Jack Frost Nipping at Your Nose
The holiday season is behind us, but the thermometer still insists its cold outside. They're predicting snow tonight here. Winter can provide opportunities for great photography, but preparedness is key.
Perhaps the most common mistake outdoor photographers make during winter is the failure to appreciate the difference between the calories burned while hiking to their photographic destination and what happens once they get there. It's not at all difficult to keep warm while carrying a load of camera gear up a mountain trail since you will be generating a good deal of heat all on your own with every step you take. Hiking is exercise. But once you arrive at that amazing spot and set down your pack, the cold can start to seep in. Once the exercise ends and your heart rate returns to normal, things change. Waiting for the sun to rise involves a lot of standing around. Even once the action starts, you will be burning far fewer calories than on the hike in. If you dress for the weather and are comfortable on the trail, you will probably be cold by the time you get your camera out and start shooting.
On the flip side, if you bundle up sufficiently to ensure being warm at your destination and wear all those layers on the hike in, you will likely sweat sufficiently that you will risk hypothermia once you reach the end of the trail and commence with the standing around phase of things. Dressing in layers of course is the answer, but not one that most beginning winter photographers come up with until after their first miserable morning shivering. Not only do you need to pack in all the camera gear you think you will need, you also need to plan space for an extra fleece jacket (or more). As a rule, it is better to bring too many layers than not enough. A greater number of layers will prove more useful than a combination of fewer, but heavier layers. Not only will they provide greater flexibility, the trapped air between the layers will actually insulate better without extra weight.
Don't forget your feet either. More than one layer of socks can help to keep you comfortable so you can concentrate on your shooting rather than on your feet. In deep snow, a pair of pack boots that have thick, insulated soles can be a life saver.
Your hands are trickier to keep warm. Put on a good, heavy pair of mittens of gloves may work, but I defy you to change lenses or even work the controls on your camera while wearing them. The choice and fit of gloves can be a very personal thing, but most outdoor photographers settle for a pair of gloves that lack fingertips on at least a few fingers. While these won't keep your hands as toasty as you might want in other circumstances, they will let you work without taking them off. In between shots, there are always your pockets to provide a brief respite from the cold. Although wool gloves may seem like a good idea that retains its insulating capabilities even if they do get wet, I'd advise against it. Wool can also shed fibers easily and if one works its way into your camera, it will show up on every shot you take. Its best to stick with a synthetic material that won't shed so easily. It's generally best to buy gloves in person rather than online so you know they will fit as they should. I always have a hard time finding ones that aren't too long in the fingers but still fit comfortably across my palms.
Head gear is naturally important too. It's a well-known fact that you lose heat more quickly from your head if not covered than from any other part of your body. While jackets often come with attached hoods, I'd recommend going a different route. I've found that a hood blocks my peripheral vision too much and prefer a cap instead. That way, it moves with me as I turn my head and therefore doesn't get in the way so much. Zipping my coat up all the way or wearing a scarf keeps my neck warm. In really cold weather, a balaclava may be warranted to cover your face. I hate it when my nose starts to run.
Your camera gear may not be alive but it too can be adversely affected by the cold. Bring a lens outside into the cold from a warm room and moisture will condense on its surface. The same thing can happen on any surface, including your camera sensor it you are unlucky enough. To prevent this, it's worth considering the option of sealing everything into zip lock bags so that any condensation will happen on the outside of the bag rather than on your lenses and camera. This may be overkill depending on the temperature, but if its below freezing, you will find that condensation freezes, thereby becoming much harder to simply wipe off. Put everything back into your bags before bring your gear indoors too so it can warm up gradually without problems.
By the same token, be careful not to let your breath condense on your camera lens either or the same problem can happen. Hold your breath, or breath out of the corner of your mouth, not your nose when looking through the viewfinder.
Snow can be a huge enemy of cameras and lenses. Powdery white snow can find its way into the most unlikely of crevices. Get some on your glove and it can easily fall off into your open camera bag. From there, it's just a short hop to landing on a lens mount when you change lenses. Scrupulous attention to detail can pay off big rewards it you want to avoid nasty surprises. Changing lenses on a summer afternoon can become second nature, easily performed without a second thought. Changing lenses in winter requires a greater degree of care not always anticipated by those not accustomed to the challenges of snow.
And if you're not already sold on the benefits of carbon fiber tripods, the cold of winter will give you a great opportunity to justify taking the leap. Carbon fiber may be more expensive than aluminum, and it may be slightly lighter weight. But its real advantage over other aluminum is that carbon fiber is an insulator while metal is an excellent conductor. Touch an aluminum tripod, and you will know it instantly. Ouch. Grab hold of a carbon fiber tripod with both hands and it will feel cool at worst. Simply put, carbon fiber makes using a tripod in winter a sheer joy. The difference between it and traditional aluminum tripods is like day and night. Or should I say, between a Spring afternoon and a Winter morning.
Above all else, be prepared. While not being prepared for the weather in summer may mean getting wet in the rain, a lack of preparedness in winter can result in hypothermia and its attendant dangers. Yes, keeping your camera gear safe from the weather is important, but keeping yourself safe can be even more so.