Breckenridge Sunrise
Breckenridge Sunrise

The image above has become one of my most popular images.  I had wanted to get an image of alpenglow on the Breckenridge ski area for some time, but I had encountered some difficulties.  When photographed from some of the popular viewpoints in Breckenridge, the sun is basically rising right over my shoulder and hitting the Ten Mile Range, head on.  This head on light creates a very flat image.  I knew in order to get some texture in the mountains, I would need a vantage point further to the north.  What I decided to do was to hike to the top of Keystone one December morning and wait for the sun to come up.  In order to get to the summit of Keystone in time for sunrise, I had to start around three o’clock in the morning, when the temperature was still well below 0 degrees.  Several hours and some numb fingers later, I was able to get this shot of Breckenridge bathed in the early morning alpenglow.  Photographing in the winter definitely presents some unique challenges, and this post is intended to help with my five favorite winter photography tips.

1. Keep the camera cold, and warm it slowly.

Cameras and other photographic equipment can easily be damaged in the extreme conditions of winter. One of the most common mistakes I see photographers make is to try to keep their gear warm by placing it inside their jacket.  This is a big no-no.  Cameras have no problem with cold weather.  They still work fine even in the most extreme colds of Antarctica and the summits of peaks like Mount Everest.  What can hurt a camera; however, is moisture.  The inside of your jacket is a very warm humid environment, perfect for the destruction of the sensitive electronics in cameras.

Along those same lines, you need to be careful when bringing your gear from a cold environment in to a warm house or car.  Condensation will form on (and worse in) your camera just like it forms on a cold beer bottle on a hot summer day.  The best way to avoid condensation from forming is to leave your camera inside of a camera bag when you come inside and allow it to warm slowly.  Any moisture will form on the exterior of the bag instead of on your camera.  In summary, cold won’t hurt your camera, but bringing a cold camera somewhere warm such as a house, car, or the inside of your jacket can damage it.

2. Adjust your exposure for snow.

Cameras have light meters inside of them that, along with internal computers, will try to automatically decide the best exposure.  They work very well with neutral scenes filled with the mid tones of green grass, blur skies, and people’s faces.  However, they tend to not work so well when it comes to scenes that are filled up with white snow.  The white snow fools the sensor in the camera into thinking the scene is too bright, and the camera will compensate by reducing the exposure, leaving the snow appearing grey.  There are a few ways to compensate for this.  The first is to use a scene mode designed for beach or snow.  Refer to you camera’s manual on how to use the scene modes.

Histogram showing over exposed image

The other method is to manually increase exposure.  Almost all cameras have an adjustment on them called exposure compensation. This feature allows you to manually account for scenes your meter has a tough time with.  This feature is either a dial on the back of your camera.  It will be labeled with either “EV” or “+/-” depending on your camera.  Changing this setting to around +1 will usually be sufficient to correct the exposure.  You may need to experiment with the setting to make sure the image is not over exposed.  Look for “blinkies,” flashing areas of the image on the LCD that indicate over exposure.  Or, you can use the histogram function.  If you see an histogram like the image to the right with a spike on the far right side, it is indicating that the image is over exposed.

3. Watch your breath and carry a brush.

Moonrise Over Lenawee
Moonrise Over Lenawee

No, I do not mean watch out for bad breath and carry a toothbrush, although that might be a good idea.  What I mean is to try to avoid breathing on the camera.  Your hot breath will turn to condensation as soon as it hits the camera.  I find this happens a lot when looking through the viewfinder, particularly if the camera is on a tripod.  Try to hold your breath, or back away from the camera and use the LCD to compose your shot with the camera mounted firmly on a tripod.

As for carrying a brush, I find that no matter how careful I am, I tend to get snow on my camera.  At first, you might try blowing it off, but all that results in is melting the snow, turning it into water, and ruining your camera.  Instead, carry a paintbrush with you from the hardware store.  If you get snow on you camera, just use the brush to clean it off.

4. Keep your batteries warm.

Peak One in Summit County Colorado emerges through the clouds above the hillside
Peak One in Summit County Colorado emerges through the clouds above the hillside

Cold batteries do not last very long.  This is why when I go out to photograph in the winter, I keep my batteries as close to my body as possible until I am ready to shoot.  Keeping them warm will help maximize how many shots you can get before they die.  This is especially true of rechargeable batteries.

I have also found that lithium batteries last a lot longer than traditional alkaline batteries.  They also have a much longer storage life, (15 years,) and weight about a third less than alkaline batteries.  The down side is that they are significantly more expensive, however I find that the extended life justifies the cost.

5. Protect yourself from the cold.

Outdoor Research Omni Gloves
Outdoor Research Omni Gloves

Find yourself a pair of gloves that will allow you to work your camera without taking them off.  I have tried a variety of different gloves, and I have found that the Omni gloves from Outdoor Research at the left work best. They are reasonably warm, and the palms and fingers are rubberized to allow me to work all the buttons on my camera.  Coupled with chemical hand warmers from Hot Hands, my hands are usually nice and toasty in most situations.

In extreme situations, I will wear an additional pair of insulated over-mitts over my gloves.  This way, I can take the over-mitts off, but still have gloves on when working the camera.

In addition to the Omni gloves, I have found some success with neoprene fishing gloves which allow for excellent grip, but they lack sufficient airflow to work with the chemical hand warmers.  Also, making sure your core and head are warm will go along way to keeping your hands warm as well.

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