is already acclimated to. By doing this, any condensation that accumulates forms on the bag instead of the camera, as the air inside the bag gradually equalizes to the new environment. You may get cold waiting for the camera to cool off before you can begin shooting, but the wait is worth it to protect your equipment.
Another source of condensation is actually you. If you breathe warm air onto your camera, you risk fogging it. Also, the warmth emanating from your eye can cause problems in the viewfinder. These types of condensation are more of an annoyance than a risk to the camera, but they are issues to keep in mind while shooting. Don't hold the camera to your face continually for a long length of time, to keep the warmth of your eye from fogging the viewfinder. Try to remember to exhale away from the camera, or even hold your breath or breathe shallowly while shooting. Be sure not to put your camera in a pocket or inside your coat temporarily, because even a small change in temperature for a short amount of time can raise the temperature of the camera and lens enough to cause a problem.
Remember that condensation can form inside the camera where you will not be able to see it. The moisture inside can cause problems with the electronic workings of the camera while you're shooting, but worse, it could freeze in very cold conditions and completely ruin the camera.
By taking a few precautions before you begin taking a few pictures, you can ensure that your winter photography exploits result in beautiful photographs rather than expensive repairs or serious injuries.