Story and Photographs by Hank Erdmann
Facing the Howling Blizzard with Your Camera by Hank Erdmann
Winter is a wonderful time to pursue the art of nature and outdoor photography. Too many photographers put their cameras away once the leaves have fallen and don’t take them out again until cherry trees blossom. Photographing in winter does however take some dedication or at least enjoyment of the outdoors regardless of the weather. Just as when weather changes and rain begins to fall, some of your best shots will be made when those weather changes start or end. But as with rain, snow and cold weather require some precautions to protect your equipment and yourself.
In cold weather you have to get to the subject and safely back. Common sense says if you are cold, wet, shaking and miserable, the quality of your photographs will reflect your mental and physical state. Your comfort zone is a range of temperature that your body can operate effectively in and be relatively unaffected by uncomfortable conditions. That zone is different for all of us, narrower for some and wider for others. If you are not reasonably comfortable, your photography will reflect that fact. Its hard to get tack sharp, correctly exposed images if you are shaking, even with your camera mounted securely on a tripod. It will be impossible to concentrate on exposure and composition if your mind is preoccupied with keeping your body warm. Remember, you are supposed to be enjoying yourself, only those crazy enough to pursue nature photography as a full-time profession actually need to be out taking photographs in the winter. Whether it is for a vacation or occupation it makes sense to spend some time preparing yourself and your gear to stay within your comfort zone in cold weather.
The key to dressing for any cold weather activity is the concept of layering. Start with thermal under garments. There are different weights for varying degrees of cold (lightweight to expedition weight) but medium weight wear is sufficient for most situations. You can use two pairs of lighter weight garments to make what is in effect a heavy weight pair. These synthetic fibers are actually better than natural ones since they not only keep you warm, they are lighter and they wick away perspiration moisture which can chill a person as fast as moisture from the outside. For me on top the next layer is usually a turtleneck which helps prevent wind going down my neck. This garment is usually either a synthetic fabric or a cotton/synthetic blend. There are those who just don’t like tight clothing around the neck, but such garments keep you warmer by keeping wind from cooling your core.
On the bottom select the thermal weight to match expected temperatures. Good quality thermal “longjohns” save bulk and weight. Outer layer wear may be wool/synthetic pants, synthetic hiking pants that dry quickly or even blue jeans. As a child of the 60/70’s I live in denim but jeans are cotton and they will be cold, heavy and uncomfortable and can be dangerous if they get wet. A good guideline is that if you are going into an area or a situation where you are likely to get wet or even have a possibility of getting wet, leave behind cotton fabrics and wear synthetics. If moisture is not a likely problem, don’t worry about the cotton content of your clothing if you as many people do prefer the feel of cotton clothing. If traveling less that a mile on foot from the car I don’t concern myself too much with wearing cotton fabrics. I do however wear or pack a light rain/snow shell. A shell will help keep you relatively dry even in most inclement weather situations.
Depending on just how cold it will be, I will add more layers. On top I may add a heavier shirt. A rain/snow shell will not only repel water but will also block some wind which can chill a person significantly. Theoretically you could continue to add layers until you resemble the Pillsbury doughboy, but all that bulk will exact a price in the effort you then expend just to move around. Dressing for seriously cold weather is complicated by travel, both on foot and in a car. Putting on all your layers and then traveling more than just a couple minutes in a warm car will have you perspiring and getting damp under your clothing before you set foot outside. Similarly walking more than a few hundred yards with all your layers on, especially in snow even a few inches deep will have one working up a sweat by the time you arrive at your shooting site. This is where layering is so important. In the car, have those extra layers or outer layers off and waiting to be put on when you exit the car. If hiking any distance, stow the extra layers in your camera pack or strap them on the back of it, adding layers when you stop to shoot and start to cool down. In either case, if you are warm and perspiring and then step outside or stop walking all the dampness built up under your clothing will chill you to the bone.
For my most outer layer I have a selection of garments for use depending on the expected temperatures. They range from a thin rain/snow shell to a lightweight jacket, a heavier jacket, and two winter coats, the warmest of which keeps me quite comfortable even in minus 15 -20 degree temperatures. Car travel allows me to take all that gear with. If you are flying to your destination bringing all your gear is just not a possibility. Pack what you are most likely to need and use the multiplicity of layering to cover the most weather possibilities.
