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Cold Weather Photography Tips

How to use your camera gear in cold weather; winter photography tips
Winter Photo Tips Cover

Cold weather is upon us, and the snowflakes are coming down. Winter is here to stay (for a few months at least). I'm planning on going snowshoeing this weekend up in the Rockies, so I got to thinking, what sort of things should you be aware of when using your camera gear in the cold?

Batteries

NiMH and Lithium Ion batteries are the most commonly used battery types for digital cameras. And like all batteries, they generate electrical current through chemical reactions. In most cases, the chemical reactions producing the electric current will take place slower or at reduced efficiency when the battery is at a lower temperature. So this means that in order to draw the same amount of power in cold weather, more chemical reactions need to take place, and the battery will lose its charge much faster.

The obvious way you can get around this is to keep your camera and batteries warm. If you have a smaller point-and-shoot camera, keep the camera in an inner jacket pocket. If you have a larger DSLR, keeping it in your pack will offer some protection from the cold. Otherwise, make sure you have your batteries fully charged before you go out on a cold day, and if you plan on doing a lot of shooting, have an extra battery handy.

Operating Temperature Range

Electronic devices (including digital cameras) have an "approved" range of operating temperatures. This means that the camera manufacturer has tested and certified the camera to function normally at those temperatures.

Smaller point-and-shoot cameras with pop out lenses may be more susceptible to mechanical errors in cold weather. Any exposed, moving parts can stick and freeze up. Like extending lenses or automatic sliding lens covers. DSLR cameras will be more durable as a general rule, and DSLR operating temperature range should not be a major consideration unless you plan on shooting in extremely cold weather.

However, this doesn't necessarily mean that a camera or piece of gear will not operate outside the operating temperature range. In any case, you should at least be aware of the ranges set out in your camera's manual and follow the warnings listed there.

Condensation

Condensation is when a gas or vapor turns to a liquid state. When a surface is colder than the surrounding air, water vapor can condense out of the air onto the surface. Condensation becomes a concern for cold weather photography because of the possibility of water vapor condensation onto lenses, LCD screens and even internal components.

Winter Photography - Icicles
Freezing temps yield lots of tiny icicles on the eave

When you have your camera out to shoot in cold weather, the glass, plastic and electronics will cool off quickly. Walking back into a warm house or putting the camera back into a warm jacket or pack can cause unwanted condensation because the camera will be much colder than the new environment. The amount of condensation will depend on the dew point and relative humidity.

Here in Colorado, where the air is almost always dry, this isn't much of a concern. But if you live in a more humid climate you definitely want to keep this in mind. Use a lint-free, cotton cloth to wipe away condensation from lenses and LCD screens, and make sure your camera is powered off if you see heavy condensation or dew.

Gloves

One thing you'll definitely need if shooting in cold weather is a good pair of gloves. Unfortunately, a pair of heavy gloves will not let you operate the small buttons and controls on your camera. To keep your hands warm while using your camera, try wearing a lightweight glove liner inside a pair of heavier mittens or winter gloves. You can slip your hands out of the heavy winter gloves to run the camera controls and take your shots, and then put them back inside the heavier pair to stay warm.

You can also try some fingerless gloves or mittens, but most likely these will defeat the purpose of keeping your hands warm. If your camera has a touch screen, your only option may be to take off your winter gloves during operation.

Exposure

Cold weather photography probably means one thing. There is going to be snow in your pictures. Lots of snow. And snow plus sunlight equals bright images. So how can you compensate for the extremely bright areas of snow and ice without blowing out the rest of your photo and losing detail?

Winter Photography - Snowy Landscape
Lots of bright snow; a cold day at high altitude in Colorado

Many cameras will have built-in scene modes to address this very scenario. On your camera dial, look for "snow" or "beach" scene modes. These modes will tell your camera to expect a very bright picture and to compensate accordingly. Alternatively, you can adjust the aperture and/or shutter speed values (for DSLRs and some point-and-shoot cameras). But this does take some know-how and usually a bit of trial and error.  

Another solution for overly bright scenes is to use a filter to darken the image. An ND, or neutral density, filter will darken the photo equally across the entire spectrum. A polarizing filter will remove the scattered light from a scene, effectively darkening the image and increasing the intensity of colors.

Conclusion

Cold weather photography means taking several additional things into account when using your gear. Condensation, camera operating temperature ranges, the effects of cold air, etc, can all impact your photography. But hopefully following these tips will help you get better photos this winter.

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