Updated: August 2018 to change some product recommendations to newly discovered, better products.
1. Fight Condensation With A Plastic Bag
In cold temperatures, condensation is your number one enemy. You should avoid rapid temperature changes with your gear unless you are prepared for it, so that means don’t walk in and out of your home, hotel or ski resort restaurant all the time. Warming a cold camera and lens in this way will immediately cause condensation to form all over it. To prevent this from happening, put your camera and lens into a ziplock bag while you are still outside. This will allows the camera to come up to temperature more slowly, and much of the condensation that does form, will appear on the bag and not the camera.
At the end of your cold weather shoot it’s imperative that all your gear is thoroughly dried out to prevent mildew from forming inside the lens. When I get home, I lay a towel out on the table and remove all the lens caps from my lenses to let them warm up. I also remove the body cap from the camera and place it face down on the towel. Never put the towel directly in front of a heater though! We don’t want to get melted rubber grips or loosened glue inside your lenses.
Some condensation on your gear is inevitable though, so you’ll also want to make sure you have at least a couple of cloths inside your bag to dry them out with. I used to use regular lens cleaning cloths, but then I discovered the amazing PakTowl. These are made of ultra absorbent materials, and actually designed for backpackers who don’t want to carry a lot of weight. The PakTowl Face size of towel is barely bigger than a regular lens cloth, but it absorbs about ten times as much water. Even when my camera gets soaked, this thing dries it out in a second, where regular lens cloths just make it feel as if you’re moving water around from one place to another.
–>> If you do get your camera too wet and it stops working, read our guide about how to revive a wet camera.
2. Warm Your Batteries (+ Bring Extras)
The effect of cold temperatures on your battery life can be severe, depending on the brand and type of batteries you are using. My experiences with Canon 1D-series batteries have been very favourable, and the capacity of those is so high that I’ve tended not to worry about them too much. Smaller batteries for other lower-end DSLRs can suffer from significantly increased depletion rates in colder temperatures though.
At -18°C (0°F) a battery might have as little as half the capacity that it would have at 27°C (80°F). These cold temperatures don’t have a lasting effect on the batteries, but it can certainly be frustrating if you aren’t prepared for it. Thankfully the solution is simple, just add a little warmth and bring a few spares. Lots of bulky batteries aren’t practical to put inside your jacket so you can simply use oxygen-activated hand warmers and an elastic band to keep them up against your batteries. Boxes of hand warmers aren’t expensive and they can always come in handy for their actual intended use as well!
3. Rain Covers
Whilst it is pretty obvious that a rain cover can also protect your gear from snow, I thought I would take the opportunity to pass on some of my experience with rain covers so that you can make an informed buying decision. I never like to let the weather dictate whether I can shoot or not, because sometimes it has taken me a lot of time and money to get to a location. I’ve got to try and come back with something, no-matter what mother nature is throwing at me. In cold environments this often means dealing with occasional snow and even if it’s not falling, it’s often drifting around on frozen lakes in places like Banff and Iceland. It doesn’t hurt to cover up your camera, particularly if you don’t have the more expensive pro-level gear that is weather sealed.
Camera covers come in various shapes and sizes, depending on what kind of lens you are looking to cover. There’s also a very broad pricing spectrum, but I’d urge you to weigh the pricing against the total value of the gear you are trying to protect….. A $9.99 plastic cover doesn’t make a lot of sense to me when you’re protecting $1000+ worth of gear, or anything up to $15,000 for some of my own camera/lens combinations.
One of my favourite covers is the fully featured Think Tank Photo Hydrophobia. It’s available in five different sizes to suit mirrorless and DSLR cameras with lenses ranging from ultra wide-angle all the way to 600mm. Each Hydrophobia comes with a front cover to protect the lens element, which is very useful if you’re waiting in snow that’s blowing around all over the place.
Fully seam-sealed zippers and stitching provides an impenetrable barrier in all the right places, but the two hand holes are great for winter shooting because you can get your hands inside to keep them warm, potentially removing the need to use winter gloves or at least allowing you to use thinner, more tactile glove liners whilst operating the camera.
- Hydrophobia DM 300-600 V3 – For DSLR or mirrorless cameras with a lens size between a 300mm f/2.8 and a 600mm f/4 (an 800mm f/5.6 also fits).
- Hydrophobia D 70-200 V3 – For DSLR with a 70-200, 80-400, 100-400, 24-70
- Hydrophobia D 24-70 V3 – For DSLR with 24-70, 24-105, 16-35, 14-24
- Hydrophobia M 70-200 V3 – For mirrorless cameras with a 70-200, 80-400, 100-400, 24-70
- Hydrophobia M 24-70 V3 – For mirrorless cameras with 24-70, 24-105, 16-35, 14-24
If you are looking for a cheaper, ultralight option then check out the Think Tank Emergency Rain Cover series. They are designed with a more minimalist approach but as the name suggests, they’re good in emergencies. They’re also light on the wallet, and definitely better than a garbage bag!
If you want to delve deeper into the particular topic, I’ve actually written a huge guide to the best camera rain covers, which explores all the options from companies like Manfrotto, Think Tank, Aquatech, Vortex Media and more.
4. Desiccant Packs
Desiccant is a solid chemical substance that absorbs water and it’s most commonly found in small packets inside items that you’ve just purchased online. Manufacturers include them in the packaging of anything that could be damaged in transit, or storage, from exposure to moisture. I’m sure that you’ve come across them many times! The smaller packs that you might find in clothing purchases aren’t too much use to us on their own, but you can buy much larger ones from B&H Photo, or similar online photo stores.
These larger sizes are a great thing to have in your camera bag in cold and snowy environments. No matter how careful you are, as soon as your bag is open, a small amount of snow will find its way into your bag and melt instantly, creating a damn interior. Desiccant packs in your bag will help to soak up some of this moisture, and they are “rechargeable” by heating them up once you return to your home or hotel. Even if you are in a dry, cold environment, you still run the risk of excessive condensation forming on your gear and the silica desiccants will help to minimize the risks.
5. Keep Your Memory Cards Warm (& Dry)
Whilst high-end memory cards like the Sandisk Extremes have an operating temperature of about -13 to 185 fahrenheit, some of the cheaper cards are not quite as well protected. Unlike the batteries we talked about earlier, there’s no need to use hand warmers on your cards, but you should place your memory card holder in the inside jacket pocket so that it can benefit from some of your body heat. Avoid putting it too close to your core if you are going to be taking part in strenuous activities though, like skiing or snowshoeing. We don’t want to get sweat on the cards becuse moisture is even worse for them than cold temperatures.
If you are working in snow, consider a water resistant memory card case such as this one from Pelican or consider placing your regular memory card holder into a waterproof case like the eCase in the photo below.
If you want to read more about my general recommendations for memory card holders, check out our guide to the best memory card cases on the market today!
Best Photography Gloves?
If you’re trying to protect your camera then it probably means you need protecting as well. When it comes to cold weather photography, I’m always getting asked what kind of gloves I wear, so I created a post to explain the choices. Find out what kind of gloves I use here: What Are The Best Photography Gloves?