Winter is a great time for photographers; the sun is low so you’ve got none of those problems of overwhelming overhead light in the middle of the day. Days are shorter so you need to plan well to make the most of the daylight hours, but the big advantage here is that you don’t have to get up so early to capture dawn, nor stay out so late to capture sunset!
With the weather turning so very cold in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, though, I thought a quick practical post on looking after you and your equipment might be in order.
If you have the misfortune to have to wear glasses outside in the cold, the biggest winter photography challenge probably won’t come as a surprise: Condensation.
Condensation is water that forms on surfaces that are significantly colder or warmer than the air surrounding them. It doesn’t have to be extremely cold for this to be a nuisance, and in extreme weather it can become a serious problem. Condensation may form inside the camera which may stop your camera from functioning properly or at all. In the worst case, the condensation may freeze and cause serious damage.
So what to do? The best solution is to avoid extreme and fast changes in temperature. If you are dashing back and forth between hot and cold, considering leaving your camera in one or the other. If you have to move your camera between temperatures, seal it in a plastic bag. I always carry a ziploc bag or two in my camera bag for rain protection, but they serve an extra purpose in winter. Seal the camera into the bag BEFORE you change temperature. The camera and the air inside the bag will adapt to the new outside temperature together and any condensation will form on the outside of the bag not on your camera. For extra good measure, you could throw in a silica gel sachet. And don’t forget your spare lenses and any other sensitive equipment – keep them bagged up.
Condensation may also form on the viewfinder and LCD during use – caused by your own hot breath. You can either try to avoid breathing on the screen or, if you don’t mind looking daft, you can use a solution I came across online: stick a bendy straw in your mouth and use it as a sort of snorkel to direct your hot air away from the camera! Do please post a selfie if you try this option…
Freezing temperatures can be an issue even when not combined with condensation. LCDs may be slower to refresh, and colours and general visibility on the LCD may be poor. You may find your interchangeable lens doesn’t respond as well or as quickly as normal and the focus ring may become difficult to rotate in the cold. More seriously, if you use a DSLR it’s possible that the internal mirror may jam in extreme cold, leaving the shutter unable to work. There is no easy fix for this, other than raising the temperature of the camera, or consider using a mirrorless camera.
Rain and snow are obvious issues at this time of year. As mentioned, the good old ziploc bag can come to the aid here. If you are doing a lot of cold/bad weather photography, you may want to consider a purpose built solution: there are numerous covers, capes and pouches available. Some even incorporate heat packs to help fight condensation and freezing.
Battery life is greatly affected by cold weather. There’s no way of knowing how fast they will fail on you, so be sure to carry a spare or two, and keep the spares warm – put them in an inside pocket or wrap them in fleece, or both. Don’t get them too warm though, or the dreaded condensation may form when you put the hot battery into the cold camera.
Cold metal is another potential hazard. If you have metal panels, or perhaps tripod connections, that may be close to your face, wrap them in a protector – to protect your face from frost burn. Similarly, in extreme weather consider “leg warmers” and “lens coats” to protect your fingers when handling metal-alloy tripods and aluminium lens barrels.
Carbon fibre is a poor conductor of extreme temperatures, which makes a carbon fibre tripod less punishing when used barehanded. But, depending on the quality, it can become brittle when exposed to freezing temperatures and can crack or shatter, so handle with care.
As for looking after yourself, all the normal winter outdoor recommendations apply: plan your trip, know when it will get dark, tell someone where you are going, wear appropriate footwear, wear layers of clothing to keep warm and take food and a hot drink. Specific to photographers is the need to be able to use hands and fingers, and gloves can be rather cumbersome. You can try fingerless gloves, perhaps with a mitten cover to pull over your digits when they aren’t needed. I have a pair of outdoor gloves that are relatively thin and have sticky palms that mean I can still handle my camera without dropping it. The other option is layers of gloves, allowing you take the thick outer gloves off and still keep some protection. If you need to be able to operate a touch screen on your camera there are now numerous outdoor gloves with that special pad on the forefinger that allows you to operate a touch screen.
Happy winter shooting!