How to Keep Your Gear Working in Cold Weather
Images taken during the cold winter months seem to have a unique vibe. Whether it's from the alternate angle of the sun or all of the reflections bouncing off of bright fallen snow, cold weather photos tend to have great light, making them hit differently.
However, winter's chill can be as brutal on your camera gear as it is on your body. Read on for some helpful tips to keep your stuff in top shape when the temperature drops.
Gear aside, there are a few pointers in order to get the shot you want in the wintertime, too. All of that white surface area creates a large, soft bounce to give your subject some of the most flattering light you've ever seen. However, as beautiful as the snow can be, it has a tendency to throw off auto-exposure on some cameras.
If you rely on auto-exposure, you may find that your winter photos come out underexposed. The camera sees all of the bright snow and thinks the scene may be too bright, so it brings the overall exposure level down. Try changing your exposure compensation up a stop or two in order to counteract this.
Additionally, if your digital photos are turning out too blue, change your White Balance to 'Shade' or 'Cloudy' mode to combat the lower angle of the sun and add a bit of warmth back into those frozen scenes.
Lastly, you may want to consider using a lens hood when shooting outside in the snow, even if you typically roll without one. The shiny, bright surfaces of ice and snow can bounce sunlight from the sky back toward your lens at unexpected angles, giving you lens flares and contrast loss when you may least expect it.
Many of today's modern cameras and lenses have some kind of weather-resistant features built-in. Thankfully, we don't have to go through the process of winterizing our lenses as was needed in the earlier days of photography. This consisted of completely disassembling your equipment, swapping out all of the thinner, warm-weather lubricants for thinner, cold-weather options.
You may think that simply keeping your camera and flash underneath your coat is protection enough from the elements, but that method can actually cause more harm than good. Any time a piece of equipment changes temperature rapidly from cold to warm, condensation can collect on the internal and external areas.
This moisture usually dissipates quickly but has the potential to cause electrical shortages in a digital body or even fungus growth within your lenses.
Instead, leave your camera in your hands and protect the front element of your lens with a clear or UV lens filter to protect it from moisture and any errant snowflakes. Additionally, bring a small air blower to coax off any flakes that stick to the filter. By blowing them off with a puff of air, they're less likely to smear or melt onto the filter than they would be if you were using your hand or hot breath to blow them off.
If you're going on a quick walk around the block, a shoulder strap should be just fine for carrying your equipment, but if you're going on a woodland hike, consider a backpack or weather-sealed messenger bag. Glass and plastic elements become more brittle in cold environments, making them more prone to shattering or breaking. This is much less likely to happen in a padded bag.
For bonus protection from the elements and dreaded moisture, toss a few silica gel packs into your bag as well. This should soak up any extra humidity that sneaks its way inside.
You'll also want to bring a gallon-size resealable plastic bag, or even a large garbage bag with you on your winter photoshoot. When you get back home, before you head inside to heat up your hot cocoa, place your camera and lens inside this resealable bag and seal it before heading inside. This way, condensation from the rapid temperature change will collect on the exterior of the bag instead of all over and inside your precious camera gear.
Alternately, toss your entire backpack or messenger bag into a trash bag before bringing it inside. This will allow your stuff to heat up slowly and prevent any trouble as described above. Just pull your media cards first and put them in a separate resealable bag to warm them up, so you don't have to wait as long to see your images!
You're definitely going to want to bring some extra batteries with you, if you don't already plan to. Many people think batteries discharge more quickly in the cold, but that's not entirely accurate. The cold temperatures actually slow down the chemical process within the batteries, which lessens the amount of power that can come out of the battery at a given time. The camera reads this as a slow or low-power battery and ends up causing a big headache for everyone involved.
I mentioned earlier that you don't want to keep your gear inside your coat, but batteries are the exception. Bring along a few extras and keep them close to your body in a pocket to prevent them from getting too cold to function. If you're doing an extreme timelapse or taking extra-long exposures, you may want to place a dry hand warmer near your camera's battery compartment using a rubber band.
Speaking of hand warmers, take it from a guy who grew up in the frozen winters of Southwest Michigan. These things are wonderful to slip into your pockets in order to keep your digits from aching or freezing. You can also wear a pair of fingerless gloves for extra dexterity when changing settings on your camera.
Lastly, if you're using a tripod, consider adding some leg wraps in order to keep them from getting too cold. The tripod's legs can take the chill, but your bare hands won't appreciate how cold an aluminum rod can get when half-buried in the snow.
If legwarmers for your tripod are a little too fancy or expensive, try taping the legs up with some foam pipe insulation from your local hardware store. Your hands will thank you for it.