Shooting in a cold climate poses a list of challenges. For me, I grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada and have been forced to deal with these harsh climates. In Saskatchewan, we have snow on the ground for five months a year, get an average of 106cm of snow a year and have had a low of -50C. Now you may be asking, Why on earth do people live in these types of places? The answer is simple. One of the benefits of shooting in this type of climate is being able to participate in a list of outdoor activities including snowboarding, snowmobiling, tobogganing, hockey, skating, curling, ice fishing and more. In this post, I want to provide a few tips that I have learned to keep my camera rolling even in less than ideal conditions. I have devised a list of tips to keep your camera rolling, how to improve your final image and most importantly how to keep warm. I have broken down the list below:
- Essential Tools For Your Kit
- Acclimate your Gear
- Don’t Breathe on Your Lens
- Plan Your Day
- Controlling Your Image
- Embrace the Conditions
- Stay Warm
Essential Tools For Your Kit
Having a complete kit is extremely important, especially when out shooting in the cold. Before even heading out to shoot, I highly recommend laying out your kit in front of you and making sure you have everything you need. Below I will be breaking down a list of things I always have in my kit but I highly recommend keeping a running list for yourself. Almost every time I go out and shoot, I add something new to my list as each shooting experience is unique and I am always thinking of ways to improve the way that I shoot when out in the cold. Currently in my winter kit I use:
Keeps Moisture in your pack low.
There are a variety of different hand warmers that react in different environments. There are chemical hand warmers that have adhesive on them for sticking to things and I highly recommend these when you want to keep your camera warm. I have stuck these directly onto battery packs/camera body and they help keep your camera rolling a little bit longer.
Microfiber Cloth / Air Puffer
When shooting in a cold climate, it is key to have tools that can keep your lens clean. Make sure you pack both an air puffer and microfiber cloth.
One tip when shooting in the cold is to keep extra batteries near your body to keep them warm. As batteries get cold, they die faster so you will need to switch out your batteries more frequently. Once these ‘dead’ batteries warm up, they will still work so I often find myself rotating these batteries.
Emergency blankets are great as a barrier between the ground and your gear and serve many other purposes as well. They pack down small and I usually will have two or three in my bag at all times.
Multi-tool with rubber handles/grips
There will be times when you take your gloves off and it is extremely nice when you don’t have to touch metal when you do. Find a multi-tool that does not have metal handles/grips.
When moving from a cold to warm climate, condensation will build up on your gear. I highly recommend putting your gear in a clear plastic bag and sealing this bag until your gear gets to room temperature. This moisture will gather on the inside of the bag, keeping your camera dry. I have yet to have issues when I haven’t done this but when you are shooting with expensive gear, is it really worth the risk?
Finding a pair of gloves that allow you to operate your gear while also keeping your hands warm is challenging. The best system I have found so far is a pair of light, thin gloves and a pair of large mittens. Inside the mittens, place hand warmers in them so when you are done operating, you can quickly heat your hands when you place them back in the gloves. Some people have suggested putting the gloves on dummy strings so when you aren’t using them, they are close and easy to quickly slide on. Finding the perfect combination is a bit of a trial and error process because of each different scenario. For example, if you are hoping to use your iPad, iPhone, or any device that may have a touch screen interface, you will want to get mini-gloves that will allow you to still control the devices.
I have a passion for snowmobiling and over time, I have learned that the best combination to stay warm are Merino wool socks and Snowmobile style boots.
Clothing – Use Layers
My biggest recommendation is the dress in layers. If you are doing something very physical you will need less cover than if you are not moving around. Dressing in layers allows you to remove clothing to suit your conditions. Try to avoid sweating. Cotton is the worst thing to wear and I highly recommend against using it. I also recommend wearing long underwear. In regards to an outer jacket, use a jacket with a bunch of pockets so you can easily access any gear you may need when shooting. I find myself on many occasions places lenses in outer pockets of my jacket for easy access. Make sure you don’t place them in inner pockets as your lens will fog from your body heat.
Acclimate Your Gear
The first challenge you will have when shooting is the cold is acclimatizing your gear. Your main concerns are keeping the lens clear, battery life and cold equipment. Our first instinct is to take the camera out of the car last, after we’ve prepped our bags and ourselves, but it’s actually good practice to take your camera out first. Keep your camera outside for about 15 minutes to acclimate to the weather before you even turn it on, this will help prevent condensation fogging your lens and viewfinder. Typically, when I am shooting in the cold, I will keep my gear outside the entire day. At the end of the day, I will bring the camera/gear inside to warm up and dry out, ensuring I do not bring it back outside before it is COMPLETELY dry. If you bring the gear outside before it is completely dry, it will ice up and clearing off the lens is extremely challenging.
One of the biggest challenges when shooting outside is keeping the lens clear. If in the off chance that you do ice up your lens, what you will want to do is take your air puffer, get as much of loose ice off as possible and then take the microfiber cloth and wipe it clean. Depending on your conditions, you may also want to try take some lens cleaning solution and try clear the lens first, however, it is extremely likely that the solution will freeze the instant it hits the lens tissue. You may need to soak the tissue to keep it in liquid format. However, never drip the solution directly onto the lens. When wiping the lens in a circular spiral from the center outward.
*Please note that these are simply recommendations and use at your own discretion.
Don’t Breathe on Your Lens
Plan Your Day
Controlling Your Image
Shooting in a cold/winter climate poses many challenges and requires some trial and error to find out what works for you and your shooting scenario. Below are a few techniques I use when out shooting.
Under Expose Your Image
Shooting in snow is difficult not just because it’s all white, but when you lose color you also lose detail with a too-bright white/gray sky. Typically when I shoot in the winter, I choose to underexpose my image as I find I am able to pull more detail out of the darks, especially when shooting with a DSLR. On the flip-side, if your shot is over-exposed, you will more than likely not be able to get that information back. When I think I have perfect exposure, I typically stop down a half to a full stop.
Using Your Histogram/Zebras
Embrace Your Conditions
One of the biggest perks of shooting in the winter is that the sun hangs lower in the sky creating longer shadows and can be used to help shape your subject matter. Embrace this and use the sun to your advantage.
Diffusion & Reflectors
For many timelapse photographers, grey hazy winter skies are less than ideal. However, these conditions do provide many perks for filmmakers. Soft shadows, diffused light and an even tone are perfect conditions for shooting closeups of people. Overcast and gray conditions mean you don’t need to lug along the diffusion tools because these conditions create natural diffusion from the grey skies and snow.
During the winter months, days are much shorter meaning sunrise is later and sunset is much earlier. If you desire to capture either, you don’t have to worry about getting up as early or staying out as late (which is good as it takes a lot more motivation to go out and shoot in the cold!)
Staying warm is extremely important, especially on long shooting days. Dress warm, in gear that will help keep you warm, even in windy conditions. The wind will suck heat from you rapidly. Always try to shelter from it. Even turning from it and keeping it at your back will make a vast difference.
It is very important that you don’t let your body get too cold. It’s much easier to warm back up from a slight chill than to pull yourself back from near hypothermia. Hand/Foot warmers are essential in most situations. Eat lots and keep yourself hydrated. Another key is that you get enough rest when working in the cold.
Although just a few tips, I hope you were able to gain a bit of knowledge that will help with your given shooting scenario. In a future post, I will be discussing a few different power options as well how to keep your camera warm when shooting for long periods of time or when shooting a timelapse. Like other posts on this site, this will be evolving overtime as I add more things to the list so check back and check back frequently for changes/updates! Below I have attached two films I produced in less than ideal conditions in Saskatchewan, Canada.