Clothing, equipment, nutrition and know-how for taking pictures in the cold...
On a very cold day in February 2018...
It can also get cold in summer if you're high up in the mountains...
Shooting in the cold and during unpleasant weather
It's winter and it's cold and that is a good opportunity to tell you how I deal with these harsh elements while outdoors and taking pictures. Therefore I today write about clothing, equipment, nutrition and know-how.
My thoughts and tips may sound a little bit extreme but I ask you to think about this: when I go out in winter, I often am out for hours, alone, with temperatures as low as –20°C (sometimes with windchill), far from inhabited places. If anything should happen to me, I would have to wait a long time for the rescue team. This could mean I would have to spend a night outdoors and I also would have to stay warm and safe during this time. Security is the top priority for everything I tell you in the following text!
Of course it's always better to be two or more people together in the outdoors but unfortunately, this is not always possible... If you go somewhere alone, always tell somebody exactly where you want to go and when you plan to be back.
My list of important things is quite long. This doesn't mean you have to bring every item every time. But I would like to make you aware of the dangers so you can make good decisions for what you would like to do and to know what you would need in the case of an accident.
When we look back at accidents we often realize they resulted in a sequence of bad decisions. In order not to make these it's very important to have as much knowledge as possible from books, the internet, formations and to talk to trained and experienced people. A profound training in planning tours, avalanche knowledge and outdoor first aid is indispensable if you want to go out in the wild. During a first aid training, you mostly learn how to help others but with the knowledge about the treatment of injuries or how to recognize dangerous symptoms you can maybe also help yourself.
Of course, you should wear warm clothes but what should you keep an eye on?
In general, clothes can only insulate your body but not heat it (I'm going to tell you of an exception later). This means it's very useful to layer up. You will wear several layers on your legs and your upper body but also on your head. These layers should be dry. So when I know I first have to walk somewhere I take some layers off and move very slowly in order not to sweat!
My base layer is what you would also wear for skiing, then I put a layer of wool or fleece, then a thick layer of real or artificial down and if necessary I finish with hard shell pants/jacket. I also wear scarfs, a beanie and one or several hoods. I also wrap my lower back in a fleece kidney belt. Regarding the pants, I want some with zippers on each side so I can put them on/off without struggling with my boots.
Something about down products: because of concerns about animal welfare I would not buy any down products anymore (maybe I would buy recycled downs). Luckily for the moment I still have some vests and jackets so I don't have to make this decision now. With 'artificial' down I refer to products like Primaloft.
Of course, it's a little bit difficult to layer up your feet... I wear very warm boots and warm socks. The boots should be comfortable, having a long leg and a rubber sole which is well insulated and stays soft in the cold. If possible for increased insulation I put a second insole in the boots. Unfortunately, it's often not possible to have a super warm boot in which you also can walk for an extended time... Recently I bought some heating socks (you remember the exception I told you about? You can also buy heating gloves or kidney belts.). These socks are quite expensive but really useful! The best part about this technology is that I can regulate the heat with my smartphone. As long as I'm walking I leave the heating off and start only when I have to stay somewhere.
Probably the most important body part for a photographer is their hands and these also are a little bit tricky to keep warm. I haven't found the perfect solution so far... At the moment I mostly wear woollen mittens which are also lined with wool fleece. They're not completely windproof but I have the best combination of sense of touch and warmth. I can also wear some thin gloves under these mittens and I do this when I know I have to take off the mittens from time to time because I need better sensitivity for my hands. I also sometimes put a handwarmer in my mittens. An extra plus is that you can put your camera remote control directly into your mitten. What I don't like are fleece gloves (it's always like they were wet) or mittens in which every finger has its own compartment. Over my woollen mittens, I still can put Gore-Tex mittens for increased insulation and weatherproofness.
A little bit about medicine: cold hands and feet can already be a sign that your body keeps the warm blood in the centre and decreases the circulation everywhere else. If you experience this plus shivering and maybe an increased heart rate, you suffer from hypothermia grade I. When someone stops shivering, has a decreased heart rate and maybe already looses some of their awareness you speak of grade II. You speak of grade III when somebody suffers from cardiac deviations, unconsciousness or circulatory arrest. A person with grade II or worse mustn't be moved because that could cause death. You can read or listen more about hypothermia on Outside Online.
Sunglasses or a google protect your eyes from the sun, snow blindness, wind and snowfall.
When I know that I have to walk somewhere I need a very spacious backpack to put all the clothes I want to wear later. It's never wrong to bring a spare shirt or gloves if something would get wet or you lose something. It's also a good idea to bring some extra hand warmers.
I almost always carry a camping mat with me on which I can stand/sit/lie and which insulates my body from the cold of the ground. When there is enough room in your backpack you could also bring a small tent and/or a sleeping bag. (I often take a tent with me when I shoot an event in summer when it's raining and I have to stay in a spot for a long time.)
As you know batteries will die much quicker in the cold than normal. Therefore I put them very close to my body or pack them together with a hand warmer in an insulated canister.
Very important items to bring are a fully charged mobile phone, a first aid kit, a SamSplint, a pocket knife, a head torch and a bivy bag. Depending on what I want to do I also have to bring snowshoes, ski poles, a helmet or crampons. With duct tape, you can't fix everything but a lot. With an avalanche shovel, you could dig a bivy...
Everything you touch (ski poles, the legs of your tripod) conducts warmth away from your body so make sure it's insulated... If this is not the case, find a DIY solution!
If you don't know an area very well you need a map. But it won't help you much if there is mist, in this case, you would need a compass or a GPS. Of course, you also must know how to use these items...
We probably all bring an insulated bottle with some tea to the outdoors... Sometimes I put in ginger as well because the spice heats you up. To stay warm and toasty throughout the day I also like to have warm food. You could bring an insulated canister with some hot soup but that will be very heavy. Therefore I prefer to bring a very small stove (keep the matches waterproof) and a freeze-dried meal which I can prepare with hot water (melted snow). In any case, it's important to eat and drink enough (already on the day before). You often hear the recommendation to eat a lot of fats, so I like to bring nuts. Of course, I love to bring some chocolate too! Food which contains a lot of water is not very useful as it will get very hard. For an emergency case, it would be important to have some spare nutrition...
When you go to Scandinavia you maybe will be told to not wash your face in the morning because this would wash some protecting fat off your skin. Sunscreen which is meant to use in the cold should be without water.
Normally the cold is no problem for your camera gear. When you come back into a heated room moist will build up. To protect your gear of this it’s best to leave it in the camera bag and let warm it up inside. You can also put some bags with silica gel in your pack. And of course, it’s recommended to use sealed gear.
While taking long time exposures or time lapses the front lens can freeze up (like your car's windshield on a cold day). There are some special lens heaters to prevent this. Probably you could also use some hand warmers instead.
Underneath you can find some pictures which were taken in the cold...