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Backcountry Photography

Out in the Cold: First Steps

By Tamia Nelson

January 6, 2009

Camera-ReadyMost canoeists and kayakers feel naked without a camera, and I’m no exception, even if I sometimes substitute a sketchbook or paintbox. That said, my camera usually goes into hibernation on a shelf about the same time that my canoe retreats to its winter quarters on the rack behind the shed. And I suspect it’s not alone. After all, who wants to expose a delicate and costly instrument to freezing temperatures and wind-driven snow? Not me. But now I’ve undergone an attitude adjustment of sorts. I’ve got a new digital camera, and I’m not prepared to wait for spring to begin putting it through its paces. We’re going to have to brave the winter woods together, come what may. Of course, I don’t want our trips to end in disaster. A little planning never hurts. What’s that I hear you saying? You say you’re in the same boat? You found a new camera under the Christmas tree and you’re keen to get out and start snapping away? Or maybe you’re just tired of hibernating, and you’re thinking of taking Old Faithful out of the closet for a winter photo shoot. Good. Let’s get started.

First things first. Winter in Canoe Country is cold and wet, and neither of these is good for cameras—or would-be photographers. Batteries fail. Lenses fog. The inquiring photographer’s fingers morph into clumsy wooden pegs, while her shivering body makes framing the simplest shot a daunting chore. But winter has its charms, too. The frozen world can be a place of surpassing beauty, with every bend in the trail offering up vistas that cry out to be recorded. In this season of short days and long nights, we see the land without its summer drapery. It’s a stark country, this world of ice and snow, a place of shadow and stillness, very far removed from the lush colors and profligate activity of the warmer months. When any living thing moves in winter, it moves purposefully, intent on getting maximum return for minimum effort. That’s good advice for winter photographers, too, particularly in…

The Matter of Gear

Begin at the beginning: you. You’re the brains of the operation. Your camera can’t do anything without you, and you can’t do anything if you’re shaking with cold. Skiers and snowshoers rely on movement to stay warm. That works for them, but photography involves a lot of standing around, not to mention squatting and sitting. Sometimes you even have to get down on your belly in the snow. Moreover, as all paddlers know (or should know, at any rate) cold can kill. That means proper clothing is a must. Lightweight layers are good, provided they’re paired with bombproof shell garments. Wool and synthetic fleece rule the winter woods. Cotton is for summer—and for shells, though even here synthetics offer real advantages.

Warm HandsThat takes care of the furnace at your body’s core. So far, so good. But it leaves your head, hands, and feet out in the cold. You won’t get far down the trail if your feet are freezing, after all. I used to alternate between felt-lined pacs and wellies: pacs for dry arctic cold, wellies for wet days. That was when wellies and pacs were cheap and easy to find. Times have changed. Today I use one of two pairs of high-tech overshoes—modern mukluks, if you will. Both are waterproof. One pair is insulated and comparatively short. Worn over running shoes or thick pile socks (aka boot liners), they’ve taken over the pacs’ role in dry cold. The other pair is uninsulated—though roomy enough to accommodate the pile socks, if needed, plus a thick foam insole—and knee-high. They’re good in warmer, wetter weather. These high-top overshoes are great on the portage trail, as well. I’ll have more to say about them in the future.

From toe to head… A wool balaclava or watch cap worn over a stretchy fleece headband does the biz at my topmost extremity. (The hood on my winter parka is also important. It keeps snow from cascading down my neck.) That leaves only my too-often-frostbitten hands to deal with. And here I confront Catch 23. Mittens keep your hands warm on the coldest days, but leave you unable to remove a lens cap, let alone snap the shutter. On the other hand (so to speak) gloves give you back the use of your fingers, but leave them vulnerable to the cold. The answer? Wear both: gloves inside mittens, or (on warmer days) thin gloves inside thicker gloves. But what do you do with your mittens when you’re snapping a shot? You’ll get tired of holding them in your teeth in a hurry, and after you’ve spent half an hour digging in a snowbank for a dropped mitten, you won’t want to repeat the experience. Ever. Luckily, there’s a simple solution to the problem. Just run a lanyard through the sleeves of your parka and tie your mittens to either end. Then you can shuck the mitts in a flash, confident that they’ll stay within easy reach. You’ll never have to grope in a snowbank again.

Cool ShadesOne more thing: Don’t overlook the importance of protecting your eyes. The winter sun may not do much to warm your body, but it can still blind you, and it’s a lot lower in the sky than it is in summer. Snow-covered slopes make good reflectors, too. (High-altitude climbers often get sunburned nostrils from reflected light. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) The upshot? Protective eyewear is a Very Good Eye…sorry…Idea. The wraparound polycarbonate specs issued to GIs work fine, as do the more expensive designer counterparts sold by ski and cycle outfitters. Since I place a low premium on fashion and a high premium on function, I go with the GIware. They have everything I need: interchangeable lenses (clear for deep woods, amber for fog, mirror or smoky gray for sun), a sturdy but comfortable frame, a lanyard to keep them on my head, and a bargain price. They’ll also stop low-energy shotgun pellets, if that matters, and—more to the point, perhaps—they can easily be fitted with prescription inserts. Farwell, whose forty-year-old wire-rims sliced off an eyelid with surgical precision in a recent bike crash, leaving him temporarily blind in both eyes, won’t wear anything else now, winter or summer, whether he’s walking, riding, or paddling.


