How to Shoot in Freezing Temperatures and Keep Your Hands Toasty Warm - Digital Photography School

How to Shoot in Freezing Temperatures and Keep Your Hands Toasty Warm

cold-weather-photography.jpgThe following post on cold weather photography submitted by Matthew G. Monroe.

For those of us who live in the earth’s Northern Hemisphere, Winter isn’t set to be over — officially — for another two weeks.

For those of us who live North of the 45th Parallel, Winter isn’t set to be over — realistically — for at least another month-and-a-half.

For those of us who are pretty much sick of the whole deal — especially the long nights and continuous cold and damp — well, there’s really not a whole lot of immediate relief in sight. Perhaps a trip down to the balmier parts of the Southern Hemisphere (Mmmmmm… Australia) would provide for a quick and easy cure of the Wintertime blues. Unfortunately — in my household at least — no flights have been booked.

Myself, being firmly entrenched in the Northern Hemisphere (and living just 27 miles North of the 45th Parallel), I’m kinda’ resigned to the fact that just about any and all outdoors shooting that I do in the local area is going to take place under less than ideal conditions — at least for the next month-and-a-half. Trust me, I’ve already spent more than enough time this past January and February freezing my butt off while taking pictures outside, and I’m not really looking forward to the next forty-five days or so…

On the other hand, no matter how cold it is outside (and no matter which portion of my left and/or right hindquarter slowly ends up as a frozen butt-sicle), I almost always manage to work outside — taking pictures and snapping away — with warm and toasty hands.

Really?

Yes… And there’s no real secret involved… In fact, I have to admit that it’s pretty obvious. I keep my hands warm and toasty by wearing the thickest, heaviest set of mittens I can find.

But don’t the mittens interfere with my ability to operate a camera?

Hmmmm… To a certain extent… But even with the thickest set of mittens that I have, I’m still able to operate the the zoom ring on all my lenses. My aperture and shutter speed dials can also be operated (I shoot with a Nikon D200) while wearing mittens. The only thing that I can’t operate well while wearing thick heavy mittens is — unfortunately — the most important “thingy” on my camera…

The shutter release button.

Fortunately, there is a work-around that’s just head-slappingly simple, and it also also allows for auto-focus to work perfectly.

My secret for shooting in the cold — all while wearing mittens and keeping my hands toasty warm is…

I use a shutter release cable.

To be more specific, when I’m working outside and the temperature is right on the verge of freeze-yer-butt-off cold (basically, anything colder than 15 degrees Fahrenheit), I simply place a camera release cable (also known as a “shutter release cable” or “remote cable”) inside the mitten of my “trigger hand,” and then just rest one of my toasty warm fingers on the cable’s shutter button. I’m then able to pre-focus my camera by holding the shutter button halfway down (assuming that I’m in auto-focus mode), and I can trigger the camera by — well — triggering the camera. My other hand (also in a mitten) supports the camera and adjusts the focal length of my lens. The beauty of this technique is that my hands always end up being nice and warm inside a pair of mittens — which sure beats the alternative. Trust me on this one, frostbite really, really sucks.

Do I use ever use gloves (or go barehanded) rather than wear mittens? Sure… When the temperature is above 20 degrees Fahrenheit and there isn’t a strong wind blowing — otherwise, I try to keep both hands in mitts at all times.

P.S.: 20 degrees Fahrenheit is roughly minus 6.6 degrees Centigrade; 15 degrees Fahrenheit is about minus 9.4 degrees Centigrade.

Read more of Matthew’s work at his blog.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • Olli

    Eh, 15 degrees. I live in Finland, yesterday there was about -5 degrees fahrenheit (-20 celsius). I was photographing snow (first time this winter) and I did use only my quite light (“normal”) leather gloves. And I was about two hours outside.

    It’s all about get accustomed to cold.

  • http://www.nu-creation.com Luke

    That is a great idea. Duh…why didn’t I think of that? Of course it rarely gets that cold around here in Missouri unless its nighttime.

    Balmy 63 for a high today!!

  • http://www.punctualityrules.com –Deb

    Or, if you know a knitter, you get a pair of these:

    Here’s the pdf of the pattern:

  • http://www.punctualityrules.com –Deb
  • http://www.klaidas.lt/ Klaidas

    Mhm, and how about shooting in freezing temperatures without damaging the camera?

    And all in all, such gloves for -6C. Oh, come on :] -25C is somewhat freezing, -6 – not so much.

  • GEli

    I’m in my thin gloves until -20°C, at which point I switch to my thick gloves. I’ve shot in as low as -50°C for a good long time and my camera has come to no harm, but I’ve made a point of avoiding condensation when the camera is warming up by sealing it in plastic in the company of a desiccant.

