with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Winter Whites and Cold Blues

Winter Whites

Winter in Yosemite National Park, photo by Brent VanFossenYou are standing out in the freezing cold, looking for that award-winning snow scenic, but what do you do with all that white? We can understand protecting ourselves from the cold, but how about protecting our exposure from the elements?

Winter weather brings a variety of photographic opportunities, though most of them are not especially colorful. It makes us think textures, lines and shapes rather than color dramas. Choosing black and white film is one choice, since everything is practically black and white anyway. If you stay with color film, look for hints of color among the grays and whites.

Cold Film

Some film records white differently. White is often considered the absence of color, but it is a color of its own A lupine leaf covered with early fall frost in the high mountains. Photo by Brent VanFossenaccord. Each film “pushes” a particular color that can affect the color white. Fuji’s Velvia film can often make snow pink or almost violet in coloration. Agfa and Scotch films give a greenish blue hint to snow. Kodak’s Ektachrome paints blue tinted snow. Film is changing and evolving all the time so if you are serious about your winter whites, study how each film responds to the “color” white to get the best results.

Exposure: Add light to light, add dark to dark

Working with the whites of winter, exposure is a problem. Camera meters read a scene and average it, often underexposing snow scenes so they look muddy and gray. There are a lot of metering tricks to estimate the “right” exposure, like metering off your hand and opening up one stop or using a gray card. We discovered an easier way.

Add light to light, add dark to dark
Subject Color Exposure Adjustment
Bright Snowy Subject Add 1 1/2 to 2 stops
Light Gray Subject Add 1 stop
Average Subject Normal metering
Grey Subject Subtract 1 stop
Dark Black Subject Subtract 1 1/2 to 2 stops
Table representing the tones of the Zone System

This image of snow covered trees took some care to meter for the details in the trees, photo by Brent VanFossenImagine a scene of pristine snow over the ground and a lovely tree all covered with the white stuff. Using the averaging method typical of your camera’s meter, it will average the bright white snow down to gray snow. The whiteness is too bright so the camera compensates by recommending a “darker” exposure. Mary Ellen Schultz, a renowned nature photographer who specialized in close-up photography, had a wonderful phrase for figuring proper exposure: Add light to light, add dark to dark. By adding light, or overexposing a bit, you make what is light lighter. Try it. Take a picture at your meter’s reading of a snowy scene and then another with a third or half stop over-exposed and even another with one stop over-exposed. See which one you like better (best done with slide film).

All About Weather
One of our most popular newsletter issues is totally dedicated to the issue of weather. We discuss how to deal with weather and photography, writing about weather, and planning for and around weather. If you are interested in receiving our monthly newsletter for serious and professional nature photographers and writers, visit our Newsletter Page.

Icicles around stream, Jasper, Alberta. Photo by Brent VanFossenIf you are photographing only the tree in the picture, the dark wet bark against the bright white snow will turn black if you meter off the snow. Meter off the bark and follow the chart by adding dark to dark to keep the tree back dark.

Yellow alpine wildflower, photo by Brent VanFossenTry this technique on other things besides snow. How do you expose for a light yellow flower or a dark red rose? At your meter reading or do you need to adjust it?Slide film has a very limited range of tones, from black to white, about five stops from washed out white to solid black. The chart shows the difference in the range from light to dark and how this works.

Don’t let the overwhelming whites or the dark, wet blacks of trees and wood keep you from making your photography as enjoyable as your warm, protected, snow-bound body. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Cold Weather Blues

Hoar frost built up on Ferns in shade, photo by Brent VanFossenSnow. Ice. Zero temperatures. Wind chill. Runny noses. Frozen toes. Hats. Goggles. Gloves. Boots….just the thought of going outside in the frigid weather can halt all initiative. Face it, it’s freezin’ butt cold and the last thing you want to do is go outside and stand still for hours taking pictures of cold stuff. Yet winter offers a wonderful variety of opportunities for photographers.

After surviving the summer crowd crunches, the winter solitude is a wonderful reward. Avoid the tourists in some of the most popular summer places and go there in the winter. Yosemite National Park, Death Valley, Mt. Rainier National Park and even our personal favorite, the Olympic National Park, are absent of the masses during the cold months. No long lines and waiting for campsites and no crying babies. What a delight!

With the cooler temperatures, trees drop their leaves revealing clear, clean lines and shapes. Fog and rainy mists act as natural diffusors, adding a dramatic or gentle quality to your images. Under a blanket of snow, all distracting elements are buried. Lines, patterns and designs jump out of a typically cluttered forest. The wind blows the snow like grains of sand in sweeping patterns of snow dunes and frozen ripples. Winter can be a photographers dream for simplistic and creative images, concentrating on patterns and textures.

The problems of cold weather can be split into two categories: Keeping yourself warm and keeping your equipment going.

