Let’s face it, winter is coming. And I don’t know about you but I love to get out and photograph in the winter, there’s something magical about having snow choaked woods or urban streets in the middle of a snowstorm that calls out to me. But shooting in the snow and cold is not something for the faint of heart, it’s cold, windy, snowy. And your average battery hates the cold weather and often their life is curtailed by the bitterly cold winters we have been having of late. But never fear, I’m going to walk you through my approach to cold weather photography from how to dress, to good choices in cameras, and even some favourite films that I love to use in the colder months here in Canada.
Dress for the Weather
As much as we like to think that the camera gear is most important, dressing for the weather is always consideration number one. Good boots, coat, scarf, and hat are all key to making your day out far more comfortable. I often find that carrying the camera is best done with a messenger bag, the smaller the better to help keep down the bulk. Backpacks are often troublesome with larger winter coats. Plus as I all get into later on you’ll probably be rolling with only a single camera in the winter and leaving the large format at home (although I have brought it out in the winter before and regretted the choice). But for now, let’s talk gloves. Keeping your fingers warm is probably the most important part of heading outside, but when it comes to photography you have to have a balancing act between warmth and dexterity. They do have some gloves marketed to photographers which often leave a couple of fingertips exposed to allow for manipulation of the camera, another option is fingerless gloves. I have a pair of these which I use for reenactments so that I can easily work the lock on my musket. But I find in both cases that my whole hand still gets cold. Personally, I want to keep everything covered in a mid-weight glove, cross-country ski gloves are my choice and work well. It also helps to pair these gloves with a camera with bulky controls. If you also wear glasses and have a scarf fog is an issue also, best to treat your glasses with that anti-fog stuff used by skiers so that you can actually see the viewfinder.
Gear is Important
If you’ve done any sort of photography outdoors in the deep freeze you’ll know one thing, cold and electronics do not mix. Cold weather wreaks havoc on battery life and could in the worst conditions freeze up shutters, and leave condensation on the electronic when moving into a warmer environment. The easiest solution to this is to use a mechanical film camera, a Canon FTb, Nikon FM(2n), Nikkormats and many many more options out there. These cameras will work with or without batteries and often are designed for use in extreme conditions. Personally, I prefer to stick to cameras with a metal shutter, which means that my Nikon FM or F2 are top choices for colder months. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t use electronic cameras, but you do want ones that have additional weather sealing, an example is my Nikon F5 and Minolta Maxxum 9. Despite being electronic cameras and rely completely on batteries for functionality they are amazing in the winter months, I’ve taken the F5 out in the middle of a snowstorm and I never once had to swap out the batteries during an hour-long walk in Toronto. I did bring spare batteries, eight of them, AA that I kept in a Ziploc bag I tucked into the Kangaroo pouch in the hoodie I was wearing that day and the batteries stayed nice and warm. Another camera that has never let me down is my Mamiya m645, despite being battery-powered and having a cloth shutter it handles the winter like a champ and the waist-level finder is big and bright and even when wearing all the winter clothes it’s easy to handle. And that brings me to the second thing to consider when taking out a camera is how easy can you work all the settings while bundled up. Thankfully with cameras like the F5 and Maxxum 9 I can set these to Program mode and just let the camera do all the thinking in terms of exposure. But on manual cameras, some are a little smaller and might be harder to operate with those gloves. Sure the FM is one of Nikon’s ‘small-format’ SLRs, but it’s controls are much bigger than those on your average OM-1.
Right Film, Right Conditions
And finally, you will want something to put into your camera. For Canada, much of Winter can be a dull battleship grey, but we do have some brilliant sunny crisp days. So don’t limit yourself to those fast films. Sure, when shooting under darker conditions Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5+ are excellent choices and can be pushed up a couple of stops if you need that extra speed or depth of field. Other options including Kodak TMax P3200 or Ilford Delta 3200. If colour is more your thing, Kodak Portra 400 and Kodak Ultramax 400 are excellent choices. Kodak Ektar 100, Kodak Ektachrome are both amazing choices for those brilliant blue days with the crisp white snow will produce excellent images. YOu may want to throw on a bit of a warming filter if you aren’t a fan of the cool blues. When it comes to black and white, I personally prefer to work with Ilford Ortho Plus, with the orthochromatic nature it helps makes everything pop, especially when you put a green filter on your lens.
Photographing in the winter is always a balancing act, being able to keep warm, operate your camera, and ensure you have the right film loaded for the job. And while many of us prefer to stay inside these colder times of the year, given everything that is happening these days I won’t disparage you from wanting to stay in during the winter months. But with the weather turning now might be a good time to get out and stretch those legs, your scarf will act as a cloth mask and you won’t run into as many people if you love being out in the woods away from the hustle and bustle. Of course, you can always stay inside and print all those negatives that you shot during the warmer months if that’s more your game.