Out Of My Element: The First Time I Ever Shot In Snow

Out Of My Element: The First Time I Ever Shot In Snow

Despite having grown up around photography all my life (thanks, dad) and then starting my own commercial portrait business in 2009, there is one small little thing I'd never done before, silly as it sounds. I have never, ever shot in snow. Born in the Caribbean in 1975, then briefly living in Miami before settling down in Houston in 1979, I have truly never experienced real snow. But all that changed for me recently in Salt Lake City and Albuquerque - in January.

I arrived in Salt Lake City right after the new year, and Albuquerque two weeks later. Curiously, both cities experienced a reasonably significant snow storm 24-48 hours before I arrived, so I had more than enough frozen water crystals covering the landscape to keep me wide-eyed. This was going to be interesting for me, to say the least.

Salt Lake City

SLC was first up, and included a drive up a mountain into temperatures this cold wimp never knew before (3F/-16C).  Walking around proved difficult enough, and I don't even want to talk about how much my feet hurt from going nearly numb. Having never traveled north of Dallas in the winter time, I was like a 5 year old showing up at Disneyland. I'll say it plain and simple: I am clueless on how to deal with snow. I know my story is hilarious to northerners who deal with this sort of weather every year, but at least you can enjoy a good laugh at my experiences.

With scenes in every direction that looked like all the winter time postcards and screensavers I've seen all life, Salt Lake City, Utah left a serious impression on me. I was plastered against the window of my friend Nic Green's car as he drove me around the city, gawking at the staggeringly beautiful landscape, and even more so when Lyman Winn drove us in his SUV up the nearby mountain to a vantage point you simply don't see in south Texas. Oh, and we may have brought model Brooklynn Mooney with us so I could have a go at portrait shooting in this amazing snow covered region.

My first observation was the radical difference between the sunny and shady areas. -16C is cold, damn cold, for me, but reasonably tolerable in the open sun. Wandered over into the shaded area and it was game over; it was as if I went from the fridge to the freezer. Who knew?

How Brooklynn managed that dress in -16C I have no idea, but then she's accustomed to such climes as she is from the northern U.S. She rocked it despite her photographer wiping out on the ice and stepping on unpacked snow a dozen times.

Curiously, I was moderately shocked at the light temperature (white balance) up there. Despite the beautiful, bright, cloudless sky that afternoon, my usual midday light temp setting (5200K) wasn't working for me in camera. Of course I could change it later in Capture One, but anyone that knows me knows I prefer to see as final of an image as possible on the back of the camera while on set. After just a few shots, I found I had to move the light temp to 6500K and sometimes nearing 7000K to get the tones I am accustomed to getting outdoors. I asked Nic and Lyman about this while I stood there with a boot full of snow slowly becoming a boot full of chilled water, and they both just chuckled at me. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to cover my bases, in my head, to see if I had overlooked some small detail about the light temperature. After awhile, I decided it was what it was, and my frozen toes furthered my desire to wrap shooting sooner than later despite loving every moment of this experience.

Just like the time I literally lost consciousness for a brief moment while kneeling in a hot parking lot to shoot a classic Ferrari (in the insane summer in Houston - in August), I found the physical aspect of the weather in Salt Lake City to be 500% more difficult to manage while shooting than I had anticipated. I had reasoned that some chilled fingers and a runny nose would be my biggest concern out there, but quickly realized that (for my unaccustomed self) I had trouble staying mentally focused on the task at hand, and often. The cold was simply too much for me after awhile. 

Way below freezing, and I found running water. My jokes about asking the model to pose in the stream garnered me a glare and a rude hand gesture.

Sure, I felt my hands hurting, and my feet going from painful to totally numb, and I didn't particularly enjoy either, but I couldn't predict the mental lapses. I wasn't in any danger due to them, mind you, but I definitely would go to change a setting on the ol' 6D and would find myself staring at the LCD, totally clueless as to what I had decided to do 2 seconds earlier. This happened many times after we had been on the mountain for a couple hours and wandered into the shady areas to shoot different scenes than just "sunny snow", where the modicum of warm-ish sunlight had totally vanished. I laughed it off, but definitively noticed my mental cognition was hindered. 