Keeping Yourself Warm

Animated graphic of a couple walking through the snowKeeping yourself warm is often thought of as an easy thing to do: just trot down to the local outdoor outfitter and buy the latest in cold weather gear. It’s not quite that easy, though it can be expensive. What you choose to wear should depend on what you will be doing. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will you have access to the car?
  • Will it be raining, snowing, blowing or just simply freezing? Will it be a dry cold or wet cold?
  • Will hiking with quick photographic opportunities be part of your plan? Or hiking up steep inclines with a long wait at the end for a cougar to “happen by”? Or just a lot of sitting and waiting?
  • Consider how physically fit you really are. This is not the time to fool yourself into thinking you are a marathoner. Will the hike be exhausting? How much equipment are you really going to carry? Are you a perspirer?

The mountains of the Canadian Rockies will chill the warmest soul. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenPolypropylene and the newer fabrics for long underwear are great for pulling the moisture away from the skin and still keeping the heat in. If you will be panting, there are few things more painful than sucking ice cold air into hot lungs. A face mask or scarf wrapped across the nose and mouth will protect the lungs from the frozen sting.

Wind Chill

The air on a windy day feels cooler than the thermometer reads. The wind increases heat loss and can be calculated for different wind speeds and air temperatures and converted to the wind chill factor.

Wind Speed = MPH
Air Temperature = °F


If you have close access to the car and will be getting in and out, you will need to avoid the body suit style of winter gear. Layering will be the best choice as you will be changing from cold to warm and back frequently and this will help moderate your body temperature easily. If you will be sitting for long lengths of time out in the elements, there are a variety of “warming” devices available to insure the safety of fingers and toes. There are battery operated “warmers” and even battery warmed socks and gloves. Many kinds of chemical packets are available with a use-life of two to twelve hours that slip into your shoes and socks. Cayenne pepper, sprinkled on your feet and socks before putting your boots on can help warm the toes for a while, too.

All About Weather
One of our most popular newsletter issues is totally dedicated to the issue of weather. We discuss how to deal with weather and photography, writing about weather, and planning for and around weather. If you are interested in receiving our monthly newsletter for serious and professional nature photographers and writers, visit our Newsletter Page.

Sitting in snow or in wet places, no matter how waterproof your pants may be, may still result in a cold tush. Bring plastic sheets and sitting pads to protect that often forgotten and still vulnerable part of your body. Fingers are usually the first to suffer in the cold. Layering with thin gloves within heavy mittens is a practical way to go. With protective polypropylene gloves, you can pull your hand out to fuss with the camera’s intricate buttons and then slip it back into the mitten to stay warm. The gloves allow for movement of your fingers in the mittens to get the blood moving.

A hated device when we were children but undeniably helpful for adult nature photographers is the “mitten keeper.” This is a clamping device which hooks the mitten onto the sleeve of the coat. In olden days, a string running through from sleeve to sleeve kept the mittens in place. Whether you use a clamp or the old fashioned string, this frees your hands and avoids dropping the mittens in the wet snow.

Cold Weather Blues Tips

Extreme cold temperatures create icicles around streams, photo by Brent VanFossenAnother problem in the cold weather battle is keeping your camera functioning and protected from the cold. As modern cameras become more dependent upon batteries, the battle against freezing temperatures intensifies. Nothing can stop a battery faster than the cold.


Graphic of a batteryBatteries work best when warm and don’t work long in extreme cold. New batteries on the market, last longer in normal use. None last forever in cold temperatures, but some do last longer than alkaline. It depends upon how much power your camera requires to function. Some cameras with autofocus and computerized functions often require more power than the old manual cameras. With cold temperatures batteries lose power fast and a battery hungry camera will stop working quickly.

The solution to the battery versus cold weather problem seems easy: keep them warm. Carrying backup batteries in an inside pocket of your jacket helps a lot. There are a variety of warming options. Try holding or taping a portable warming pad around the the location of the battery on the camera. Keep the camera inside your jacket or at least wrapped inside of a protective wrap, like a Domke wrap, until ready.

Quantum Battery Pack A winner in the battle is the battery pack. Check your instruction manual for the types of battery packs your camera may use. The battery pack fits insides your jacket where it is warm and a cable connects to the camera like an extension cord. This insures shot after shot in the coldest weather – as long as the batteries hold. A few of the “old” cameras work without batteries. If you find yourself frequently working in extreme cold conditions, they might be worth the investment.


A bit of flash makes this frost covered leaf sparkle. Photo by Brent VanFossenCondensation is a serious cold weather problem. As you move from the cold to the warmth of inside, condensation forms on eyeglasses, coats, and camera equipment. If you go right back outside, the water droplets can freeze and be potentially damaging. To protect the camera and lens, wrap it in a plastic bag and squeeze as much air out as possible before moving between temperature changes. The condensation will form on the outside of the bag and not inside. Wait until the camera reaches the inside temperature before removing from the bag.

