I've spent the last 2 weeks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, shooting stills and video in freezing winter conditions. Snow, ice, blisteringly cold wind and more. In this video I share what I found to be best for packing my kit, protecting it in the field, and keeping my eyes from freezing to my viewfinder.
The night before, I charge extra batteries and clean my glass. I pack my lenses in to small bags to get another layer of protection from blowing snow. If I’m going to be hiking more than a mile from the car, I’ll usually have to bring water, food, gloves, and maybe even some ski or climbing equipment. For those days, I’ll load up some padded Lowepro cases (see photo below) and stow them in an accessible compartment in a large backpack. If conditions are calm or I’m not hiking far, I attach Think Tank camera straps, so that I can hike hands-free with my camera at the ready.
The Lowepro cases are great since they have some padding, but also handles for carrying or clipping to a harness once I'm at a location. I can actually sit them right down into the snow, and keep their flaps closed to keep snow out while keeping my kit accessible at a moments notice. (Unfortunately Lowepro doesn't sell these inserts apart from their packs like the Rover Pro, so you'll have to get a full pack or something like an F-stop Gear ICU to accomplish something similar.)
Other items in my kit include lens cloths to wipe off snowflakes, a little blowie, and handwarmers. I don't leave spare batteries in the case– I'll put them in a breast pocket close to my chest so they stay warm. I left my iPhone on an outer pocket one day and it failed to turn on, even with a full battery. I stuffed it into my breast pocket and once the battery warmed up I was able to power it on just fine. Also in my kit I like to have a circular polarizer. Highlights in the snow, colors in rock, and saturation in ice can all be subtly affected by using one, so I like to take one for a spin when I'm shooting winter conditions. And yes, that was a photography pun.
Weather and Clothing
I had plenty of days when the temps went below zero, and with wind chill the temps would go as low as -30F. As much as I tried to keep my fingers warm, they still still froze. Here’s what I found worked best though. I had one pair of waterproof, leather gloves that are made for being active. These were my go to pair, but they were too tight to wear with liners. I’d recommend getting gloves a size larger or even some mitts that you can wear with thin liners underneath for when you need better control. Another option that worked when I didn't have to handle ropes or climbing equipment were fingerless wool mitts. I put handwarmers right inside the finger covers for a quick warmup once I was done getting a shot.
It took me a couple cold days to figure this next trick out, but I eventually realized that I could rotate the gloves I was wearing with a pair I had in stashed inside one of my jackets. I added handwarmers to the stashed gloves I wasn't wearing, so I always had a toasty set of gloves waiting for me.
Gloves aside, staying warm and dry was all about layering. I went out on most days with mid and baselayers that had full or quarter zips for venting, then a softshell layer to cut wind and moisture. Both my pants and jacket had zips for venting, so when I had to hike a lot, I could keep my body from sweating too much. On days when I would be less active, I wore an additional puffy layer of primaloft up top, and I had some cheap snowpants for added insulation to my lower half. Some zip up puffy pants would have been great but they were a bit pricey for me. Down or other puffy insulators are fantastic for warmth but make sure you get some that also compress down so they can be stashed in a backpack when not in use. Here's a breakdown of my threads:
Baselayer - SmartWool NTS Midweight Quarter Zip
Midlayer - First Ascent Accelerant Jacket
Puffy - Patagonia Micro Puff Jacket
Outerlayer - Outdoor Research Motto Jacket
Baselayer 1 - REI Polartec Long Underwear
Baselayer 2 - REI Polartec Fleece Pants
Outerlayer - Outdoor Research Trailbreaker Pant
Puffy - just some basic snowpants I got from Walmart or Dunhams
Once I got to my location, I'd drop my bag and set up my kit. I found that my camera worked OK in the colder temps at first, but after a short while I'd experience a delay in the autofocus speed of the lens, and a lag on the LCD. Things just moved a bit slower, including myself. I wouldn't suggest trying to keep the camera warm when not in use, as constantly making your gear hot-cold-hot-cold probably isn't good for it. I think you just have to be patient and work with it, and rotate warm batteries in and out.
As far as the technical side of things, Tony Northrup's video explains it best when it comes to exposure, metering, and dealing with snowy conditions. His video below does a great job explaining what to expect and how to manipulate your camera for proper exposures.
Personally, snow and moving clouds played havoc with my exposure. Even after checking my histogram, I still found myself wanting to under expose what the LCD what showing me, as it appeared that I was getting no detail in snow and ice. I had more trust issues than when I was dating sketchy girls in high school. There were times I shot multiple versions with different exposures, and more often then not I actually did have detail in the brighter images.
Bringing My Gear Back
When I’m finished shooting, I’ve got to be careful as going into a warm car or house will cause condensation to form almost immediately on exposed cold surfaces. I remove all of my cards first, and then I leave my gear packed inside of its case when I bring it inside. I try to find a place to let it acclimate slowly, like near a window or in a garage that is warmer, but no so warm to form condensation. If a place to acclimate slowly isn't an option, I’ll unzip the bag inside and let it acclimate over several hours. You can use your glasses, a watch perhaps, or even an extra filter you have to serve as a "canary in a coal mine" if you want to see if the temps are cold/warm enough to make it happen. I don't enjoy dealing with my glasses fogging up, but conversely they do serve as a reminder that my camera gear will do the same.
Thanks to Ryan Stephens for additional footage and to Brandon Snyder for a place to crash while in town!
Great video/articles and a lot of useful tips.
Did you shoot this in New York? it looks like what I see outside...
Thanks Noam. I wasn't in New York, but I've been equally impressed and taken back a bit as to how brutal of a winter it has been for the midwest.
One thing I do with skiing photography is put my batteries in their own stand-alone zipper baggie with a hand warmer in it. Does a better job keeping batteries warm imho than a breast pocket or even in your inner most layer.
I'm a Florida guy, but it can get into the 20s and 30s here in the mornings when I shoot and I agree that the hand warmers work extremely well.
I find extreme temps interesting. Here in South Africa we just don't get these kinds of conditions... I don't even know what it would be like to have to keep my batteries warm, haha. So very interesting to read. I hope one day I can do some cool shoots in the snow, and maybe make a snow angel for the first time :)
Thanks for the article
Canadian tip, keep a pair of big thick wool socks handy. Put them on top of thin gloves when you don't need any dexterity.
One thing that I've found to work is using a few toe-warmers in the bag to help reduce condensation because it keeps the bag just warm enough. The toe-warmers have a sticky side you can adhere to different parts of the bag. Just be careful not to have it touch your glass.
So, when you're done shooting, put your gear away and by the time you reach your car or home, the air inside the closed bag should be warm enough to keep it dry.
I've used this tip the past two January's in DC and in Chicago.
Interesting! So if you have your body/lens out in subzero temps, and then put it in your bag with a handwarmer that's already rocking, it heats it up, but not too fast? I could see this working if you leave it in there for a bit, letting the overall temp of the bag warm up (on the hike back as you suggest). I agree on not having it touch your glass, on lenses or the LCD. I'll have to give this a try next time, thanks for the comment.
He's just described our everyday Winter... Grab a coat and go out and shoot. The gear just works.
You don't make a deal about weather in Canada.. You just enjoy it.