Outfitting (Light) for Winter Photography

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Winter Sky

I just finished reading an article about outfitting for a winter expedition in my favorite photography magazine, and wondered why they favor such extreme topics. How many people really need to equip themselves for a three-week trek to Antarctica? True, we’ve enjoyed some chilly weather this season, but most of us are taking pictures of the things we see on the way to work or school or on a weekend getaway. I thought I’d write about my list of photographic necessities for an average winter photography session.

Number one is a working knowledge of how to use a camera to get great snow pictures. Remember that snow is white, not gray. Snow can reflect the colors of things around it like blue sky, a sunset, or even the needles of an evergreen, but if your snow is gray you need to adjust your camera. If you have a DSLR, add about +1.3 EV to compensate for the brightness of winter scenes. If you have a compact camera, try to find a snow scene setting. Winter is also an important time to take charge of your white balance setting. If it’s sunny, choose the sun setting. If it’s cloudy or snowing, try the cloud setting. Change to shade if your subject is in shade on a sunny day.

Now that the exposure lecture is out of the way, I’ll get back to outfitting. First, let’s outfit you. If you’re cold and wet, you won’t be comfortable waiting for the perfect alpenglow to kiss that steeple. Avoid wearing cotton because it absorbs wetness and holds it next to your skin. I wear synthetic fibers for winter weather, usually cotton-free thermals and a polyester fleece hoodie under a parka. There’s always an extra fleece sweater in the car. I wear softshell or fleece pants. My jacket has lots of pockets to carry gloves, hats, filters, and lens wipes. My socks are wool plus synthetic fiber. My boots are waterproof. I always have at least two pairs of gloves: one set of heavy, insulated gloves for holding my tripod, and a pair of thin gloves with rubber dots on the fingers for a good grip. I’m not going to the arctic, so I try to look normal when shopping for groceries or meeting a friend for lunch. The survival gear usually stays in the car.

If I’m shooting at sunrise, sunset or in low light, a good tripod is essential. My shutter may be opened for several seconds, and slow pictures are blurry unless you use a steady support. My tripod usually stays in my car where it’s ready to go. I hold my breath while shooting to prevent frost from building up on my viewing screen, and this also increases steadiness.

I have two camera bags: One holds all my cameras, lenses, filters, and everything else I use. It’s much too heavy to lug around. I also have a to-go bag which sits by the door. It’s water-resistant and has lots of pockets for the stuff I want to have with me. What’s in it?

  • My wallet and any absolute essentials from my purse.
  • One camera and one 24-105mm zoom lens. It’s a good all-purpose lens.
  • A lens shade to protect the glass from rain, snow, and sun flares.
  • A UV filter or a polarizer, plus at least one split neutral-density filter to control contrast.
  • A small brush to remove blown snow. Until it melts, snow is only dust, so a brush works well.
  • A microfiber lens wipe which absorbs moisture and removes fingerprints. Lens wipes can be washed and dried, but you can’t use softener or they’ll smear the lens.
  • A larger microfiber cloth to soak up water from camera and tripod.
  • Extra batteries – I keep these in my interior pocket to keep them warm. I have a car-charger, so I can recharge as soon as a battery runs out of juice.
  • An extra memory chip in case I shoot too much.
  • Plastic grocery bags and zipper bags to keep equipment dry in falling snow.

My wish list includes an umbrella that can be clamped to my tripod. I just don’t have enough hands to manage camera, tripod, and an umbrella.

If I’m traveling on foot, that’s all I carry: camera, cleaning cloths, chip, and batteries. If I’m in a car, there is so much more I might use. Extra camera body, several lenses, more cleaning aids, chargers, rain gear, snow shoes, pack boots, hats and gloves, blankets, flares, hot drinks, and…well, you get the idea. But we’re trying to keep it light.

When I return from a shoot, a few minutes of maintenance allows me to be ready for my next excursion. I clean and dry my camera and lens and filters. I charge my batteries, upload the day’s pictures, and make sure there’s an empty chip and charged battery in the camera. I replace any wet plastic bags and dry my coat, hat, and gloves.

Once I have my gear organized, it’s as simple to drive around for a day as it is to run into the back yard. All I have to do is decide where to go. Farms in Vermont? Lighthouses in Maine? Quaint neighborhoods in Boston? I’ll write more about the options next time.


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