Winter travel gear for photographers
Whether you’re photographing wildlife at Yellowstone or your kids sledding at the neighborhood park, winter presents a lot of great photo opportunities. However, winter also has its own challenges due to the short days, cold weather and – in places like Seattle – a fair bit of rain. On the next few slides, we’ll take a look at some important gear to consider as you head out for your winter photography adventures.
This one should be pretty obvious. If you’re shooting in very cold weather – especially when handing metal lenses or other gear – you’ll want to keep your hands warm. Otherwise, your camera will be about as useful as a brick in your numb, unresponsive fingers. Typical gloves are usually a poor match for photography as they limit dexterity, but there are some good options for photographers.
Look for gloves or mittens that fold back to expose your fingertips. These facilitate short periods of exposure to the cold without having to remove your gloves completely, and you can uncover just one or two fingers while keeping the rest of your hands insulated. Great options include gloves from Vallerret (pictured), Freehands and The Heat Company.
Sometimes, a pair of lightweight or liner gloves are all you’ll need, but not all liners are created equal. Look for gloves designed to work with a capacitive touchscreen, which will allow you to use your camera’s touch controls as well as other electronic devices like a smartphone. We like RucPac’s professional tech gloves, but there are probably lots of options at your local outdoor store as well.
Hand warmers are obviously designed to do a good job of warming your hands, but they’re good for other things as well. For example, I find them effective at keeping the non-photographer who’s stuck outside with me a bit more patient while I get that one last shot before heading inside (yeah, right…). Of course, hot chocolate liberally spiked with Bailey’s Irish cream seems to help as well, but your mileage may vary.
One of my favorite tricks is to gaff tape a hand warmer to the barrel of a lens. This can be useful when shooting in an environment where you’re at risk of dew or frost forming on the front lens element as the temperature drops. I’ve used this technique when photographing time-lapse sequences of the night sky or the aurora borealis. Sometimes, just a bit of warmth is all you need to avoid a ruined sequence.
Chemical hand warmers like those from HotHands (pictured) can be found everywhere from your favorite online outlet to the local hardware store. If you cringe at using disposable hand warmers, check out HotSnapZ reusable hand warmers, the EnergyFlux Enduro rechargeable warmer from Human Creations or the Zippo Hand Warmer which heats catalytically to produce flame-free heat.
Many cameras today include weather sealing to keep out the elements. However, the fact that you’ve got weather sealed equipment that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to get your camera soaking wet, despite all those manufacturer videos showing cameras getting sprayed by a garden hose.
Camera rain covers have been around for a long time, and while they may not be quite as necessary as they used to be, it’s still nice to have one when shooting in a complete downpour. You can find a variety of commercial models from companies like Think Tank Photo and Ruggard (pictured). There are lot of great DIY hacks as well – a hotel shower cap or plastic shopping bag with a few rubber bands can work miracles. It’s good to have one of these stashed somewhere if you’re shooting in a rainy place. You know, like Seattle.
Tripod leg wraps
Other than a camera and lens, one of the largest, coldest objects many of us carry around in the winter is a tripod. If you’ve ever used a tripod with bare hands in really cold weather, particularly and aluminum model, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Of course, one solution is to use gloves. But there’s another solution as well: leg wraps. (For your tripod’s legs – not yours. That said, I make no judgements about fashion.)
Some tripods come factory equipped with leg wraps. However, if your tripod arrived, ummm… naked, a set of LegCoats (pictured) from LensCoat.com will run you about $50. Your hands will appreciate them.
Cameras operate pretty well in cold weather, but even the best can be susceptible to power loss from cold batteries. In fact, with more photographers moving to mirrorless cameras our dependence on batteries is arguably greater than it was with DSLRs.
To keep shooting in the coldest conditions, consider some cold weather best practices for your batteries. Keep reserve batteries in your pocket so they stay warm rather than going into a deep freeze in your bag. When removing a battery that’s been in the camera for a while, consider putting it back in your pocket (a different one) for a few minutes to warm it up a bit. You may discover it has a fair amount of power left once it’s back to a normal temperature.
Finally, if you’ve recently switched from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera, consider picking up a couple extra batteries before a big winter trip. Some newer models get impressive battery life, but they still require more power than most DSLRs.
