Winter Photography: Tips for Traveling and Shooting in Cold Winter Conditions

            The thought of hiking and camping in the snow leaves many rushing for warmer activities. Normally, the biting cold and increased challenges that come with being outdoors during the winter have left only the most experienced and well-prepared up for the challenge. The same goes for taking pictures during winter, where everything feels heavier and lugging around camera gear never seems like that great of an idea anymore once the temperatures plummet. However, with a little planning and preparation winter will soon become one on your favorite times to adventure! Here are a few tips to help get you started.

Photography

The chance to photograph places few others are able to in the middle of winter can have its rewards, but successfully capturing those pictures can be a painstaking experience. Here are some of the issues you’ll face while taking pictures during winter, and how you can deal with them:

  1. Battery Life – During winter your batteries die much quicker than normal, and this effect increases with the colder it becomes. This happens to batteries of all types, including your phone battery. Store your batteries in a warm place; I keep mine in a small padded bag, the LowerPro Tahoe 30.  Once I set up camp, I actually keep that bag in the cargo pocket of my pants. When it’s time to sleep, the pouch comes with for maximum warmth.
  2. Lens/Sensor Fog – Your camera sensor and lens will fog quicker in colder conditions. This happens for many reasons, but mostly when you move your camera/lens from a warm environment and to a cold environment without properly acclimating it to the colder temperatures. This isn’t as likely to be your issue if you’ve been out in the cold for more than 30 minutes. More commonly, believe it or not, your lens can fog from your own breath. To help with this, be aware of your breathing and avoid breathing too close to the back of your camera while shooting. You can even try holding your breath while looking through the viewfinder.
  3. Go Light – While generally a good idea for trekking, it becomes even more important in the winter when you need to take more clothing/camping gear. A great way to instantly save weight is to invest in a lightweight tripod and head combination. I currently use a Gitzo GT2541 Tripod with a Really Right Stuff BH-25 Ballhead – this is strong enough for my current backpacking setup, the heaviest lens combo being a Sony A7RII + Canon 70-200 F/4. Previously, I utilized a  Manfrotto 496RC2 ball head which while not the lightest, was  still strong enough to hold my heavy Canon 5D MKII + 70-200 f/2.8 IS and 1/4 the price of a Really Right Stuff set-up.  My other camera is a lightweight Sony A600. The A6000 is predominantly my trekking and timelapse camera, and I use the A7RII once I’ve reached a spot where I am planning on really shooting.

Clothing

            Layers is the name of the game, and plenty of them. Oh yeah, and more important, avoid cotton; once you sweat, your cotton shirt will stay wet, leaving you wrapped in soon to be hypothermia. Synthetic/wool are your best friends – they wick moister to help keep you relatively dry, while trapping your body heat to help keep you warm. Gore Tex is also your best friend, as it is a lightweight waterproof material that will protect you from all of the elements. Here is a list of clothing I normally take on any winter back country camping trip:

  • 1 top base layer (midweight)
  • 1 fleece mid layer jacket
  • 1 Gore-Tex shell jacket
  • 1 nano puff jacket
  • 1 hooded down puff jacket
  • 1 pair of wool ski/hiking socks per day (a fresh pair of socks will help avoid having sweaty feet which can lead to terrible blisters)
  • 1 pair of socks liners
  • 1 pair of lightweight Gore-Tex hiking boots
  • 1 bottom base layer (midweight)
  • 1 Gore-Tex shell pants (when skiing – if not skiing, I use water resistant hiking pants)
  • 1 nano puff pants
  • 1 pair of heavyweight Gore-Tex gloves
  • 1 pair of midweight liner gloves
  • 1 beanie

Having clothes is one thing, but you must be smart in how you use your layers. Generally, you start out in your base layers and work your way towards your mid layer and eventually the heavier down puff. Here is how I would use the above clothing on a day out:  

  • When you start your day you’ll likely be chilly while standing still, but you’ll begin to warm up as you hike. You don’t want to sweat in all of your clothes, so start in your base layers and Gore-Tex shells (or hiking pants, depending on the conditions). Keep the mid layer easily accessible in the event it gets colder. I normally do not trek with either of my puffs on unless the temperature really plummets.
  • Start-off wearing only the midweight liner gloves. As it gets colder, you can switch to the warmer heavyweight gloves on. When it is really cold, slide the heavyweight gloves over the liners for maximum warmth. While shooting, the heavyweight gloves are too bulky to operate the camera controls, so it helps to have the lines as they are thin enough to handle the camera yet still provide some warmth.
  • During longer periods of rest such as lunch, you’ll probably get cold and want to put on an additional layer.
  • When done trekking for the day, I layer my upper body starting with the mid layer then the nano puff  and finally the down puff jacket when it gets really cold. Depending on the weather conditions (windy, rainy and/or snowy), I will not use the shell jacket anymore. When it’s time to get into the sleeping bag, I slip out of the Gore-Tex pants and put on my nano puff pants. While this may be more of a luxury, it’s definitely worth the warmth.
  • I normally hike with Gore-Tex boots. If I am skiing, I will take Gore-Tex boots with me to change into while at camp for the end of the day. You can always bypass this and continue to walk around in your ski boots, but this may be a painful and cold experience. Buyer beware though,  you will sink into the snow as you walk (called “postholing”) while wearing regular shoes in deep or otherwise unpacked snow.
  • When the day’s over I change my socks. If my feet get really cold, I’ll wear the wool liners below my socks.

