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Taking Pictures in Cold Weather

Not everyone experiences the same winter we do here in the Northeast, but for those of you who do, and those who may be visiting a region where winter means frigid temperatures and snowy landscapes, we asked photographer Weldon Lee, who regularly leads wildlife and adventure workshops and expeditions in Alaska, Canada and other chilly climes, to submit his A-list of tips for cold weather shooting.

• I know you're going to say that my first tip is way too basic to even mention, but a lot of people who come to my workshops seem to overlook it: check your batteries to make sure they're fully charged. A weak or dead battery will put a stop to your photography pretty fast. Carry backup batteries—they're insurance. Keep them inside your parka, close to your body. (When you buy those backups, I recommend that you stick with the manufacturer's recommendation; if you're shooting Nikon, shoot with Nikon batteries.)

• Also basic, but extremely important: protect your camera and lens. If it's raining or snowing, use rain gear; there are commercially available, ready-made camera covers, but you can choose something as basic as a plastic bag rubber-banded around the camera. Leave an opening for the lens, of course. I keep a warm bias filter, like the Nikon A2, on my lens at all times. Carry a terrycloth towel in your camera bag; if your gear gets rained on, it'll soak up moisture better than anything else.

• When you're changing batteries or flash cords out in the open, make sure your camera is shielded. Try to avoid changing lenses because you can get moisture inside the camera body, and it can freeze and damage the camera (99 percent of the time I shoot with an 80-400mm [AF VR Zoom-NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED] on my D2XS).

• I mostly use the cloudy setting for my white balance—it's my built-in warming filter. But if I want the images to look cold and have a blue cast, then I'll change the white balance to daylight and remove the A2 filter.

• I was asked recently if I had to use exposure compensation because the camera's meter sees snow as too bright and underexposes it. I don't find that to be a problem with digital photography. I use Matrix metering and check the histogram regularly. I also make sure that the overexposure indicators—the blinkies—are functioning. They let me see right away that I might have an overexposure. I also recommend frequently checking the LCD to see what you're getting. It's especially important when you're shooting in the cold to see how temperature and light might be affecting the images. So keep the LCD on; it can be your best friend. If you're afraid of the battery going down, well, you've got your extra battery inside your parka, right?

• I frequently use a Speedlight for fill-flash; in fact, I always keep a flash on my camera—usually turned off, but when I need it, I turn it on. The problem I can run into when it's snowing is snowflakes close to the camera. The flash illuminates the flakes, and I can get hot spots. Because I know that will happen, I do a lot of shooting so I'll get some images where it's not a problem. Sometimes it's just one or two spots that I can tone down in the editing process.

• When the shooting's done, or you're going to take a break indoors, don't bring your camera into a warm place too quickly. It will fog up, and it will take a while to dry out so you can shoot again. I recommend putting the camera in your backpack or camera bag while you're still outside. Zip up the bag or pack, then bring it in. Keep the camera in there for 45 minutes or an hour before taking it out. That way the camera warms up gradually inside the cold bag or pack.

• As far as your comfort is concerned, it's most important to keep your hands and feet warm. I'm pretty resistant to the cold, so for temperatures down to 15 or 20 degrees I wear a pair of fingerless gloves that I put on over a pair of nylon glove liners. That combination gives me a good feel for making adjustments and pushing buttons. When it gets really cold, I'll put a pair of Thinsulate-lined wool mittens on top of the liners and the fingerless gloves. When I'm ready to shoot, I pull the mitten off, drop it, shoot, then put it back on. If you're thinking of wearing full gloves rather than the liners and fingerless gloves, I agree with the advice that you should take your camera with you when you go to buy the gloves. For my feet, I rely on Sorels Snow Pack boots. For the rest of my clothing, it's really just regular cotton clothing worn over polypropylene thermal underwear.

• Finally, realize that one of the best things about photographing in snow is that pristine snow on the ground covers up a lot of clutter, giving not only beauty but graphic simplicity to your images. I do workshops frequently and talk about going "in search of the winning image," and to my way of thinking, graphic simplicity is a common thread that runs through 98 percent of winning images.

We'd add that you might want to think about a nice warm hat...but we're not as rugged as Weldon. Bundle up and grab your camera.

To view a collection of Weldon Lee's wildlife images, and to learn about his workshops and seminars, visit his website.

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