Cold Weather Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets
Tips and Tutorials

Cold Weather Photography

by David Peterson 12 comments

Is you camera collecting dust on the shelf because it’s too cold out to shoot? Winter presents numerous hazards to any would-be photographer. For one, you risk freezing your fingers just to get the shot, and before you know it, your batteries are dead. If you haven’t taken that many great images this winter, I don’t blame you. But with the techniques you’re about to learn, you’ll want to grab your camera and get out there every time it snows. I’ll show you why.

How to cure cold hands

Photographers often leave their hands exposed because they need to control the settings on their camera. Heavy gloves are warm, but it’s impossible to press buttons while wearing them. So what’s the solution? Are photographers doomed to always have cold hands? Not if they’re prepared.

You should be wearing three layers of gloves if you want to be comfortable out on a wintry photo shoot. Your first layer should be a pair of silk or nylon gloves that are thin enough to give you full control over your camera without taking them off. This layer doesn’t provide much protection, but it’s better than nothing, and it certainly helps when you’re standing in the cold for hours on end.

Your second gloves should be a simple pair of mittens with the fingertips cut off. You should be able to control most of your camera’s settings while wearing them. If they’re too bulky, you’ll just end up taking them off when you need to shoot. And finally, your third layer should be a pair of heavy mittens that you’ll wear whenever you aren’t taking photos.

Gloves are certainly helpful for preventing frostbite on your fingers, but moving around is even better. Try to setup your shoot so you don’t spend a bunch of time standing in one place. Ideally, you should setup your camera, get the shots you need, and get out of there. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. Standing around will make you cold (unless you do a bunch of jumping jacks to the point of exhaustion. Then you ought to be fine).

Keep your batteries warm and they’ll stay charged

It goes without saying that if you leave your camera in your car overnight, it probably won’t work in the morning. Batteries can lose their charge pretty fast when you expose them to the elements. To keep your batteries working long enough to get the shot, you need to charge them every time you get back from your winter shoot. Store them at room temperature. Otherwise, you're just asking for it.

When you’re out shooting, you should always carry a few spare batteries. Keep these in your breast pocket. The closer to your heart, the better. Your body is always working to keep your core temperature high. That’s the reason your hands are cold in the first place. When your overall body temperature drops, your body reduces its blood supply to your extremities in an effort to keep your core warm.

Batteries will sometimes appear to have no charge, but when you change them out and place the supposedly dead battery in your breast pocket, miracles start happening. When in doubt, switch it out and try it again later.


Photo sent in by Torbjørn Øvrebekk

Be aware of condensation inside and outside of your camera

Whenever you take your camera from a cold environment to a warmer one, condensation will form all over it. Condensation is more than a simple inconvenience. When it gets inside of your camera, it can ruin the electronics and cause permanent damage.

To remedy this, place your camera inside of a freezer bag of some kind. Ziploc freezer bags do the job, but there are a bunch of other brands that work as well. Place the camera into the freezer bag whenever you are about to go from a cold environment to a warmer one. Once back inside (it’s usually warmer inside during the winter months), wait until the outside of the bag is completely dry before you remove your camera. This can sometimes take more than an hour, so be patient.

You don’t need to do the same when moving from a warm environment to a colder one. Just don’t forget to bring your freezer bags.

With these three tips, you shouldn’t have to worry about venturing out in the cold to get some fantastic winter wonderland images.

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Comments

  1. Michael Morrison says:

    Very helpful information. I have shot both in the cold and hot temperatures. With the right precautions, you can indeed get some great photos.

    Like David mentions about moving your camera from the cold into a warmer place, this problem of moisture/condensation developing in the camera and lens is a nuisance if not damaging. Not only having this problem in the winters cold but this will also happen in the summer when taking your camera from an airconditioned environment into the hot summer air.

    The concept to slow the drastic change in temerature by placing your camera into a ziploc bag works really well. As an added measure, silica gel is a great way to absorb any excess moisture from developing. This can be purchased....or whenever you purchase many food/electronic items the little silica gel packets can be found packed in with the shipping. Collect some of the little packets and throw them into the ziploc bag with your camera.

    Silica gel can adsorb about 40 percent of its weight in moisture and can take the relative humidity in a closed container down to about 40 percent. Once saturated, you can drive the moisture off and reuse silica gel by heating it above 300 degrees F (150 C).

