Updated: March 9, 2022
In Montana, we know a thing or two about winter weather. Some of the most beautiful light falls on the landscape in the coldest months and it’s important to be prepared so you can get out there and comfortably take advantage of the photographic possibilities.
The following tips will have you well prepared to get outside to shoot even when it’s freezing!
1. Keep it steady and fluid.
A couple of tricks and handy accessories can make your tripod easier to use outdoors in the cold. First, keep moisture off of it as best as you can by drying it off frequently. Extend the bottom leg section all the way out and leave it that way, so that it’s less likely that any of the leg locks will be embedded in the snow. That way you won’t freeze up that bottom leg section.
Tripod leg warmers can help make a cold aluminum tripod easier to handle outdoors in the winter and they provide a nice padding for your shoulder while you’re hefting it.
Tripod spikes and baskets are another handy option for landscape shooting in the ice and snow, or on uneven surfaces.
Be gentle with anything plastic when it’s really cold. It might break if you drop it or hit something with it. Carbon fiber and metal can also become brittle in really cold temperatures, so be aware of your gear. Seriously, I saw a metal tripod break in -20 degree weather.
2. Bring all the power you need.
Keeping your camera batteries charged out in the cold weather is one of the most significant challenges you will face. Batteries lose their capacity at lower temperatures, so they don’t last long. In fact, a typical camera battery has about one-half the capacity at -20° as it has at 40.°
Here’s a graph from Battery University that shows what I mean:
In the graph above you can see the capacity of a lithium-ion cell at a variety of temperatures. You’ll notice that at -20°C (-4°F) the capacity is about one-half what it is at 40°C (104°F).
So what can a photographer do?!
There are a few solutions. On the low-tech end, just make sure that you fully charge your battery before you go outside, bring some extras and keep them close to your body for warmth. Or wrap a hand warmer around them to keep them warm right up until you need them (see photo below).
A higher tech solution is to bring additional power into the field with you. Portable power banks can themselves contain many times (how many times? see below) the power that a single camera battery does. The Anker PowerCore+ 26800mAh is one of the best ones.
There are two different ways that you can use the power bank in field — dependent on your preference and your camera body.
Option 1: Operate the camera directly off the power bank. The advantage of plugging the camera itself directly into the power bank is that you get the huge power capacity of the bank directly into your camera body and you don’t have to carry around multiple batteries with you. This can be very useful for timelapse photography, astrophotography, or shooting video, because a battery swap in those situations can be hard to time.
Newer cameras have the capability of connecting directly to a power bank, but not all cameras do, so be sure to check the specs for your particular brand and model before you set out. If you don’t have a USB port on your camera where you can plug in the power bank directly, then you need an additional piece of gear which will allow any camera to accept power from an external USB source. Here’s one from Tether Tools called the Case Relay.
This Case Relay allows you to convert the 5 volts coming out of the power bank into the kind of power that your camera can use. It’s a great solution for older cameras. Instead of connecting the power bank directly into your camera, you connect the power bank to the Case Relay. The Case Relay then plugs into a Relay Camera Coupler (made specific to your brand) which fits into the battery port on your camera. Either way, you can use a Tether Tools StrapMoore to attach the case relay and the USB battery pack to your tripod leg to make it more convenient.
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Option 2: Charge your batteries out in the field using a USB charger and a power bank. You’ll need a battery charger that works off of USB, like this Nitecore travel charger for the Canon LP-E6N . And you’ll need a power bank like the Anker PowerCore mentioned above. One advantage is that you can charge your batteries away from your camera and therefore don’t have to have the power bank strapped to your camera. And, if you don’t have a Case Relay and you can’t plug directly into your camera body, this could be a good solution. The disadvantage is that you will have to carry several batteries to equal the huge power of the bank. How many batteries, you ask? Let’s look at the math:
The Anker power bank linked above has is 26800 mAh. To find out how this capacity compares to the capacity of a typical camera battery, we use the formula:
Wh = V*Ah (watt hours equals volts multiplied by amp hours)
- The first step is to convert to amp hours, by dividing by 1000. 26800mAh equals 26.8 amp hours.
- The next step is to convert the capacity from amp hours to watt hours (Wh). Looking at the Anker specs we see that it’s 5 volts, so multiplying that by the 26.8 amp hours gives us 134Wh.
- This means that the Anker power bank can take a 134 watt load for one hour. (Imagine you’re powering a 60 watt lightbulb. With the Anker power bank you could power it for slightly over 2 hours.)
What about a typical camera battery? Let’s take a Canon LP-E6N Lithium-Ion Battery pack. It’s 7.2V, 1865mAh.
- Divide 1865mAh by 1000 to get 1.86 amp hours.
- Then, to get the number of Wh, we multiply 1.86 by 7.2 (the number of volts in the battery specs), and we get 13.39.
- This means that the Canon battery can take a 13 watt load for one hour — about 1/10th of the watt load that the Anker power bank can take.
Conclusion: The Anker power bank has the same capacity of approximately 10 Canon LP-E6N batteries! Yes, 10 batteries!
3. Run rings around condensation.
The dew point is the temperature at which water vapor in the air condenses to form water droplets, or dew. When air cools to its dew point and then comes into contact with a surface that is colder than the air, water will condense on the surface. In more humid climates, especially on cold nights, dew can quickly form on the front of your lens. The problem is not limited to the moisture that you can see on the outside of the camera and lens, but also the moisture on the internal workings of the camera. This can happen when you’re out in the cold for a while shooting, say, sunrises, sunsets, time-lapses, or astrophotography. What’s the solution? You can use a dew heater such as the Coo Woo Lens Heater that basically wraps a heating pad around the camera lens to keep it warm (powered by your USB power bank, of course!)
Bringing your camera indoors after being outside can create problems with condensation as well. Again, condensation forms when the camera is colder than the air around it. So before you bring your camera inside the house, put it inside an airtight plastic bag. Once inside the house, leave it in the bag for a couple of hours. That way it’ll warm up gradually, and any condensation will form on the outside of the plastic bag — and not on your camera and lens.
4. Manage Your Own Discomfort!
Being cold and miserable doesn’t easily lead to being inspired and creative. Bring plenty of water to stay hydrated. Bring something warm to drink. Wear the right clothes. Dress in layers. Buy some good snow boots. And I don’t want to say that the Milwaukee brand heated clothing is a game changer, because it may not be for everyone, but what!? It kind of is. Clothing that is battery-powered for warmth, where a charge can last up to 8 hours.
Staying warm and dry is critical, and layering with the “right” clothing is the solution. REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) is one of the best non-profit outdoor retailers in the country with the most technologically advanced clothing options, a “no questions asked” return policy and an expert staff to help you find out what’s best. If you’re a member you also get 10% back from your purchases at years end? Sweet!
There are lots of choices for gloves made especially for photographers. You can operate touchscreens while wearing them, and they offer selective fingertip exposure for changing controls on your camera. Freehands is one brand that you might want to consider. If you want to see several brands compared, Shutter Muse, has an extensive article on the subject.