17° below zero was not your normal shooting environment. In fact most people might think going outside to take pictures under 32° might be a little insane. As for me, getting accused of being a little crazy is not unusual. I enjoy taking pictures in places many people won’t go to or at the time of day where people will not venture out and if that includes -17 then that’s what it takes.
I recently had the opportunity to go up to Door County Wisconsin and photograph the coastline, some lighthouses, small barns, and scope out the area for some potential workshops in the near future. I was not disappointed, the area is absolutely stunning from a photographic standpoint however this time of year required some pretty good planning to protect me from the extreme environment and ensure success while shooting in the extreme cold. I would like to share with you how I planned and what worked for me.
Power was always the concern when shooting in the extreme cold. I remember keeping sets of batteries nearly right up against my skin to keep them warm. I have been amazed over last 10 years on the quality of the batteries I’ve been using for my DSLR. They are not special batteries, they are just the ones made by the camera manufacture. Even on this last trip with temperatures consistently below zero, I did not find I was having any trouble getting a full day out of one single battery. I did bring an extra set just in case as history is hard to forget when shooting in these temperatures. As for the rest of my gear I really did not do anything special to protect it. The gear that I was not using stayed in a padded backpack made of a waterproof and windproof material that I would take off and on, lay in the snow, or lean up against a tree and never really be concerned about the gear inside. I even took a few spills and specifically one time rolled onto my back over my backpack and my gear was fine and stayed dry. Only my ego was hurt, temporarily. The hardest issue of course was controlling my camera settings and my tripod screws/ clips with my big mittens on. Many times I would take my mittens off for 5 minutes or less to manipulate my camera or my tripod. The tripod was next to impossible with gloves off because the aluminum got so cold that it transferred to my hands and rendered them next to useless in a very short amount of time. Literally 10-15 seconds. Of course this is something to experiment with as everyone will have a different tolerance. I was actually able to figure out a few settings I can control on my camera with my mittens on which was a nice accomplishment for my personal comfort. A couple of times it started to snow however I was not too concerned about the snow on my equipment as most of my gear is of a higher quality over entry-level DSLR’s and standard water resistance is common. I was concerned with and constantly looking for falling snow getting on the face of my lens which is not desirable because it leaves spots. With falling snow especially at the temperatures is described you could blow it off gently and not be too concerned. Do NOT, however, blow on the glass part of the lens. It will fog and then freeze which probably will not hurt the lens but you will not be able to shoot through it. In a wet heavy snow you may want to consider plastic bags zip lock bags something to cover up camera and lens.
So what is there to shoot in Door Co. ? There’s a lot of coastline and along the coastline are bluffs and points and lighthouses. In the interior there’re many old barns, some schoolhouses, and some very well preserved old churches and other buildings in some of the small towns and main streets. You will need to plan for just about any weather conditions since door County is so close to water, and so much water. The short-range forecasts for the time I was there was just about opposite of what actually occurred on each of the four days. The one thing that you can consider consistent is if there is any open water that hasn’t frozen over there will be a low cloud layer, it will resemble fog directly over that water rising as much as 100 feet in the air. It can have a cool effect as the sun rises or sets behind it but depending on how close it is to the shore you may find that it blocks the sun from part of your shot. If the coastline is what you are looking to photograph as well as the lighthouse is along the coastlines you will want to invest about $45 minimum in a good pair of boot cleats. These will keep your traction on the slippery rocks that are ice covered as well as providing traction if you’re walking out onto the ice itself that lays just below the snow.
As far as actually taking pictures I found that since there was so much snow, that for the most part the meter was accurate on the camera using evaluative metering because the scene was balanced. On the days the sun was out I did use my circular polarizer on many occasions to help deepen the blue sky and to provide glare elimination in certain situations that called for it. For the most part I did not do much different other than one stop bracketing to help break out some details. I also shoot camera raw which allowed me maximum capability for editing in postproduction. As far as what lenses to bring there’s a lot to take it so I had a 16mm – 35mm F2.8, a 24mm – 105mm F4, and my 70mm-200mm F2.8. I also brought along my 8mm fisheye but I never pulled it out. Even on the overcast days shooting at 200 ISO I still found that I could shoot at F 8 or better and keep shutter speeds high enough to be hand held. Regardless I was still using a tripod.
