Winter is here, and will likely stick around for a while. The degree of “awfulness” we might apply to winter depends, I guess, on where you live, and how much cold you can tolerate. For photographers willing to brave these things, though, winter is a great season, as we’ve mentioned in previous articles.
For many, the elements that accompany winter can make it a difficult season for photography. I have spent cold winter days in the Canadian Rockies, Yosemite, and the Colorado Plateau – during many of those trips I learned that I was missing an accessory, or two, that would have made my life easier or more comfortable. Below is a list of some gear and accessories I recommend for a photo trip to a cold climate that will surely make things better for you, thus, potentially increasing the likelihood that you’ll come away liking winter photography.
Dedicated photography gloves are one of the best purchases that I have ever made. They are great in all seasons where temperatures drop low enough to warrant wearing gloves. But, winter is a time where they really shine. With a normal glove, it can be frustrating to operate controls on your camera. Oftentimes, gloves need to be taken off so camera settings can be adjusting. In extremely cold temperatures, taking off your gloves will not only make you very uncomfortable, but it can also be dangerous, as your fingers/hands can be exposed to frostbite.
This is where photography gloves come in to play. Depending on the model, either the finger and thumb sections of the glove will fold back, allowing you to control your camera while leaving the rest of your hand covered. There are also mitten models where the top of the mitten will fold back, allowing you to use your liner-covered fingers to access controls.
I use Vallerret Photography Gloves, I recommend their Markhof models for mild temperatures and their Alta model for winter.
Cold temperatures and winter weather mean ice, and ice is dangerous as well as difficult to walk on. I recommend purchasing a pair of ice spikes. They are cheap and will make winter foot travel so much easier. We used them often during our winter workshop in Yosemite National Park two years ago, and almost every guest likely now owns their own pair. They will give you stability, traction, and allow you to access photography spots that may be inaccessible without them.
I love using ice (frozen lakes, etc) as a foreground element. Ice spikes allow me to efficiently hike on frozen lakes and find compositions far from shore. Just buy some ice spikes if you haven’t already.
Hand warmers can be a godsend when it gets cold. Start a few up before you leave your hotel room and they will be nice and warm once you get out into the field. I always pack hand warmers with me and use them for myself, as well as my lens. If you are shooting long exposures in a very cold climate, the heat generated from your camera and lens can cause condensation because of the drastic difference in temperature. You can combat this by rubber banding some activated hand warmers around your lens.
Hand warmers are cheap, and I sometimes purchase feet warmers too depending on expected temperatures. They will make you more comfortable in the field.
Ziploc bags might seem like they are out of leftfield, but they can be an essential winter accessory. Ziploc bags can help prevent lens condensation. Condensation becomes an issue when your camera and lens are exposed to dramatic temperature and/or humidity changes. Condensation will fog up your lens and make your images totally unusable.
Think of this situation, you are out in the field at 0 degrees F, you then pack your things up and immediately go back to your 70 degrees F hotel room. That can be bad news for your lens (the reverse situation is not good as well). You can easily take preventative measures by placing your gear in a Ziploc bag when you’re heading back to your hotel or heading out into the field. I place my camera and attached lens in a Ziploc bag with some silica packets that will help suck out any moisture.
Cold temperatures mean batteries are not as effective. You will see your battery life plummet during cold weather so it’s important that you are prepared and have plenty of extras. I have had times shooting where my battery became so cold that it caused my camera to malfunction (camera would take photos, but Live View/LCD was not working). It was an easy fix though, I simply grabbed a warm battery from my pack and put it in – problem solved.
You can never have enough batteries for winter photography, especially if you are taking long exposures (ex. Northern Lights).
The cold weather will suck battery power fast, as well as power from any of your other accessories, like your phone. I always carry a charged external power bank with me, as well as a USB charger for my camera batteries. In situations where I do not have access to an outlet, the external power banks can really come in handy for charging batteries. I think it is a good emergency accessory as well if you have car issues or get stuck in a remote area…it’s good to have a way to charge your phone so you can contact others.
Even if you take all the precautions, winter elements can still get the best of you. Slipping, falling, and dropping things tends to be a bit more common during winter (I dropped a lens in Yosemite National Park a few years back). I usually don’t put a UV filter on my lenses, but in winter it can be a really good idea. Accidents happen, especially when it is icy or there is snow on the ground. A UV filter covering your lens could be the difference between a destroyed lens or just a crack in your cheap ‘UV filter’. I know I’d pick lens over filter every time if I had to choose to save just one.
Recommendations: Breakthrough Filters
A rain cover for your pack is an essential accessory to own. There is a good chance you will get snowed on while shooting in the winter. Although snow isn’t as unpleasant as rain, it has the same soaking effect over time. If you leave your pack unprotected, moisture from melted snow will seep into your pack and get to your gear.
Grab a pack cover, it is useful for all seasons too. I use an F-stop pack cover for my F-stop bag, but I have also used an Osprey pack cover over my F-stop bag, as well as a plain garbage bag. Make sure to protect the gear inside your pack.
Tripod Leg Covers
Cold temperatures will greatly affect your tripod, whether it is aluminum or carbon fiber. The legs become extremely cold and can sap heat away from you very quickly, especially, if you are not wearing a proper pair of gloves or mittens.
Tripod leg covers help insulate the legs of your tripod and help you not freeze your fingers off every time you touch your tripod in sub-freezing temperatures. Leg covers will also protect your tripod from scrapes and scratches too.
Recommendations: LensCoat LegCoat
If you are doing any type of hiking in winter, snowshoes are going to be essential. In places like Yellowstone or the Canadian Rockies, snow depths can be multiple feet…have fun trying to walk over that! For those more adventurous out there, snowshoes allow you to explore and get around in deep snow. Many winter parks also have dedicated snowshoeing trails, which can offer some unique photos for those willing to put in the effort. I usually rent snowshoes from the areas that I am going to, but if you are going to buy a pair, I recommend Tubbs.
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com