Enjoying Winter Extremes

It's before dawn. The air is crisp, indeed very cold, the sky is clear, and it seems I can reach out and touch the stars. As the night turns to day — the turning of the blues — subtle snowdrifts begin to take shape, with wisps of powdered snow dancing across the tops of the drifts. Wind-blown ice is visible on a nearby stream, as I knew it would be. Soon the alpenglow will shine on the peaks and reflect on that ice. Everything is set to capture a dramatic winter landscape.

Winter Dawn, Rocky Mountain National Park
Winter Dawn (Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado)

My first ventures into winter photography were frightening. I was very concerned about the potential dangers of the cold. I also knew I would be traveling alone most of the time. Solitude amplified the threat — there would be no one there to help if I got into trouble. But I somehow knew that winter shooting can be very rewarding, and wanted it to be relatively safe.

I prepare to shoot winter scenes by clearly imagining my working environment. Winter conditions can be harsh. They can become dangerous with extreme cold. Get too cold and your ability to think clearly is impaired, magnifying the danger.

Some trials and practice helped me become familiar with effects of cold on my body. For example, losing feeling in your hands will make controlling and operating camera equipment much more difficult. And numbed fingers can take quite some time to get warm in extreme cold.

Being comfortable during cold mornings or evenings is important. I prefer focusing on shooting rather than the discomfort of the cold. Staying warm is coupled to safety, and they can be addressed together.

Dressing to stay comfortable

Dress for current weather, and be prepared for changing weather conditions. You are dressing for an alien and hostile world. Layering helps provide protection and flexibility. Upper layers can be removed if the weather warms. (See A Man's Guide to Cold Weather Dressing for more detail on winter dressing.)

Keeping my hands warm is critical for manipulating my camera. Outer gloves and mittens have to be removed, but only briefly. I try not to expose bare fingers during the coldest weather. I've had my fingers start to numb just plugging in a cable release, in less than a minute. It's painful, and it takes much more time to warm up.

Warm feet are just as critical as warm hands. One of my outings was on a riverbank. The temperature was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I stepped on what I thought was firm ground near the edge of the water. It was actually some ice and snow over the top of water. I sank almost to my knee as the ice gave way, filling my boot with very cold water. The first thought was about how wet my foot was, and how cold it was about to be. My second thought was, "How long will it take to return to the car?" Much to my surprise, the boots were insulated well enough that my foot warmed the water in them, like a wet suit, and my wet feet never got cold. Upon reaching the car, I took off the boots and put on my spare pair of dry socks.

Preparing for the Unexpected

Planning a shoot starts with picking a shooting location. I'm aware of current and expected weather conditions for that location. It helps to prepare appropriate clothing. (Several good sources for weather information are listed below.)

I also keep extra gear in the car for emergencies. I have candles for heat, a shovel for digging out of snow, extra clothes, a flashlight, a sleeping bag, a knife, and a first aid kit. Think about your particular circumstances, and decide what you may need if things don't go as planned.

Letting someone know where you plan to be, and when you plan to return, provides added safety. They will know when and where to send help in the event of complications or an accident.

Comfort + Safety => Fun

Winter conditions provide unique and interesting photo opportunities. Shooting in extreme cold can be safe and fun with proper planning and preparation. Imagine the conditions you’ll be facing before making the trip, and prepare accordingly.

To make winter photography even more fun, bring a thermos of hot coffee or hot chocolate. Get out and enjoy the winter! And share the experience — invite a friend!

Weather Reference Sites

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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
The National Weather Service
The Weather Channel
Weather Underground