The chill factor - photography in cold weather (Part one)
A cold environment presents a number of challenges for the outdoor photographer – an unfamiliar landscape, the weather, and of course the low temperature can all make capturing something unique quite difficult.
I’ve been fortunate to experience trips to the polar regions as well as some of the higher points on the globe, and over time have learned a few things about photographing where the subject at hand is set within a scene of ice and snow.
Successfully getting the shot in a cold environment requires control over three aspects of the photographic process. The first is personal preparation, which means maximising your ability to function in an extreme environment.
Secondly, it’s ensuring your camera can perform as it’s meant to in an environment it’s not really optimised for.
And finally, the in-camera and personal creative processes in situations where extremes of lighting and contrast are at play. Let’s start first with personal preparation.
Although many people worry their camera will freeze or be damaged in cold conditions, it’s much more common that the photographer themselves will give up before their camera does.
Corey Rich, an adventure sports photographer from California, has weathered conditions of all types around the world in his pursuit of standout images. I assisted Corey on an expedition to the Karakoram Himalaya in Pakistan and he was unequivocal in telling me that his best shots occurred when pushing the edges of his physical comfort zone.
At the end of a long day in the mountains when a tired climbing team is snuggling into a snow hole while the sun drops below the horizon, Corey can be found still working to capture images and resisting the overwhelming urge to join them.
The only way to extend your cold tolerance is to be prepared with the means to stay warm for longer. I work as an Expedition Doctor, and it’s very clear to me that prevention is the key to staying out in the cold. A photographer handling a cold metal camera lying in the snow shooting at eye level with a penguin or standing still next to a tripod as night falls in winter, runs the real risk of hypothermia.
Even a small drop in core body temperature will begin to subtly affect creative decision making (and the standard of your photos) and that’s not to mention the challenge of performing simple tasks like button control on the camera as hand dexterity is affected.
Layers of warm clothing (not forgetting your head), good wind protection, warm fluids to drink, and fuel in the form of high energy snack foods to keep the fire burning inside you are all important. So too is sufficient protection for your extremities.
Good insulating footwear and, most importantly for the photographer, warm gloves that allow for finger dexterity are critical. Sweat on your skin can be deadly in the cold, so make sure to wear wool or polypropylene products against the skin to wick away moisture.
Of course, despite the best of preparation, sometimes you will inevitably start to get chilled and you’ll need a back-up plan in place to re-warm. A few years back I was photographing ice climbing in the dead of winter in northern Japan, and when I got too cold, I retreated to a nearby hotel to soak in an onsen (hot springs). It was utterly glorious!
Generally speaking, it’s rare for cameras to fail in the cold, but batteries are another story entirely. A friend of mine, Alaskan photographer Carl Battreall, has spent his fair share of time in the frozen mountains of that beautiful US state.
He has one golden rule which is “let the camera be cold but keep batteries warm”. This is because the primary culprit when it comes to camera failure is the battery.
As he explains, “you don’t want the battery to drain prematurely while in the camera in the cold, as it is difficult to warm up to an operating level again in the field once it has died. When really cold [it’s only a matter of degrees!] I won’t even have a battery in the camera unless I am ready to take a photo”
To improve your camera’s battery life, it pays to become familiar with the camera menu and lens options available to reduce power consumption.
Turn off all camera beep functions, turn off screen review after every shot, minimise your use of live view and turn off any lens or camera image stabiliser function (unless you really need it). If you can, instead of using the power-hungry LCD screen for composition, use your optical viewfinder to reduce battery use.
I also like to keep camera batteries close to my body. In a pouch threaded through a cord around my neck does the trick, and then in my sleeping bag at night. When a battery in my camera drops to around 50% power, I will take it out and rotate it with a warm spare. Needless to say, it’s important to carry spare batteries with you for this system to work.
Cameras and lenses at the more professional end of the spectrum (read: more expensive) are better weather sealed and will resist moisture better than cheaper products. All cold metal equipment will form condensation on and within itself when brought from a cold environment into a warm one.
Then, if returned to a sub-zero temperature before that moisture can evaporate, ice crystals may form and damage the sensitive electronics of your digital equipment. Cameras with better weather sealing are much less likely to be affected by this.
When I’m working on a ship in Antarctica, after shooting outdoors I remove the camera batteries to take back into a warm cabin, but often I leave the rest of my gear in a bag undercover outside in the cold. Similarly, Carl leaves his gear outside his tent when in the mountains and he also suggests putting cameras in zip lock bags to help keep condensation from forming.
One final consideration that’s not completely unique to cold conditions is the need to turn off power and protect the camera’s internals from dust and other particles when changing lenses - unless you want to spend hours removing those annoying dust specks from your digital files!
Look out for part two next week, where we look at a few camera tricks for best capturing snow and a few other photo processing tips.
About the author: Dr. Andrew Peacock is a widely published nature photographer based in Queensland (admittedly not the coldest of places!). More of his images, many from warm climes, can be found at www.footloosefotography.com or Instagram @footloosefotography.