  • http://avatar.iamzaks.com mikeboy

    Im from Venezuela, I read this and can help but chuckle, we never go below 20°C here :p

    -20°???°!! -50°???!1!! what? are you kidding me, I never thought it could get that cold, except for Antarctica or something like that.

  • http://www.theglobalphotographer.blogspot.com Matthew G. Monroe

    Klaidas: The only “damage” that’s been done to my camera by cold weather is the condensation that collects when going from a cold outside environment to a warm indoors environment. As GEloi wrote in his/her comment, most of this condensation can be avoided by wrapping the camera in plastic and using a desiccant.

    Also, I’m in thick gloves early on. Standing outside for hours on end at 20 degrees F. (roughly -6.6 degrees C) can suck the heat and energy out of a person pretty quickly, especially if the wind is blowing. Myself, I hate taking pictures when my fingers are cold — even slightly cold — and so I put the big mitts on whenever I think that I’m getting slightly chilled.

    Mikeboy: Temperatures like -20 C and -50 C are quite common in Alaska (where I’ve worked quite a bit). And as a kid growing up growing up in Northern Michigan, I can distinctly remember hard arctic blasts (i.e.: -30 to -40 C) coming through every two or three years.

    Matt

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenklassy Ken Klassy

    I am in the southern hemisphere south of the 60 degrees (Antarctica). Winter is just getting started. A brisk 32 below this morning. That is a great idea. I will have to plan that for my next contract season.

  • http://www.flickr.com/alstonfamily AlaskaTeacher

    Great idea!!!! We see -45 days regularly around here. I’ve gotten adept at shooting through my gloves, but this is a much better idea.

  • http://augphoto.com Augphoto

    Dah, so simple yet, I never thought of it. I’ll have to try it. Don’t you ever jerk your camera around, however, being tethered to it like that?

  • http://www.sheridantighe.com lime

    Man, the only excuse I can come up with for not thinking of that is that my brain doesn’t work well at these cold temperatures :-)

    Btw, I am leaving the cold of England for the more sensible climate of Australia in exactly two weeks. No more cold for me!

  • http://sightings.loneroad.info/ AC

    Smart idea. Since my camera does not have a shutter release I do my best the brave the elements for as long as I can. Somehow, gloves and mittens (unless very fine) don’t cut it while operating a camera.

  • Cam

    Suggestion from a buddy who did arctic training with Canadian forces:
    Wear a pair of those mini gloves inside your mittens.
    They’ll keep you from freezing to anything if you need the fine control you can’t get using the mittens, and they are almost as good as skin in terms of grabbing things/pushing buttons. Then if you need you can pull them off, and only on the hand you need. He specifically had a pair of the mini gloves with the trigger finger cut off for doing rifle training with Canadian Arctic Rangers.

  • http://twalshphotoblog.blogspot.com Tim

    Not sure that 15 F is really all that cold. You can have your hand out of your mitten for several minutes without much problem. -40 F – I like your ideas!

  • http://www.theglobalphotographer.blogspot.com Matthew G. Monroe

    Tim: As far as I’m concerned, 15 F is plenty cold when the wind is blowing and I have to stand around waiting for a shot to happen.

    AugPhoto: Yeah, I do have to be careful about randomly pointing with my “cable hand” when hooked up to camera.

    Olli: It’s not a matter of just “getting accustomed to the cold.” It’s a matter of body fat, circulation, wind speed, and dressing properly. Myself, I grew up in a part of the U.S. that probably gets just as cold as Finland does in the Winter time, and I can’t for the life of me imagine going outside — at minus 5 degrees F — with just a light set of leather gloves on my hands. I would have frostbite within ten or fifteen minutes and — yes — I know from personal experience what frostbite feels like.

  • private snowman

    Matthew,
    What Olli means, I think, is that people not living in places where it keeps cold for extended periods tend to believe that keeping hands warm is a matter of glowes. This is not the whole truth. Did you know, that the head is responsible for 20-25% of total heat loss? The crucial thing is to keep your head, extremities and body warm, which makes it unneccessary for the autonomic nervous system to shunt blood away from periferal circulation. This is done best by either remaining indoors or layered clothing, a skill which people in countries with really cold and long winters have known “instinctively” for generations. You might want to check NATO’s guidlines on how to remain operative (e.g. handle a gun in combat) for long periods in extreme cold conditions.

  • http://www.delriofoto.com Bobby A

    Matt, gracias for the article. Just shows how a photog has again provided another solution to a problem that plagues a group of us.

    I also recognize that this article is NOT about how cold is your cold and my temperatures are colder than your temperatures….ahhh, my children.

    Bo.