  2. Linda Bonskowski says:

    Good article, David! I do have a problem with cold, and have to put on a ton of ski clothes to stay warm. Sometimes it's worth it, though. One question: I have read several articles that say you should put your camera in a plastic bag and wait at least 30 minutes or more whether going in or out. Could you please explain why you only feel it's necessary when you're going from a warm environment to a cold one.
    Thanks!

  3. Patrick Ng says:

    Hi David,

    As someone living in Ontario, I am worried about condensation. You said that the same precaution is not necessary when moving from warm to cold environment in the article. However, I cannot keep wondering about this: the camera that has been in a warm environment for a few hours will have warm air inside since it is not completely sealed. Doesn't the warm air condense when going out in the cold?

  4. NZ Possum Merino says:

    Hi there,

    Excellent article. I really appreciate people taking the time to share their knowledge with others. Would like to suggest Possum fur gloves for the second layer. There are finglerless gloves available as well, the photographers we know love these natural fibre gloves. Worth a read the insulation properties of the Possum fur is second to none.

  5. David Peterson says:

    @Mike,

    No, you won't break your camera and the LCD is fine.

    Enjoy photographing in the cold!

    David.

  6. Sarah says:

    Thanks for all the great tips you send. I try to use them after reading the articles but will have difficulty with this one as we haven't any snow yet.
    In the past when I came in from taking winter photos I left my camera in my unheated mudroom, which is warmer that outdoors but not hot. After a while I slide down the lens cover and bring it in to a cooler part of the house to let it acclimatize.......so far I haven't had problems but I will try your suggestion as well.

  7. Mike says:

    So just to be clear . The only things i have to worry on cold weather are bad battery, cold finger and cold to hot transiton? Nothing bad will happen to my camera? The LCD display is safe? Nothing can brake in the camera? These are my concerns.

  8. Kathy Wesserling says:

    Michigan, Ontario, UpState NY. While shooting water (Great Lakes, Lighthouses, & Niagara Falls) it can be frigid.

    Veronica's suggestion about those little hand-warmer bags is spot-on.

    I hate wearing coats, so have learned to layer also. For women, start with a Cami (covers your torso a bit more). I wear a long-sleeved turtle neck plus 2 heavy-weight sweatshirts (one with a hoodie). Laying socks seems to help also - one pair that wicks away moisture and another pair of wool socks. If it's really cold out, I'll throw a pair of baggy sweat pants over my jeans (this last one is a hoot - starting in third grade, I refused to wear snowsuit leggings any more!) If it's about as cold as it can get, I might add long-johns sets. Layered mittens and earmuffs complete the ensemble.

    It's not a fashion-forward look - especially on a short rotund woman, but who cares! Like, who else is going to be out there taking pictures in those temps! lollllllll

    My camera is also dressed for the cold. I wrap and affix a wool scarf around the battery-pack part of my camera (with enough link to toss over the body and lens when they're not in use.)

    Back at the car, there is a folded warm stadium-type blanket on the floor and one on the seat (thank heaven my cart seats are now electric). Additional socks (kept warmer tucked into the blankets) are ready to change into. Once the heater is cranked up, I take off the shoes and socks and warm them on the floor blanket. Leaving them on my feet is deadly because of circulation and arthritic conditions. Warming up is time-critical for everyone.

    If you can, try to find places to shoot that are relatively close to the car park. Don't be intrepid unless you have to be. Happy Frigid Shooting!

    I'll upload some Niagara Falls pix a little later. The temps were around 15-d Fahr. More at http://www.flickr.com/photos/kathyspix

    Thanks the article. Hopefully, between all of us, more members will get out there for the beauty and magic shots of Winter.

  9. Daniel Du Plessis says:

    Thank you for helpfull advice

  10. Veronica Barrett says:

    I like your Winter article. As one who has had to go to hospital with frostbite while photographing in the Canadian Rockies in extreme temperatures (it was -35C) I have now come up with a solution to frozen fingers. I have the three pairs of gloves as you suggest but, in the flaps of my mittens, I have sewn the cut-off tops of an old pair of socks so that I have a little ribbed bag inside each. Into each of those I put a handwarmer pad. The ribbed tops of the bags keep them in place so that they don't fall out. You have to work out which way up to sew them in!

    Best wishes and thanks for the useful articles!

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
5 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.