Personally, I love shooting in winter, I love the challenge to find and create good compositions while my extremities are slowly going numb, and I love the freedom to go and shoot more beautiful scenery while it is devoid of most tourists and travelers. Over the years, my choice of locations has gotten more aggressive in comparison to my earlier ventures out into the cold. I want to go further, I want to hike deeper, and I simply want more ice and snow in my shots. Chasing after some of these views has resulted in the need for more planning, better timing, and investments in higher quality gear.
Most cameras are typically cold proof down to a certain point. Usually, that point is at least 32°F (0°C) for most cameras, you should be able to check the specifications for your particular camera to see what is specified for the operating environment. So far, I haven't dealt with any super intense temperature extremes, the coldest environment that I have worked in so far was roughly 5°F (-15°C). But, even at those temperatures just below the freezing point, I have noticed my gear starts to function differently and I have to make adjustments in order to stay out and get my shots.
Specifically, with camera functionality, everything starts to slow down in those temperatures below freezing. Granted, there are probably some cameras out there that are designed to handle more extreme temperatures, but even brand name flagship cameras such as the Canon 1D X Mark II and the Nikon D5 are still only rated by the manufacturers for temperatures down to 32°F (0°C). One of the first things that stops working well, or altogether, for my camera setup is the autofocus. I tend to use manual focus pretty much as often as I use autofocus, but when the temperatures drop beyond freezing then the autofocus system on my camera starts operating really slowly and sometimes just stops working. The required usage of manual focus is pretty much inevitable when staying out in frigid temperatures for a longer period of time. The camera, so far, has still been able to operate just fine and capture all the images that I want, but some of those automated features definitely slow down.
The other piece of gear that almost always freezes up at some point is my tripod head. I use the Manfrotto 410 Geared Head, which makes it easy for me to fine tune the composition and level out my image with the fine gear movements. However, the lubricating element or grease, that is used internally for the tripod head, when subject to freezing temperatures begin to lock up and slow those movements down. Each time I have shot in cold weather like that for a longer duration the tripod head has ended up completely locking up and preventing any more adjustments. So far, the only really good solution I have for that is by taking advantage of the hiking time between shots to try and warm up the tripod head. When the head locks up, I will remove it from the tripod and place it in my backpack with several activated hand warmers packed in around it. Usually by the time I hike to my next spot the head is warm enough to loosen up the movements for my next shot.
The other thing you have to consider, outside of the limitations of your camera gear, is that the human body also has its limitations. I know, that will be obvious to most, but finding the right gear to keep yourself warm while taking advantage of these beautiful shoot conditions is also pretty important. Toes and fingers are almost always the ones that start to feel the effects of the cold before anything else, but maintaining a good core body temperature is what will make the difference between having a great cold weather outing and ending up with hypothermia. Below is a list of my preferred choices for cold weather gear and why I use them.
- Smartwool PhD Outdoor Light socks. These are always my inner lining sock layer. The wool helps with moisture control (if needed), and they create a great base layer.
- Smartwool PhD Outdoor Heavy socks. These are simply worn over the light socks, both to create another layer for trapping heat between layers, and to add significantly more insulation with the thicker sock itself.
- My choice of boot, for years, has been the Danner Desert TFX. Not only are they 100% waterproof and breathable, but the combo build of leather and 1000 Denier nylon provides excellent ankle support as well as element protection. I can stomp through cactus, hike through water and mud, and pretty much anything else and not have to worry about my footing.
- For base layers, I always go with Under Armour 4.0 cold gear. When it comes to good thermals, these are incredibly comfortable and are very warm.
- For my middle layers, I like to stick with synthetics, in part for my moisture control system as well as for thermal layering. My go-to choices for mid layers are Under Armour Infrared gear. Again, super comfortable and great at helping to maintain warmth.
- For my outer layers, I prefer The North Face down jackets which provide amazing insulation and body heat retention and the Marker High Line pants which are built with GORE-TEX technology for warmth and waterproofing.
- Gloves are a little trickier, but I still prefer to have my Under Armour Infrared glove liners and then to have a good insulating glove with GORE-TEX waterproofing like the ones made by Burton.
- I always make sure to have several hand and foot warmers both in my pockets and in my backpack, both for myself and for loosening up gear as needed.
- Neck gaiters or scarves are incredibly useful, by trapping in heat that might otherwise escape slowly from the collar of your coat.
- A simple snowboarding beanie is usually all I need for keeping my head and ears warm.
- The other piece of gear that you could look into would be tripod leg protectors. That may seem somewhat silly at face value, but consider how much heat you lose over time through the thermal conductivity that takes place when you grasp and carry your tripod. Handling the cold metal of your tripod can end up taking its toll and rob your hands of the warmth you are trying to retain.
Honestly, that is pretty much it for my gear setup. The only real trick to staying warm in those harsh environments is simply to keep moving. All that fancy gear can only do so much if you don't move around. If you sit still for too long, you will find yourself going hypothermic. So stay safe, stay warm, and go capture something awesome while you're out there!