When The Mercury Drops: Cold Weather Photography Tips

Dramatic weather makes for dramatic photography. That includes cold and extremely cold weather. I was recently asked about my winter photography. Specifically, the person was wondering about how I protect my camera when the mercury drops.

Mt. Washington In The Evening Light. From Mt. Avalon

My answer to him was, I don’t.

Honestly. With one exception having to do with my camera’s batteries, I don’t take any special precautions when I’m out in temperatures below, often well below, freezing. Photographing in the cold does require a few considerations unique to cold weather shooting, but nothing that should prevent the adventurous photographer from heading out on a brutally cold winter day.

Working temperature

“Working temperature range: 32-104°F/ 0-40°C”

The above statement was taken directly from the owners manual for my Canon 7D. The recommended operating ranges for most camera manufacturers is likely about the same. I ignore it.

Cold Morning

All the advice and tips I’m going to share about using your camera in cold to extremely cold temperatures is based solely on my experience. Should you chose to follow in my footsteps and disregard your camera maker’s guidelines, you do so at your own risk.

I’ve had three Canon DSLR bodies, four if you consider that I’ve owned two different 40Ds, and all have seen temps as much as 40 degrees lower that those Canon recommends. The above photo for instance was captured on the New Hampshire seacoast on a rather brisk -10-degree morning. No cameras were harmed in the making of this photo.

For those of you not using Canon cameras, my Nikon-shooting friends regularly expose their cameras to the same conditions as well. None of us have ever had a problem related directly to the cold, with the exception of greatly reduced battery life. Camera batteries don’t like cold, so bring spares.

Tips to keep your camera going

1. I mentioned battery life. Cold saps the life out of camera batteries very quickly. Bring at least one spare and keep them warm. To get the most battery life when I’m photographing on really cold days, there are a couple of tricks I use.

The first, besides bringing a spare, is that I don’t put the battery in the camera until I’m actually at the shooting location. I keep all of my batteries in an inside pocket under my outer layer of clothing. The second thing I do to help extend battery life is to put disposable chemical hand warmers in the pocket with them.

keeping batteries warm

One more thing about batteries. Warming up a “dead” battery by placing it back in your pocket for a while can revive it enough to get those last few must have shots.

2. Don’t breath on your camera! Exhaling on the front element of your lens or on the viewfinder will render them useless as the moisture in your breath freezes on them.

3. You need to slowly acclimate your camera when you bring it inside after being out in the cold. The moisture from condensation will get everywhere. That’s bad!

I do one of two things to prevent condensation from being a problem. I will either place my camera into a large ziplock freezer bag, getting as much air as possible out before sealing the bag. By placing my camera into the sealed plastic bag, condensation will form on the outside of the bag and not on your precious camera.

The other thing I do is to simply leave my camera zipped up in my camera bag for several hours after I bring it inside. The thick padded sides of most camera bags act as insulation, allowing the camera to slowly warm to room temperature. I remove the memory card and battery from the camera before sealing it up. That way I can recharge the battery so I don’t forget, and I can upload my photos onto my computer without waiting. The batteries and memory cards are pretty tough so you don’t have to worry too much about condensation forming on them.

Taking care in the cold

Landscape photography is not a very aerobic activity. You’ll be doing a lot of standing still behind your tripod. So layer up. Start with a good quality moisture-wicking layer, an insulating mid-layer and a water/windproof shell (both jacket and pants). Add a down parka as a final measure of insulation and you should be able to keep warm in the coldest temps.

If, however, you have a long hike ahead of you, don’t throw on all of your clothing before you start your hike. If you’re not a little chilled when you start out, you’re probably overdressed and will soon overheat, causing you to sweat. Sweating is bad as the moisture will cause to to get cold much faster. By starting cool, you’ll warm up soon enough with a reduced risk of getting too hot. On rest breaks or when you get to the place you wish to photograph, you should then throw on another layer. Don’t wait until you start to get chilled to do it.

Even in the worst weather, you can have plenty of fun photographing if you are properly dressed.

Tracey, Adam, And The Weather In Tuckerman Ravine

Even if the sunrise you were after looked more like a blizzard!

Shoot your best landscape photos ever!

Find out how to harness natural light and learn essential strategies, without ever leaving your home in Crafty’s Landscape Photography: Shooting from Dawn to Dusk.

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