Taking pictures in the field in wintertime, and especially long exposures, is something fantastic to me. It may be that I suffer from the heat and hate crowded beaches, but when the days get shorter and bad weather hits, I love running out into the field to take pictures.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over time, though, it’s that taking photos on a normal spring day and doing the same thing in the winter is quite different: not so much from a technical standpoint, but mostly because of the environment that surrounds us.
Whether it’s a fabulous snowfall or a marvelous storm, winter requires a few tricks that could make the difference between bringing home the shot or not. In this article, we will see how to enjoy this season at its best.
A fundamental rule for success in winter photography involves something as basic as it is overlooked: protecting our bodies. As much as we don’t think about it, our bodies are in fact designed to try to survive at all costs. This means that if you feel cold or hot beyond a certain level or for too long a period of time, your brain will put your body’s comfort as a priority while neglecting everything else. When this happens, there will be no more sunsets or sunrises to capture: the only thing you’ll be thinking about is that particular physical discomfort and how to fix it.
That’s why, in a nutshell, when you go to take pictures in the field in the winter you need to be appropriately dressed. The solution that I recommend (and that I have adopted for several years now) is to dress in layers: since in the course of a single photographic session you may find different weather conditions or simply because you will have to alternate moments of movement to reach the spot and long waits to shoot, it is advisable to avoid covering yourself with a single heavy layer. On the move you would be hot, and when stationary you would freeze in sweat.
Currently, my main technical clothing is mainly made up of items from Patagonia, which has an almost endless catalog of different types of clothing made from excellent quality and eco-friendly materials. It is impossible to give you universal advice on the exact products suitable for you because the weight of the garments will necessarily depend on the average temperatures you will face. However, for marine environments, I would definitely recommend thinking of a waterproof and windproof shell to have ready to use as a top layer.
A good cap is also indispensable: don’t forget that when the rest of the body is well protected our head dissipates a good part of our body heat. Having a warm head also contributes drastically to thermal comfort.
Although they are part of the clothing, I believe that gloves have special importance that deserves a dedicated section.
If you have shot in the field in winter, whether at the polar circle or on a coastline in the middle of a storm, you know well that it becomes essential to protect your hands from the cold and wind in order not to compromise comfort and therefore the speed of action. Using a generic pair of gloves may not be the ideal solution: if your movements become awkward, it will be difficult to quickly perform any action on the camera.
For this reason, I have been using The Heat Company gloves for years. Made of cutting-edge materials, they are designed just for us photographers because they allow us total protection and freedom of movement. They are designed in layers, a bit like the clothing mentioned above, so depending on the level of cold and wind expected, you can modulate your choice. I have several models, and to see which ones I use more often I invite you to read the articles HERE, HERE and HERE.
Camera and Lens
As you can imagine, there is no such thing as a camera body or lens for summer and one for winter, so what you have is certainly fine.
Having said that, one of the most important features that our camera (therefore intended as camera body and lens) must have is weatherproofing. This weatherproofing is essential not only when it rains or snows, but also when we get constant splashes of water from the sea for example. Nowadays most of the new cameras and lenses are weatherproof (you can check it from the manual), but if not, you have to protect the camera at all costs.
I honestly don’t recommend buying those clunky and expensive protectors you find online that allow you to protect your camera while leaving side access to your hands. To achieve the goal you just need to buy bags to put vegetables in the freezer. As absurd as it sounds they give much higher protection at a very low price. I use them for over a decade in the most extreme conditions and have always done their dirty (wet) job.
Another suggestion is to use shower caps: easy to “find” in any Hotel or B&B, are particularly useful between one stage of shooting and another to protect the front of your precious lenses and filters. With the fact that they are transparent, they allow you to make the composition even in the rain or snow but keeping the filter or lens protected until the shooting moment.
If in other seasons it is important to have quality filters made of real optical glass (the same old speech: why spend 3500€ for a camera and then ruin the shot with a low-quality filter?), in winter having quality filters becomes really essential.
Taking for granted then the optical characteristics, in this season what we are interested in is that the filters have an appropriate hydrophobic coating that allows us to clean them easily when they are wet. For this reason, in the field, I could never part with my NiSi.