Watch your breath.

Breathing on the viewfinder is an easy thing to do. We lift our eye to look at the subject from the top of the camera and our nose and mouth blow right on the viewfinder. Not only does it fog the view, but it, too, can freeze, making it a long time before you see the light of day.

Warm it
That lunch cooler you use in the summer to keep your film cool from the heat works great to insulate your equipment and Lunch cooler full of film.film from extreme cold. Ice fishermen use ice chests in winter to keep beer from freezing, and it works for photographers – without the beer.

For the same reasons, avoid blowing or breathing on your lens or camera body. Condensation can form and freeze. Use a hurricane blower or squeeze blower to brush off snowflakes or water. Or use a finely woven lens cleaning cloth to wipe the front element of your lens dry. Or bring a towel to wipe down the whole thing. Avoid pointing your lens to the sky. The front element will act like a bowl, collecting all the water and snow.

Frozen Fingers

Wet fingers stick to frozen metal, yet few photographers put protective wraps on their tripods. Wrap the legs with bicycle tape or some protective insulating tape, or get inexpensive foam pipe insulation from the hardware store and cut and tape it to fit. Not only does this offer insulation, it pads it nicely, too. Bare metal on cameras and even the older lenses need to be covered with duct tape or some friction tape to protect wet fingers. It also insulates your fingers from the cold inherent in frozen metal. It may not look great, but it works.

Frozen Film

Keep film in its protective plastic containers until ready to use. If you cannot cover your camera while you change film, at least cover the lens (with a cap if not a cloth) and tilt it up slightly so the back of the camera is tilted at an angle away from the falling rain or snow. This will help keep moisture out of the camera and film.

Waterproof Equipment

Egrets in Fog by Brent VanFossen. Even fog brings damp and cold to your equipment.A waterproof camera bag is a great help, but not if it hangs open waiting for the wet to fall inside. Keep the lid closed, even if it’s not sealed, to keep it dry. The waterproof is on the outside not inside. Even if the outside is waterproof, avoid leaving the camera bag sitting in the snow.

Most professional quality cameras are waterproof, but not all. The Nikon F4 is, but surprise – Canon’s popular excellent camera, the A2/A2E, is not. Find out if your camera is water resistant. Carry a towel to wipe it off and a waterproof drape to cover it and the lens. Wet can turn off a camera’s fancy computer circuitry very quickly.

All About Weather
One of our most popular newsletter issues is totally dedicated to the issue of weather. We discuss how to deal with weather and photography, writing about weather, and planning for and around weather. If you are interested in receiving our monthly newsletter for serious and professional nature photographers and writers, visit our Newsletter Page.

Your tripod is not exempt from extreme temperatures. If water gets inside the joints and legs, or inside the tripod head, it can freeze, causing damage. Keep the head of the tripod covered as much as possible. Treat your tripod like your camera and keep it covered with a plastic bag when transferring it from extreme cold to warmth.

The techniques for keeping yourself warm and your camera going during the cold are really easy. They just require a little forethought and planning. Think about what you want to accomplish and what it will take to get there. Then go out and get it. Or just sit back and drink your hot tea and cocoa and let the rest of us get the good stuff.


  • Chris Nielsen
    Posted May 23, 2005 at 14:15 | Permalink

    I am looking for the manufacturer of a battery operated warming glove or similar divice. I have a product to put on the market requiring this technology. Can you help?

  • Posted May 23, 2005 at 18:50 | Permalink

    I did a simple search on the Internet for “battery hand warmer” and found Preparedness.com and Warm Hands Now among a bunch of results and they list their manufacturers. I don’t work directly with any manufacturers in this area, usually only camera equipment and gear, along with some travel products.

    Good luck with your search and product.

  • Posted November 24, 2007 at 9:00 | Permalink

    Is there such a thing as a camera cosy to keep it warm during outside shooting? Kind of link the rain gear you can buy for your camera but something to keep it warm. I shoot with a Canon 40D and found that after about 20 minutes of shooting in below zero temps it was freezing up.

  • Posted November 25, 2007 at 11:24 | Permalink

    It’s not the camera but the batteries that give up in the freezing cold. Unfortunately, with many modern digital cameras, it’s challenging to keep them warm as they are thinner, use no insulation, and have a big LCD screen on the back which could be covered up with warming things like a warm hot pack.

    Keep your camera inside your coat, warmed by your body heat, but you may have problems with condensation when you bring it in and out of the cold. I keep the batteries in my coat pockets or inside my coat in an inner pocket so I can slip them in, take pictures, then pop them out.

    Those who photograph in extreme cold use old manual cameras not run by batteries.

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