Having just returned from photographing in the Rockies in winter weather with my friend Kristen Wilkinson, I thought some might find it helpful to hear some tips about photographing in winter weather. These won't be photography tips for the most part, but rather, will be tips on staying warm and safe while out in the weather. Over the years, I've had several photographers that weren't familiar with photographing in extreme cold ask about how not to lose fingers and toes to frostbite, so now seems to be the perfect time to answer those questions!
Photographing in the Winter
First off, let's touch on dressing for the cold. Most of you know that layering for the cold is important. I generally wear two layers on my legs, plus socks that reach my knees. For the past ten years, I've worn UnderArmour Men's ColdGear leggings under a pair of winter hiking pants. These leggings are designed to be warm, and with a snug fit that helps keep body heat in, and allows for another layer to be worn over them. On top of the leggings, I wear a pair of winter ski/snowboard/hiking pants that I found on Amazon. These are fleece lined, waterproof, and nice and warm. I've worn them in temperatures in the single digits and have never felt cold in them. There are more expensive available by the likes of North Face, Patagonia, LL Bean, and Fjallraven, but these work well for me and are easy on the wallet.
Up top, I wear an UnderArmour ColdGear Compression Mock as my base layer. Like the pants, the fit is snug, the shirt is warm and allows for other layers on top without feeling like I'm restricted in my movements. I'll also wear a waffle thermal shirt, and then on top of that, a Columbia lightweight fleece as a third layer under my jacket. Finally, I have a North Face winter jacket that features a water proof outer shell, and an insulated inner shell. It's a few years old so doesn't correspond to the current offerings on their website, but this jacket has always kept me warm and dry when out photographing in extreme cold. I've worn this exact setup in temperatures as low as -14ºF with a -24ºF wind chill, and stayed out for as long as 2 hours without any issues.
So that covers my legs and torso. On my hands, I found this great glove system by The Heat Company. I've only needed to use the Liner, but the system includes two other pieces- the Shell and the Hood. The Liner features a pocket to put a hand warmer in, which sits on the back of your hand. These gloves are warm and allow me the freedom of movement to control my camera with the gloves still on. There are several different variants of The Liner- I'm using the Durable Liner Pro. I also put a hand warmer in the palm of my hand inside the glove for double warmth.
For socks I wear wool ski socks that come up to my knees. This gives me an extra layer over my lower legs to help keep them warm, in addition to the leggings and hiking pants. Then I use toe warmers on the bottom of the socks to keep my toes extra warm.
For the aforementioned hand warmers, I use Hot Hands Hand and Toe Warmers. The toe warmers adhere to the bottom of your feet over the socks. As I said, I put a hand warmer into each pocket on my gloves, and a second one inside the palms of the gloves. These provide heat for up to ten hours, and keep my hands nice and warm even in the coldest temperatures.
For my head, it depends how cold it is. If we're talking single digit temperatures or lower, I'll wear either a fleece hood that has face protection as well, or a balaclava face mask that covers the head and face. I'll wear a knit cap under the hood, which helps keep the hood from drooping into my eyes, or I'll wear a knit cap on top of the balaclava for extra warmth.
Obviously, if out in snow, boots will be needed. I prefer a waterproof, insulated hiking boot. These are less bulky than big snow boots and allow me freedom of movement. In addition to the boots, I'll also add micro spikes to help with traction. Micro spikes work like snow tire chains, but for your feet. A rubber top stretches over the boots and holds the spikes in place. They increase traction and make it easy to walk on packed snow and ice without slipping. In addition, I have found these to be essential when climbing over the slimy rocks along the coast, or stream beds that may be slippery when photographing waterfalls. These are probably one of the single best additions to my camera bag that isn't a camera or lens!
Finally, for deeper snow and longer hikes in that snow, snow shoes are hugely important. They were a big help while in Colorado. I use a pair of Tubbs Snowshoes. They're light, they support enough weight to carry both me and my pack, and make it easier to get down the trail when covered in snow. You'll want to make sure you purchase the right size to support your weight plus the weight of your pack.
Let's face it, it's much harder to be out in the winter weather trying to make photographs. If you're not used to the cold, it can be especially daunting. Living in Maine and growing up in the northeast, winter weather isn't foreign to me. But for photographers like my buddy Andy Crawford from Louisiana, who I keep trying to convince to come visit for some snow photos, it may be tough to know what's needed to survive a few hours in the cold. I hope this quick guide is helpful to some.