September 03, 2020 4 Comments
When done right, Winter Photography is one of the most rewarding types of photography you can experience. Every winter we hear from photographers who are discouraged by the pre-dawn wake-up calls, the sub-zero temperatures and the unpredictable elements that winter is famous for. If you’re a nature or landscape photographer, there’s the additional obstacle of having to wait for long periods for the perfect light conditions or for your animal subjects to a appear, but as the old saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.”
We’ve dedicated our entire livelihood to making winter photography enjoyable and accessible for everyday photographers all around the world and we truly love hearing the success stories from the field. There’s nothing like a calm winters morning as the sun breaks over the horizon and slowly brings the world to life and if you can experience it while staying warm, that’s a huge win in our book!
From years of living and thriving in cold places from Alaska to Norway, we have perfected our winter packing list to include everything you need to be warm and have a great shoot without packing up the entire house plus the kitchen sink in your bag (trust us, we’ve been there too.)
Photo by Simon Markhof
Camera bag: Every photographer is going to have their go-to brand and their favourite photography bag so while it may be hard to find the perfect bag for everyone, there are a few things you should look for when choosing your winter camera bag.
First things first, your winter photography camera bag should be waterproof or highly water-resistant. You'll be shooting in snowy and often wet conditions so you're bag needs to be able to keep your gear safe and dry.
We prefer bags that open from the back instead of the front. This ensures when you put the bag down and get your gear out, you don't get mud or wet snow on the section that will then go onto your back again. It also gives added protection of a zip opening on the back and your gear either falling out or getting snow in the bag while you are wearing it.
You should also consider exterior straps and carrying systems for split boards, skis, snowshoes, walking poles, etc
This really could be its own article in itself but here are our favourite bags:
f-stop Mountain Series Tilopa Backpack: this pack is loaded with straps, loops and webbing to attach all of your winter gear like skis, tripods or snowshoes. The padded back panel unzips to provide full access to your camera equipment.
LowePro Powder BP 500 AW: This bag is made with the photographer and winter sports enthusiast in mind. The heavy-duty compression straps allow skis, snowboard or other equipment to be easily harnessed and carried. The inside features a spacious compartment that will accommodate your camera gear plus plenty of winter layers to keep warm.
EVOC CP 35 L: This bag was made for winter sports photographers who shoot under the toughest of conditions. The spacious inside compartments keep your gear safe whilst the outside is optimized for stashing snow gear. Skis, helmet, shovel, ice axes. Whatever it is you need to take into the backcountry, the EVOC will have a place to store it.
Left to right: F-Stop Mountain Series Tilopa Backpack, Lowe Pro Powder BP 500 AW, EVOC CP 35L.
Camera body: Mirrorless or DSLR, it doesn't matter. We all have our preferences and we're true believers that the best camera you can have is the one in your hands. Don't stress too much about the brand and quality as you're getting started. Just get out there!
Wide Angle Lens: Wide angle lenses are fantastic for big scenery images because of their large depth of field and their ability to capture sweeping landscapes. If you want to capture the sheer grandiosity of a place, a wide-angle is the lens for you!
Sturdy Tripod: Winter weather can often be fickle and unpredictable, especially when you are shooting in the mountains and while you may be tempted to grab the sturdiest, heaviest duty tripod on the market, keep in mind you'll be lugging your tripod over all types of terrain so look for something that has a good balance between being sturdy and being light enough to carry.
Manfrotto is a leader when it comes to striking the balance between high performance and weight. If you're just getting started in photography, check out their Compact Collection. For more serious photographers, the Manfrotto 290 Xtra is a great option which strikes a great balance between performance, practicality and versatility.
If you're a traveller on the go and need to prioritize portability, you can't beat the Peak Design Travel Tripod which is fantastic for size and packability.
Remote Shutter: Not every photographer will have a remote shutter or intervalometer in their gear bag but we still chuck it in our backs for a winter mission. A remote shutter allows you to take a photo without physically pushing the shutter button on the camera which will reduce camera shake. A release shutter also allows you to shoot extra long bulb exposures for nearly as long as you want which is great for night photography. And for the selfie lovers out there (hey, we've all been there) a remote shutter allows you to take a photo while not being physically close to your camera which is great when you need to be your own photo subject. There are dozens of companies who make remote shutters so just be sure to find one that is compatible with your camera brand. We personally have used and loved Pixel.
