Staying Warm When Shooting in Winter 

If you haven’t lived and worked in cold environments, it can be a dramatic mind shift to now travel and shoot in these areas with inclement weather. In this video from Thomas Heaton, we’ll see how he dresses for shooting in the cold while staying warm, comfortable, and safe from the elements.

Dressing for the cold while working in fluctuating temperatures is a big part for many photographers, and especially those doing landscape imagery.

The big mentality shift for those from warmer environments that are just starting to photograph in colder areas is learning about layering, which Heaton goes in depth in the video. Adding to Heaton’s examples and thought process would be taking into account where you’re traveling to and if the area is fluctuating above and below freezing temperatures. If the areas you are going to be traveling to may have a wintry mix of rain and snow, down jackets may not be the best option for the environment. Whether to due perspiration or precipitation, synthetic insulation captures and holds heat when these issues arise unlike down that stops retaining heat when wet. Some down insulated jackets have a hydrophobic coating on the down itself, but this may break down over time. 

Another option to the nylon thermal undergarments that Heaton uses is polyester or wool. Polyester is a synthetic fabric like nylon but has better abrasion resistance and dries faster while nylon is a stronger material and is softer. Both of these synthetic fabrics have one large downfall compared to wool and that is that they both absorb and retain odors much more than wool. If your adventure is traveling for several days on limited clothing, you may prefer wool as odors do not get absorbed as easily.

Lastly, for longer and more strenuous hikes, a liner sock layered within a medium or heavy wool sock may work better than a water tight sock as Heaton suggests. As you perspire, you want your feet to breathe and with a liner sock that perspiration is pulled away from the skin while also allowing the wool sock to move around the foot. This allows your feet to aerate but also avoid blisters in your gore-tex lined boots. Also, if you are experiencing temperatures below freezing, it’s a great idea to have a pair of boots that have a minimum of 400 grams of insulation. Though heavier, you’re less likely to have cold toes and as boot insulation can go to 1000 grams or higher there are quite a few options. Whether you are a person who is consistently cold or easily overheated, layering with the right clothing can work for you. 

Were there any other takeaways from Heaton’s video or do you prefer other options due to your experience and climates you shoot in?

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Deleted Account's picture

Layering works for sleep also; use your insulated clothing as a part of your sleep system, and a much lighter sleeping bag. Bonus is that it makes getting up much easier.

I've been doing this for years and it makes a huge difference. Insulated jacket/pants + lighter sleeping bag is way more versatile than just having a heavier sleeping bag.

Photographing in sub zero(f) temperatures is a different game than warmer conditions. Around freezing - above and below - is way different than 20-40 below zero. Add in wind and you have conditions that are deadly, not just uncomfortable. Exposed skin starts freezing within minutes. Wind chills 30-60 below really take it out of you fast.
WindProof material is one of the best ways to keep warmer in these conditions. All the fleece in the world is almost useless if it does not stop wind from coming through.
Military "bunny boots" are really good for many of us. Also, the chemical hand and foot warmer packets. They can be a lifesaver kept in pockets, in the boots, in or taped on gloves. Mittens with fold back finger areas allow use of them easily while still letting a bare finger out for camera shutter release or manipulation. A really good use for them is taped on the battery area of cameras.

One overlooked area is camera and lens protection. Want to go cheap? Saran Wrap/Plastic Wrap on camera bodies and lenses allow adjustments and "feel" while not adding weight. Very good protection on bringing gear into warm areas after being out in the cold as the condensation is on the saran wrap, not on the body. Later, take it off and throw it away.

Eye protection in cold and wind is pretty important. Whether sunglasses for bright conditions or clear protection for cloudy - wind causes eye problems. Freezing tearing makes one miserable and is dangerous. Eye protection, along with nose, chin and throat protection makes a big difference. Mufflers for the neck and for breathing through help keep icy air from making teeth hurt on each inhale. Their loose nature means you can adjust as they start icing up.

Avoid breathing on viewfinders and especially on lenses. They ice up quickly.

A last bit of information that can save a lot of grief? No caffeinated drinks for at least two hours before going out in bitter cold. Baring your butt or unzipping to take a whiz at 40 below can be life threatening. Caffeine causes you to pee - why risk it when you can easily avoid the problem?

Jordan McChesney's picture

Yeah, I forgot my sweater at home last time I photographed at Lake Kawaguchi. I only had my t-shirt and a kinda of thick jacket. It got down to about -12C to -10C, my black camera bag literally turned white with frost. I don't recommend standing next to a lake for hours, in those conditions, during sunset and sunrise if you aren't dressed properly... needless to say I got suuuuuuuuper sick.

I need to invest in some warmer clothes. I very rarely dips below 5C in Kawasaki, so I'm ill prepared whenever I go up north, haha.

Deleted Account's picture

5°C and wet will still kill you.

