Shooting in Winter: My Go-To Gear List and Other Suggestions

Shooting in Winter: My Go-To Gear List and Other Suggestions

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.

Kiruna, Sweden
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 16mm • ƒ/14 • 1.6s • ISO 400

Abisko National Park, Sweden
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 16mm • ƒ/14 • 2s • ISO 200

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.

Zion National Park, Utah, USA
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 16mm • ƒ/22 • 1/5s • ISO 50

Zion National Park, Utah, USA
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 16mm • ƒ/22 • 1/5s • ISO 50

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!

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16 Comments

user-156929's picture

Some years ago, I shot the Northern Lights, northeast of Fairbanks, in February with a Nikon D3000 at around -35°F and a $65 tripod. No problems whatsoever. :-/

Rex Jones's picture

Here's the thing, Sam. You comment, and tell me about shooting the Northern Lights, without showing me at least one shot from the excursion! ;)

Haha, seriously, that sounds like it would have been amazing. And -35°F, that's pretty cold! I'm guessing that one of the reasons my gear started slowing down was that it was a zoom lens, and not a prime. More working pieces that started freezing? I'm not quite sure.

user-156929's picture

Taken with a Tokina 11-16mm lens. I meant to comment on your clothing. I discovered Smart Wool socks, preparing for the trip and love, love, love them! Being a bit of a woosie, I bought a Canada Goose coat for the trip and still wear it, even when it's not technically cold enough to justify doing so. :-)

Rex Jones's picture

Ahhh, I love it!! That sir, is a gorgeous shot. As for clothing, I'm right where you are. Perhaps it's the hotter temperatures in Southern Utah that have turned me into a pansy where cold weather is concerned, but I am all about gearing up with the best I can to stay warm!!

Menshikov Andrey's picture

Olympus for OM-D E-M1 MkII and E-M5 MkII cameras declared -14 to 104°F (-10 to 40°C) in operation.

Rex Jones's picture

I did not know that. That's pretty impressive, easily rated for lower temperatures than most cameras I've come across.

In the past when shooting with film cameras in extreme cold I had the camera stripped down and all mechanical parts re-greased with a lubricant suited to lower temperatures. perhaps you could strip down the geared head and regrease it.

Rex Jones's picture

That's a good idea. I haven't ever done that, specifically for cold temperatures. I am curious, did you use any particular lubricant for the purposes of handling cold weather?

I have used a 70d by -32C without issues but the camera was in my bag while not in use and I was only outside a bit more than 1h. I have not notice focussing issues (with either the 10-18 or the 55-250 II). For day hikes in the -15 to -20 C range fine as well. However, I would add that when you come back inside, it is a good idea to put the camera within a waterproof bag (like for canoeing) while you are still outside and keep it there until it warm up again. Otherwise condensation is a big issue.

Rex Jones's picture

I think that was probably part of my problem, on a few of my shoots, the fact that I was outside for several hours at a time. Plus, my bag isn't super insulated, so I'm guessing that was part of the issue as well.

That's good thinking, about the waterproof back for preventing condensation issues. :)

Anonymous's picture

This fluffy bugger will change your life. Using it in -20 degree weather it still keeps my hands toasty warm. Plus, it makes even the beefiest cameras look snuggly and adorable.

user-156929's picture

Did you really write "snuggly and adorable"? :-) It does but still. ;-)

Anonymous's picture

Absolutely. It's quite literally a puffy coat for your camera. If you're rocking any mid to short length primes it looks like a giant mass of fluff.

William Faucher's picture

I find it interesting to read about cameras in cold temps, and issues you had. Mostly because I have literally never had any issues with my naked camera exposed to the elements, and I grew up in Canada, and now living in Norway. I have been out in -30C and colder shooting northern lights and wildlife without so much as a blanket over it. Autofocus was never a problem, while slower, I agree, but never stopped working entirely with the exception of one lens, the Tokina 11-16mm 2.8. And that is only because it uses a motor drive to work the AF, unlike 99% of Nikons modern lenses which are all electronic. I shoot with a Nikon D800, so maybe it's the weather sealing, but I doubt Canons flagship cameras wouldn't be just as good. Makes no sense.

I am not hating on your post here, merely curious! Maybe keeping my camera warmer is worth starting to look into/consider now that you point it out, but the cold never gave me any reason to do something about it.

Michael Yearout's picture

Rex: Good advice. Living at almost 10,000 feet in elevation our winters are pretty cold. I've shot a lot in -15 F temperatures. If I know I'll have my camera out for an extended period of time I put a rain cover on and through a couple of handwarmers in the bottom. Not perfect, but it helps a lot.

Keith Davis's picture

Thanks for the article Rex and the great pictures. I'm from Missouri and although we don't have the severe cold you and others have mentioned it still gets cold enough to affect my gear. The coldest I've shot in was 7 below with a Canon 5D Mark III. I was wanting a Milky Way shot behind an old mill so I hiked in early to get some blue hour shots then had to wait 4 hours for the stars to rise behind the mill...Miserable!!!.. But the camera, and prime lens worked fine but to be sure I taped a hand warmer over the battery compartment and another on the lens after locking down the focus. Came out good but the 4 hour drive home in an old Ford pickup was hell as the heater went out.

Butch