When it's Cold...

Take pictures!
Unlike some of my other posts that focus on trumpeter swans ("Shooting the Cold" & "A Success Story"), this one is not about the birds. I'll also spare you from yet another rant  about how cold Minnesota can be and instead focus on my strategy for staying warm and functional when temperatures plummet. While there is no one best way to maintain your core warmth, thermoregulation is a necessity if you plan to be a productive photographer in sub-zero conditions.
Having lived a chunk of my life in warmer states, it has taken me nearly twenty-years to finally understand how to continue shooting when most people would rather sit around a fire, hide under a blanket, and drink a hot toddy. What follows is my top ten list of suggestions that will make you a better cold-weather photographer.

  1. Layers, Layers, Layers! Dress in layers: When planning a cold weather shoot, I wear sock liners, socks, thermal underwear, thick pants, t-shirt, long-sleaved shirt, fleece, Gortex-lined down coat, hat, and gloves (specifics to come).
  2. Thermal Underwear Matters! I wear Patagonia expedition weight thermal underwear. While patagonia products are very pricey, these thermals are as warm and tough as they get. I purchased my first pair of patagonia thermals in 1987 to stay warm during long hours of research in Alaska... I still wear and use this same set today. With Patagonia, you get what you pay for!
  3. Wear Wool Socks over Sock Liners: Wool is warm, and wool will stay warm even if it gets wet. I advise that you wear liners because wool also itches.
  4. Invest in good winter Boots: Everyone I know who shoots and plays in the super cold wears Sorrel of Columbia boots. Ignore your desire to be fashionable, buy ugly boots that wick away moisture and are rated to sub-zero temperatures. If your feet don't stay warm, you will not stay outside... guaranteed! 
  5. Wear a Head-Sock and a Hat: Head-socks are ugly, they hide your face, people will think your batman, but they block the wind. Your core heat will escape from any exposed skin, and your face will be the source of this heat loss. I wear a head-sock to protect my skin and top it off with a hat that covers my ears. This extra bit of protection extends my productivity during the coldest hours of the morning. 
  6. Gloves Matter! If you asked me five years ago if I could imagine wearing a pair of $50 gloves, I'd say Hell No! Well let me tell you, a bit frostbite will make a cheap man (or woman) open up their wallet and spend like mad. I now carry two pairs of gloves into the field whenever I do a winter shoot. Each pair retails for about $50 and has a different purpose. When shooting, I wear AquaTech Sensory Gloves. These are the warmest full cover gloves that allow for enough dexterity to manipulate the knobs and buttons on my cameras and lenses. Neoprene fingertips for the thumb and index fingers are perforated with holes that allow my fingers to be temporarily exposed, do some work, and retreat back into the warmth of the glove. My second set are a pair of Manzella mittens. When it's really cold and I feel the hammer pounding away at my finger tips, I plunge my cold lifeless clubs into a pair of Manzella Tundra Mittens and sigh in relief. Like a pair of good boots, the right gloves will keep you outside when everyone else is running for the car or cabin!
  7. Drink and Eat Before you Shoot: You will burn those calories as you hike during a cold day, or wait for your subject to arrive. The cold sucks the life out of your body, and you will need to generate some internal heat to keep the system working. Surprisingly, dehydration can be a real problem during cold-weather aerobic activity. Stay hydrated, eat well, and burn that fuel.
  8. Carry Chemical Hand Warmers: This is a cheap way to warm up really cold fingers. Before heading out for a long morning shoot, I will open a pair of hand warmers, shake them to initiate the chemistry, and slip them into my Manzella mittens. The extra warmth from these chemical packets provide instant relief when the tears of pain begin to flow.
  9. Know How To use your Camera! The cold weather is no time to learn what those buttons do. You will be uncomfortable and you want to expose those fingers as little as possible. Knowing how to use your gear will save you from the pain of fumbling around with a camera that you should know how to use.
  10. Accept the Challenge: Many photographers put their cameras away during the winter and wait for warmer days. Some of my most interesting landscapes and unique wildlife images have been made during the coldest days of the year. Get outside, use the gear, and embrace the opportunity... it's worth the effort.

All images were shot at Swan Park, Monticello. On this day, the temperature never made it above 10 degree Fahrenheit. We began shooting at 7:15 a.m. and stopped around 10:00. With the damp air and cool breeze, the weather really challenged our bodies. This type of photography was all about waiting for peak moments. The lack physical activity challenged our ability to thermoregulate during periods of inactivity. Warm clothes and pre-shoot preparations made these images possible.
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