  • Doc Holliday

    To Lime: I went to ANU in Canberra. I got talked into going camping one winter day. The next morning, it was -10 degrees C. I have been at Jindabyne/Threbo in the Snowy Mountains when it was that cold, or colder. I’d keep my gloves handy. [Actually, if I had a choice, I would just live on Dunk Island in the Whitsundays, Townsville or Cairns…]

    The “camera mittens” is a great idea. Similar types of mittens are available at sporting goods stores for use in hunting, with a flap to stick your trigger finger out while keeping the warm air in.

    Here in the Northern Rockies, I regularly shoot at temps way below zero – sometimes as low as -50 degrees F, not counting wind chill. I have a pair of gore-tex ski gloves that I use, (mittens have never done it for me, even though they are supposed to be warmer than gloves). Enough dexterity for the zoom ring. I take off my right glove to shoot or use a cable release. I put a chemical hot pack in the palm of each glove…

    My biggest problem is that batteries get too cold to function, so I put four hot packs in my down vest and put my batteries in the middle of them. Sometimes, I will get as few as 8-10 shots per fully charged battery. Putting them in with the hot packs for 10 minutes will get me another ten shots. As an extra bonus, I can put my hand in my battery pocket to get warm…

    Doc…

  • Tim Cannon

    Ha! you won’t have to worry about that with global warming!! :D

  • http://annerleydental.com.au Laura Annerley

    We Australians are a bit pathetic, I have to say. Melbourne and Sydney get down to 5 degrees, maybe even 0 degrees, and we’re all running around in ski jumpers with a thousands layers of scarves and mittens and everything!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/abhijitsarkarphotography Abhijit Sarkar

    I’m still looking for an inventory of winter photography clothing, complete with brand name, that one may just take to a store. I’ve looked and looked all over the web and asked photographers and in forums but it seems everyone is content with sharing generic advice, and when asked for specifics, they’re reluctant to share their “trade secret”.

Some older comments

  • Laura Annerley

    May 11, 2010 11:00 am

    We Australians are a bit pathetic, I have to say. Melbourne and Sydney get down to 5 degrees, maybe even 0 degrees, and we're all running around in ski jumpers with a thousands layers of scarves and mittens and everything!

  • Tim Cannon

    March 28, 2008 11:43 am

    Ha! you won't have to worry about that with global warming!! :D

  • Doc Holliday

    March 19, 2008 03:25 am

    To Lime: I went to ANU in Canberra. I got talked into going camping one winter day. The next morning, it was -10 degrees C. I have been at Jindabyne/Threbo in the Snowy Mountains when it was that cold, or colder. I'd keep my gloves handy. [Actually, if I had a choice, I would just live on Dunk Island in the Whitsundays, Townsville or Cairns...]

    The "camera mittens" is a great idea. Similar types of mittens are available at sporting goods stores for use in hunting, with a flap to stick your trigger finger out while keeping the warm air in.

    Here in the Northern Rockies, I regularly shoot at temps way below zero - sometimes as low as -50 degrees F, not counting wind chill. I have a pair of gore-tex ski gloves that I use, (mittens have never done it for me, even though they are supposed to be warmer than gloves). Enough dexterity for the zoom ring. I take off my right glove to shoot or use a cable release. I put a chemical hot pack in the palm of each glove...

    My biggest problem is that batteries get too cold to function, so I put four hot packs in my down vest and put my batteries in the middle of them. Sometimes, I will get as few as 8-10 shots per fully charged battery. Putting them in with the hot packs for 10 minutes will get me another ten shots. As an extra bonus, I can put my hand in my battery pocket to get warm...

    Doc...

  • Bobby A

    March 19, 2008 01:49 am

    Matt, gracias for the article. Just shows how a photog has again provided another solution to a problem that plagues a group of us.

    I also recognize that this article is NOT about how cold is your cold and my temperatures are colder than your temperatures....ahhh, my children.

    Bo.

  • private snowman

    March 19, 2008 12:20 am

    Matthew,
    What Olli means, I think, is that people not living in places where it keeps cold for extended periods tend to believe that keeping hands warm is a matter of glowes. This is not the whole truth. Did you know, that the head is responsible for 20-25% of total heat loss? The crucial thing is to keep your head, extremities and body warm, which makes it unneccessary for the autonomic nervous system to shunt blood away from periferal circulation. This is done best by either remaining indoors or layered clothing, a skill which people in countries with really cold and long winters have known "instinctively" for generations. You might want to check NATO's guidlines on how to remain operative (e.g. handle a gun in combat) for long periods in extreme cold conditions.

  • Matthew G. Monroe

    March 18, 2008 01:07 pm

    Tim: As far as I'm concerned, 15 F is plenty cold when the wind is blowing and I have to stand around waiting for a shot to happen.

    AugPhoto: Yeah, I do have to be careful about randomly pointing with my "cable hand" when hooked up to camera.

