Cold Weather Photography Tips to Help Protect Yourself & Your Camera Gear

Cold, Darn Cold and Oh My Goodness, It’s Freaking Cold!

Back in my days as a white water rafting guide we used to say there were three levels of cold; cold, darn cold and "Oh my goodness, it’s freaking cold!" (Well actually that wasn’t our exact language, but this is a family channel.)

Cold weather can take its toll on both photographers and camera equipment. In fact, this is one area where film technology may still be superior to digital gear (it’s a tough call, film gets brittle in extreme cold and static electricity becomes more of a problem; but digital camera batteries don’t seem to handle the cold as well as their nicad and lithium counterparts).

I’ve shot at the South Pole with a Canon T90 (a film camera) in 12 below weather and my camera and batteries performed flawlessly. On the other hand, I’ve shot in below freezing temperatures and found my Canon digital camera batteries (NP-E3s and BP-511s) draining way too quickly, even when spares where kept inside my coat and next to my body to keep warm.

I spent four seasons "on the ice" with Operation DEEP FREEZE as a Navy journalist and have done many outdoor winter shoots here on the East Coast over the years. In this article I’m going to share a number of tips for handling cold weather photography and show you how to keep both yourself and your gear safe and working properly.

Cold Weather Concerns

Cold weather isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s also hard on your health and that of your equipment. These next two paragraphs deal with protecting yourself and your equipment.

Protecting the photographer

  • Dress in layers from head to toe — wearing layers of warm clothing all over your body will help you stay warmer and give you greater flexibility to deal with changing weather conditions. Synthetics such as polypropylene ("polypro") and pile can keep you warm even when wet; combined with a Gore-Tex or weatherproof shell garment, such clothing can keep you comfortable.
  • Protect your hands — frostbite’s no fun (trust me). For extreme cold weather plan on a set of polypro glove liners, followed by a heavier outer glove or mitten. Even better is a combo glove popular with hunters. These feature an inner set of fingerless gloves with a mitten flap that offers extra warmth, but can be flipped over when greater dexterity. The best of these also offer a pouch for a chemical heat pack to help keep your fingers even warmer. With practice, you can operate your camera while exposing only one polypro clad finger to the cold.
  • Eat for the cold — your body burns more calories working in the cold than it does in warm weather. Not only is it important to take in enough calories to get through a cold weather outdoor shoot, but the type of calories are also important. One gram of carbohydrate or protein contains about 4 calories of energy, while one gram of fat provides 9 calories of energy. Eating meals high in fat before a cold weather shoot can help you stay warmer as your body works harder to metabolize the fat. Carrying some high fat snacks for nibbling on in the cold is also a good idea.
  • Manage your body temperature — be careful to avoid working up a sweat, particularly if you’re wearing old fashioned thermal underwear (which is made of cotton and loses its effectiveness when it gets wet). Under extremely cold conditions, your sweat can freeze quickly, requiring more body heat to melt that ice later when you’ve cooled down.

Protecting your gear

Now that you’ve taken care of yourself, it’s time to plan on keeping your equipment operational. While most gear is up to the occasional cold day, operating under extreme cold or sustained cold conditions places a real strain on modern digital cameras whether they be DSLRs or point-and-shoot cameras.

  • Get your camera a CLA — if you need reliable performance from your camera, consider sending it off to the manufacturer for a CLA (clean, lube and adjustment) to make sure it’s working at its best.
  • Buy more batteries — a new set of batteries or two gives you insurance against the likelihood of faster battery drain in the cold plus the newer ones will provide optimal performance.
  • Keep your batteries warm — keep every battery you’re not using in a shirt or trouser pocket where your outer clothing can protect them and your body heat can keep them warm.
  • Keep your batteries warm (pt 2) — sometimes conditions are so bad you have to tape chemical warming packets to the outside of your camera to keep the battery compartment warm enough for the batteries to keep functioning. This is one reason why photographers often carry gaffer’s tape or duct tape in their camera bags.

While shooting in the cold isn’t often fun, a prepared photographer can function very effectively when the thermometer drops.