On the drive back down the mountain, as my feet thawed, I reviewed my shots and immediately realized I didn't totally remember specifically doing a lot of what I did. I was not only physically and mentally distracted, but I also still had the novelty of the whole "snow" thing making me further discombobulated. It made me realize what a challenge this would have been had it been a client project, and I was glad I experienced it. After all, you can never be too prepared, and nothing prepares you like experience.

I'm not saying Lyman's SUV got stuck in the snow, but so did our good samaritan's truck almost immediately after. I witnessed these local gents digging out both vehicles, ultimately succeeding in freeing both, and I had a newfound respect for what a simple drive to a shoot can be like out here.

Oops?

Albuquerque

My next snow outing came in the form of the Sandia foothills and peak outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Our first day out gave me a false positive, as it were, because the snow coverage was far more tame than in Salt Lake City. The scene was beautiful in every way, and just as awe-inspiring, but since there were huge patches of dirt and exposed grass around me at the base of the mountain, I reasoned this would be a far easier shoot than anything Utah threw at me. 

Another beautiful day? This should be easy, right?

A more idyllic scene you would be hard pressed to find. Day 1 in Albuquerque, at the mountain base, was super cold for me (36F/2C) but still way more tolerable than Salt Lake City was two weeks prior.

There was only one exceedingly challenging aspect of this excursion: cacti. Way too damn many of them, and ranging from "a zingy little sting" to "ah fuck someone gave me a tetanus shot just now" in terms of pain level. I especially enjoyed the bits that stayed embedded in my leg for 3 days after. Stupid as it sounds (and is), I kept finding new and better ways to impale myself all afternoon. Funny how you stem from a lifetime of roaming south Texas but still end up feeling utterly clueless outdoors in a new environment.

F***** cacti.

 

I also found I was woefully disinterested in using a strobe out there. Something about the natural light look all around me just made the strobe sound so...blah. I did one set with strobes, and then I stopped.

Location shooting is something I've been focusing on only for the last year, and most intensely in the last 3-4 months. Rather than roam around the alleyways and side streets around whatever given studio I happen to be at in whatever given city I happened to be traveling to, I reasoned it was time to start extending my workshop trips a day or two so I can really explore amazing locations to work in in the various towns I visit 2-3 times a month.

So of course I agreed to a sunrise shoot, the very next morning, at the Sandia peak, where I was told it would be pitch black at 5am, cold as hell, and with more snow cover than anything Salt Lake City threw at me. What could possibly go wrong?

I haven't the remotest idea how Sofia stood there against the sunrise, on a mercifully stable area of loose snow, in the insane breezy cold of that dark morning on that mountain, but then I was born in Puerto Rico. That morning I was bundled up and in boots and was, on several occasions, so miserable that I was minutes from giving up and going to the car to pout about it.

Eventually the sun peaked, as evidenced in the BTS shot with Sofia above, and the whole experience became what I was hoping it would be: amazing.

This was an experience for the books, in my world. The drive up the mountain, before the sun even considered trying to go near the horizon let alone break, was so traumatizing for this flatlander that I have zero behind-the-scenes images of the journey. Absolutely pitch black, windy, curvy road more or less covered in snow and ice for what felt like 1,000 km. I actually handled it decently, all things considered, until we stopped at what seemed like a decent location near the peak. My good friend (and driver that day), Clay Parker stopped the vehicle, turned it off, killed the lights, and we all jumped out in eager anticipation. What we found instead was an immediate wall of frozen blackness and dead silence. Enough of both to make me take pause and reconsider my decisions in life that led me to this point. (A very brief and unclear video of some of this exists here, but it's not much to look at, to be honest.)

My friends Rebecca Britt, Alex Ventura, Tiva Feltman and Clay Parker had decided to make the Albuquerque visit a road trip, and as we crossed the New Mexico border from Texas, we realized that was a totally awesome decision. Three of us had never seen so much snow, let alone the mountains in every direction. Sure, Denver is impressive as is Seattle, but something about the fringes of the American Southwest just take your breath away, even in January.

This little piece of flora was likely far more comfortable than I was, but at least the sun had finally come up.

I don't have any final images from Albuquerque to post yet, and plenty more are still unpublished from my Salt Lake City trip, but I wanted to make mention of these travels and travails for one main reason: I hope I can convey how important it is to get out there and dive into new challenges, willfully and without a client at the other end initially, so you can get your feet wet (or frozen) on the many and varied potential adversities you could face on location. I know I learned a crap ton about snow, and cold, and did I mention high altitude? 