Telephoto Zoom Lens: The long reach of a telephoto zoom lens is great for photographers looking to bring far subjects close which could be wildlife or sports photographers. As wildlife photographers, it's essential to keep a good distance between you and wildlife so a telephoto zoom lens allows you to capture a close up photo without putting yourself or the animal in danger. Telephoto Zoom Lenses are also great for winter sports photographers who want to get epic close up shots whilst keeping a distance.
Extra charged batteries:It's a common occurrence: you leave the house with a fully charged battery and within 10 minutes of being in the cold, you're fully charged battery has suddenly taken a turn for the worst, barely hanging onto a charge. Batteries hate cold weather so if you're planning on taking photos in the winter, you'll need to be well equipped with lots of spares. We recommend bringing more than you think you'll need.
House tip: your dead battery will actually come back to life if you can warm it up. Keep the battery close to your skin to prolong its charge.
Extra SD cards: There's nothing quite as frustrating as getting out in the field only find your SD card is nearly out of space. Nowadays, it's best practice to reformat your card once you have backed-up all of your photos instead of manually deleting them from your camera one by one so you really don't want to get caught out in the field with a fully SD card which hasn't been backed up. When stocking up on SD cards, it's important to get the right speed class for your device. The Speed Class Rating tells you the minimum transfer speed (i.e. the write speed). The higher the class, the faster the card. We use and like SanDisk Extreme PRO but any SD card will be better than no SD card at all!
Microfiber Lens Cloths: Sometimes winter is just plain old wet. If you're shooting in winter conditions, it's like you'll be battling moisture in some way or another, whether is a light mist or a few snowflakes. Having a few microfibre cloths on hand will save you so much time during post-processing. Trust us, you don't want to manually remove all of the water spots while you're editing.
Lens Filters: Not all photographers use lens filters but if you're regularly shooting landscape photography, it would be handy to have a circular polarising lens filter in your kit. Polarising filters reduce the glare of the snow and can help make the colours in your photo pop. ND Filters and Variable ND Filters are also great for occasions where you need a slower shutter speed in bright light (think long exposures for waterfalls.) Both NiSi and Lee make top of the line polarising, ND and variable ND filters. If you want to learn more about which filters would be best for you, check out this article.
USB backup Charger: Often photographers use their phones for maps and navigation so if you are a photographer who relies heavily on their phone while out shooting in the backcountry, it's a good idea to bring an external charger and charging cable for your phone. Just like with camera batteries, cold temperatures will deplete your phone's battery life quickly. If you're looking for a reliable and long last charger, Anker makes great portable backup USB chargers.
Camera Rain Cover: Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras on the market today will have some degree of water resistance in them. Of course, you shouldn't go plunge your camera in a pool of water but most cameras will hold up to small periods of snow or light rain. If you find yourself regularly shooting in heavy rain, it might be good to keep a camera rain cover in your kit for when the weather really rolls in. In a pinch, even a plastic bag will work but if you want to invest in something that will last, Peak Design makes a fantastic rain cover that protects your camera from heavy rains, snow and dust.
When packing up for a winter photography trip, it's easy to overlook the importance of a good layering system when it comes to your clothes. Vallerret co-founder Carl walks through the must haves when dressing for winter photography in the video below. This video part of our Winter Photography Basics course.
Photography Gloves: It almost goes without saying but just in case, you never want to leave for a winter photography shoot without your winter photography gloves. Nothing is worse than having freezing fingers and having to call your session early. Our range of gloves will cover you from light winter to Arctic temps and everything in between. If you're not sure which glove is right for, check out our glove quiz or simply send us a message and we'll help you narrow it down.
Non-Cotton base layers: We've said it before and we'll say it again. No cotton in the outdoors! For baselayers, stick to synthetics or merino wool. Your base layer sits on your skin and should be a material that transports moisture off your skin and to the outside of the fabric where it can evaporate, otherwise known as “wicking”. This helps keep you warm even if you get sweaty. Our go-to base layers come from Mons Royale and Kari Traa Pay attention to the weight of the merino which will help you decide out thick the material is. The higher the weight, the warmer the base layer.
