A skier on Denali, in Alaska. (Credit: Bill Hatcher)

Photography tips: camera in the cold

  • BY Bill Hatcher |
  • October 27, 2011

White light: how to nail that winter shot when all you see is snow.

Award-winning photographer Bill Hatcher has spent more than 25 years documenting adventure, science and exploration around the world. His stories in National Geographic, Outside, AUSTRALIAN GEOGRAPHIC and other publications include adventures as diverse as snapping the free climb ascent of Pakistan's Trango Towers, a 1300km traverse of the Alaska Range, discovery of the world's tallest tropical trees in Borneo and expeditions to the jungles of the Peruvian Amazon and Mali's Sahara desert. Here are his tips for capturing that memorable shot.

Taking photos in snow can be frustrating for most photographers. Even professionals admit that shooting on snow is tricky because of bright snow and harsh weather. My toughest snow assignment was a summer ascent of Mt McKinley (Denali), in Alaska. Denali lies near the Arctic Circle, so the mountain's 6194m summit has conditions colder than those on the summit of Mt Everest. Even if you're not planning to climb Denali, here are some techniques for shooting on snow and for keeping your camera working correctly in winter conditions.

Exposure

The biggest challenge of snow photography is making a correct exposure. Even the smartest camera can be fooled on bright snow, so it's essential to learn how to outsmart the camera's exposure meter. Most camera light meters are calibrated to medium-grey, so a white scene, such as snow, will look grey because the camera's meter will underexpose the snow. To make snow look white you must overexpose by a factor of +1 to +2. I use my camera's exposure compensation dial to override the meter by +1.5. Some cameras have a snow setting that does the same thing.

Lens fogging

You'll face lens fogging on even moderately chilly outings of 7ºC and colder. Never put the camera inside your jacket (which can get rather steamy) - use an outside pocket or bag instead. Also, don't take your cold camera straight inside a warm building or tent. To bring a cold camera into a ski lodge or hut, keep it in a sealed airtight bag for 30 minutes or so to acclimatise it to the warm interior. In a tent, I put the camera in a dry bag and leave it in the vestibule.

A snowy environment is dust free and dry, so for less active sports, like mountaineering on Denali, I just keep my camera slugged over my shoulder. Even in a howling snowstorm snow can be brushed off a camera. Remember that the moisture of your breath will instantly condensate or freeze on the metal and lens of a cold camera, so don't try to blow off the snow! For activities like skiing or ice climbing I carry a point-and-shoot camera in an outside jacket pocket and my SLR in a secure hip bag with a shoulder strap or in my pack.

Battery power

Modern lithium-ion camera batteries are only affected in extreme cold (-25ºC and below). In extreme cold a lithium battery's power can be reduced by 50 per cent or more. In really cold temps, keep the camera battery someplace warm like in your pocket or sleeping bag at night (along with your boots!). For the summit day on Denali I carried three lithium battery packs for my SLR camera, which was not nearly enough.

The summit temperature was -33ºC. During the six-hour climb to the summit I shot 288 photos and my last battery died just after reaching the summit. On assignment I always carry a backup camera. I knew extreme cold was a battery killer on Denali so the back-up I carried was a mechanical Nikon FM-3a film camera loaded with a 36-exposure roll of film. That was 36 shots I would have for the descent back to the high camp. I did this because to change film I needed to remove my mittens. In Denali's extreme cold and wind you can't risk taking off gloves because of the danger of frostbite. This was the fate of climber and photographer Ed Webster when he removed his heavy mittens near the summit of Everest to mess with his camera. The gloveless minute or two he needed to turn some dials and frame a photo cost Ed the tips of several of his fingers.

I guessed exposures and could barely see through my ice-encrusted goggles to frame a shot, but that roll of film produced the most successful image of the entire expedition. I've included that shot here of climber Gary Talkott as he braces against a gust of wind at Denali Pass.

The success of this photo showed me again that you shouldn't let a little snow and cold keep you from getting the shot.

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