By Andrew Peacock
A cold environment can be attractive to a photographer for all sorts of reasons, but getting the shot when it’s cold presents a set of challenges for outdoor photographers. Here, I share my tips on how to conquer these challenges.
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.
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 is ensuring the camera can function as it’s meant to. Finally, the ‘in camera’ creative process may need some tweaking in situations where extremes of lighting contrast are at play.
Rarely does a decent camera fail in the cold; it’s more common for the photographer to give up because of personal discomfort. As an Expedition and Wilderness Medicine doctor, I teach about the subject of hypothermia—and I emphasize that prevention is far better than cure. 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 (don’t forget 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 is sufficient protection for your precious extremities. Good insulating footwear and most importantly, warm gloves that allow for finger dexterity are imperative.
In a really cold situation beware of water and wind making contact with exposed fingers, 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 of yet!
There are some simple rules to adhere to so that your camera will behave itself in the cold. Alaskan landscape photographer Carl Battreall (www.photographalaska.com) 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. As a battery in my camera drops to around 50% 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 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, minimize use of live view, and turn off any lens or camera image stabilizer 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.
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 subzero 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.
The Photographic Process
Snow and ice in a scene force the photographer to make creative decisions because there are often extremes of contrast. 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.
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 overexposed 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!
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 correct 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.
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.
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.
Photography in cold environments can be fun and very rewarding. With careful planning you and your camera will perform flawlessly, so get out there and be creative.
Dr. Andrew Peacock is a widely published adventure travel photographer based in Queensland (admittedly not the coldest of places!) and is a Ted’s Cameras Master and Zenfolio Ambassador. More of his images can be found at www.footloosefotography.com