How to stay warm: Winter Photography – updated

It is early-winter in New England. As a photographer who creates most of his work outdoors, I have to pick the right times to shoot, and be prepared for whatever the weather gods may throw at me. If the forecast is for temps only slightly above 0º I know what to wear; largely from my experience winter camping, hiking, and cross-country skiing for decades in New England. Here are a few pointers:

Man on snowshoes at Moose Hill Farm, Sharon, Massachusetts
  • Anticipate your activity level
  • Dress in loose fitting layers and avoid cotton because it dries very slowly, especially against your skin
  • If your hands and toes get cold put on a hat. I use different weight hats, depending on how much am moving around.
  • Use polyester or wool-blend long underwear. I like medium or light weight with a zip turtle neck. (These are items you can use year round for different activities.)
  • Over the underwear tops wear a light-weight polyester or wool shirt or fleece shirt
  • I stay away from sweaters because they usually don’t zip open for temperature adjustment
  • Over the underwear you can use alpine ski pants, breathable wind/rain pants, or my favorite — nylon hiking pants with cargo pockets. Fleece, down, or down-substitute jackets will warm your core. The advantages of fleece are its durability, and that it keeps you warm when moist or wet. Traditional goose down makes a great warm jacket but as soon as it gets wet it looses insulating value quickly. For the outdoorsperson or the photographer down’s, advantage is its compressibility. You can stuff a bulky jacket into a small nylon stuff sack or jacket pocket. New, treated down products claim to be water resistant.
  • Keeping your hands warm can often be very challenging for the winter photographer. Mittens are the warmest but render your fingers useless for pressing camera buttons. On a very cold outing I wear well-built ski mittens or gloves and keep a light-weight pair of polyester liner gloves handy for the times I need full dexterity. My secret weapon for warm hands is to carry a pair of thin plastic or latex surgical gloves. The “vapor barrier principle” keeps your hands warm by limiting the amount of water vapor evaporated from your skin. Wear them under your mittens or gloves and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the warmth of this combination
  • Feet: I own two pairs of snow boots. Traditional 10″ mukluks: rubber bottoms, leather uppers, and removable felt liners; and 8 inch high insulated, boots. If you are going to be out for any significant length of of time, city boots or sneakers, or any uninsulated footwear may spell trouble. Frostbite can cause permanent injury.
  • About wind-chill. Don’t let a scary-sounding wind chill forecast keep you from going out a to shoot. Wind-chill is a scale developed by the US Army research lab that rates the cooling effect of wind on bare skin.
  • Frostbite is real. If you are hiking and shooting with other folks, check their faces and ears now and then. White spots indicate frozen skin or “frost nip.” Warm with a hand with warm fingers.
  • Carrying your warm clothes. I have many camera-specific backpacks, most of which easily accommodate my Nikons, but have precious little space for warm clothes. From time to time I modify a climbing backpack to carry camera gear, but the adapted gear is not perfect. You’ll have to be creative both with your picture making and with transporting your warmest clothing and your imaging tools.
  • I often use a tripod for winter photography and I have found the latest carbon-fiber ones easier to hold than aluminum because they don’t feel as cold. The solution for aluminum tripods I discovered is to fit some inexpensive foam pipe insulation over the largest tube.

Your questions are welcome. Enjoy the winter!

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