Insulating mid-layers: Insulating materials like fleece or down trap air between the fibres of the fabric keeping you cocooned in a vacuum of warm air. A light fleece layer will be great for warmer days while a lightweight down jacket will be best for those bitterly cold winter days.
Waterproof outer shell: The outer layer protects you from the weather extremes. When choosing an external jacket, look for something that is both water and windproof. Moisture and wind are the main driving forces of chilling you to the bone, thus the outer layers should have properties of wind protection and water resistance.
Waterproof snow pants: When layering your clothes, don't forget about your legs! Keep them warm and dry with a waterproof pant (either a rain pant for warmer days or an insulated snow pant for colder days).
Neck Wamer: Just like your feet and hands, your neck is a prime location for heat loss. Fun fact: the neck holds thick blood vessels close to the skin which carry 20% of the body's warm blood to the head, so if you don't have a neck gaiter, you're putting yourself at risk to get colder sooner. Just like other baselayers close to the skin, we recommend a synthetic or merino wool neck gaiter.
Warm Hat: Keep your noggin warm with a synthetic or merino wool beanie. We like these stylish ones ;)
Warm Socks: We like to keep our feet warm with merino wool socks and will often take a second pair if we're anticipating long days or wet conditions. The feet are nearly a metre from your core so they are often one of the last parts of your body to warm up. We like these thick socks from Smartwool.
Waterproof Shoes: Most winter photography requires walking around in the snow or on top of wet ground and if you want to keep your feet warm, it's crucial to have waterproof shoes. Pick a good snow boot that not only has insulation and waterproofing properties but also has good grip for slippery and icy conditions.
Photo by Todd Easterbrook.
Snacks and water: Keeping hydrated and well-fed is a sure way to stay warm when the temps drop. In general, foods that take longer to digest can help raise your body temperature and make you feel warmer. A good rule of thumb is to always pack slightly more than you think you'll need. Better than getting caught hungry!
A thermos of coffee or tea: A thermos of coffee or tea is a great way to instantly warm-up (and get a jolt of energy too!). Alternatively, you can bring a camp cooker and melt snow for a hot cuppa. We like these thermoses from HydroFlask and when brining a cooker, we opt for the tried and true Jet Boil.
Flashlight or head torch: Even when you plan to return home in the daylight it's always a good idea to stash a headtorch in your pack. Sometimes, nothing goes to plan and things take longer than anticipated. The last thing you want is to be stuck in freezing temperatures in the dark with no light to get home. Any flashlight or headtorch will do but we like using a rechargeable, longlasting head torches like this one.
Sunscreen: Often the sun in the winter can be even more brutal and damaging than in the summer. Don't let the cloud and snow fool you, lather on that sunscreen! The reflection of the snow can cause sunburns in weird places so a house tip (from personal experience) is to make sure you put sunscreen on the bottom side of your jaw as well as your nostrils.
First Aid Kit: A good first aid kit will include an array of plasters/bandages, antiseptic cream, antihistamines, ibuprofen, bandage roll, gauze, tweezers, a roll of athletic tape, and scissors. Ideally, you'll never need to use your first aid kit but if you find yourself in a situation where you need some aid, you'll be happy to have it.
Duct Tape: It may seem silly but the amount of times duct tape has saved the day is impressive. You don't need to carry an entire roll into the backcountry but we always keep a few meters in rolled up in the bottom of our pack.
Lip Balm/Lotion: Winter weather tends to leave lips dry and chapped so we always have a stick of lip balm or lotion on hand. Burts Bees always seems to perform best for us but any lip balm will do. Look for a lip balm that has 15+ SPF to protect your lips from sun damage.
Photo by Carl van den Boom.
Winter in the backcountry is a must-have experience for any winter adventure photographer but it's not without its risks. The backcountry poses a serious risk to photographers who are underprepared and any photographer heading out into the hills should be familiar with the basics of avalanche awareness. We recommend taking an in-depth course to help understand snowpack and snow conditions. If you're heading on a backcountry photography adventure, make sure you have the following:
Main photo by Carl van den Boom.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. If you click on a link and make a purchase, we will receive a small commission without any cost to you. We only ever recommend products that we have personally used and can stand behind.
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