Winter Photography

Being a northern guy, I've always loved winter. It makes me feel alive, kind of amped up a bit, like I just had some high octane espresso. I suspect that it is a holdover from being a kid, and snow involved fast sleds and fun instead of homework. My wife is a California girl and would rather be at the beach in the sun, but not me. Give me a couple of feet of fresh snow anytime. With hot coffee later.

At any rate, doing photography in the snow is fun too. I always try to encourage my students to make photos out in the snow, because you can make some pretty cool photos with that winter look. There is a method to it though; some easy, and some very serious if you're spending the day outside, far above the arctic circle where polar bears walk the Earth.

Here are some steps to follow for successful snow photos (just follow my tracks in the snow):

Dress so that you'll be comfortable in the cold in your part of the country. No cold feet, hands or ears allowed. If you're cold, you won't want to be in the snow. Dress so that you can move around easily. I have a few pairs of gloves for various degrees of cold. Use a hat with ear warmers, and a bill to keep the snow and sun out of your eyes. Layer your clothes & use materials that won't make you cold even if you get a little damp from exertion.

If you're only going to be out in the cold for a little while, you can put your camera inside your jacket to keep it warm. Sometimes when I go alpine skiing, I take my full sized Digital SLR with me and just keep it inside my jacket.

Bring a soft, well worn cotton handkerchief to wipe your gear dry on a regular basis and a lens cloth to wipe your lens dry. Don't blow on your lens or the vapor from your breath may freeze into ice crystals. Make sure you have a UV filter on your lens to protect it from ice crystals and moisture. If you're in a blizzard, wipe the lens clean often.

Winter generally also means low light, which could make for photos with a very distinct mood. This means using a tripod. I've been shooting winter shots for a long time and have a wooden tripod that I use especially for winter photos. Using a metal tripod is like a magnet for the cold and will make your hands cold even with gloves on. Wood is not cold to the touch, at least not like metal.

Even point & shoot cameras need a tripod in low light, keep an open mind about doing what it takes to make good photos in the cold, including bringing a flash unit along. Sometimes I bring an entire lighting setup with a lighting umbrella and everything.

If you're going to be in extreme cold and will be doing a lot of photography all winter, you'll likely need to winterize your camera and lenses for cold weather use. This is for you hardcore pros who shoot in extreme cold. It means taking your camera to a repair shop and having them remove the regular lubricants so that your lens will focus in the extreme cold. For an example, when I lived in Alaska I had regular photo jobs at Prudhoe Bay (far above the Arctic Circle) in December. I kept my film cameras outside all day and just let them freeze. I had external battery packs so that the electronics would still operate, and when I was finished at the end of the day, I'd put all the camera gear in a large trash bag, seal it and let it come up to room temperature gradually. The plastic bag kept condensation out of the cameras so that in the morning when I'd go out again, the gear would be dry and ready to go again.

Story and Photos Copyright Larry McNeil, All rights reserved.

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