Your hands and feet are other places to consider layering also. For your feet thin thermal sock liners and medium weight hiking socks are a great combination. Your boots / socks combination should allow some room to move your toes. Tight footwear will cut off circulation and make your feet cold faster. For hands, glove liners work great inside of mittens or loose fitting warmer gloves. Outer mittens should come off easy while leaving glove liners on. This makes operating cameras not only easier but tight gloves will have the same effect as tight boots and result in cold digits. Fingerless climber’s or biker’s gloves are usable but less desirable due to their thickness and using them with mittens can be problematic. Good glove liners will keep your hands and fingers surprisingly warm for short periods of time even in very cold weather. I highly recommend the synthetic glove liners carried by REI stores. Liners really make sense once you have played the game of “camera adjustments between finger warming”, or tried to squeeze a cable release with a thick mitten. Chemical warming packs are not the greatest things environmentally but they do work very well. Available at outdoor recreation stores and often at supermarkets and department stores, they heat up upon opening to air. If your toes are cold, pop one each on top of your toes between your socks and boots (another reason for having roomy boots). The same goes for your hands. Place warm packs in your mittens and every time the fingers need a little warm up, stick your hands in your mittens. Never put these heat packs directly in contact with your skin as they can burn you.
Photographic equipment needs the same care that you give yourself. It wants to be relatively dry, relatively warm and have its energy source fully charged. Just as you should have eaten the proper foods to power yourself for your excursion, your photographic equipment needs to have sufficient battery strength to perform properly. Cold zaps battery life incredibly fast. Down to ten degrees above zero, I carry two spare batteries for all equipment that uses them, and under ten degrees I’ll carry three sets. Extra batteries won’t do you a whole lot of good if they are stuffed in your pack with everything else, they’ll be just as cold and inefficient as the batteries that have stopped working in your camera. Put them in an inside pocket, one closer to your body where they’ll remain warm and useful. Often if cold batteries are warmed up they’ll have a little juice left in them to get that last shot made.
Bringing camera gear into a warm environment after it had gotten cold can in some cases create problems with condensation. If your gear is cold keep it zipped up in your camera bag and let it warm gradually if in a vehicle. If breaking for a meal or other reason when you are planning to shoot more afterwards, leave the gear in the cold and take the batteries inside with you and keep them warm. At the end of the day leave your gear in the camera bag for at least a half hour and preferably an hour or more to warm up slowly which will alleviate condensation.
If snow is falling or you knock snow onto your equipment, or you drop it in the snow, don’t blow the snow off, brush it off with a lens brush or a lens cloth. Your breath will melt snow instantly. That’s not a comment on anyone’s breath, but even in the coldest of weather your breath is warm enough to melt snow long enough for it to run into the worst places on your gear and then instantly freeze up.
Winter is an incredible time to photograph. Snow can cover up a myriad of ills from jumbled brush and ground clutter to worn ground or numerous things in an environment that we’d struggle to remove from our images in the other seasons. Winter can bring a purity and serenity to a landscape that is not possible in other seasons. Winter ice can give you access to viewpoints and shooting positions that would require a boat or being very wet in other times of the year. Ice however can be very treacherous. Never venture out on to ice that you are unsure of or has any possibility of being unsafe. If planning on shooting on ice above water, always shoot with another person and don’t stand in the same place. Ice is obviously slick and hard to traverse even in winter boots and it is very hard and a fall can hurt if not injure. Purchase and use ice cleats, crampons or yak tracks for safe travel on ice. Now if you are still fired up to go out and battle the elements, you are to be commended. Your efforts will be well rewarded when you bring back the scenes and subjects of an enchanted winter wonderland.
Hank Erdmann Photography Workshops, 903 Windsor Drive, Shorewood, Illinois, 60404
Are you interested in learning more about Winter Photography? Attend the 2016 NANPA Regional Event: Door County, WI, February 5-7. Join leaders, Daniel Anderson and Hank Erdmann in this magical winter location for some amazing photo ops. To learn more about the event or to register, click here.