OK. We’re dressed for success, but we’ve got another hurdle to clear:

Getting Around

Winter in Canoe Country means snow, and walking through snow that’s more than a few inches deep is mighty hard work. Climbers call it “post-holing,” and that’s an apt term. The solution to the problem? Skis or snowshoes. Both are good ways to go in the snow, but skis take more practice, and they’re a bear to maneuver once you get off the trail and head into the woods. That’s why many skiing shutterbugs lash snowshoes to their packs. Me? I eliminate the middleman. I strap on snowshoes from the start. It may take me a little longer to get where I’m going—though the difference is smaller than you might think when you’re traveling off-trail—but I don’t have the nuisance of switching back and forth. Better still, I never have to wax! In the past I’ve used traditional Ojibwa ’shoes. (With not-so-traditional neoprene-nylon webbing.) They were light, fast, and surprisingly maneuverable. But traditional shoes like these are getting hard to find, and Ojibwas aren’t at their best in steep terrain, something that’s not in short supply in the Adirondack foothills. That’s why I’ve just gone over to a pair of aluminum-framed, decked ’shoes, complete with claw-equipped bindings. They, too, are light, fast, and maneuverable. Not as fast as my Ojibwa ’shoes, to be sure, but fast enough. And they tackle steep, icy slopes with aplomb. At least that’s the story so far. But the jury’s till out. I’ll keep you posted.

Speaking of icy slopes: ice can be a problem even when snow is not. Falling hard on your camera won’t do a thing to improve its performance. Climbers and mountaineers strap crampons on their boots before tackling ice, but climbers’ crampons are overkill for most Canoe Country photographers. Furthermore, crampons take some getting used to. It’s a little like walking around with 10-12 box-cutter blades strapped to each of your feet. The price for sloppiness or inattention can be high. I get by with Yaktrax®, instead, at least for “everyday” ice. They help negotiate slippery sidewalks, too. These days, when many municipalities regard sidewalk maintenance as a dispensable luxury—who walks, anyway?—that’s a real plus.

Last but not least, don’t leave home without making sure you have the Ten Essentials in your rucksack. Photographers aren’t exempt from bad luck or immune from the consequences of bad decisions, and General Winter isn’t a sentimental guy. He doesn’t give careless or unlucky folks very many second chances. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to expand the list of Essentials a bit, particularly if your photographic excursion will keep you out of doors more than an hour or so. A thermos of something hot to eat or drink is always a welcome treat, and if you have a really bad day it can be a life saver. The same is true of a light, efficient portable stove. Be sure to leave word with someone you trust before you head out on the trail, too. Tell them where you’re going and when to expect you back. Think of this as a cold-season version of the paddler’s float plan, if you like.


Now that we’re booted and spurred, so to speak, it’s time we were…

Talking Techie

Nestling DownMy ancient 35 mm Olympus OM-1n is a great winter camera. With its manual controls and mechanical shutter, it reminds me of the old Timex watch commercials: it takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Even a dead battery just means a dead meter, not a dead camera. But as rugged as it is, the Olympus has an Achilles heel: it’s a film camera, and film gets brittle when the mercury plummets. So if you’re a film photographer, handle your film advance with a safecracker’s sensitive touch whenever you’re shooting in the winter woods. A motorized drive is probably not the best choice in sub-zero temps.

Fast-forward to the present day. Digital cameras don’t use film. This is a very good thing in winter. But they do use batteries, and batteries tend to chill out. Moreover—unlike my never-say-die Olympus—a dead battery means a dead digital camera. Alkaline batteries are the first to surrender and beg to come in out of the cold. They have no place in the winter photographer’s kit. Happily, lithium cells hang tougher, as do nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeables. Of course, if your camera uses a proprietary rechargeable battery, you’re at the mercy of the maker. Check the specs before you head out for a shoot—and carry a spare battery in an inside pocket, too. Folks whose cameras are powered by off-the-shelf AA cells (both my Canon Powershot and my Pentax K200D SLR are) have a bit more leeway. They can choose battery types to suit conditions. Spare cells still make a lot of sense, though. As does keeping your camera out of the worst of the weather whenever possible. This involves the usual trade-off between protection and accessibility. If you opt for maximum protection, you’ll miss many fleeting shots, but if you keep your camera in your hands at all times, it has to take any blows that nature deals out, right on the chin. Compromise is usually the order of the day, and I’m no exception here. I choose a middle way. Sometimes I tuck my camera into a foam-padded sack which I then stash in a fanny pack (“bum bag” to Brits). I carry the fanny pack in front, however. (No sniggering across the Pond, please.) That way I can get at the camera more easily, and I’m less likely to crush it if I slip on the trail. More often than not, however, I dispense with the fanny pack altogether, carrying my camera on a sling around my neck and tucking it under whatever garment is outermost or—on the coldest days—under the first insulating layer. I leave one or more zips open to vent the sweaty murk generated by snowshoeing, in order to keep it from fogging my lens or scrambling the electronic brain in the camera. The picture above shows my Pentax DSLR nestled under my down-filled vest (it was a very cold day), protected yet accessible. It ain’t elegant, but it works.

