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Winter presents many challenges, but with proper preparation, cold-weather photography can be great fun and yield spectacular results.
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Battery efficiency falls with the temperature.
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Fishing Shack on Stoney Point, Minnesota
Dress in layers to keep yourself warm. Thick gloves or mittens are essential.
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Tettegouche State Park, Minnesota
Keep your batteries warm, too. Store them in your pockets until you're ready to shoot.
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Autofocus mechanisms may not work in extreme cold.
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In the cold, LCDs will refresh sluggishly and eventually black out.
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Use your camera's exposure compensation function to combat underexposure, a common problem when photographing snow.
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When you come in from the cold, leave your camera in its bag for an hour to prevent damaging condensation from forming.
7 Winter Photography Tips
Winter is a special season, with quiet snowfalls, pristine white landscapes and clear blue skies; the “Quiet Season” is a great time to kick back and enjoy winter. The season of cold also presents great photo opportunities whether it is ice-covered shorelines, chickadees, people enjoying outdoor activities, or just plain walking in the woods. Getting out in the fresh air with your camera is a perfect reason to enjoy this season to the fullest.
While winter is a great time for photography, digital cameras get a bit touchy when used in freezing temperatures. However, if you follow these simple tips for cold weather photography, you will be able to capture those wonderful snow scenes like a pro.
1. Keep yourself warm – you're not Jack Frost
Your ability to enjoy being out in the cold depends on your preparations for staying warm. Dress in layers and wear good warm boots, with ice cleats if needed. One of your clothing layers should be of a material to break the wind and include a good hat and preferably a hood.
Keeping your hands warm is by far the most challenging task of cold-weather photography. I remember many days getting back to my car with barely enough feeling in my fingers to find my keys. You need thick gloves, but these are not great when it comes to operating the small buttons on your camera. While there is no perfect glove when it comes to operating the small camera controls in -20º F temperatures, consider gloves that have fingertips or mittens that can be folded back so that you can momentarily use your bare fingers.
2. Camera frostbite – that camera may bite
When viewing the scene through your camera viewfinder, remember, the camera is at the same temperature as the air, and your nose and cheek touching it for any amount of time, especially when your moist breath has frosted the metal, will guarantee a frost burn when you warm up. Don’t ask me how I know this, but I have walked around with a deep red blotch at the end of my nose more than once.
Frostbite from your tripod is also common. Carrying a frozen piece of metal will quickly drain the warmth from your hand, regardless of the gloves that you may be wearing. Use a piece of foam pipe insulation taped around a leg of the tripod to help protect you from the cold.
3. Keep your batteries warm – the Energizer Bunny doesn’t like cold
Cameras are designed to function without problems down to 32º F (0º C) and most operate just fine at temperatures far lower. Batteries are greatly affected by cold as the temperatures approach the freezing mark. Depending on the size and temperature of the camera battery, your camera will begin to lose its ability to function as temperatures drop below freezing. By 0° F, you will have less than an hour and often times much less before your camera begins to show signs of failure. So, when you take your camera out into the cold, be prepared with extra “warm” batteries.
The standard rating for batteries is at room temperature, 25º C (about 77º F). At approximately -22º F (-30º C), battery AH capacity drops to 50 percent. At freezing, capacity is reduced by 20 percent. This is a particularly serious problem with today's digital cameras that are totally dependent on battery power. This is just the chemistry and physics of how batteries work. If you anticipate this phenomenon and keep your batteries warm until you need them and also have some spare batteries in a warm pocket, you will have no problems with battery failure.
4. My camera LCD is broken – this power hungry device dies first
You will probably notice the first signs of cold-weather camera failure on your camera’s LCD display. This is a power hog and is the first thing to begin malfunctioning. Failure indicators are usually sluggish refresh times, followed by loss of contrast and “gray-outs,” which in turn are followed by a total cold-induced blackout. While this effect is not damaging to the camera and it will return to normal operation once it warms up, it can be frustrating and leave you wondering if the camera is working right.
Remember that plastic battery and memory card doors, as well as any hinged plastic connector covers, can become brittle and crack when exposed to extreme temperatures for extended periods. Plan your trip so you will not have to open and close camera components any more than necessary. This will also save your fingers from being exposed to the cold for additional time.
5. My autofocus lens is chattering as much as my teeth – what’s wrong
On many higher-end cameras such as the Canon EOS lenses, the autofocus motors are located in the barrel of the lens. This setup fails quickly as the cold metal of the barrel rapidly conducts warmth away from the mechanism. Plan to shut this feature off for extreme-cold shooting.
6. Shooting snow scenes – my snow pictures are always gray
With a priority of keeping the batteries warm, set up your tripod (if you plan on using one) and remove the camera from its case just prior to photographing the scene. Remember, once your fingers are exposed to the cold in order to set up your camera, you have very little time before they turn numb.
If you get a few snowflakes on the lens, try to lightly brush them off with a dry glove. Do not blow on the lens, as it will create a layer of ice from your breath.
The light meter on your camera does not know whether you are taking a picture of a dark night scene or a bright snow-covered landscape. It must compromise and auto-expose everything to a neutral light. This works for most pictures, but your snow scene will be underexposed. Gray and low-light shots will tend to be overexposed – washed out.
This is where your camera's Exposure Compensation setting comes in. Get used to operating this feature; it will greatly enhance your images. Depending on how much “white” is in the scene, select an exposure compensation of 1/2 to 1 1/2 stops of overexposure. This will whiten the whites and make it look more like the actual scene.
7. Coming in from the cold - beware of the Condensation Grinch
When you return indoors, your camera in its case is still freezing cold and if it is immediately exposed to warm moist air, condensation will quickly form on all parts of the camera, inside and out. This is a serious issue and, if not properly handled, can lead to internal damage of the camera, especially if you turn the power on to view the images. The best way to handle this situation is to put your camera in its case while it is still outside in the cold and leave it there for at least an hour after returning to a warm room.
If you know you’re going to be going back and forth between cold and warm environments, leave your gear out in the cold car rather than have to repeatedly go through the warm-up process. Just bring the batteries in to warm them up.
With these simple precautions and camera tips, you'll be able to take great cold-weather pictures. Winter offers exceptional opportunities for wonderful landscapes because of its crystal-clear air. So don't be shy when the temperature drops into the Arctic zone. Just dress properly, follow these few winter photo tips, head outside and have fun! You will find yourself enjoying the season and the scenes that you have captured for years to come. Before long, winter will end up being the shortest season of the year.