Photography in a cold environment
Shooting in cold weather presents problems for both photographers and their equipment. Photographer Andrew Peacock shares his essential tips on cold weather photography.
GETTING ‘THE SHOT’ when it’s cold presents a set of challenges for the outdoor photographer. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Antarctica and to other icy places on a number of occasions and over time have learned a few things about photographing where the subject at hand is often set within a scene of ice and snow. In this article I will outline some tips to help you get the most out of your photography whenever you find yourself somewhere where the thermometer is reading low (below freezing for instance) and when you have with you a camera to capture images other than just a smartphone.
A cold environment can be attractive for all sorts of reasons to a keen photographer. Landscapes of ice and snow allow for abstract and striking compositions and often the air is clear and the light clarity can be extraordinary. The accompanying photo I took of the mid-winter night sky above a snow cave in New Zealand is a good example of the sort of image I am talking about. One can’t help but think ‘brrrr’ when looking at that photo!
Successfully getting that shot meant having control over three aspects of the photo process unique to a cold environment, which on that occasion was definitely below freezing. First and foremost is personal preparation aimed at the ability to function for a length of time in an extreme environment. Second, ensuring the camera can function as it’s meant to will take some thought. Finally, the ‘in camera’ creative process may need some tweaking in situations where extremes of lighting contrast are at play.
Possibly the most common concern I hear voiced on this topic is a worry that the camera will freeze or be damaged in cold conditions. In fact, rarely does a decent camera fail in the cold, it's more common for the photographer to give up because of personal discomfort.
Corey Rich, an adventure sport photographer from California, has weathered conditions of all types around the world in his pursuit of stand-out images. I assisted Corey on an expedition to the Karakoram Himalaya in Pakistan and he was unequivocal in telling me that his best shots occur when pushing the edges of his physical comfort zone so that he keeps shooting creatively when others have called it a day. At the end of a long day in the mountains when a tired climbing team is snuggling into a snow hole as the sun drops below the horizon, Corey can be found resisting the overwhelming urge to join them and instead working to capture images that tell the story.
Tired climbers get cosy in a snow hole as photographer Corey Rich braves the cold for one last shot. (Image: Corey Rich)
The only way to extend cold tolerance as Corey likes to do is to be prepared with the means to stay warm for longer. As an Expedition and Wilderness Medicine doctor I teach about the subject of hypothermia and I emphasise that prevention is far better than cure on this issue. For the photographer handling a cold metal camera on the go or standing still next to a tripod as night falls in winter, the risk of getting too cold is very real and a drop in core body temperature can begin to subtly affect creative decision making (and the standard of your photos) even before significant signs of hypothermia start to show.
Layers of warm clothing (not forgetting your head), good wind protection, warm fluids to drink and fuel in the form of high-energy snack food to keep the fire burning inside you are all important. So too is sufficient protection for your precious extremities. Good insulating footwear and most importantly for the photographer, warm gloves that allow for finger dexterity are imperative.
In a really cold situation beware of water and wind making contact with exposed digits because the time to irreparable freezing will be short. It’s not uncommon for an Everest summiteer to whip off down gloves for an all-important selfie on top of the world only to suffer frostbitten fingers as a result. Gloves that allow for the operation of camera controls are a very useful item. Having said that, if anyone has found the perfect solution in that regard please let me know because I haven’t as yet!
Despite the best of preparation sometimes you will inevitable start to get chilled and then you’ll need a back up plan in place to re-warm like the one I had when I was photographing ice climbing in the dead of winter in northern Japan a few years ago. I retreated to a hotel at the end of the day and soaked for hours in an onsen (hot springs). Oh it was glorious.
There are some simple rules to adhere to so your camera will behave itself in the cold. Alaskan landscape photographer Carl Battreall has spent his fair share of time in the frozen mountains of that beautiful US state. He has one golden rule: “let the camera stay cold but keep batteries warm”. The primary culprit when it comes to camera failure is the battery.
Carl explains, “You don't want the battery to drain prematurely while in the camera in the cold, it is difficult to warm up to an operating level again in the field once it has died. When really cold [it’s a matter of degrees!] I don't have a battery in the camera unless I am ready to take a photo”. I like to keep camera batteries close to my body where they can stay warm, in a pouch threaded through a cord around my neck does the trick and then in my sleeping bag at night. As a battery in my camera drops to around 50 per cent power I will take it out and rotate with a warm spare. Needless to say it’s important to carry spare batteries with you for this system to work. To my dismay I’ve found that buying third-party batteries is an inefficient use of funds, as they don’t last as long as the proprietary ones that come with your camera.
Pam Weiss and her dog Shadow enjoying a perfect March day, Portage Glacier, Chugach National Forest, Alaska. (Image: Carl Battreall)
To improve battery life become familiar with the camera menu and lens options available to reduce power consumption. Turn off all camera beep functions, turn off screen review after every shot, minimise use of live-view and turn off any lens or camera image stabiliser function (if available). Mirrorless cameras require that you use the power-hungry LCD screen for composition and for that reason many outdoor photographers I know prefer cameras with an optical viewfinder option that allows you to compose without using power.
