Well winter is upon us. The north of the UK is seeing some pretty heavy snow fall and it’s due to spread south through the week. I regularly make trips to Norway and Iceland in the winter to shoot the Northern Lights (email me if you want to come) so I am used to shooting in the snow. It can be very difficult. Not only do you have to deal with the cold but also difficult exposure.
First off it’s vital to protect your equipment and investment from the cold weather. A good camera cover is essential, I use Kata covers on my cameras. If you don’t have a proper cover at the very least use a bin liner or other bag to wrap up your camera. If you have a sewing machine you could always use some fleece or waterproof material to make your own cover. If snow is actually falling, it will end up on your lens and probably melt. Most regular lens cloths just smear any water around the lens, leaving you with a blurred image. I find that the best cloth to use in wet conditions is a chamois (shammy) leather. Normally available in car accessory shops these are soft, absorbent leather cloths. Buy a large one, cut it into a couple of smaller pieces, then give it a good wash and you have a couple of excellent lens cloths that will work when wet and won’t damage your lens.
Exposing for snow is tricky. You want it to look bright, but you don’t want to overexpose. If your camera has zebras set them to 95 to 100%. This way you will get a zebra pattern on the snow as it starts to over expose. You also want your snow to look white, so do a manual white balance using clean snow as your white. Don’t however do this at dawn or near sunset as this will remove the orange light normally found at the ends of the day. In these cases it is best to use preset white set to around 5,600k. Don’t use cinegammas or hypergammas with bright snow scenes. They are OK for dull or overcast days, provided you do some grading in post, but on bright days because large areas of your snow scene will be up over 70 to 80% exposure you will end up with a very flat looking image as your snow will be in the compressed part of the exposure curve. You may want to consider using a little bit of negative black gamma to put a bit more contrast into the image.
If the sun is shining, yes I know this may not happen often in the UK, but if it is then the overall brightness of your scene may be very high. Remember to try to avoid stopping down your lens with the iris too far. With 1/3? sensor cameras you should aim to stay more open than f5.6, with 1/2? more than f8 and 2/3? more than f11. You may need to use the cameras built in ND filters or external ND filters to achieve this. Perhaps even a variable ND like the Genus ND Fader. You need to do this to avoid diffraction limiting, which softens the image if the iris is stopped down too much and is particulary noticeable with HD camcorders.
Finally at the end of your day of shooting remember that your camera will be cold. If you take it in to a warm environment (car, house, office) condensation will form both on the outside and on the inside. This moisture can damage the delicate electronics in a camcorder so leave the camera turned off until it has warmed up and ensure it is completely dry before packing it away. This is particularly important if you store your camera in any kind of waterproof case as moisture may remain trapped inside the case leading to long term damage. It is a good idea to keep sachets of silica gel in your camera case to absorb any such moisture. In the arctic and very cold environments the condensation may freeze covering the camera in ice and making it un-useable. In these extreme situations sometimes it is better to leave the camera in the cold rather than repeatedly warming it up and cooling it down.
Have fun, don’t get too cold, oh… and keep some chemical hand warmers handy to help stop the lens fogging and to keep your fingers from freezing.