Taking great pictures in the cold
It’s January. Half the planet is in a deep freeze and I’m gearing up for what will be my first major trip in a long, long while. In what is becoming an oddly typical routine, my trip will likely be to somewhere cold. This has me remembering all sorts of ways to stay warm and take good pictures when the mercury drops.
1. Do not underestimate the cold!
When I go outside in the cold it’s usually because I want to accomplish something like going to the store or getting to my car. I can get away with wearing a light jacket and feel totally fine because I’m not outside for all that long, and my body creates heat as I move.
Taking pictures is different because photography is a sedentary activity. Sitting for long periods in cold weather cools the body from the inside out. Remember that once you become cold it’s almost impossible to warm up again. Layer up to keep that heat in for as long as possible.
When I shot this picture in Nepal, I was FREEZING. I was wearing long underwear under jean pants, 3 layers for my top, a down coat and a heavy Nepalese wool sweater with a beanie. I was huddled inside a sleeping bag and I was STILL cold because I sat there for about 9hrs shooting this. Do not underestimate the cold.
2. Have a plan
You need to know what to shoot before you go outside. Warm clothes don’t really, truly keep us warm; they just buy us some time until we get cold. Eventually you’ll get cold regardless of what you’re wearing, so know what you want to shoot and get right down to business.
It was about 25F in Vladivostok when I shot this. While 25F was a nice respite from the rest of Siberia, it was still extraordinarily cold. I mitigated this by knowing exactly where I wanted to shoot and what I wanted to take a picture of. I got to the spot, took my pictures, and left before freezing to death.
3. Protect your gear
Your camera likes the cold even less than you do. Manufactures rate the operating temperatures of their cameras (it’s buried in your manual somewhere) and I’ve never seen one approved for subzero weather. You are in uncharted territory when you are out photographing in the cold.
Keep your gear warm until you’re ready to shoot. Do this by keeping your camera underneath your outermost layer until you need to take your picture. I’ve shot in -30 degrees F temperatures without trouble by keeping my camera and gear warm. If you are shooting startrails, remember that your cold lens will fog up over time. Put some hand warmers in a sock and wrap it around your lens with a rubber band. This will keep your lens warm and prevent fog from ruining your picture.
When you eventually go back inside, condensation will form on all parts of your frozen camera (like taking a Coke out of the fridge). You can keep your camera dry and protect it from damage by placing it inside a plastic ziplock bag until it warms up a bit.
It was snowing when I shot this in freezing weather in Irkutsk, Russia. I kept my camera under my jacket until I was ready to shoot, only pulling it out for my picture.
4. Your batteries will die
Everything slows down in the cold, especially batteries. They’ll drop from a full charge to dead faster than you’ll realize. Keep a spare or two ready to go, warmed inside of your layers. This is particularly necessary when shooting startrails, which can take 4hrs or longer to capture.
My battery died while photographing the above 4hr long exposure. Thankfully I had the good sense to start with a fresh battery so I got maximum life out of the shoot. I could have swapped batteries if I wanted to keep going, but by then the sun was rising.
5. It’s worth it.
Preferences in art and photography are very personal. I have always preferred pictures of things that I don’t get to see on a regular basis. Images from the middle of nowhere in an extreme climate are about as far as it gets from my everyday city life; images of the cold therefore take on otherworldly, existential qualities that move beyond being simply “pretty” to something rare and uniquely artistic. That’s why for me it’s worth it to endure the extremes of our world’s climate, so that I can experience and capture those rare shots that only happen when you put yourself out there.