Conclusion

Insanely hot coastal climate out in field? Check. Perfectly temperate tropical beach? Done it. Moderately cool rural countryside? Been there. Dry summer heat on a racetrack? Yep. Big city downtown in a humid rainstorm? Yessir. Magazine shoot in the Pacific Northwest with an cranky yacht captain piloting said boat in an insane manner after way too much premium vodka? Forty nine billion mosquitoes (and requisite bites) while in 103F in southeast rural Texas? Those are full stories for another article, but, "Been there, done that."

But now I can add "Toe numbingly cold and covered in snow" to my bucket list of locations, and I can't wait to go at it a third time. I also chronicled some more behind the scenes from Salt Lake City and Albuquerque on a recent episode of The Backyard, which you can check out below:

(​And for you northern types who read all of this while snickering and sneering, I welcome you to join me on an outdoor shoot in Houston, this coming August, then we can see who's chuckling then!)

What's been your biggest location challenge?

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31 Comments

Tyler Newcomb's picture

Glad you got to experience the pains of shooting in the snow! As a new England resident, I am laughing a bit, but I am also jealous. Up here, we don't have locations like that, so our experience is more miserable and less amazing. And I'll take you up on that offer for a Houston outdoor shoot, as long as you cover travel expenses ;)

I also just realized, my profile picture is me in a snowstorm hahaha

Graham Marley's picture

Oh man, there are tons of places that I'd love to shoot in the snow in New England. I'm going up to The Basin, north of Fryeburg Maine in 2 weeks for an engagement shoot. It could be wild. (Sure, it's not the Rockies, but still.)

Tyler Newcomb's picture

This is true. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are the best though. Here in eastern Mass is pretty boring

Graham Marley's picture

Yeah, I'm in Weymouth. You really gotta scour the area for good locations. Ever been to Purgatory Chasm?

Tyler Newcomb's picture

I have, its a pretty cool place but 99% of the time it is way too crowded there to take pictures or even to enjoy yourself unfortunately

Glad you got to experience the Rockies (on the proper side!.. stupid Broncos) Sounds like you may have had a slight bit of altitude sickness.... it happens.

Be sure to come back to Utah and experience all of it. From the Wasatch range (where you were), the Uintas (9K+ feet), to the Salt Flats, Moab and even the Bookcliffs in Central Utah, we have some of the most diverse terrain in the states. PLUS it's all ours! As long as it's not posted as private land, you're welcome to responsibly enjoy it. Oh and next time take a Jeep ;)

Thanks for sharing your experiences!

Tyler Newcomb's picture

Even I have not experienced altitude sickness. And I'm not necessarily complaining about that

Peter Nord's picture

For cactus, especially ones with fine little needles, use gaffers tape. Just lay it over the skin, the needles stick to the tape, pull them out. Duct tape works too. All the desert ER docs suggest it. After a certain age takes a couple of days to get used to the altitude. Never noticed it when I was 19.

Peter Nord's picture

There are places out there where the mercury freezes in the thermometer. That's 40 below, in both F & C. Damn cold.

Jason Lorette's picture

As a Canadian from the East Coast of the country...I chuckled a bit at this. -16C...ha! Try -30 to -40C, not that I'd be out shooting then...well...maybe :P Glad you got to experience it, anytime you want to come vist and shoot up here let me know, lol (summer is great). I just got to shoot in the Bahamas for the first time, that was an adjustment for me. I love shooting in different places...I highly recommend it...shooting in Houston in summer I think I'd melt. :)

Joakim Drake's picture

Ha! As a Swedish guy, try -50C! Cue Monty Python the Four Yorkshiremen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe1a1wHxTyo

Tyler Newcomb's picture

I think you just made the connection of the lifetime! Very well done!

Jason Lorette's picture

Oh we get that too Joakim...just didn't want to scare Nino away :P

David Moore's picture

Every year when the mountains of Southern California start to get snow I say "I really need to get a model and go shoot in the snow!" then spring rolls around and I haven't done it.

Graham Marley's picture

The fun thing about the snow is the entire ground is like a giant soft reflector. That's probably where your WB was going wonky, so much blue light bouncing from basically every surface.

