For today’s Pro Tips guest post, please welcome Olympus Visionary, Jay Dickman.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and National Geographic photographer, Jay has traveled the world from Papua New Guinea to the Arctic battling hostile weather to capture absolutely stunning images. Given January’s wintry conditions across the Northern Hemisphere (see you in July, Southern Hemisphere), Jay thought it would be useful to share his pro tips for how to stay safe and sane in less-than-ideal elements.
So without further ado, let’s pass the baton over to Jay while also noting that all the photographs featured here are copyrighted to him and used with his permission.
Snow, rain, fog — all sorts of atmospherics that keep most sane people inside — can be very productive photographic environments. While everyone else is hunkering before the fire, the avid photographer puts on their cold weather gear to brave those elements. Why? Because those conditions can provide so many great photographic opportunities.
So how does that photographer prepare for the elements, especially the cold?
Here are my pro tips for what you can do to prepare to walk out into that wonderful world of the cold.
When shooting in snow, if in the Antarctic or photographing the kids building a snowman to shooting the skiers, super-bright conditions impact exposure. Your camera’s meter will attempt to make that snow or ice an average exposure, which is 18% grey, creating an exposure that looks a bit “muddy.” This is absolutely correct; the meter’s job is to find a bright area and present the ideal exposure of that mid-gray of 18%. To adjust for super-bright snow and ice in normal metering mode, a photographer needs to actually “add” light via exposure compensation: anywhere from 2/3rd’s of a stop to 1 ½ stops of “+”. Add light to make it bright is a great mnemonic to help recall this process. Your histogram should be biased towards the bright side (the right) for a correct exposure… but not clipped.
On Olympus gear — E-M10, E-M10 MkII, E-M1, E-M5, and E-M5 MkII — there is a Scene Mode (“SCN”) on the exposure mode dial on the top left of the camera. Turn the dial to the SCN mode, on your monitor you’ll see a choice of scenes (a very powerful tool on the camera, as it offers a number of different choices), scroll through the choices until you come to Beach & Snow. Olympus engineers cleverly built this mode for these exact conditions as the camera will automatically create a perfect exposure based on algorithms set into the memory of the camera. Pretty clever and very accurate! You don’t have to make any adjustments to you exposure compensation when in this mode that produces a beautiful jpeg.
PROTECT YOUR GEAR
If you are the owner of an Olympus OM-D E-M1 MkII (or E-M1) your camera is already well protected from rain and snow, as are your Olympus Pro lenses. Still, I always carry a chamois cloth or two in my bag. Not the artificial ones, but the real, leather-based cloth found at your local auto supply or Walmart/Target (click HERE to buy from Amazon.com). I use these to wipe off heavy amounts of precipitation, or use it as a “raincoat” to cover my gear in a downpour. It can be used, if very clean, to wipe rain from your protective filter, but don’t use it on the front element!
Also, don’t try to blow snow off your camera or lens with your humid breath. Snow can melt to your gear and possibly refreeze instantly, creating a frustrating situation. Instead, brush that snow or ice off with a small brush or that chamois.
I was on a shoot on the Arctic ice, many miles north of Barrow. The air temperature was well below zero, which creates a different world. We were staying in an ice station, built for this event, so one could walk into a hut that was 100 degrees warmer than the outside temperature. This could play havoc on the gear, that huge temperature differential causing my camera to instantly turn into a blob of condensation, due to warm interior air meeting a frozen camera. First time I did this, I immediately stepped back out, which only caused that drenched camera to instantly freeze the moisture on its surface.
Okay, I learned from that one.
After that, when entering the temperate climate of a heated building from a cold exterior, I’d put my camera gear into a large plastic freezer bag, squeezing out as much air as possible. This created a “micro-climate” from which there wasn’t much moisture to create that large amount of moisture. Often, if going in only to warm-up, I’d leave the gear outside so its temperature matched the air temperature. Did I mention batteries take a hit in the cold? I’d always carry extra batteries in a pocket that stayed a bit warm.
One of the other fun things that can happen (and did, several times) is inadvertently placing a frozen camera to my eye, having slid down the protection of my face mask, only to have the camera freeze to my nose. Remember the scene in ‘A Christmas Story’ when Flick stuck his tongue to the pole in freezing temps? Well, it does happen just like that.
KEEP YOUR BATTERY WARM
Batteries are such a necessary part of today’s photographic experience as everything in digital is power-based. I always carry a couple of backup batteries, fully charged, and usually residing in a pocket of coat or jeans. This ensures that the battery will operate at its top capability.
Obvious idea, but too many of us forget these small wonders until the morning we want to go out and photograph in cold conditions. Pick up a package from your local outdoor store—REI, Cabela’s, Sierra Trading Post, Bass Brothers or your local sporting goods store will be a good source for these (click HERE to purchase from Amazon.com). In really cold conditions, I’ll stick one in my pocket with the batteries as well as one inside each of my gloves, and interior of boots. A battery of any kind will work better when warm.
This suggestion will elicit a big “Duh,” but are your gloves ideal for photography? Traditional mittens, which are warmest, are very efficient for maintaining warmth when outdoors, but if not photo-specific, can be a barrier to the shooting process. The availability of your digit finger & thumb, to press the shutter or change settings is critical, so I’ve listed a few popular styles of photographers gloves. These have either a very think covering over your fingertips, or the fabric can be pulled back to provide that critical tactile feel:
- Ruc Pac Professional Tech Gloves for Photographers — available HERE from Amazon.com — won’t allow you to pull covering off of digit finger and thumb, but a thin glove that’s well insulated and is touchscreen compatible.
- Freehands Stretch Thinsulate Gloves — available HERE from Amazon.com — offer good insulation and provide the ability to pull back covering for digit and thumb, critical for total tactile feeling.
- AquaTech Sensory Gloves — available HERE from Amazon.com — are perfect for polar conditions where you may have your hands in or very near frigid water.
- The Heart Company’s Heat 3 Smart Cold Weather Gloves — available HERE from Amazon.com — are made to work in the arctic (below -45 degrees). In those conditions, you really can’t expose your skin for more than a few seconds before frostbite or serious freezing can occur. These gloves provide an internal membrane, under the mitten cover, with a fabric that not only provides a great tactile feel, but will work with electronic touchscreens. If you’re going to Yellowstone in the winter, or Gates of the Arctic to photograph the aurora, you can be in dangerously cold conditions, be prepared.
Nothing will bring your cold-weather adventure to an early end quicker that cold feet or hands. A good investment before you go, there are a number of very good brands. Sorel, Kamik, Muck Boot Company, all make good boots for frigid conditions.
Thanks again to Jay and Olympus for arranging today’s guest post and offering some simple-but-fantastic pro tips for shooting in frigid temperatures. To see more of Jay’s stunning work, can check out his website, blog, or follow him on Twitter @jaydickman. If you set out to shoot photos this winter, please stay safe and warm. And feel free to share any winter shots on our Facebook Page or our Photo of the Day Contest.