Here’s a random fact: Today, in 1911, the South Pole was reached for the first time by Roald Amundsen. To honor the special day, I thought a post on cold weather and snow photography would be the perfect thing. I recommend a hot cocoa before continuing on, though, because it’s about to get a bit chilly!
Herbert George Ponting and telephoto apparatus, 1912 – Alexander Turnbull Library
There are three areas of concern when it comes to cold weather and snow photography:
- How will the environment (indoors and out) affect your lenses and camera?
- How will it affect the rest of your gear — specifically, your batteries?
- How does snow affect white balance and exposures?
Of course, you should be concerned about your own safety in a cold-weather climate, too. Take special care to protect your hands, face, and ears when you get out in the cold. Also, carry along a thermos of something to warm you up between shots.
Your Camera and Lens
Some cameras are impacted by cold weather conditions. Canon indicates that their equipment is guaranteed to freezing (32°F/0°C), but that photographers have had success shooting in sub-freezing temperatures. In addition, Canon’s newer cameras fair better than older ones, due to a different shutter mechanism. For an older camera, you may need special lubrication for the shutter. So, be sure to check out your manual before setting off.
The major hazard to lenses (and something that happens to my glasses all of the time) is condensation. This happens when you take a lens from a cold environment to a warm one and the lens (and other parts) fog up. The real problem is when water forms in (or leaks into) the inside of the lens. Placing the entire camera in a big zip-lock, plastic bag before bringing it inside is supposed to help. Apparently, this reduces the amount of moisture that forms. Another thing I’ve done is keep my camera inside my jacket until I’m ready to shoot. As soon as I’m done taking my photograph, the camera goes right back into the jacket. This seems to keep it at a moderate temperature, not too hot and not too cold, minimizing the condensation. Also, it’s best to avoid wiping away the fog. Wiping away the fog — especially, if it’s frozen — may scratch your lens.
Batteries can behave badly in colder temperatures. I’ve experienced this myself, having grown up in the Eastern Sierras. But, are some batteries better than others and what are the limits? According to Energizer, nickel metal hydride batteries can be damaged (and fail) in freezing temperatures while lithium ion batteries do well down to -40°F/-40°C. Luckily, most of our batteries are lithium ion these days. Still, I keep extra batteries on hand when I’m shooting in the cold and I keep them in an inside coat pocket to keep them warm.
Memory cards have their limits, too. According to Kingston Technology they are rated down to -13°F/-25°C operating temperature and -40°F/-40°C storage temperature. Again, carry extra cards in an inside pocket and all should be well.
As for other gear, when it doubt, take a look at the manual.
White Balance and Exposure
Shooting snow scenes can be difficult when it comes to exposures. There’s so much white! This condition makes the camera think white is gray (there couldn’t possibly be that much white!) and it will under-expose the image, trying to reveal white. So, a trick to compensate for that is to bump up the exposure setting by +1 (or so). Counter-intuitive, but effective! However, if you already have an under-exposed image, you can correct it by following Dave Cross’ tutorial Adjusting Exposure with Camera Raw.
White balance is another tricky area to control when it comes to snow. Your camera’s manual should be able to guide you in ways to adjust the white balance, including how to set it manually. However, sometimes the camera just doesn’t capture the scene the way you’d like. For that, check out Matt Kloskowski’s Raw White Balance tutorial for help.
TIP: You don’t need a raw file to use Camera Raw — you can open a .JPG or several other formats via the Open As… option in Photoshop Elements.
While there are a variety of things to consider for cold weather and snow photography, the extra care is worth it. To see what I mean, check out the following for winter photographs that truly inspire: Smashing Magazines’ 50 Beautiful Winter Wonderland Photos.
Finally, Happy Reaching the South Pole day!