It’s that time of year again: it’s barely 10 days into “autumn” and the third day of October, and yet Calgary had a whopping 32cm of snow yesterday. That means it’s time to get geared up for photography in cold temperatures once again.
I’ve previously discussed how to safely use your camera gear in winter, so if you want to know how to extend your camera’s battery life or how to ensure that its internals do not get damaged by extreme cold, please head over to that post. Below, I discuss something equally important: what gear you need to bring along to ensure that you don’t experience any long-term effects from exposure to the cold. No photo is ever worth not being able to feel your big toes for three months afterwards…
Always Dress in Layers
Regardless of what you’re doing in cold weather, it’s always important to dress in layers. Multiple layers will always be warmer than a single layer of the same thickness, and they also give you flexibility to be able to remove some, but not all, of your insulation. This is very helpful when you’re hiking up to a lookout; removing a layer early will stop you from sweating, which will make your clothes damp and cause you to get cold and then stay cold.
Usually, with photography, the concern is actually the reverse: that you won’t be warm enough. Remember, you’ll be standing still compared to when you’re doing athletic activities such as skiing or snowshoeing, so the cold will really seep in. One or two extra mid-layers that you can quickly throw on under your jacket will make a much bigger difference than an even bigger, puffier down jacket would have.
So what layers should you have? Start with a base layer made of a comfortable, wicking material. What you want here is something that will stay dry and keep moisture away from your skin so you don’t feel cold and clammy. I always wear Icebreaker base layers because merino wool is great for temperature regulation (it helps keep you cool when it’s warm and warm when it’s cool). For those that are allergic to wool, polypropylene thermals are a good option. What I wear: the Icebreaker Oasis V top and either the 200gsm or 260gsm leggings
On top of your base layer, add a mid-layer or two (and pack at least another one spare). I tend to wear either wool or fleece for this layer because they are lightweight but still insulate (the whole goal of this layer). The same is true for the legs; I often opt for a pair of fleece lounge pants. What I wear: Icebreaker Cascade Long Sleeve Zip or the North Face Arcata
As an outer layer, you’ll want a jacket that keeps wind and water out. In a dry climate such as Banff, you will only need a water-resistant jacket because the snow will often slough right off without seeping in. However, in a climate like Vancouver, Norway, or Iceland, you’ll need a jacket with a higher waterproof rating to ensure you don’t get wet. I wouldn’t be wearing a down jacket (a jacket that will often lose all of its insulating characteristics once it gets wet) in these places; I’d opt for a ski jacket or parka. What I wear: Rab Neutrino Endurance Down Jacket (for dry climates) or Columbia Carson Pass Jacket (for wetter climates/days when I am walking through thick trees)
It’s also worth looking for other features in your jackets as well. Hoods to help keep the wind out and inner pockets to help keep your batteries warm are both handy extras that not all jackets have.
For pants, you’ll either want insulated ski pants (if you are in extreme cold) or pair of water-resistant hiking pants. You’ll need a bit of extra room around the waist in these because you’ll be wearing more underneath them than in summer. What I wear: $60 ski pants from Marshalls or Patagonia Simul Alpine pants (these are my year-round go-to)
None of these layers should be made of cotton or denim. Both of these materials absorb water and then stay wet, meaning they will keep you cold rather than warm as soon as you get a bit sweaty or encounter your first snowfall (or snow drift).
Finally, consider what I call the “Michelin man effect.” This is what happens when you put on so many layers that your movement is severely impeded (for instance, I have a pair of ski pants that are so tight in the thigh area that I cannot walk up some stairs in them). It’s worth putting on all of your layers before you pack them/head out on a shoot just to make sure that you’ll be able to easily move your arms and legs.
Cover all Exposed Areas
One thing many people have a tendency to do (including me when I first moved to Canada) is leave small patches of skin open to the elements. This includes the neck, the face, and that pesky area that can open up between your pants and top when you bend.
There are a few small things you can throw in your bag that will stop these areas from being a problem. Scarves can both cover your neck and mouth area; on the coldest days, I wear a fleece scarf that is so large it could double as a small blanket. Buffs take up less space and, with their tube shape, are easy to pull up over your mouth. They come in a variety of materials, including a half wool/half fleece version.
A word of warning to glasses wearers: breathing into a scarf will usually push the air up and into your glasses, causing them to fog (something that doesn’t go away quickly in winter). It may be worth switching to contacts for your shoot!
I also like to wear a floppy beanie (toque) that can be pulled down well below my ears, since they often get cold in tighter-fitting hats. The one I’m wearing above is by local Calgary craft shop Wolf and Willow.
Finally, if possible, it’s worth buying longer top layers and ensuring that your base layer is tucked in so, no matter how you contort yourself to get that perfect angle, you’re not leaving it open to cold air (or equally, for snow to fall down your pants).