Night sky apps
Winter brings with it short days and long nights. Why not take advantage of it by doing some night sky photography? When planning night shots, it helps to know things such as in what direction the Milky Way will rise, what time it will be visible, or even just the phase of the moon. There are a lot of apps to help you with this; I recommend Sky Guide for iOS (pictured) or Star Walk 2 for Android.
If you live far enough north to see the aurora borealis (the northern lights), consider downloading an app like Aurora Forecast Pro (iOS, Android) which can alert you when conditions are such that you might be able to see the aurora from your location. All it takes is a burst of solar activity for the aurora to be visible at lower than usual latitudes, including northern areas of the continental US.
Zip-lock bags are a great all-around utility. If it’s wet outside, they keep gear dry. If your gear gets wet you can put it inside a bag with a desiccant to dry it out. A large zip-lock can even be adapted to serve as a rain cover for your camera.
However, one of the best winter uses for zip-lock bags is transferring equipment between cold and warm environments. If you’ve been out shooting in frosty temperatures and walk into a warm building with any humidity, you may find water vapor condensing on your equipment. Instead, seal your gear inside a zip-lock bag before going inside and let it equilibrate to room temperature for at least 30 minutes. This makes it less likely that you’ll need the next item on our list.
Oh, right. Don’t use the same bag that you used for pasta sauce. I always forget that part.
Silica desiccant beads
When camera gear gets wet on the outside we usually dry it off and keep going. However, if you make the mistake of getting moisture inside your gear, as may happen when you walk from a cold to a warm environment, you’ll need something other than a towel or microfiber cloth to get rid of the moisture.
When that happens – assuming you didn’t actually drop your whole camera into an ice-covered pond – silica gel beads, which acts as a desiccant, come to the rescue. Put the gear, along with a bunch of beads, into a zip-lock bag and seal it up. It may take some time, but eventually your gear will dry out. Silica beads can be purchased in bulk or in packets. In a pinch and don’t have silica beads? Use instant white rice instead.
Silica gel beads can often be found at hardware stores, but if you have trouble finding them locally there are lots of options on Amazon.
While not – strictly speaking – photography equipment, a headlamp can be one of the most useful accessories when the short winter days get dark. Since most cameras don’t have illuminated buttons a headlamp is a great way to see them, along with your other gear, without giving up one hand to hold a flashlight. Consider a model that includes a red light to better preserve your night vision while working.
A headlamp should probably be part of your winter kit anyway, just in case you get stuck somewhere after dark; I keep one in my pack at all times. If you’re not sure where to start check out options from companies like Petzl, Black Diamond, Princeton Tec or NiteCore (a company that, oddly enough, recently announced plans to manufacture full frame cinema lenses).
Personal locator beacon
This one applies to people whose winter photography takes them into the backcountry, away from roads, or anywhere else that might be inaccessible or cut off from mobile phone service. If you’re that kind of person and you don’t want to become the next Aron Ralston, it’s a good idea to carry a personal locator beacon (PLB) like the SPOT Satellite Messenger or Garmin InReach. With many PLBs it’s now possible to communicate with someone remotely, and in a real emergency they can be used to set off a search and rescue by local authorities. It’s like insurance – you hope you don’t need it, but if you do you’re glad to have it.
Finally, it’s not frozen everywhere in winter. In some places – Seattle comes to mind – it basically means a lot of rain, which is why our sample galleries often look grey enough to be mistaken for Log video footage this time of year. One simple technique to keeping rain off your camera and lens is to go old school and use an umbrella. “But, wait!” I hear you say, “I need both hands to use my camera.” I like to secure an umbrella to my pack so it just hovers above me. I’m sure it works better with some packs than others, so your mileage may vary on this one.
Hopefully, I don’t need to tell you where to buy an umbrella, but before you do that let me suggest acquiring a used umbrella instead. Go to the Lost and Found desk at just about any large venue or destination and tell them you lost a black umbrella. Chances are good they’ll bring out a box with a couple dozen to choose from. As you drive away in your 8-passenger SUV you’ll have the joy of knowing that in some small way you’re helping to save the planet.
Alternatively, you could just get the Nubrella (pictured).