Now that wintry conditions are finally here, and we seem to be getting some snow every other day, I look out the window at the ‘winter wonderland’ snowscapes and want to grab a camera and rush outside. Then I remember all the precautions I need to take, and my enthusiasm is dampened a bit… but when I do get out, I’ve found that a remembering a few important things will ensure a higher percentage of usable shots.

Snowy/Cold conditions present some interesting challenges for any kind of photography. Never mind the fact that I’m usually freezing and so loaded down with winter garments that its difficult to move and manipulate the camera and lens controls. Before we even get to the problems of photography, lets talk about the environmental stuff – keeping the camera warm and dry. The winter jackets make this a little easier – best to keep the camera under the jacket until you need to use it, and of course, you can carry an extra lens and stuff in the large pockets. But be very very careful if you are going to change lenses. Make sure you don’t let any snow or water get into the body. I prefer a short-range zoom, say 28-80mm or 35-105mm with a hood!! in the first place so that I don’t have to change the lens. Or you can stick to the faithful 50mm. Filtering is another matter – we’ll come to that. And film… but first things first.

First of all, there is the problem of light – if it is sunny, the reflected light off the snowscape makes the scene so bright that the meter indicates a much shorter exposure than is actually needed – resulting in underexposed/dark and dingy subjects. Compensating for the subject (people and objects) may render the rest of the scene overexposed, washed out and featureless. Also, if we use a faster film, the brightness may cause the metering to go out of range.

A polarizing filter or a neutral density filter is essential to cut the light level to usable levels. The polarizer is the best bet, since it not only cuts reflections, but acts as a 2x neutral density filter AND helps saturate colors. If photographing in shaded conditions (sun behind cloud, open shade of buildings etc) remember that snow will tend to have a bluish cast, rendering the whole picture blue even if you have correctly compensated for the lower light conditions. In such a situation the polarizer/ND filter will need to be exchanged for a warming filter such as 81A or a Tiffen 812.

Which brings us to film – I recommend a slower film – 100 ASA for sunny conditions, and 200 ASA if photographing in sun/shade conditions, where you might have to use a fill flash, or use a slightly longer exposure. Don’t pick a faster film like 400 ASA or above unless you are using a longer zoom such as a 80-200mm which may have a smaller aperture (f/4.5-f/5.6) In such a case, if you are using a polarizer, you will need the faster film to compensate for the loss of 2 stops. It’ll be fine in sunny conditions.

One thing I learned about winter photography – going back inside into a warm room is BAD. The moisture will condense on the cold camera body and lens and even inside the camera and on the film. In short, everywhere since we are talking about old metal bodied manual cameras. I am not sure what it does to modern plastic bodied cameras, but you can be sure the condensation does not do the circuitry any good either.

Your best bet is to take along a few zip lock bags (at least one 1 gallon zip lock to take camera body with lens attached) and 1 inch wide coarse paintbrush when you go out. Before coming back in, brush off any snow that might be on the camera and lenses and then place the camera and lens and film canisters (exposed and unexposed) into the bag, and close them tightly, expelling as much air as possible in the process. When you come back inside, the moisture will condense ON the bags instead of your precious camera equipment. Do not take the camera out of the bags until it has reached room temperature – this won’t take too long, so be patient.

What about the poor photographer?? I cannot stress the importance of good, waterproof boots. They don’t have to be expensive – Walmart has excellent Herman Survivors waterproof leather boots for less than $40. Add thick warm cotton socks, and you are in business. Jeans don’t keep you warm when wet – the weave doesn’t keep wind out either. I suggest a under-layer of thermals, or if you have baggy jeans, wear a pair of sweat pants under them. Protect your upper body with at least 3 layers, a warm cap and don’t bother with goggles/glasses unless you really need them. A headband will prevent the cold metal of your camera from sticking to skin and causing a painful skin tear.

Thinsulate or fleece gloves are nice, but will be a huge hindrance when using the camera. You will be all thumbs. A better solution is the heatpacks that get activated when exposed to air – they warm up from 55-120 degrees F, and it’s great to have one in each pocket, since metal camera bodies and lens barrels can get cold. Open the packages up a few minutes before you go out and place one in each pocket. You can warm your hands by slipping them into a pocket and grasping them for a minute or two. They last about 12 hours, and you can reuse them. Just put them in a airtight zip lock bag, and they will stop heating when they run out of air. Don’t leave them against your skin for too long. They can cause mild burns. The instructions on the packets are usually clear. I’d advise you pick up a few and keep them in your car for emergencies.

Remember that you cannot concentrate on the best viewpoints, composition or accurate focusing when you are feeling wet, cold and miserable. It’s best to keep yourself as warm and safe as possible and protect your equipment as well as you can. I learned this the hard way 🙂 .

text and images © 2007 ajoy muralidhar. all names, websites, brands and technical data referenced are the copyright or trademark of their respective owners.