    Olli: It's not a matter of just "getting accustomed to the cold." It's a matter of body fat, circulation, wind speed, and dressing properly. Myself, I grew up in a part of the U.S. that probably gets just as cold as Finland does in the Winter time, and I can't for the life of me imagine going outside -- at minus 5 degrees F -- with just a light set of leather gloves on my hands. I would have frostbite within ten or fifteen minutes and -- yes -- I know from personal experience what frostbite feels like.

  • Tim

    March 18, 2008 12:49 pm

    Not sure that 15 F is really all that cold. You can have your hand out of your mitten for several minutes without much problem. -40 F - I like your ideas!

  • Cam

    March 18, 2008 09:00 am

    Suggestion from a buddy who did arctic training with Canadian forces:
    Wear a pair of those mini gloves inside your mittens.
    They'll keep you from freezing to anything if you need the fine control you can't get using the mittens, and they are almost as good as skin in terms of grabbing things/pushing buttons. Then if you need you can pull them off, and only on the hand you need. He specifically had a pair of the mini gloves with the trigger finger cut off for doing rifle training with Canadian Arctic Rangers.

  • AC

    March 18, 2008 08:34 am

    Smart idea. Since my camera does not have a shutter release I do my best the brave the elements for as long as I can. Somehow, gloves and mittens (unless very fine) don't cut it while operating a camera.

  • lime

    March 18, 2008 08:26 am

    Man, the only excuse I can come up with for not thinking of that is that my brain doesn't work well at these cold temperatures :-)

    Btw, I am leaving the cold of England for the more sensible climate of Australia in exactly two weeks. No more cold for me!

  • Augphoto

    March 18, 2008 05:18 am

    Dah, so simple yet, I never thought of it. I'll have to try it. Don't you ever jerk your camera around, however, being tethered to it like that?

  • AlaskaTeacher

    March 18, 2008 05:04 am

    Great idea!!!! We see -45 days regularly around here. I've gotten adept at shooting through my gloves, but this is a much better idea.

  • Ken Klassy

    March 18, 2008 04:27 am

    I am in the southern hemisphere south of the 60 degrees (Antarctica). Winter is just getting started. A brisk 32 below this morning. That is a great idea. I will have to plan that for my next contract season.

  • Matthew G. Monroe

    March 18, 2008 03:41 am

    Klaidas: The only "damage" that's been done to my camera by cold weather is the condensation that collects when going from a cold outside environment to a warm indoors environment. As GEloi wrote in his/her comment, most of this condensation can be avoided by wrapping the camera in plastic and using a desiccant.

    Also, I'm in thick gloves early on. Standing outside for hours on end at 20 degrees F. (roughly -6.6 degrees C) can suck the heat and energy out of a person pretty quickly, especially if the wind is blowing. Myself, I hate taking pictures when my fingers are cold -- even slightly cold -- and so I put the big mitts on whenever I think that I'm getting slightly chilled.

    Mikeboy: Temperatures like -20 C and -50 C are quite common in Alaska (where I've worked quite a bit). And as a kid growing up growing up in Northern Michigan, I can distinctly remember hard arctic blasts (i.e.: -30 to -40 C) coming through every two or three years.

    Matt

  • mikeboy

    March 18, 2008 03:20 am

    Im from Venezuela, I read this and can help but chuckle, we never go below 20°C here :p

    -20°???°!! -50°???!1!! what? are you kidding me, I never thought it could get that cold, except for Antarctica or something like that.

  • GEli

    March 18, 2008 01:29 am

    I'm in my thin gloves until -20°C, at which point I switch to my thick gloves. I've shot in as low as -50°C for a good long time and my camera has come to no harm, but I've made a point of avoiding condensation when the camera is warming up by sealing it in plastic in the company of a desiccant.

  • Klaidas

    March 18, 2008 01:17 am

    Mhm, and how about shooting in freezing temperatures without damaging the camera?

    And all in all, such gloves for -6C. Oh, come on :] -25C is somewhat freezing, -6 - not so much.

  • --Deb

    March 18, 2008 01:01 am

    Hmm, why didn't those links show? Let's try that again:

    http://impulsivearts.typepad.com/Camera_Mittens.pdf

    http://impulsivearts.typepad.com/knitting/2007/12/camera-mittens.html

  • --Deb

    March 18, 2008 01:00 am

    Or, if you know a knitter, you get a pair of these:

    Here's the pdf of the pattern:

  • Luke

    March 18, 2008 12:48 am

    That is a great idea. Duh...why didn't I think of that? Of course it rarely gets that cold around here in Missouri unless its nighttime.

    Balmy 63 for a high today!!

  • Olli

    March 18, 2008 12:46 am

    Eh, 15 degrees. I live in Finland, yesterday there was about -5 degrees fahrenheit (-20 celsius). I was photographing snow (first time this winter) and I did use only my quite light ("normal") leather gloves. And I was about two hours outside.

    It's all about get accustomed to cold.

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