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What to Wear for Winter Photography Advice from David Marx

January 02, 2014 | | Comments 0

Winter Photography: The Right Clothes Make All the Difference

2014-01-02: I am posting this advice on how to dress properly for winter photography fun for the participants in my upcoming Yellowstone National Park Winter Photography Workshop and for the small group of photographers who have signed up for our Northern Lights Photography Workshop in Churchill, Manitoba this March. The Yellowstone in Winter program is full now but there is still room for a few more guests on our trip up north to photograph the Aurora Borealis. Space is limited so if you are interested in this amazing chance to photograph the Northern Lights please contact me right away.

Sunrise at Lower Old Faithful Geyser Basin

Old Faithful geyser basin at dawn on a frosty February morning.

Winter is a wonderful time of the year for photographers but you have to dress for success. It is impossible to shoot great winter photographs in cold places when your fingers are freezing. Getting wet and cold is dangerous when the temperature drops. Frostbite and hypothermia are potentially life-threatening conditions and major obstacles to photographic fun.

To enjoy winter photography, we need to dress right so that our core stays warm and dry. Moisture can soak into your clothes from the outside, as snow or rain, or it can come from the inside as you perspire. Either way, wet clothes are cold and uncomfortable. Working outside in the winter means dressing in layers and avoiding cotton clothing. “Cotton is a killer” when it gets cold because wet cotton fibers draw heat away from the body. Wool and fleece layers, on the other hand, maintain their insulation even when they are damp. Wool and fleece are the way to go this time of year.

Exposed skin is a problem too when the thermometer dips below zero or when the wind begins to howl. The wind moving over exposed skin can create dangerous conditions even at relatively mild air temperatures. I bring enough layers to cover every inch of exposed skin with me when I go out shooting in the winter. I may not wear every item all of the time but I don’t go walking around Yellowstone National Park in January, or the edge of the arctic in February, without enough clothes to cover my entire body. Before I get into the specifics about what I wear, may I suggest that you can save a lot of money on your winter clothes by shopping at Sierra Trading Post and by monitoring the rotating deals at SteepandCheap.com. In my town too there are often great deals on good winter clothing at our local Army / Navy surplus store. This article is full of links to products at Amazon.com but I urge you to shop around and save wherever you can.

Light Painted Rock On The Edge Of Yellowstone National Park

Light painted rock on the edge of Yellowstone National Park.

In the winter, you want to plan your outfit from the top down starting with your head. Dressing right for winter photography expeditions is all about layering. I like to have two winter hats–my supper warm Rabbit Fur Aviator Hat, plus a ski grade wool cap, or an insulated fleece hat with me at all times. I pack two winter hats with me everyday so that I can wear one and keep the other one dry in my camera bag. When the first one gets wet and cold, I swap it out for the second one.

I also like to keep a warm scarf, or a neck warmer, and a balaclava in my pockets. If things get nasty out then I’ll put on both hats and the balaclava or layer up with a neck warmer and another hat. A pair of cheap clear ski goggles are a big help too on really cold windy days. The point is that I will wear whatever it takes to keep my head, neck, and face warm so that I can stay out and shoot until the light is gone.

I like to wear multiple layers of wool, or synthetic long underwear, for my upper and lower body base layers. I have been using Patagonia brand synthetic Capilene longjohns as my “go to” base layer for many years but these days I am moving my winter wardrobe back to wool products. There are lots of fabulous middle and heavy-weight merino wool options on the market these days that smell better and feel better than my old synthetics. Name brand wool under layers are expensive so shop around for products like these Minus33 Men’s Midweight Bottom or these Minus33 Women’s Midweight Bottom. These Merino Wool Men’s Midweight Crew tops, or Merino Wool Women’s Midweight Crew shirts are great values, but again I encourage you to shop around at places like Sierra Trading Post and look for sales.

Illuminated Igloo and Aurora

The Aurora Borealis shines above an illuminated igloo in Churchill, Manitoba.

When I am packing for a cold weather photography trip I always add an extra set of base layers to my luggage. Packing an extra set of base layers takes up very little space in the suitcase and you can always double up on longjohns if it gets really cold out. I like to wear a medium weight puffy down sweater or a synthetic puffy jacket over top of my base layers. Fleece jackets are great insulators too but bulky. The current generation of puffy jackets provide amazing warmth and they are easily compressed. Most of these down sweaters, and synthetic insulating coats, are so squish-able that they will easily pack away inside of my camera bag if the sun comes out and the day warms up.

