Extreme Cold Photography to The Max: Interview With Shmulik Goldberg

Extreme Cold Photography to The Max: Interview With Shmulik Goldberg

You've finally made it - You booked your flight, double checked your gear and... You're in the Arctic. It's your first night, and the northern lights begin to form up in the sky. The adrenaline starts to flow as you're gearing up and rushing outside to find the perfect location for your perfect shot. It's only when you're settled in your spot that you begin to realize - It's not exactly a walk in the park to operate the camera with your warm and cozy gloves, and just as you get the hang of it - Your camera warns about low battery level. As you probably have guessed by now - photographing in the Arctic weather during the winter can be somewhat challenging and different, especially if you're coming from temperate climates

One person that knows a lot about shooting in extreme colds is Shmulik Goldberg, a world traveler and nature photographer who makes it to places like Lapland and the Serengeti to capture things that leave most of us all in awe and full of jealousy. Extremes are hard to work in, and there is nothing better than learning from people who experienced it first-hand and learned from their own mistakes. Shmulik took part of LaplandX, a unique photo-tour that goes to Lapland few times between February and March with around 25 photographers ranging from amateurs to pros. Traveling with fellow photographers is beneficial when learning to deal with extreme weathers - which is why I decided to speak with Shmulik and learn (without actually being cold) few tricks and tips about shooting in the cold he learned while traveling. After all, winter is on its way.    

FS: Why Lapland? what makes it a great destination for photographers?

"Lapland has many virtues that make it a great destination for photographers - very diverse scenery (from flat-white frozen lakes to dense forest in the hills), great lighting during the winter (sunrise and sunset take more than 90 minutes. Golden hour? Check!), and as the sun goes down, the chances of seeing the northern lights go up. The Sami people that roam the lands make are of the largest indigenous groups in Europe, and certainly the northernmost one, and their colorful traditional clothing provide endless photo ops in the plain white that surrounds you."


FS: How important is it to prepare the equipment in advance for when shooting in extreme weather situations? 

"That might sounds pretty obvious, and yet I can't stress this enough. In the dark and cold, especially with the Aurora above you, you'll want to operate as fast as you can to avoid missing the moment. This is where knowing your gear comes in play - It's very important to know where each button is and what it does, and more importantly - operate the camera at complete darkness - Not only that you probably won't want to use a flashlight and thus ruin your night vision (if mandatory - use a red flashlight or cover your white one with red Cellophane; the red color is known to have less impact on night vision), but a bright flashlight is likely to appear in others' photos which is a big no-no. Preparing your gear relates to having the right lens attached to the camera to avoid changing lenses in the field. Photographing in the Arctic can be challenging and different than what you're used to in your home court. Knowing what you're stepping into and planning ahead will help you make the most of your trip"


FS: What equipment is recommended to take? what lenses and accessories?

"Lenses wise - A wide lens for the northern lights, anywhere around 10-20mm (on crop, 16-35mm equivalent) will work, an all-around lens for snowmobile rides and group photos. Telephoto lenses are not mandatory, but will come in handy in case you're going after wildlife or even sled huskies portraits.

For the northern light photography, as well as other night shooting, you'll need a tripod. Make sure it's robust enough to withstand winds that might blow, and keep in mind that in the worst case you can just push it a few inches in the snow to get more steadiness. Cleaning accessories like rubber bulb dust blower and delicate fabric cloth will help removing snow off the lens without staining it."

FS: One of the biggest issues with shooting in the cold is condensation that can ruin your equipment. Any tips on how to avoid it? 

"Condensation can be very bad to your equipment in extreme cold. Imagine having your camera hanging by your side for a couple hours outside in -20 degrees, and then you enter a warm cabin for lunch. What will happen is your camera will get covered with water (just like cold water bottles in the summer). Same thing can happen when you switch lenses in the field - The inside of your camera is warmer than the outside and can cause condensation inside your camera (even though this one is relatively rare it's worth mentioning). Condensation is something you'll definitely want to avoid, lucky for us, there are many ways to avoid it, such as:

  1. Carry a Ziploc bag and place your camera inside it before getting into a warmer place. Leave it in until it gradually warms up. The vapor that will condense into liquid will form up on the bag and not on your equipment. Make sure the bag is sealed.
  2. If there are no such bags around, place your camera in your equipment bag and once entering the room put it in a relatively cold place rather next to a fireplace, this will enable more graduate warming.
  3. If you feel it's safe, you can just leave the equipment outside - Anyway you're not able to use it so why risking it?"


FS: Batteries are known to perform poorly in extreme cold. What can be done to improve their performance? 

"In extreme cold, batteries tend to stop functioning faster than usual. Batteries generate electric current when a connection is made between its positive and negative terminals. When connected, a chemical reaction is initiated. When the temperatures drop, this reaction slows down, and thus producing less current until the point where the device is no longer able to stay on. One way to overcome this is saving one battery in a inside pocket, close to your body (and heat) - Once your battery is dead, simply switch it with a warm one and put the cold one back in the pocket. It'll be operational again once it's warmer. The upside is that natural discharge of batteries (when disconnected) is slower in extreme cold, so we got that going.

"More electric malfunctions caused by extreme cold can be observed, such as slow reaction of your camera LCD screen (you'll suddenly see your photos fading in and out when browsing the photos instead of just changing), these are all normal and does not damage the equipment. If you plan on using a shutter release cable, keep in mind that it can get frozen as well and lose its flexibility, so keep it in a warm place before nightly shooting of the Northern lights."


