Cold Weather Photography


Pink sunset backlights blowing snow on the tundra. © Patrick J. Endres

To best prepare yourself for cold weather photography, it is imperative to establish a system that works both for you and your camera equipment. You need a method that keeps you warm enough to function and enjoy the experience. While I like being in the cold, I do not like being cold. There is a big difference here. Like most things in life, we feel most comfortable and confident once we have personally tested ourselves in a given situation or set of conditions. This applies for working in the cold as well.

There is a rare beauty in Alaska’s winter, both in the quality of light and color, and its silence and simplicity. But the cold temperatures can be extreme, particularly in the interior and arctic regions. Here are a few tips to help you if you are planning on venturing out to photograph in the cold.


Ways to stay warm

Sometimes you can convince your friends to do crazy things for a photo. I used a spray bottle of water to make the icicles on these sun glasses. They were not on his face at the time however. © Patrick J. Endres

There are two basic ways we stay warm. One is to generate heat within through exertion and then retain that heat with clothing, or we can absorb the heat from another source like a wood stove, chemical hand warmers, or drinking hot fluids.

Sometimes, putting on more insulation or clothing just does not help, and some sort of additional heat is needed. A combination of both work best for me. I should first state that by comparison with my other hominid friends and colleagues, I seem very susceptible to cold hands and feet.

Over the years it seems as if I’ve tried just about everything in the attempt at staying warm. I have found no magic solution. However, my constantly tweaked system seems to work o.k., if implemented well.

I’ll discuss here how I dress and deal with photography in cold weather. By the way, this is about the human body, not the camera gear. I’ve found so far, that the weak link is me, not my cameras and gear (save that of having extra batteries).


General Clothing

Thick down parkas are favored by me for the chilly winter conditions. Note the electronic shutter release, normally soft in warm temps, is rigid at 40 below zero. © Hugh Rose

When photographing in Alaska’s super cold sub zero temperatures; I’m very seldom expending great degrees of exertion. Generally, I’m standing around waiting for the aurora borealis, or waiting for the proper light to fall upon a landscape. In these conditions, I break ranks with the conventional wisdom of clothing layering. Layering IS very critical when your body temperature varies considerably due to heat generation through exercise and you need to adjust with clothing by adding or removing layers.

As for the deep cold, when you are not exerting yourself, what you want is loft and insulation. This is best achieved with down, like a hefty down parka, although some synthetics work well also. I start with a base layer of wool (merino wool—soft on the skin, or capelline). Definitely not cotton! Then over that goes a mid weight shirt of similar fabric, one that has a collar reach to cover the neck, then a down sweater, then my hooded down parka. This does the trick pretty well, and my body core stays warm even at very cold temps.  I use similar base layers for the legs with an outer layer being appropriate for the conditions. Generally that is a pair of insulated bib overalls. Avoid anything “tight” fitting.


Hat and Face Mask

Pausing for a break after both myself and my camera quit working at 40 below while photographing muskoxen on Alaska/s arctic north slope. A face mask is a better option than this neck muffler due to condensation and frost from breathing. © Patrick J. Endres

As for a hat, I’ve found nothing that can compare with my beaver hat for warmth. Although, if the parka has a well insulated hood, a smaller, less bulky hat made of wool or fleece will suffice.

I usually use a face mask or neck muffler as well. A neck muffler can be pulled up over the face when necessary. I have one of these made out of moreno wool, which is soft, comfortable and warm.

However, during long periods covering the mouth and nose, condensation from your breath will freeze. As an alternative I sometimes use a facemask that has breathing holes for the mouth and a nose protection guard. It is soft, lightweight and dries easily and quickly (unlike heavy neoprene). It collects less condensation and frost.


Bunny boots are a tried and true, although heavy, warm winter boot choice. © Patrick J. Endres

Most boots are over-rated in their estimated warmth factor; don’t make your judgment on that statistic alone. When choosing a boot, here are a few things to consider. A tight fit is bad, period! Get a boot that fits with room to wiggle your toes easily, even with a thick pair of socks. (Remember, this is not performance footwear for running and hiking, this is primarily for low activity, very cold conditions). You also want a boot that has a well insulated sole. It is sometimes helpful to buy a boot that is a little large so you can insert felt insoles on the bottom, to increase sole insulation.

The body of the boot needs to have sufficient insulation as well. The old military issue “Bunny boots” are well loved in Alaska, although ugly and heavy, they are amazingly warm. I have used a pair since the day I arrived. I also have a pair of mukluks made out of moose hide with heavy felt liners and insoles. They are light and comfortable, but not quite good enough for me in 40 below zero. Boots that have a removable felt or foam liner make it easy to dry the liner at the end of the day, which is important.


Gloves and Mittens

Beaver mitts have proved the best route for me in very cold weather. They are large enough to fit a glove on the inside, and have a soft enough leather pad to let me operate my camera without removing them when necessary . © Patrick J. Endres

This is the toughest part of my body to keep warm. Light insulation needed for finger dexterity, hands often held above the heart, and touching cold metal frequently make this so.

There are ways to deal with this, and here is my imperfect but functional system. I start with a thin pair of loose fitting wool gloves. If they fit tight, they freeze my fingers.

Loose is the key for me. I also have a pair of medium weight gloves made out of fleece, and I use these when it is minus 10 degrees or colder. Either pair of gloves goes inside a pair of large mittens made out of beaver fur with a supple leather hand pad.

Inside the beaver mitts goes a chemical hand warmer which keeps the mitts toasty warm. I am actually able to operate my camera with the beaver mitts due to the supple leather pad, and canon’s wonderful exposure wheel on the back of the camera, which is an easy dial to operate.

If I need to remove my hands for extra dexterity, I do so for short amounts of time and then insert them back in the mitts to warm up for a bit.

In spite of this, my hands still get cold sometimes, and then I resort to the mountaineers trick of swinging the arms back and forth (never exceeding the level of the heart) for about 5 minutes until warm blood is forced into the hands by centrifugal force. It takes a while but it works. I’m then ready to go for a while again.


A brief note about equipment

The wheel on the back of the Canon cameras are a perfect design element for operating the camera with mitts or gloves. It is easy to turn with the thumb or finger, and thereby control exposure settings.

As far as equipment goes, I’m amazed at the heartiness of my Canon 1D and 5D series cameras. While the LCD screen slows down a bit, it still functions at minus 30 and 40 degree temperatures.

The batteries last a much shorter time, but keeping a spare one inside my down parka pocket, and trading them out works well.

The San Disk extreme cards have performed without problem in the cold temperatures. Sometimes, if I know I could be waiting a long time for a subject. I’ll leave the camera on the tripod but remove the battery and flash card and put it in my parka pocket to stay warm.

After frostbiting my face a few times by pressing the metal angle bracket on my camera up against my face, I now add moleskin padding to the camera parts that inevitably touch my face and nose

This article is written by Professional Photographer Patrick J. Endres