Accessibility is one thing, operating efficiency, another. It sometimes pays to cover frostbite-inducing metal surfaces—tripod legs, for example—with tape or foam, and to attach lanyards to small, easily lost items like lens caps. An expendable UV filter makes an acceptable substitute for a conventional lens cap on an SLR, by the way. Think of it as a lens cap you can shoot through. Another solution to the “Oops, I dropped it!” problem is brightly colored plastic survey tape. Just tie a short length around cable releases and other diminutive bits of gear. This won’t help much if you lose something in deep powder, but it gives you a fighting chance under less heroic conditions.

Covering Your AssetsOne of the blessings of the SLR is the interchangeable lens. It’s also a curse. There are few sounds quite so sickening as the smack a good lens makes when you drop it on a rock—and it’s surprising just how many exposed rocks there are, even in snow country. Such accidents are uncommon in more clement seasons, but cold fingers don’t improve anyone’s dexterity. It’s not much better to drop a lens in deep snow, either. Is there a remedy? Yes. Make sure you’ve got something soft and dry under you before you switch lenses. Sometimes I use my rucksack, resting it in the snow so that the back is uppermost. At other times, I just use my hat. A visored cap like the one in the picture can be adjusted to fit over a balaclava. When I’m ready for a lens swap, I just put my cap down on the snow with the inside up, where it serves as a temporary workbench. And that’s not all it’s good for. These caps also makes pretty fair…

Portable Shelters

Experienced photographers know that bad weather—rain, swirling mist, wind-driven snow—often makes for great shots. But few cameras like to get wet. What’s a girl to do? Well, my Olympus is pretty well sealed, and so is my Pentax, and though neither one is truly waterproof, both will survive short-term exposure to all but the worst weather. That said, it’s still a good idea to shelter any camera from the falling damp, whatever form it takes. A cap visor offers fair-to-middling first-line protection, particularly if the visor is long. It also shades the lens, reducing the likelihood of flare. Of course, no cap can protect a camera from a downpour or a blizzard, let alone a snow bomb falling from the top of a towering pine. A sturdy umbrella can, however, and one of these is a worthwhile addition to any foul-weather photographer’s kit. Mine collapses to the size of a small mailing tube, and it cost less than a roll of color film. Here it is in action on a wet day…

Keeping Dry

A caveat: You probably won’t want to include your umbrella in your pictures, so hold it up and away from you when shooting. The handle of a full-sized umbrella can even be tucked between pack and back to give you a mobile roof (of sorts) over your head—until the wind snatches it away, that is! Umbrellas are also useful when photographing near waterfalls, rapids, or heavy surf. This is true in any season, but it’s doubly so in winter. In very cold temperatures, spray often freezes on contact. Under such conditions, an umbrella is a godsend.


Nothing lasts forever, and backcountry photo-shoots are no exception. Sooner or later, you (and your camera) have to…

Come in Out of the Cold

And it’s not without risk. You may think you left trouble behind you on the trail, but the transition from the cold, dry outdoor air to the warm, moist air inside your home is fraught with peril. Eyeglass wearers won’t need to be told this, of course, but condensation is not your camera’s friend. So take steps to protect it. The simplest safeguard is a heavy-duty Ziploc® freezer bag, or any of the many generic equivalents. Keep the bag in an outside pocket while you’re out of doors, then put your camera and lens into the bag on your doorstep. Now squeeze out as much air as you can and zip the bag closed before going inside. (Warning! Your hands will be cold, and a camera in a plastic bag is as slippery as an eel. Don’t drop it.) Condensation will form on the surface of the bag instead of your camera. Once the last drops have evaporated, it’s safe to remove the bag, though it’s a good idea to have a soft, absorbent cloth handy to mop up any residual moisture on the camera body, along with a blower bulb to clear the lens. Don’t forget to dry your tripod, too!

A final precaution: If you’re using film, it can’t hurt to give it a bit more time to warm to room temperature before rewinding, and the same thing probably applies to downloading images from a digital camera. If you’re anything like me, you can’t wait to see how your pictures turned out, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Next month: Some specific techniques for winter photography. Happy shooting!

Nice Weather for Ducks!

Are you a summer shutterbug and a sunshine photographer? Do you hesitate to expose your expensive camera to the rigors of cold weather? Me, too. But lately I’ve been rethinking my options. There’s a lot going on in the winter woods, and a digital camera is a great tool for freezing the action. You have to plan ahead, though. That’s not too much to ask, is it? I don’t think so, and I’m betting you won’t, either. So come on out! The weather’s fine—and the photography’s even better.

Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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