Cold Weather Photography
When the mercury plunges it can be a bit more challenging to get outside and take good photos. The obvious first reason is that you need to wear more clothing to keep yourself warm and comfortable. But you need to consider keeping your camera warm too, or at least keeping the battery warm. Extremely cold temperatures can affect your battery life dramatically and shorten the length of time you can shoot. Of course, that is not all bad since you sometimes do not want to spend very long in the cold yourself. Sometimes we will want to spend more time out in the cold with the camera going and that will take a little preparation.
For one thing, you absolutely must have backup batteries to keep things going well out in the cold. Most digital camera manufacturers recommend charging batteries at room temperature; so charging in a cold car is not necessarily a good idea. I make it a practice to fully charge my batteries before I leave the house. I also keep the batteries inside my coat where they will warm until I need them. When it is time to shoot, I will take a battery out and put it in the camera. It pays to keep a good eye on your battery meter and not let the battery get too low before replacing it. When the battery starts to get low, take it out and replace it with a warm battery from your coat. Put the cold ‘low’ battery back in your coat to warm it up. You will generally find that the battery will have a lot more power remaining when it gets warm again, and in this way you will be able to swap batteries back and forth to get better life out of them.
If you have a charger that works in the car, you can charge batteries between stops as long as you have the temperature in the vehicle up to a normal room temperature. This leads me to another point about those trips between your cold stops: condensation. When you bring the temperature up in the vehicle and the camera is still cold, you can cause a lot of trouble with condensation. Condensation can ruin the electronics in the camera and freezing condensation in your lens at the next stop can negatively affect your images. To avoid this problem I carry a large zip-lock type plastic bag loaded with shredded newspaper. When I get into the vehicle, I seal the camera in that bag so the newspaper will pull the moisture out of the camera as it warms up. It is also a good idea to keep a bag with shredded newspaper in your pocket for the batteries.
Another note about traveling from stop to stop that may work for you is to take your coat off. If you are going to keep the vehicle warm while you traveling it is much more comfortable to put your coat on just before you get out to shoot again. Depending on how severe the weather is I will usually wear gloves without fingertips while I am shooting. It is important that you keep yourself warm while you are out shooting. Be careful not to breathe on your lens while you are in the cold, not unless you want to create a frosted soft effect on your image. When it’s cold enough for my breath to frost up on the lens quickly I will sometimes play with that for making special effects. This is really fun when you’re out at night shooting things like Christmas Lights or car light trails. Of course this has back-fired on me a few times when the frost would not clear off the lens until I warmed the lens up again. That is not too hard to deal with since I can generally just slip my glove over the lens for a few seconds to clear the frost. Yes, my hand gets cold for a minute, but it works fairly well. One more thing about bare skin and cold cameras and tripods: they do not always mix well. If it is cold enough I use gloves with full fingers so I do not get my fingertips frozen onto the camera or the tripod. This is a good application for carbon-fiber tripods. The camera is not usually as much of an issue unless you are handling the exposed metal parts of the body. I also use a camera enclosure when the temps are critically low. This helps to keep the battery warm and functioning longer. Of course if it is still snowing or sleeting the enclosure helps to keep the moisture off the camera too. Chemical glove warmers are helpful for warming batteries but do not let the batteries get too warm or you will have other problems with condensation inside the camera on the battery contacts.
Boots and warm waterproof pants are sometimes a great idea too if you are going to get down into the ice and snow drifts so you can get the good shots. Make sure you stay hydrated too, it is very easy to dehydrated when it is very cold. Bring water or coffee or hot chocolate or something to drink and maybe to help stay warm. It may sound crazy but I stay feeling warmer even it I am drinking water while I am out shooting in the cold.
© 2010 Jeff Cowell, jrcowell.com