FIELD TECHNIQUE: The challenges of winter photography

Story and photography by F.M. Kearney

The Lake frozen over and snow-covered from The Hernshed Central Park New York, NY The Lake at the Hernshed Central Park New York, NY (5-image HDR compilation)
Left: The Lake in Central Park, New York City, in winter. Right: The same composition in early fall.
© F.M. Kearney

As beautiful as winter is to photograph, it also can be burdensome for you and your equipment. Certain precautions are required that no other season demands. Creativity takes a backseat when you’re cold and wet and thinking only about going home to enjoy a nice warm bowl of soup.

We’ve all heard that dressing in layers is the best way to go. You have the ability to add or remove articles of clothing as the temperature fluctuates. But what about your lower body? Jeans are probably the worst type of pants to wear, because they can freeze if they get wet and denim is often stiffer than other materials. Wool pants are warm, but I prefer to wear long underwear with nylon ski pants that stay dry even in the wettest conditions.

I’ve gone through more gloves than I can count. I’ve yet to find a pair of battery-operated gloves that are thin enough to manipulate small camera controls. Most so-called “photographer’s gloves” are a bit bulky for my taste. Lowepro makes a pretty good pair of fairly thin wool gloves, but they eventually wear out at the fingertips. What works best for me are thin liner gloves. I offset their minimal protection against the cold with hand warmers. Providing warmth for five to eight hours, these little packets of comfort can be placed inside your gloves or pockets. If it’s really cold, I’ll wear a pair of thicker gloves on top of the liners. Foot warmers can be a little too warm and (thus) uncomfortable at times, and they cannot be removed as easily as hand warmers.

When it comes to footwear, you definitely want something that will provide firm stability on wet and slippery surfaces. I wear hiking boots with ICEtrekkers attached to them. ICEtrekkers (made by Yaktrax www.ICEtrekkers.com) are sort of like watered-down versions of traction crampons for less severe conditions. They’re basically a bunch of tiny metal grips connected by chains, and they attach to the bottom of your boots via tight-fitting, rubber straps. They grip snowy and icy surfaces like glue and can be removed easily. That’s especially important, because they can be dangerous if worn indoors on smooth tiles. ICEtrekkers can also lose some traction in deeper snow that cakes around the metal grips.

After protecting yourself from the cold, do the same for your equipment. Fortunately, today’s digital cameras are better suited to the cold than older film cameras. Digital cameras are virtually lubricant-free. Media cards aren’t supposed to be affected by the cold, but I’ve experienced a few “Card Error” messages when shooting in frigid conditions.

The lubricants in older (film) cameras can congeal and lock up the camera. You need to be especially careful if you’re a film shooter and using a fine-grained film like Fuji Velvia. It is so thin that the leader can actually snap off while trying to load the camera in sub-zero temperatures.

Batteries are another thing that can be adversely affected in the winter. Their power can drop precipitously in the cold, so keep them as warm as possible by carrying them in your pockets along with a hand warmer. I’ve read that you can tape a hand warmer to the battery compartment of your camera to prolong its life, but I’ve never actually tried it.

Sometimes, the most beneficial pieces of equipment are also the most basic. For instance, I always carry a large sheet of black plastic. I place it on the ground to avoid having to set my camera bag directly in the snow. There were times in the past, before I started carrying the plastic, that I absentmindedly closed my snowy bag and deposited a good amount of snow inside. The plastic keeps the bag dry and snow-free, and its dark color prevents it from getting lost in the snow.

Probably the most important part about winter shooting is staying safe. Snow has a way of making a familiar landscape look foreign. It can simplify a scene that may be rife with hidden dangers. The lead photos above were taken in New York’s Central Park—the one on the left was shot in winter and the one on the right in early fall. Both have the same composition, but the winter image was taken when The Lake (actual name) was frozen over and covered with snow.

Below is another side-by-side comparison of the lake shot from a different angle.

Left: Another view of The Lake in Central Park, New York City, in autumn. Right: The same composition in winter.
© F.M. Kearney

Both sets of images demonstrate just how easy it is to get into serious trouble in the winter. What might look like a wide open field, may actually be a life-threatening hazard. Unless you’re intimately familiar with a landscape, it may be very hard (if not impossible) to determine where the land ends and the water begins. Even though I know this area of the park very well, I still found myself standing much farther back from where I assumed the waterline to be.

A lot of photographers may be tempted to opt-out of winter shooting. But, with the right precautions and a little common sense, beautiful and unique images can be obtained during this season that cannot be captured at any other time of year.


F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com.