It might be obvious to some but I’ll mention it anyway, the very first thing that I did with planning was check out the NOAA website to determine some average temperatures, sunrises and sunsets times to begin planning for what type of equipment I’ll need to bring with me to protect me from the elements. Growing up in Chicago has helped me to acclimate to these colder temperatures, however there is some good knowledge to be learned from the outdoor extreme sports participants. The first item is a base layer. A thin layer of wicking material to draw the sweat away from your body which would otherwise cool you to a very uncomfortable level when you stop moving. As a kid we called these “longjohns“ but whatever you call them, the technological advances in the last decade or so has made these materials amazing. Don’t skimp on this later this is a very important layer as it keeps your skin dry. You will get what you pay for. The next layer from the waist down anyways for me is simple, it’s usually just cotton denim or sweatpants. When it’s really cold like constantly below zero, then I will wear a flannel lined denim and be very toasty. From the waist up I will use a long sleeve tee-shirt over the base layer and then a fleece pullover on top of that which usually has a large collar that I can zip up to just under my chin. The outer layer is also very important because not only do you want to keep moisture off your skin with your base layer you want to keep wind off your skin and moisture off your middle later by having a wind stopping waterproof outer later. As intuitive as that sounds I often see no windproof / waterproof outer layer from the waist down. There are many styles of waterproof pants. I found a pair at the local outfitter that has built in kneepads which really came in handy when kneeling on ice and frozen snow drifts. My upper layer is a ski jacket, not just a winter coat. The difference is most jackets made for outdoor exercise in this temperature have a controllable air vent under the armpits in the form of a zippered flap that works part way down the side to let you vent heat during extreme exercise or workouts such as skiing/snowboarding. It also lets you adjust your protection as the day warms up and then drops again later in the evening. The same situation occurs if you are trekking through snow and ice with 15 to 25 pounds of camera gear in a backpack you will work up a sweat heading to your location and then once you get set up and start working you may start to chill until the wicking material dries you off. So opening those vents while you’re burning calories will also help you stay warm by helping you stay dry. Wind and moisture are your biggest enemies when out in this extreme cold. The last areas to plan for are your extremities, specifically hands, feet, face and neck. This will be different for everybody based on your tolerance to cold and how much heat you generate. Due to poor planning as a teenager my hands and my feet are extremely sensitive to the cold so I must wear thick mittens and extremely warm boots and I use the chemical hand warmers and foot warmers as well which make an enormous difference for longevity in this temperature. Boots and gloves that are waterproof and made of highly durable materials work best. .As far as head and neck are concerned once again something that will stop the wind. When the temperatures get below zero and stay there I choose the balaclava to cover my entire face except my eyes and place another hardy hat over the top. I have a styl’n “Elmer Fudd” hat with drop down earflaps and a chinstrap to hold it securely in place. There are times when I’ll also wear a neck gator. This is like a tube of fleece like material I pull over my head that wraps around my neck and if necessary I can pull it up over my mouth and nose in a pinch.
Okay we just talked about keeping you warm and safe, how about interacting with your camera gear during this extreme temperature. I have been amazed over last 10 years on the quality of the batteries but I’ve been using for my DSLR. Even on this last trip with temperatures steady below zero I did not find was having any trouble getting a full day out of one single battery. I did bring an extra set just in case as history is hard to forget when shooting in extreme cold. I really did not do anything special to protect my equipment. The gear that I was not using stayed in a padded backpack made of a waterproof and windproof material that I would take off and on, lay in the snow, or lean up against a tree and never really be concerned about the gear inside. I even took a few spills and specifically one time rolled onto my back over my backpack and my gear was fine and stayed dry. The hardest issue of course was controlling my camera settings and my tripod screws/ clips with my big mittens on. Many times I would take my mittens off for 5 minutes or less to manipulate my camera or my tripod. The tripod was next to impossible with gloves off because the aluminum got so cold that it transferred to my hands and rendered them next to useless in a very short amount of time. Of course this is something to experiment with as everyone will have a different tolerance. I was actually able to figure out a few settings I can control on my camera with my mittens on which was a nice accomplishment for my personal comfort.