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Winter Outdoor Photography Tips from Tom Bol

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Winter is one of the best times for photography. The crowds are gone, pristine white snow blankets the silent landscape, and skiers head to the mountains. After having photographed in Alaskan winters and Antarctic cold, professional photographer Tom Bol has a few tricks to make winter photography more enjoyable.
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“A winter storm warning is in effect for all of northern Colorado. Expect blizzard conditions and significant accumulations of snow. Unnecessary travel is not advised.”

I’m watching the evening news at home and debating my options. Another winter storm is approaching. My son is excited about school being cancelled, and digs his snowboard out of the closet. My wife is putting her truck into four-wheel drive so she can make it to work. “Unnecessary travel” will not apply to me, because I’m loading up my photo backpack and getting out my warm layers. Fresh snow means pristine landscapes, airborne skiers and flying powder—a photographer’s dream!

Photographing in the snow is one of my favorite activities. Maybe it was living in Alaska for years and constantly being in the snow, but something about snow stimulates my creative drive. I go into a frantic state until I am wallowing through the deep powder with my camera in hand.

But many photographers avoid the snow at all costs. Why? Chances are most of them think it’s hard to shoot in the snow, and are worried about getting their gear trashed or getting cold themselves. But with a little planning and extra care, anyone can enjoy shooting in the snow. Don’t let the winter slip past without photographing in the snow; just use the tips in this article to make your photography experience a good one. Go out and shoot!

Keep Your Extremities Warm

Most people have a warm coat and thermal underwear to keep their core body warm. But your hands, head, and feet are often overlooked. You need to keep your fingers nimble and able to adjust camera controls. The second your hands get cold, your photography enthusiasm wanes. I use lightweight liner gloves in mild conditions, and wear a heavy mitten over the liners if it is really cold. My mittens have a foldable finger flap, so I can fold the finger section up exposing my fingers (in the liner gloves) and work my camera controls (see Figure 1). When I’m not shooting, I just flip the finger section back down. Don’t forget about wearing a hat and insulated boots. A lot of heat loss occurs through your head, so the saying goes, “When your feet are cold, put on a hat.”

Bring Extra Batteries

Nothing is worse than hiking deep into a snowy landscape, setting up your tripod, composing your shot…and having dead batteries. Cold temperatures can suck the life out of batteries very quickly, so always bring extras. I put these in a warm pocket close to my body to keep the batteries warm until I am ready to use them. When you switch out your cold, dead batteries, put them in a warm pocket. As cold batteries warm up, they will recover some battery power.

Use Hand Warmers

Every year, I teach a photo workshop in Yellowstone during January (see Figure 2). Temperatures can be well below zero, but the photography is incredible. One handy item our group always uses is chemical hand warmers. These small packs produce heat once the package seal is broken, and can last for hours. I put one in each of my pockets, and they stay warm all day. If it is really cold outside, I will even put a hand warmer in each of my boots to keep my toes warm.

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