Camping

            Much like with clothing, you will need additional gear to winter camp. Here are some tips on the gear you’ll need to help you have a more enjoyable night out during the winter:

  • Take as much food as you would for any summer backpacking trip, except include additional snacks for added energy.
  • You’re sleeping bag should be rated for at least 15 degrees. You can also combine your sleeping bag with a sleeping bag liner for added warmth. I have a Marmot Lithium down sleeping bag, rated for 0 degrees.
  • A dual wall tent will provide you the best protection from the cold and the elements. The drawback is that they are more expensive and heavier than a single wall tent, which may not provide as much protection but is much lighter. For most winter camping, a solid single wall tents may suffice.
  • You’ll need a shovel to help build snow walls or dig for the restroom.
  • If you cannot find a water source you will have to melt snow, a slow and tedious process. Bring a pot (or jetboil) for melting snow. Before I had a Jetboil, I used a lightweight pot and backpacking MSR stove. I also take my water filter just in case.
  • If you’re camping in the snow, you will likely have to flatten out a space for your tent. This is especially true if you’re camping on fresh snow. If you do not do this, you will sink miserably and have a bumpy bed. I flatten out the area with my skis, and then use the shovel to smooth it out.
  • Depending on where you are camping and your wind situation, it may also be a good idea to use your shovel to make a small snow wall around your tent to protect yourself from heavy winds.
  • If you have a water bladder, your bladder will freeze once the temperature drops below freezing (go figure). Hang it on the outside of your bag the next day so it’ll warm up and melt

Here are some more suggestions to help keep you warm and comfortable while out battling the winter cold to get the shot:

  • Some people take a thermos, boil water and then keep it in their sleeping bag at night.
  • When heading to bed, stick all the layers you’re not wearing into your sleeping bag except Gore Tex shells – you may want to keep those in your hiking bag. This helps insulate your sleeping bag and keep your layers warm! Also, depending on your type of ski boot (if you’re skiing), it may also be a good decision to remove your liners and place them in your sleeping bag. There is nothing like having to slip on cold clothes or ski boots in the morning.

Trekking

Skins’ up!   

        Now, onto the fun stuff! You’ve got all your camping gear and clothes ready to roll. The big question is – how exactly should I travel in snow? Unless you’re hiking on a packed down or groomed trail, you’re likely going to be sinking in the snow if you try to use regular shoes to get anywhere. The three best ways to get around by foot in snow include:

  • Snowshoes
  • Cross Country Skis
  • Alpine Touring Skis

Snow shoes can be a great way if you’re going on a simple day hike. Using snow shows is the equivalent of hiking, so if you want a quick and simple method to get out for a night in the backcountry or a little hike, this may be your best bet.

Cross country skis are great because you can ski both uphill and downhill, and while it is quite easy to learn, they are normally only good on groomed trails and are harder to control at times. Their thin design make them harder to break trail in in deep snow. If you chose to use cross country skis, and plan on doing any sort of hiking through fresh snow, you’ll probably want to take snowshoes with you as well.

Alpine touring (or “at”) skis allow you to use skis to hike uphill by placing a “skin” onto the bottom; when you’re ready to go downhill, you remove the skins and you have regular skis. They have their obvious setbacks, including that the gear can be extremely heavy or extremely expensive – splitboarding is almost the same as an at ski setup, the main difference being that a splitboard is the equivalent of a snowboard split down the middle into two equal portions that function just like a pair of skis when hiking. The main benefit of using at skis is the ability to break trail in fresh snow as well as to ski downhill, even on groomed trails. Note though, going uphill on at skis is slower than on cross country skis, by a wide margin.  My preferred method is to travel by at skis.

Knowing that I would be using skis a lot in the back country, I invested in a lightweight touring set-up, which includes:

  • K2 Wayback 96 skis
  • Dynafit Radical ST 2.0 bindings
  • Dynafit TLT6 boots

Now you’re ready go brave the harsh winter temperatures and capture some of your own winter wonderland images!

If you have any questions, please feel free to shoot me an email at devon@heyguystudios.com.

One Comment

  1. motoapk Nice April 30, 2017 at 11:07 pm #

    A big thank you for your blog. Keep writing.

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