The answer, as usual, is likely somewhere in between. What works best for me is to wear two layers of gloves: a glove liner or thin glove, covered by a thick set of mitts. Mitts on their own are warmer than gloves due to the circulation of warm air that they allow; however, they also make it impossible to use your camera. If you’re wearing a thin layer underneath, though, you still get their benefit but when you remove the mitt to use your camera, your hands aren’t being exposed to cold air. This is important because once your hands get cold, they will stay cold. What I wear: Head running gloves and Burton gore-tex mitts
It’s also quite handy to buy gloves that have a pocket for handwarmers. These little bags of warmth will often make your gloves positively toasty, and having a pocket means they won’t fall out every time you take your glove off. It’s worth carrying an extra stash of handwarmers as well, because some can be duds and never warm up.
You will not regret buying a good pair of winter boots, because having cold feet (especially once they start going truly numb) can really ruin a shoot. You’ll be standing still on a freezing surface, and that can seep into your boots very quickly.
The temperature rating and height of a boot are both important; my current boots are rated to -40ºC (which in reality means somewhere around -20ºC before your feet start getting chilly) and are mid-calf height. You can go lower than this, but you’ll risk getting more snow in your boots (even if you wear gaiters). What I wear: North Face Chilkat 400
When buying your boots, it’s important to ensure they are not too tight. Extra space in your boots will mean extra space for warm air to circulate, and it will give you space to add toe warmers if needed. I usually go at least 1/2 size up on my normal shoe size.
If you only have one piece of clothing made of wool, your socks should be it; they will keep your feet fairly dry (and as a bonus, they take a lot longer to start smelling)! In general, you should only wear one pair of socks. Multiple pairs will take up more space and could start pushing your toes into the boot outers, which will actually result in colder feet (since there is no longer a nice layer of warm air between your feet and the boot). What I wear: SmartWool Hike Medium Crew or SmartWool Trekking Heavy for the coldest days
One exception to this is for those that use toe warmers extensively. In this case, if you wear a thin sock, you can place the toe warmer on top of your toes (without the risk of burning) and then put your thick socks on to hold it in place.
Always bring along a spare pair of socks, at least two small garbage bags, and a towel. This will save your feet if you have an accident where your boot becomes inundated (which I managed to do in Johnson Lake on a -20ºC day a few winters ago). Having this gear with me meant I could dry my foot, put on a dry sock, and then put it in a garbage bag as a layer between it and the soaked boot inner. I hiked for hours afterwards and my foot wasn’t any colder than normal.
Finally, duct tape (as in most cases) can be a lifesaver for boots. I had a pair of Columbia boots that decided to disintegrate on me during a snowshoe trip, which left holes in the back of the boot that snow kept forcing its way into. Duct tape kept the snow out and meant I didn’t have a potential frostnip issue to deal with (since I had no choice but to hike out).
These, along with Yaktrax, have to be one of the best winter inventions ever created. Microspikes are a series of small spikes strung between a rubber outer, which you stretch around the sole of your boot. Yaktrax are similar but come in either a version with metal coils around bungee cords or a version with tiny metal spikes. Both will give you grip on ice where you would have none otherwise, meaning you can comfortably stride along paths while others are grabbing onto trees to pull themselves along.
Between the two, I recommend microspikes as they provide more consistent grip. Their main downside is that they are awkward on non-icy surfaces, while Yaktrax can be used for a short period of time on normal surfaces (although I’d avoid gravel as it sticks in them). It’s best to use both solely on ice and snow as you won’t blunt them, but sometimes it’s just not worth removing them for a short stretch before you have to put them back on again.
You may not think about these if it’s a bit dreary outside, but with all that snow, you’re going to want sunglasses. Snow blindness can happen in a short period of time, even when it’s overcast.
It’s worth always having one of these in your bag because the short days of winter can really catch you off-guard. If you’re using them for light painting in low-light photography, I recommend having one quite dim flashlight (which you can use in-frame for a longer period of time before it blows out) and one very bright flashlight (for finding your way around in the dark and for adding light beams to photos). What I use: Coast HP8R rechargeable flashlight
Your lips will thank you, especially if it’s windy at all.
A final few notes about taking care of yourself: if you can avoid it, don’t shower or sauna within 2 hours of going out on your shoot. Both of these strip your skin of necessary oils it needs to help insulate so you’ll feel the cold much more quickly.
Also, listen to your body. If you are losing feeling in your extremities, go inside a building or vehicle, take off at least your boots and gloves, and sit in the heat until the pins and needles feeling has gone away. That photo I captioned above with a note about losing feeling in my toes? That happened because I stood still in temperatures between -10 to -20ºC for five hours and didn’t listen to my toes when they went numb. Letting them stay numb for an hour resulted in likely nerve damage that caused my big toe to lose all sensation for about three months. Not all people are so lucky.
Winter can be a challenging time for figuring out what to wear, especially for those who haven’t grown up in those conditions; sunny and 0ºC is definitely quite a different beast to snowing and -30ºC, and standing still at a photo location for an hour is quite different to zipping down a ski hill. Being prepared for what the weather might throw at you will make the difference between rushing back to the car early in a shoot and sticking around to catch magic light sparkling on the snow. So bundle up, and happy shooting!
Did I not cover something you’re wondering about? Get in contact with me here.