Insulate metal parts. Touch an aluminum tripod with bare hands in cold weather, and you’ll quickly learn you never want to do it again. If you’d like to save your fingerprints, prep the metal parts of gear that you might be handling without gloves. It’s helpful, for example, to cover your tripod legs with some sort of insulation, such as hockey tape or foam.
Keep food and hot drinks handy. Eating a lot will keep you going for much longer. But if the food is hard to access, you might not bother to dig it out. I like to keep something energy-rich in an easily accessible pocket, such as nuts, dried fruit and (my favorite) chocolate. A thermos with something hot and sweet will keep you warm from the inside out and help you to avoid some serious consequences of cold, such as hypothermia.
Use two camera bodies. Changing lenses can be a real challenge in cold, wintery conditions. Handling gear in the cold is hard enough, but when you change lenses you also risk exposing your sensor to moisture. If you have a backup body, consider going out with two cameras so you can shoot at different focal lengths without having to switch lenses.
Take advantage of conditions. Some unique features come out only in cold weather—keep an eye out for them! These include methane bubbles in lakes, hoar frost, the interplay of sidelight and dramatic temperature differences (such as fog over open water), icicles, long shadows and the softening effects of an untouched blanket of snow. Sometimes this means venturing out in the coldest temperatures imaginable, but I promise you’ll go home with images you’re proud of.
Seal it. Depending on your gear, you may need to be cautious about drastic temperature differences, such as when you return to heat blasting in your car or go back indoors. Before exposing your gear to that warmth, it’s recommended that you place it in a sealed bag (such as a Ziploc) until it has reached room temperature. This will prevent condensation forming on the camera and lens. Add a silica gel pack to the bag to further cut down on moisture.
Give it time. It’s easy to throw in the towel when you’re facing super cold conditions. But take it as an opportunity to refine your system. Fingers got too cold? Make a mental note to bring the heat packs next time. Fiddling with your camera’s menus too much? Get more familiar with your gear. To help motivate you, make micro goals in getting out in the cold on a regular basis.
Embrace discomfort. No matter what you do, photographing in freezing temperatures will never feel like shooting a sunset on a beach in Hawaii. But often the difference between a good photographer and a great one is the willingness to go through some discomfort to get your images. Work toward spending more and more time out there, and, as you walk away with images you like, you’ll be more inclined, maybe even excited, to face the cold again.
The bottom line is some of the best photo ops happen when it’s brutally cold out, and some of the most magical places on Earth never get all that warm. Instead, they give us the opportunity to not only stretch our creative limits but also our personal comfort zones. Set yourself up well, and you’ll find that you—and your photo gear—are able to withstand even the coldest of temperatures. That warm blanket and hot coffee will feel that much better when you get into the editing room.