There is no question that cameras and lenses at the more professional end of the spectrum (i.e. more expensive end) are better weather-sealed and will resist moisture ingress. So, in regard to cold weather photography, it’s a case of buyer beware when it comes to what you can expect. The danger is that your cold metal equipment will form condensation on and within itself when brought into a warmer environment. Then, if returned to a sub-zero temperature before that moisture can evaporate, ice crystals may form and damage the sensitive electronics of your digital equipment. Cameras with better weather sealing are less likely to have this problem.
When I’m on a ship in Antarctica, after shooting outdoors I remove the camera batteries to take back to a warm cabin but leave the rest of my gear in a bag under cover outside in the cold. Similarly Carl leaves his gear outside his tent when in the mountains and he also suggests putting the camera in a ziplock bag to help keep condensation from forming on the camera.
One last consideration that pertains to all conditions but should also be included here is the need to turn off power and protect the camera interior from wind carrying dust and other particles when changing lenses on a DSLR body unless you want to spend computer time later on trying to remove those annoying dust specks from your digital files.
The photographic process
At a talk I gave for Ted’s Cameras and Canon Australia recently, a gentleman approached me afterwards and asked, “How do you photograph snow? I have trouble with the exposure and my photos of snow don’t work out”.
Photography in the cold doesn’t always feature snow or ice of course, but hopefully it will from time to time because it is so much fun to be out in that type of environment. These elements do force creative decisions to be made by the photographer because there are often extremes of contrast in the scene. The bottom line is that we want the snow (and other elements) to look ‘right’ in the final image and to include whatever detail there was present in the original scene.
In the days of film some guesswork and experience was needed to get perfect exposure in high-contrast situations especially with transparency (slide) film. In the era of digital capture immediate feedback of our images is available in the field, which makes the task much easier.
Our eyes can perceive detail in shadow and in bright areas within the same scene that our cameras cannot. What the camera can record is represented by a histogram which is a graphic representation of the dark to light spectrum of light (from left to right) captured for each photo. Find the menu option to turn on the histogram on your LCD screen either in live view or on the photo review screen to give you feedback.
The lightest part of your photo, snow or white ice, will register on the right of the histogram. The key is to get that edge of the graph to extend to the far right without ‘peaking’ beyond what the camera can record in the light part of the spectrum – a tall line will appear on the right if this occurs. Then detail in the whites will be retained. I also monitor this by using a menu setting that causes any over exposed areas to ‘blink’ when I review an image on the screen. Note that I’m now recommending using the LCD screen to review image histograms to help your creative decision making, this will use more power and needs to be considered in the cold!
Iceberg detail, Antarctic Peninsula, showing the histogram with exposure to the right. (Image: Andrew Peacock)
Importantly an inherent characteristic of camera sensors is that there is more tonal detail able to be recorded to the right-hand side of the histogram than the left. Any detail on the left side can’t be as easily recovered by post-production software ‘shifting’ of the histogram without compromising the quality of the final photo. So getting exposure right ‘in camera’ is important. An underexposed file is not the basis for a high quality photo with snow and/or ice as a main feature.
The camera uses a light meter to help set exposure at the time you press the shutter, the meter doesn’t know you have snow or ice in the scene it just knows what is bright and light and what is not and will try to average out the scene to a mid-tone. If white is the predominant tone in your image then the final histogram may not have much information on the right side at all and any snow or ice will look more grey than white in the photo as a result. Some cameras will do better in this regard than others and many will have a ‘snow scene selection’ option on the mode dial and using that is one way to approach the issue.
Assuming you want to take full control though, you need to manipulate the exposure reading generated by the camera. You will need to switch the mode dial from Auto to open up the menu choice needed. Exposure compensation for a scene with ice and/or snow can be done via a menu function allowing you to override the camera metering and adjust the exposure upward. Given time to set the shot up I will experiment with just how much I increase the exposure and fine tune it based on histogram feedback. Once set then I leave it like that while shooting in that environment. Don’t forget to turn exposure compensation off afterward otherwise you’ll find your next set of photos from a more neutral contrast situation will be way overexposed.
In all snow and ice situations photographing at the each end of the day means there will be less contrast in the scene allowing more latitude in your exposure settings and will especially suit photographing people and other darker subjects in that environment.
One last important point is that I highly recommend selecting RAW file output rather than jpeg in your camera menu settings to improve your ability to get a great shot from a high contrast scene. Jpeg files have already been interpreted and processed by your camera and if you do make a mistake with the exposure on a unique, one off, shot it’s very difficult to ‘fix’ it afterward unless it’s a RAW file. Of course that means having the time to first learn and then use a RAW file editor like Adobe Lightroom to process your files.
A good example of the benefit of shooting RAW is an observation that I can ‘push’ my exposure to the right and even allow some minor ‘blinking’ of highlights on my LCD screen confident that when I open the file in Lightroom I will find I was actually within the range of highlight detail that the RAW file could record even though my camera was telling me otherwise.
Photography in cold environments can be fun and very rewarding and with careful planning you and your camera will perform flawlessly so get out there and be creative.
More of his images, some from not so cold places, can be found at www.footloosefotography.com