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Dealing with Snow

A fresh coat of snow can make for some great image making potential, but only if you are prepared to deal with it.

To begin with, snow means cold, so make sure you are dressed appropriately. Keep in mind that, while walking to your photo destination, you will probably be burning enough calories to keep warm with even a modest coat, once you get there you will be doing a lot of standing around. If you've never experienced it, the cold can really start to seep in. Not only can that make you uncomfortable, it can potentially turn dangerous. Hypothermia is nothing to fool with. Generally, dressing in layers is the answer. But that only works if you take additional layers with you. Plan ahead. Don't think you can keep warm by jumping up and down and stamping your feet. That only works up to a point.

Don't over dress either. If you start sweating as you hike down the trail, you will feel that much colder once you stop and set up for shooting.

But it's the snow itself that I mainly want to deal with here. If it's cold enough, fresh snow can range in consistency from sand to fine dust. And like sand and dust, it can find its way into places you never thought it would or could. Get some on your gloves, and the next thing you know, its in your camera bag. Try to get it out, and it could melt, making the problem even worse. Change lenses, and that same snow can create even worse problems if it accidentally gets inside your camera. The stuff can get just ab out anywhere. If you've ever shot at the beach, dealing with sand is about the only other equivalent situation. If you've never photographed at the beach or in the snow, you're in for an eye-opening learning experience with either.

Slow down, and pay attention to what you are doing. Be careful. If there's a lot of snow on the ground, you don't want to accidentally drop anything. Depending on the conditions on the ground, you may never find what you dropped.

If you get snow on the front element of your lens, resist the temptation to blow it off. If the temperature is cold enough, the moisture from your breath can freeze on the glass. It's much easier and safer to brush the snow off before it melts. A microfiber cloth generally suffices for this. Of course, it's an even better idea to avoid getting snow on the lens element in the first place.

Some sources will recommend the use of a UV or other protective filter when shooting in snow, but I've never understood the logic of this. Snow is frozen water and won't damage the coating on your lens. And it really doesn't make a difference to your images if you get snow on the lens or on the filter. Either way, you'll end up shooting through it if you don't clean it off.

Try to keep your camera at the outside temperature. If you bring a warm camera outdoors in the cold, any moisture can condense and perhaps freeze.

Yosemite Valley with a fresh coat of snowIf the snow is really coming down, take precautions as if it were raining. Shield your camera. Even a simple plastic bag can help. Poke a hole in the corner, and push the front of the lens through, with the camera inside the bag. The plastic should stretch to form a seal around the lens. Put a lens hood on top of that, and you've got an effective means of keeping your camera dry and snow free.

Modern lithium ion batteries aren't affected by cold as much as earlier battery technologies, but they will still drain somewhat faster cold than warm. If you plan to be out long, bring an extra charged battery, just in case.

Gloves can be an interesting problem. In order to provide enough insulation, most gloves are too thick to allow you to operate the camera controls effectively. Look for ones that have cut-outs for at least a few fingers. This way, you can keep most of each hand warm while still letting you adjust things and take pictures. When not shooting, you can keep your hands in your pockets. The best gloves are made from a synthetic fiber. Cotton won't keep your hands warm if the gloves become wet. Wool, although an effective insulator that avoids this problem, can too easily shed fibers that can end up inside your camera when you change lenses. There's no way around it though, gloves are a compromise. You need a pair, but I've never found an ideal pair.

If you need to get low to the ground for a particular shot, spread a large garbage bag or other small, waterproof tarp on the ground to avoid getting snow all over your clothes. Every bit of snow you can avoid getting on you is that much less snow that can fall off and get where you don't want it. If you want to set your camera bag down while you work, it can be a good idea to have something to set it on too.

Be systematic when shooting in snow to avoid having your footprints show up in your images. Shoot as much as you feel necessary from a distance before walking closer.

This kind of weather is when the benefits of carbon fiber for tripods really becomes evident. Yes, carbon fiber is somewhat lighter weight than aluminum, but its main advantage is that it doesn't conduct heat as nearly much. Touch an aluminum tripod in cold weather and you'll know it. Do the same with carbon fiber and you'll be pleasantly surprised. Aluminum saps the heat from your hands quickly. Carbon fiber doesn't.

And remember, snow is white, or close to it, despite what your camera meter may think. Pay attention to your exposure settings. Either shoot with manual exposure, or adjust the meter's result via exposure compensation. Check the histogram to be sure. If you shoot in RAW, you can adjust the white balance after the fact to keep the snow neutral toned. You don't want your snow images to be tinted blue from shooting under cloud cover.

It may take a bit of extra care and attention to shoot in the snow, but don't let the weather stop you.

Date posted: February 17, 2019


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Related articles:
Snowshoes For Your Tripod
Preventing Gray Snow in the Digital Age
Snow Confuses Auto Exposure (It Sure is a Gray Day Today, isn't It?)

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