Deep Freeze Photography

Bison Grazing In Winter, Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, CO ~ Bison are perfectly suited for the extremes of harsh climates and just go about their business, the business of eating grass.

Self-Portrait While Photographing Bison – The ambient temperature was -10F and the wind chill -31F.

Cold snap! Arctic Express Makes It Too Dangerous To Go Outside! The talking heads really like to get us worked up whenever the weather is something other than “average”. I guess it gets people to tune in for longer than usual. But, don’t wild animals have to be outside all the time? Some of the most powerful images I’ve ever seen have been made by a skilled photographer experienced in, and prepared for, extreme conditions. We get our share of boring 50 degree days along Colorado’s Front Range; so I always try to head out when snow flies and the thermometer plunges to “dangerous levels.” Here’s a few tips to make your next winter outing reasonably comfortable and enjoyable.

You already have enough clothes, just layer them on! It’s pretty simple – synthetic base layer, insulating layer and shell. If it’s really cold like this morning, I’ll pile on three layers and my down parka. Cotton absorbs moisture, so it’s not a good choice for anything active, and especially in the cold. I knew I’d be close to the vehicle most of the time today, so I wore insulated jeans, which worked out ok. A couple of years ago in Crested Butte, temperature -27F, I frost-nipped my nose with a big white patch that peeled a week later. Lesson learned, no exposed sensitive skin in sub-zero temps. My cheap army surplus camo facemask is perfect for days like this. The parka hood traps all the heat that would otherwise escape through the top of my melon, so I’m a happy camper with this setup. Extremities are challenging, and there’s a certain amount of acceptable suffering in cold weather photography. But photographers can’t afford to lose hand function, making hand care a top priority. I started today with medium weight gloves and simply kept my hands in my pockets while waiting for the next shot. That was fine until the bison started moving around and I couldn’t tuck my hands in, so I switched to a heavier weight glove (but not bulky). Hand warmers would’ve been a good call, but simply keeping fingers moving makes working in the cold tolerable. Pac boots are great with medium synthetic socks and insulated hiking boots are the next best choice. They were certainly “next best” today.

Like bison, your gear doesn’t care if it gets cold; and once lenses get cold, keep ’em cold. Just like your eyeglasses, a sudden change to a warm car, or warm breath will fog a lens or LCD and render it useless. Here’s what you need to do: Keep some charged batteries in your pockets and switch them out when one dies. It will come back to life in your warm pocket. If you’re working from your vehicle, put the lens and camera in the bag and zip it up. I keep mine in the back of the 4-Runner away from the heat, and often drive around with the windows open until I’m done shooting. When you get home, just leave the camera bag zipped up and let it warm up for a few hours before monkeying around with your gear. And make sure to recharge those batteries for the next day!

I’ll save tips for active winter photography for another day. Enjoy the season!

8 thoughts on “Deep Freeze Photography

  1. Great shot! I think even the bison look a bit cold there… huddled together.

    As for shooting in the cold, on a few occasions I’ve really frozen my hands badly, and the bummer about that is that I’ve noticed that now they get colder quicker. Hand warmers are essential for me now for prolonged winter shooting. I still haven’t found a really warm glove that is also not bulky… any advice?

    And yeah a good down jacket is worth its weight in gold (well, probably literally, since they don’t weight that much!) My dream is to someday have down pants as well!

    1. Oh baby! I feel your pain, Jack. Once extremities get frozen they never seem the same – my nose is cold when it’s like 15 degrees. Here’s what I know about hands, and mine can really ache during one of these outings: Liner gloves are essential for operating cameras and lens, especially in manual mode. I don’t use the thin liner gloves much anymore and prefer a Black Diamond mid-weight pair to the 5-6 pair I’ve accumulated. Big bulky gloves are just too cumbersome. Besides placing chemical hand warmers on top of the hand inside the glove, (some gloves have a little warmer pocket) you can wear fingerless gloves over the top and still have good function in the tips. For some reason that keeps the whole hand a lot warmer. I have expensive fingerless gloves, but prefer the cheap camo fleece pair from the local army surplus. On really cold days, you can’t rely on the mid-weight/fingerless camo and I went with REI Tahoma gloves yesterday. I still had reasonable dexterity and wind blockage, which helped. Another piece of gear that helps a lot is some burly mittens over the top of the mid-weight combo. I use two options – a big insulated pair from REI that covers the wrist and has a strap that traps warmth. Take the glove off, shoot, shoot, shoot, then tuck the hand back in there for relief and when moving to the next spot. I also have a wind-proof mitten that peels back to a fingerless glove for camera operation. That’s a pretty sweet setup too. I’ve experimented with so many different combos and have so many gloves everywhere that it’s become comical. There’s nothing funny about aching hands, though!
      * One more thing: Anyone using an aluminum tripod (I use Gitzo carbon fiber tripods) in the cold should attach pipe insulation to a leg and wrap with duct tape. It’s a low-tech solution to cold transmitted through metal – happy shooting 🙂

      1. Ah, the fingerless over-gloves is a great idea! I never thought of that. I use some OR gloves which are a perfect weight for camera fiddling, but just aren’t quite warm enough on their own. Having fingerless gloves over them would be perfect! thanks!

    1. Ah, c’mon, there’s so many other things that define insanity… I just can’t think of any right now. 🙂 You’re right about the fine line, though. I was thinking about people in the far north, or even places like Montana, and the mind-numbing cold that grips the country every day for months. We’re rather spoiled, don’t you think?

  2. Here’s some marginally applicable gear input from the aerial photographer perspective. Warmth is critical because you might be flying around below zero with the doors removed and an 80-knot breeze blowing through the cockpit. Freezing your tail off dulls your senses, some of which are required for landing the plane.

    1: Wool: I still haven’t found anything that outperforms good old-fashioned wool. It is warm, functions well when wet, is cheap, durable, sustainable, and typically not made in sweatshops. The surplus pants from Army/Navy stores is very well built and inexpensive, and my main farm coat is a $15 Woolrich from Salvation Army—that was at least 30 years old when I bought it.
    2: Carhart “polar weight” insulated coveralls: It is shocking how much warmth is lost at the gap between coats and pants. The other benefit is that it is stiffer than the high-tech fabrics and doesn’t flap in the wind, translating vibrations to the camera.
    3: Geier Leather Gloves: These amazing gloves are warm enough for winter flying, yet soft enough that I can easily operate all of the controls on a Canon without the slightest problem. They’re not cheap (at $70 for the merino wool lined deerskin version), but well worth the investment.
    4: A wool balaclava tucked down to the deepest layer of your underclothes and secured with a knotted scarf.

    1. Great stuff, Chris. Thanks for the detailed pilot’s perspective – I love the practical, no sweat shop solutions! I’ll be checking out the Geier gloves soon. For anyone that sees Chris’ gear list, keep in mind that Chris is an accomplished aerial photographer who flies year ’round across the Rocky Mountain region – often with a door off of his plane!

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