On top of everything else, I like to wear a waterproof, and wind-resistant, ski shell or a big parka. Storm grade winter coats can be super-expensive but for winter landscape photography a simple jacket like the Columbia Men’s Bugaboo Jacket or the Carhartt Down Kalkaska Parka is perfectly adequate. Don’t worry about brand names. Just find yourself a warm insulated jacket that will fit comfortably over all of your other layers and that will keep you dry if the snow starts blowing around. Don’t forget that the most important part of a good outer coat is a high collar and a deep hood!

Like with ski coats, you can spend a lot of money on snow pants to cover your legs. If you have the budget then a great pair of insulated ski pants like the Mountain Hardwear Returnia pants are a good investment but for a week-long photography workshop something simpler like the White Sierra Men’s Insulated Bib Snow Pant or the Columbia Women’s Bugaboo Pantwill do just fine. What will not work for winter photography in Yellowstone, or night’s in the arctic, are blue jeans or cotton sweatpants!

Arctic Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis shines in the night sky.

Ready for a little secret? To get great photographs, you need to find a better angle. Often that means getting down low and crawling around in the snow. While good snow pants help, your knees will freeze if you sit on them for extended periods in the cold. My secret is to wear a pair of carpenter’s knee pads over my base layers but underneath my snow pants. Warm knees are happy knees.

On my hands, I definitely prefer mittens to gloves for winter shooting. Mittens are always warmer than gloves. Warm hands make all the difference when you are standing around in the cold for hours shooting star trails or waiting for the sun to rise. The Outdoor Research Meteor Mitten system is a personal favorite. With this mitten system, you get a waterproof over mitt and a removable fleece liner. The inner fleece mitten is built with a trigger finger flap so that you can still work the camera without having to take your hands completely out of both gloves. My advice is to buy a pair of these that are a size larger than you need so that you can also wear a thin glove liner beneath both mittens if the temperature gets really cold. Army Surplus Arctic Mittens are another great choice for really cold conditions especially when paired with a thin liner glove. On top of all this, I usually pack a disposable hand warmer into each shell too so that my hands stay super toasty when I am out in the field working.

My good friend Dr. Jim Halfpenny spends a lot of time out in the cold. Jim is a polar explorer and a biologist with a specialty in cold-weather predator biology. Jim has spent a lot of time in the Arctic and the Antarctic. His favorite gloves feature a built in heater and a rechargeable battery! Check out The Volt Gloves and Mittens and these battery heated Gloves From Venture Heat.

Finally for my feet, everyday sneakers are totally useless in the snow and most hiking boots have very little insulation. Your toes will freeze in regular shoes if you stand around in the snow for long periods of time. For quality boots, the Sorel Caribou Snowboot is always a popular choice and the Baffin Max Insulated Boots get excellent reviews. Skip the cotton athletic socks too and put on a good pair of wool socks inside of your snow boots.

Aurora Over The Trees Of Churchill Manitoba

The Aurora Borealis shines above the trees in Churchill, Canada.

Insulation for the toes matters, but for safe winter photography great traction is critical. A nasty fall on an icy trail can break bones or destroy valuable equipment. Save yourself a potential trip to the hospital and strap a pair of Yaktrax Pro Traction Cleats for Snow and Ice on under your winter boots!.

This advice is particularly important for those visiting Yellowstone National Park in the winter. Geothermal pools and wooden walkways get slippery. Yaktrax are essential for your safety when shooting around geysers and hot springs.

I hope that this advice will help you to get ready for our upcoming workshop. If you have any questions please give me a call or shoot me an email. I am looking forward to traveling with you real soon and always remember that warm and dry is the way to go in the winter!

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Filed Under: Lightroom Classes and Photography Workshops

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About the Author: David Marx teaches digital photography workshops and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom training classes. David is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop Lightroom and in Adobe Photoshop. David has lead workshops and seminars for the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, the American Society of Media Photographers, FirstLight Photography Workshops, and he teaches annually at the world-famous Blackberry Farm Resort. For more information on his Photoshop Lightroom training seminars and digital photography field workshops please visit davidmarx.com. You can also follow daily updates and see new images from David on Google+.

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