Jordan McChesney's picture

My hometown usually stays around 2C with upwards of 95% humidity and it rains most of the time, so I’m very aware of that. However it’s bone dry in winter here, so just slap on a jacket at you’re good to go.

He has good, common sense winter layering tips.
If you aren't worried about being lightweight, e.g. near a car, already have 40 lbs. of gear; I like my electric hoodie, it uses batteries from your cordless tools. A 6 oz. battery will run on high for 2 hours or a 3.5 lb battery will run >24 hours on low.
Rather than put a layer on or take it off, just switch the level or turn it on/off.
They also have heated gloves.

David Penner's picture

I'm usually fine with the cold down to about -30c. The issue is packing up the tripod after. I've had times where I walked out with the tripod still fully extended and the camera still on the tripod and just threw the whole thing in my vehicle. If you are gonna be doing a lot of cold weather photography I'd look into a heated jacket. Have your base layer on, put the heated jacket over that and then if it's windy some sort of wind breaker over that. The heated jackets are good for about 4 hours at high setting but I'd suggest keep it at the lowest setting where you are comfortable (not cold but not really hot). Put the jacket on high when you are done. For boots I'd suggest boots with no metal in them at all. Also don't wear the boots or even the socks you are going to be wearing till it's actually time to go outside. You don't want your feet to be sweating while you are driving. I've got -100 boots for work and even those won't keep my feet warm once there is too much moisture. If you are going to be doing a few stops I'd take the boots off while driving and even bring a few changes of socks along.

Just a point of clarification, he doesn't need to "treat" the jacket more often to keep it waterproof. He needs to treat it to keep it breathable. A jacket isn't expensive or fancy because it's waterproof. You can buy a rubber fisherman's jacket for $40 and it'll be a more durable than a $500 Arc'Teryx jacket. The difference is in the breathability. If a jacket can't vent moisture, there's potential for a build-up of perspiration, which can make you just as wet as if you didn't have a jacket on. For low-output activities like standing still, this isn't a big deal. If you're hoofing a pack up a mountain, it starts to matter a little more. For a jacket to be breathable, the material that both stops external moisture and vents internal moisture needs to be incredibly thin and therefore fragile, which means the waterproof part of a waterproof/breathable jacket is actually on the inside. That means the outside of the jacket (usually nylon) isn't actually waterproof. Since it's not waterproof it has the potential to get soaked, which inhibits the jacket's breathability. That's why jackets are treated with DWR, so the water beads up and rolls off instead of soaking in. Since DWR is a chemical treatment, it eventually wears off and your jacket becomes significantly less breathable because the outer material wets out faster and blocks the internal moisture from escaping.

Interestingly, for something like landscape photography, unless you're hiking miles and miles to get to a location, you actually don't need a fancy rain jacket because it's otherwise a fairly low-output activity. Sure it's nice to have and if you already hike a lot you'll probably have one anyway, but standing behind a tripod for hours isn't exactly a recipe for heavy perspiration. Granted, the two can go hand in hand, but with more and more "landscape photographers" driving to locations that are a 5 minute walk from the car, it's a little less important.

One last point is that he puts a lot of emphasis on GoreTex, but GoreTex is a company, not a single product. They make several different versions of their membrane, some are better than others. The cheaper versions aren't much better (and often worse than) other breathable fabrics like eVent, NeoShell, etc.

Just my two cents as a hiker.

Aaron Reizner's picture

This article is very useful and the timing is excellent as I'll be in the Arctic regions of Norway and Finland for the first time in a few weeks. Cold hands are a significant concern of mine as I have raynaud's syndrome, so I have a combination of fancy (Seirus) reflective glove liners and quality gore-tex mittens that I plan to stuff with hand warmers as needed, but wish I'd known about the existence of gloves and mittens designed specifically for photographers! I'm not positive they'd be warm enough, but what a great idea.

Robert Nurse's picture

My problem (Raynaud’s syndrome) is finding gloves that keep my hands warm AND leave me with enough dexterity to operate the camera. That's the one thing that pretty much kills my outdoor shooting during winter.

Spy Black's picture

Some great info from this fellow. I ride a motorcycle in the winter and have similar setups, basically windbreaker/armor followed by two or three thin synthetic layers. Duofold used to make great synthetic undies, the Expedition Strength series, but their recent versions of it suck and I've yet to find a suitable replacement.

A good breathable raincoat can also make for a good outer layer, just get one with plenty of adjustable venting, such as on the arms. This way you could just leave the layers on when expending energy (to a degree, depending on your layers) and you can vent sweat and excessive heat. I'm not big on down because as he said if it get's wet you're screwed. To borrow a phrase from The Graduate: Plastics!

Deleted Account's picture

It's my hands that always let me down in the winter. Had terrible issues last winter shooting in the snow.
Next Jan I have a week working in the snow so looking out for some good gloves that I can operate the cameras with. :/