Winter Photography: The Right Clothes Make All the Difference!
Advice from David Marx
I am a winter sports and landscape photographer. Skiing and snowboarding photographs are my specialty! To do what I love, I need to spend a lot of time out in the snow and the cold. For photographers, winter is the most wonderful time of the year – but you have to dress for success. It’s hard to shoot great photographs when your fingers are freezing. Frostbite and hypothermia are dangerous, potentially life-threatening, conditions.
In the winter, getting wet is dangerous. Moisture can soak into your clothes from the outside, as snow or rain, or it can come from the inside as you perspire. Either way, wet clothes are cold and uncomfortable. We need to dress right so that our core stays warm and dry. Working outside in the winter means dressing in layers and avoiding cotton clothing. “Cotton is a killer” when it gets cold because wet cotton fibers draw heat away from the body. Wool and fleece layers, on the other hand, maintain their insulation even when they are damp.
Exposed skin is a problem too when the thermometer dips into the negative numbers or when the wind begins to blow. The wind moving over exposed skin can create dangerous conditions even at relatively mild air temperatures. I bring enough layers to cover every inch of skin from head to toe when I go out shooting in the winter. I may not wear every item but I don’t go wandering around Yellowstone or Glacier National Park in January without enough clothes to cover my entire body.
Before I go into specifics about what I wear please allow me to suggest that you can save a lot of money on all of your winter clothes by shopping at SierraTradingPost.com and by monitoring the rotating deals at SteepandCheap.com.
In the winter, you want to plan your outfit from the top down starting with your head. I like to have two winter hats–wool hats,fleece hats, furry hats, even a balaclava–with me at all times. I bring two winter hats with me everyday so that I can wear one and keep the other as a spare in my camera bag. When the first one gets wet, I swap it out for the second one. If the wind howls, or the temperature plummets, then I’ll put on both hats!
I also like to have a scarf, or a neck gaiter, with me all the time. If I am going to stand around for hours shooting a winter sunset then I need to cover my neck and face with something that insulates and protects against the cold. A pair of clear ski goggles is a great idea too.
For my upper body, I like to wear multiple layers of synthetic, or wool, long underwear. My favorite base layers are the Patagonia’s Capilene 4 (Men’s/ Women’s) series fleece tops or the Icebreaker 320 Wool (Men’s / Women’s) undershirts. These tops are expensive but they are guaranteed to last for a long time. I have one Capilene top that I have been using since 1994. It smells terrible but it still keeps me warm!
I usually throw a Patagonia Puff Hooded Jacket or a Patagonia Down Sweater Jacket over top of my base layers. I love these puffy layers because they provide amazing warmth but are easily compressed. My down sweater, for example, is so easily compressed that I can stuff the whole coat into one of its pockets. With a coat this squish-able I can easily pack it away inside of my camera bag if the sun comes out and the day warms up.
On top of everything else, I like to wear a waterproof and wind-resistant ski shell. Storm grade winter coats can be super-expensive, but for photographer’s a simple jacket like the Columbia Bugaboo Parka is perfectly adequate. Don’t worry about all the fancy bells and whistles. Just find yourself a jacket that will fit comfortably over all your other layers and that will keep you dry if the snow starts blowing around. Don’t forget that the most important part of a good shell is a high collar and a deep hood that will stay up in a howling gale!
Like with ski shells, you can spend a lot more money than you need to on snow pants to cover your legs. If you have the budget then the Patagonia Powder Bowl Pants are rock solid, but something a whole lot less expensive like the Columbia Boundary Run Pant will do just fine. A pair of hunting grade wool pants will also make for a great outer layer. Who doesn’t love shopping at the Army surplus store?
I like to wear a couple pairs of fleece, or wool, long johns beneath my outer layers. I am fond of the Patagonia Capilene 3 Bottoms but any brand will do. I prefer two mid-weight bottoms over one super thick pair of fleece pants for the mobility but any combination of warm layers will work.
OK, time to share a little secret. To get great photographs, you need to find a better angle and often that means getting low. In the snow this means kneeling down which of course will freeze your knees. My secret is to wear a pair of carpenter’s knee pads over my base layers but beneath my snow pants. With my pads on, I can kneel down and shoot, or fiddle around with my tripod legs, without freezing! Of all my winter photography items, I think that a comfortable pair of knee pads are worth their weight in gold.
Now for my hands, I like the Outdoor Research Meteor Mitten system the best. This is a mitten system which means that there is a waterproof over mitt and a removable fleece liner. Not only does this system feature an inner and an outer mitt but the inner, the fleece mitten, is built with a trigger finger flap so I can still work the camera! I usually pack a disposable hand warmer in each shell too so that my hands stay toasty all day. Here are some other choices for quality mittens:
- Trigger Finger Mittens Shells Gloves with Liners
- Pearl iZUMi Barrier Lobster Cycling Glove
- Black Diamond Mercury Mitten
Did you notice that I picked mittens over gloves and that almost all of my mitten choices give you some thumb dexterity? I wear mittens when I go out shooting because they are always warmer than gloves. This is important when you are standing around in the cold for hours shooting star trails or the northern lights. Likewise, thumb dexterity is critical when you need to adjust the settings on your camera in the cold. Someday the camera companies may figure out that it is a lot easier to turn a knob with mittens on then it is to press some stupid tiny little button. Until then though go for a trigger finger system so that you don’t have to expose your entire hand to the elements just to work the camera.
Finally for my feet, I get to talk about one my favorite pieces of equipment in this post. In the winter, traction is crucial! A nasty fall can break bones or destroy valuable equipment. Save yourself a hospital bill and strap a pair of Yaktrax Pro Traction Cleats for Snow and Ice on under your winter boots!
Above your Yaktraxs I definitely recommend wearing quality snow boots and a good pair of wool socks. Tennis shoes are totally useless in the snow and most hiking boots have very little insulation. Your toes will freeze in the regular shoes if you stand around in the snow for long periods of time. For quality boots, the Sorel Caribou Snowboot is always a popular choice.
These days I am wearing a pair of LaCrosse Alpha IceMan Boots and I really love them. For years, I wore snow boots that were way too big. Boots that were a size too big felt comfortable in the store, but when I would walk around they pulled my socks down. I have finally learned that snugger boots are just as warm and they end up being a lot more comfortable when you are walking around searching for that perfect foreground.
I hope that this advice will help you get out and shoot this winter. Good luck and always remember that warm and dry is the way to be!
P.S. When I am not out skiing, I lead photography workshops in beautiful places! Here’s a slideshow of student images from the Yellowstone in Winter Photography Workshop that I led last year for Rocky Mountain School of Photography.
Tags | Advice, Clothing, David Marx, Glacier National Park, photography, Rocky Mountain School of Photography, Winter, Workshop, Yellowstone National Park