As a kind of filter, I wouldn’t really have anything particular to recommend to you since the light conditions we look for are similar in summer rather than winter. The only thing I suggest you keep in mind is that if you use ND filters and you go to shoot in snowy environments, because of the reflection you might have to face a higher brightness, so you will need denser filters.
If you are interested in what filters I carry in my backpack, I refer you to THIS dedicated article.
For winter photo shootings you probably won’t need any new accessories, but even here some caution is a must.
The first one is about batteries: they last less in the cold. It is therefore good to have several spare batteries with you. If normally we think of battery life in terms of how many shots we can take, in winter it is more correct to think in terms of how many minutes it will last. From direct experience, I absolutely do not recommend the purchase of cheap batteries such as Patona, Neewer, or similar. Buy original batteries: they are more reliable, they last longer. If you don’t believe me, I’m sure you’ll think again when you come back from a night out hunting Northern Lights. Unfortunately, original batteries cost a lot, so if we have to cut back due to budget constraints, maybe we should buy some charging accessories for the field.
If like me you shoot with remote control, I recommend always using a wired one (programmable or not) as they are more reliable. Remember that in winter you will be shooting wearing gloves, so don’t buy remotes with microscopic buttons. For this reason, I’m using the SMDV T803 remote control: as ugly and reliable as an old TV remote control, it doesn’t miss a beat and you can easily set it even while wearing gloves.
Needless to say, but the tripod also plays a key role in our winter shots.
There is no universal tripod, unfortunately, so I won’t recommend one specifically, but if in other seasons you can sometimes get by with a generic tripod, in winter stability can make the difference between bringing home the shot or not.
Aluminum or carbon depends on your budget and whether you want to carry a heavy tripod on your shoulders or not. Whichever you choose, remember that it’s uncomfortable (as well as annoying) to handle a tripod in the cold, so it’s best to have one with a foam cover on at least one leg.
Spikes instead of rubberized feet are highly recommended and are practically indispensable if you’re going to shoot in snow or on icy surfaces. (remember that even if your tripod doesn’t come with them, you can buy generic ones on Amazon as long as the rubber feet on your tripod can be unscrewed).
And yes, all this gear has to go somewhere!
Apart from carrying comfort, in winter waterproofing becomes essential. Of all the solutions I’ve tried over the years, if you’re looking for a reliable backpack for typical winter weather situations, I can only recommend the f-stop Gear backpacks. I have several models but the one I am using more assiduously at the moment is the Loka UL that you can find reviewed HERE.
Among the extras, or rather among the non-photographic accessories, I suggest two or three things.
The first is to bring a thermos with maybe some hot tea: between one shot and another, it is good to hydrate with something hot. If you have a sweet tooth like me, a bit of chocolate to restore your energy is not bad.
Then if you are going to shoot in snowy landscapes or at really low temperatures, I suggest you buy crampons: especially if you are going to shoot near the sea on icy and slippery rocks, crampons to wear over your boots can make your photo session much safer.
On the subject of safety, I suggest you always have a small first aid kit with you: do not underestimate the fact that in the middle of nature even the smallest inconvenience could be a real nuisance if not dealt with in the best possible way right from the start.
I left this topic to the end because finally there is good news: the shooting techniques and camera settings you use in other seasons apply perfectly to landscape photography in winter.
If you shoot in the snow it might be more complicated to focus manually or even better to apply hyperfocal distance, but nothing you can’t handle with peace of mind if you have followed some of my courses or webinars.
Always remember that at the end of your shooting session it is more than appropriate to thoroughly clean and dry your equipment. Sea salt and humidity can be merciless enemies that must be removed as soon as possible.
Special care should be taken with the tripod: my advice is always to rinse it thoroughly in the shower after opening it completely. In this way, you will be sure to remove all salt and impurities.
Last tip: if you are shooting in the cold remember that once you bring your camera to a low temperature, you must leave it in the cold until the end of the shooting session. If during a break you take it with you inside a cabin or a shelter with the fire on, for example, you will have the formation of condensation on the lens that will complicate the next shooting session.
As you can see, taking winter landscape photography is absolutely simple and within everyone’s reach. In the end, no special additional equipment is required and the shooting technique we already use should not be adjusted.
All we have to do is apply a few tricks and remember that once again the nature that surrounds us should not be feared or underestimated, but always respected.