4 Keys to Enjoying Shooting in Cold Weather

by | Dec 28, 2015 | Tips & Tricks | 2 comments

Whether I’m shooting in my backyard or enjoying an epic location over the Christmas holidays, it’s usually a struggle for me to get outside and take great pictures in the cold if I don’t have four things in place to keep me motivated. With these four factors, I have the motivation to shoot almost anywhere, at almost any time and under almost any circumstances!

Here’s the four factors illustrated from an early morning moonset and sunrise at the Alder Planetarium overlooking the Chicago skyline on Christmas Day morning.

3199_Chicago-Illinois-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 17 mm, 1-100 sec at f - 10, ISO 200

1. Dressed warmly

I can’t tell you how important this is! It should be a no brainer for cold weather, but it’s amazing how often I find myself either completely miserable—shivering in the cold, totally not enjoying myself—or cutting corners to rush back inside simply because I hadn’t dressed properly for the cold. I would much rather be laughed at for dressing too warmly and have to shed some layers later, than to “fit in with the crowd” and wish I had brought more.

I know I’m dressed properly for the weather when I can keep warm without having to rely on doing “exercises” to keep me warm while I’m shooting. I also know I’m dressed properly when I’m warm enough even when I’m in direct contact with the surrounding elements, such as wind, rain, bare cement, or piles of snow.

Have you ever sat down on a cold slab of cement? With just a thin layer of clothing, you can feel the cold on your legs almost instantly. If that surface happens to have snow on it, then your legs will be wet before too long. Miserable, right?

So, what clothes could you wear that would solve both these problems? That’s why I dress in layers—lots of layers—and use as little cotton clothing as possible. I’ve been out in the cold enough now to have a general idea of how many layers I need or exactly what combination of layers I should be wearing if it’s above freezing, below freezing, in the single digits, or in the wind or rain. It just comes with experience and practice, and plenty of frozen toes and noses too along the way.

3133_Chicago-Illinois-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 70 mm, 1-320 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 200

2. Well rested

While dressing warmly is an obvious factor for enjoying shooting in cold weather, being well rested may not be so obvious. But think about it. When you’re tired, are you inspired to do anything? No. At least, not myself. Especially if it’s cold outside.

My level of creativity is only as fluid as my level of alertness.

If I’m well rested, I feel like adventure. And to me, shooting pictures in inclement or cold conditions is adventurous, if I’m prepared for it and awake enough to enjoy it.

3126_Chicago-Illinois-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 138 mm, 1-320 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 200

3. Schedule is flexible

In order to be well rested, my photoshoots have to fit into a schedule. If I’m up late one night, then I should schedule sleeping in a bit more the next morning. If I’m burning both ends of the candle, I need to schedule in a nap in the middle of the day. If landscape photography is something I want to do and do well, then the amount of time I allot for it will be the measure of my dedication.

3102_Chicago-Illinois-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 21 mm, 1-4 sec at f - 8.0, ISO 50

4. A general location chosen beforehand that’s fitting for the environmental conditions

It’s no fun to have gone through the trouble of dressing warmly and working sleep into my schedule to go on a photoshoot that produces no results. If I’m going to go through all that trouble, it only makes sense to plan a little ahead of time to pick a general location that holds at least the possibility of yielding interesting pictures.

As I think about where I’m going to shoot, I try to envision or find out what to expect at that particular time. Will the environmental conditions be fitting for this particular time of year? In winter, trees are usually bare, the sun and moon rise and set at more extreme times and angles, roads might be closed, wind might be stronger, etc. I always take into account elevation, effective horizon line and forecasted temperatures and weather conditions. All these things can be considered in your own backyard.

Research doesn’t have to be extensive. For this location in Chicago, I was doing my research at midnight the night before. Just enough to get me at a suitable location with suitable clothing. I guess my planning wasn’t extensive enough, though, because I got there too late to capture the moonset I was hoping for.

3076_Chicago-Illinois-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 89 mm, 1-6 sec at f - 4.0, ISO 800

With all four of these factors considered, I am almost never short of motivation to conquer the cold and enjoy shooting in the more difficult situations that winter throws at us!

3158_Chicago-Illinois-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 55 mm, 1-400 sec at f - 8.0, ISO 200

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  1. thefarmhand

    Howdy James! After just getting back from ALERT, I would add to your “Warm clothing” point that the base layers should have wool as a first or second layer. Especially essential, are wool socks and a knit hat. I can’t overemphasize that enough! These will also let you stay somewhat warm when wet, as long as you have a few layers. Also wear thin gloves, and trim the ends off of the fingers that you operate the buttons with.

    • James Staddon

      Excellent comment! I also like to have a second pair of gloves to put over thin gloves to keep my hands warm as I’m scouting around or getting set up or doing anything else other than handling the camera settings.


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