Sunday, December 4, 2011

First snow of the season

Today brought the first significant snow of the season to Lincoln.  There wasn't a lot -- only about an inch -- but it was enough to turn everything pretty.  As luck would have it, this is Saturday, so I was home & available to spend some time outside enjoying it with my camera.  It was even relatively warm and calm, which made shooting rather enjoyable despite the continuing precipitation.  Read on for a few pointers on cold weather photography.

My daughter actually started the outdoor shooting today.  She's quite a budding photographer, and she grabbed our P&S camera and ran outside early wearing her heavy jacket, boots, and pajama pants.  He came in with several good shots, and we immediately printed them for her scrapbook.  I love seeing her excitement upon discovering beauty in God's creation.  She's developing quite a good eye for composition, too.

One of my daughter's photos
The snow that kept falling all day might have been something to watch out for.  With a camera that's not weather sealed (like the P&S that my daughter used), you need to make sure you keep it dry, even when using it.  Not only will raindrops on your lens ruin a great shot, but electronics don't like moisture.

One technique I've used in the past to keep my camera dry in light snow is to lay a cloth baby diaper over the top of it.  They absorb all kinds of moisture, and they double as a neutral-colored object that you can use to calibrate your white balance (as if most of the snow wasn't already white).  When using a small camera like our pocket-sized Canon SD870IS, simply holding one hand above the camera generally does the trick.

When I upgraded camera bodies last year, weather resistance was one of my considerations.  I chose a Canon 7D, which isn't exactly waterproof, but is weather-resistant.  You can't drop it in a lake, but you can comfortably use it out in a light snow shower or near the spray of a waterfall without fear of bricking it.

Of course, completely waterproof (underwater) housings are available for many popular camera models if you plan to make a habit of shooting in freezing rain.

That's just the body, though.  The vertical battery grip -- even Canon's own model -- does not have this same degree of weather sealing.  I bought a cheaper, third party grip, but I called Canon support to verify the weather resistance of the various grip models before I made my purchase.

Some of Canon's L-series lenses are weather sealed, but cheaper or older lenses are not.  Today, I was using my trusty Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 AIS lens, which of course has no sealing.  I chose it for a couple reasons.  First, the 55mm focal length seemed like a good fit for the environment, and I definitely did not want to be changing lenses out in that stuff.  Second, I knew I'd want to take some macro shots.  Third, the front element of this lens is deeply recessed inside the body, virtually ensuring that I wouldn't have to be constantly cleaning water off the lens.  With no electronics inside this simple, old hardware, occasionally wiping the puddling water off the barrel with my handkerchief was all the maintenance I had to do.

Another thing you'll notice if you spend a lot of time in really cold temps is that your batteries go dead quickly.  In reality, they don't go dead -- they just can't transfer their stored power to the camera when it gets cold.  (This is why alkaline batteries last longer when stored in the freezer.)  Once the batteries warm up, they'll be fine again.  One thing you can do is to store your spare batteries in a chest pocket inside your jacket where your body heat will keep them warm.  As the batteries in your camera stop working, swap them with the warm ones from your pocket.  After the old batteries warm up in your pocket, they'll once again have a useful amount of juice to provide as the other set gets cold.

If you shoot with a tripod, be aware that aluminum gets really cold when the temperature drops.  Better tripods will have padded grips so that your fingers don't freeze to the tripod legs when you pick them up (think A Christmas Story).  I have it on good authority that nose drippings will freeze instantly when they hit an aluminum tripod leg.  Carbon fiber tripods don't suffer this same problem, in case you needed one more reason to justify the upgrade.

There's still things to keep in mind when you're done shooting, too.  After an hour of shooting outside in sub-freezing temps, your camera equipment has gotten pretty cold.  If you carry that electronic ice cube into your warm, humid house, the moisture in the air will immediately condense on every cold surface of your camera.  Regardless of how dry you've kept your camera while shooting, it will get very wet within seconds of bringing it indoors.  The best way to protect your camera from this condensation is to enclose it in an air tight, plastic bag (like a ZipLock) before you come indoors.  The bag will be filled with the cold, dry air from which nothing can condense.  When you walk inside, the indoor moisture will condense on the outside of the bag rather than your camera.  Leave the camera sealed inside the bag until it's become acclimated (perhaps an hour or so).  Setting it in front of a warm air vent will speed the process.

Following these guidelines and using some common sense will enable you to safely get some wonderful shots through the cold weather months.  I didn't discuss it here, but please use good judgment on keeping yourself warm, too.  Frostbitten fingers can't operate camera controls.  Check out this link for tips on staying warm while shooting.

What other suggestions do you folks have for shooting outdoors in the cold?  Have I overlooked anything important?  Please speak up in the comments below.

Beware the hedge monster!

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