If you're looking to do that kind of thing again, shoot me a message, I've got some clothing recommendations for you. (I was recently in New Hampshire in 8 degrees F for some star shots. Winter up here is when we get the lowest humidity.)

Dave Kavanagh's picture

Amazing job Nino. We often get snow here in Ireland, at least during winter but I didnt get a chance to get out and shoot in it this year. Looking at these really makes me wish I did!!

James Douglas's picture

But why did you only shoot scantily clad women in the snow??

Sean Molin's picture

I'm guessing that's what he gets paid to do.

Scott Mosley's picture

did you have any problems with lens/sensor fog? i had terrible fog issues during a snowstorm that hit a wedding I was shooting. had to rotate through all three of my backup cameras the whole time

Hey Scott, condensation occurs when your camera is colder than the warmer, moist air around it. Usually happens when camera has been sitting in cold car or outside for a while and then you bring indoors. I like to use the analogy of a person wearing eyeglasses and went outdoors in the winter cold. Then, they come back inside and their glasses get all fogged up. Try keeping camera as warm as possible, and almost always have to let warm up when it's been outside in the cold for a while.

Greg Buser's picture

Pretty uninspiring photos.

Welcome to my backyard. And stop being such a pussy. I moved to Utah from Australia, and shooting in single digits is just part of what many photographers do.

It's a good thing I'm not you.

Not sure what you mean. I had to get a government clearance to work with Indian Health Services. Clearly, I am committed to working with native Americans.

Actually, native Americans are those indigenous to this continent.
Go ahead and trespass on tribal land while claiming to be a native American. Let us know how that goes.

I didn't choose to live here, but my great-grandmother did, and she brought my grandfather with her.

Well, at least we agree that people should not redefine the word native. You just can't seem to practice what you preach.

"Native American" does not apply to the indigenous people of this continent? I've never heard an American of foreign ancestry describe themselves as "Native American". The modifier
"native" has always been associated with indigenous people.

My comment about moving to Utah from Australia doesn't make me Australian.

"As for your other ridiculous and contradictory comments regarding where you are from and where you lived; I have obviously shown that you are not being honest in what you are saying. It's clear to me that you are simply an Australian that moved to America. Now you claim to not be Australian. The only alternative would be is that you formerly renounced your Australian citizenship and was granted American citizenship, or that you are a citizen of a third country while living in America. One things for sure, based on your comments here and elsewhere, is that you certainly appear to be anti-American. On that note, you will never truly be American."

There is nothing ridiculous nor contradictory about my comments. You have not shown that I am not being honest, but you have shown that you are obviously quick to assume, and stubborn in your thoughts.

I never claimed to be Australian, I simply said I moved from Australia to Utah. That was in reference to living and shooting in different temperature extremes. But you seem unable to wrap your head around the idea that maybe I lived somewhere else, prior to moving to Australia. Apparently, that possibility hadn't occurred to you.

All this because I was critical of your comment about the bald eagle. You've stalked me to this thread from another, which is a little creepy. Then you made assumptions and assertions, all of which were incorrect. We did not make, manufacture, or engineer the bald eagle. It happens to be indigenous to our land mass. If it's good at something, then we have no basis to take pride in its performance, but we could take pride that other countries agree it's something special, and that perhaps our founding fathers made a good choice in using it as a representative of this country. Do you get upset when other countries use our technology, our vehicles, or our medicine? I find it silly that people take pride in the most foolish things, in the name of patriotism. Should I buy an American car, like a Ford, so I can keep those factory workers in Mexico and Canada employed, or should I buy another Honda motorcycle, or Toyota, so I can keep workers in America employed. Yes, I am mocking your outrage. And I can do that. Because as an American, I am guaranteed the right to free speech (although the owners of this site have every right to censor me or any other member as they see fit).

And no, that was not your last post, because you can't bear the thought of not having the last word.

To Nino, I should soften my original comment. You're not a pussy for not liking the cold. Winter here sucks. When it finally got into double digits yesterday, my wife and I drove up into the canyons to check on our local wildlife. We got some decent photos, but mostly it was just cold. When it's 100 degrees this summer, we'll be wishing for cooler weather again.

NIno you are the MAN!

Hey Nino you forgot this one...

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