FS: Any tips on how to set exposure and WB correctly? The snow can be blinding, and the screens tend to not work so well in extreme colds which can make it hard.

"Getting the WB and exposure correct can be quite a challenge when there's snow all around you. The most important thing is to shoot RAW; it is not always that you'll have the time or ability to get the WB correct in camera - Be it because you stopped for a quick shot during a snowmobile drive or you're shooting while on dog sled ride with ever-changing light, shooting RAW will enable to choose the correct WB in the post processing. If you do have the time you could either choose the correct Kelvin degrees for the scene, or taking a properly exposed photo of white/neutral target and using it as custom white balance. 

The exposure can get tricky as well, and I've found that working on full manual delivers the best results, but in case you're going semi/full auto, your best way to get a balanced photo is choosing the correct metering option (i.e. spot metering for a portrait in the snow during daylight), and fixing the exposure using exposure compensation, if needed. 

As for the northern lights - This one's really up to trial and error. There's the basics of open aperture to allow more light in and using manual focus to infinity, but since each instance of light differ by means of brightness, density, shapes and surrounding ground lights there are no absolute "good parameters" for proper exposure of lights."


FS: Extreme cold temperatures require wearing thick gloves that make it harder to operate the camera - did you find a work-around for this? Any specific brand of gloves that can work? 

"Your peripherals suffer the most from extreme cold, and you'll want to have suitable gear to keep them warm. Hands-wise, gloves are the answer. While they do keep your hands warm, it can be very tricky to operate your camera with them. I suggest wearing two layers of gloves - basic layer which is very thin but helps to somewhat keep the heat (gloves that suit for handling firearms in the cold will work just fine), and a second warmer layer to keep you really warm. When taking pictures - Simply remove the second layer and you're back to perfect grip and operating without losing a finger."

FS: Most cameras are weather-sealed for light rain and dust, but what about heavy snow situations? 

"While some snow on the camera and lens is nothing to be very worried about, keep in mind that blizzards can be a problem, as well as dropping your camera accidently in the snow. In the event of blizzard simply cover your camera while shooting, if not shooting - It's a good time to safely store it in the bag / inside your coat. If the camera has fallen into the snow simply remove the snow using a fine cloth or brush - Do not breathe on it as it will melt and become liquid which can risk your equipment."

FS: How often can you charge your equipment? how much access to electricity do you have during the day?

"Even though many places in Lapland are very distant from city centers, you can count on electricity in the hotels (standard European plug - Type C, 230V/50MHz), with that being said, during the day you'll have no access to electricity, so make sure you're charged and ready to go in the morning."


FS: I've heard some horror stories about riding snowmobiles as a photographer. What can be done to minimize risks and improve shooting-abilities while on the snowmobile?

"Photographing while riding on the snowmobile has a few points worth mentioning:

  1. Securing your equipment using a fast access camera strap is very recommended. Using the standard camera strap supplied with your camera simply isn't going to do it. Either it's wrapped around your neck and preventing you from driving comfortably (or if you're sitting on back - being stuck in the drivers' back), or it's across your back and under your arm - Which is comfortable but doesn't allow for easy access. There are many straps designed specifically for safe carrying while allowing quick access to the camera, and using it will save you some headache.
  2. Ever changing scenery Don't be fooled by the fact you're in deep snow - Those machines easily top 110km/h. Going fast has many benefits, such as going long distances and seeing more of the area, with different terrain and sceneries (from frozen lakes and flat ice as far as the eyes can see to thick forest and narrow pathways to mountains and fjords). Be aware of this fact, be alert. Always have your equipment ready as you may not always have a second opportunity to photograph this place, in the same light and same time."


FS: What was the most difficult thing you had to overcome while in Lapland? how did you do it?

"In my opinion the most difficult thing is the weather. It's easy to just stack cloths to get warm but then you feel like a polar bear with no option to move whatsoever. Be sure to pick your cloths wisely - You'll probably get overall arctic suits in Lapland (if you take snowmobiles for example), but it doesn't mean you get to neglect the base layers. A good heavy-weight thermal shirt is way better than a fluffy coat. There is vast selection of technical outerwear that can provide heat while keeping relatively thin. One other thing to keep in mind is staying active, especially during snowmobiles drive - You'll take breaks. Use them to run, jump, play. Get your blood going to your peripherals to help keeping warm."

If you're all about nature and extremes, LaplandX's next photography tours to Lapland are now available to reserve and book, and they will happen in February 2015. The tours are lead by few of the best nature photographers in the world, and it sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 


Photos used with permission from Shmulik Goldberg, Nir Geiger and Roie Galitz.

Noam Galai's picture

Noam Galai is a Senior Fstoppers Staff Writer and NYC Celebrity / Entertainment photographer. Noam's work appears on publications such as Time Magazine, New York Times, People Magazine, Vogue and Us Weekly on a daily basis.

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How about some recommendations for brands of gloves ?

Hi Rex
Personally I use Marmot as base layer (very thin!) and heavy duty The North Face as outer layer.
I also find the Marmot good for casual winter use as well, not only as a base layer in arctic conditions.

Hope that helps!

You digital guys have it easy! Imagine having to unload and load film in cameras in the frigid tundra. I haven't changed rolls of film under adverse conditions, but I imagine that my Canon F-1N would be better suited for the artic than my A-1.