Photographing cars in the winter can be the most spectacular of things to do. Low grip levels make sliding easier if the driver has enough skill and with the right breaks in the weather, the results can be beautiful. From a car photographer’s viewpoint, though, there are lots of things to think about. I’ve worked in Norway and Sweden shooting cars driving on frozen lakes, so I have plenty of experience of low temperature photography. So here’s seven winter photography tips to help when shooting car subjects in the snow.
1. Protection for you, as well as your gear. If you are cold yourself, you’ll have no enthusiasm for taking pictures. Your mind won’t function properly and your creativity will be a big zero. Thermal underwear won’t win many admirers, but who cares, if it works. Get some. A good hat, some gloves and a good strong pair of boots are vital too. Notice I said boots? That’s because you’re probably going to be standing thigh deep in snowy banks beside the road, so you REALLY don’t want normal sub-ankle hiking shoes on as the snow slips into your socks and melts…. For my hands, I’ve used a simply superb pair of North Face gloves for the past four years. I can’t remember the name, but they are thermal, soft and with grippy palms and fingertips that allow you to find all the buttons on your camera with ease in a way that no glove I’ve ever used can. Before these, I was forever taking gloves off, dropping them, losing them etc etc. but no longer. Probably the cheapest thing I ever bought for helping me in low temparatures and great for aerial photography too. Get some.
2. Protection for your gear. Contrary to popular belief, your camera should not fail in the cold, just as long as you do a couple of simple things. Keep your spare batteries warm (you do have spare batteries, don’t you…?) In an inside pocket or somewhere close to your body heat is perfect, then if you find the cold has killed one, swap over and let the dead one revive itself. The battery that you thought was flat will come back to life as it heats back up. You may need to keep swapping batteries back and forth of the temperature is really Arctic. Repeat with your Double AA’s for any small strobes you’re using as they die REALLY quick. I find Canon’s EOS 1D series cameras with their big batteries are quite happy right down to -35c without any special treatment and I’m sure Nikon’s pro-spec will be the same. Lesser camera models will need a little help.
3. Shooting. For static setups, remember, everything takes longer in the cold, due to clothing, moving cars around and setting up lights. Bear in mind the shorter daylight hours, particularly if you’re lucky enough to have travelled to somewhere like Sweden. While the shorter day means you have less time, sometimes the light is truly beautiful, but literally changes by the minute. So if you see some great light coming, get moving, even if the setup isn’t quite what you need, go with it and capture the moment before you lose the light.
4. Action shooting. For action photography, please please make sure your driver knows his stuff. Anyone with a driving licence and a degree of enthusiasm gets awfully carried away when it snows and it’s pretty easy to end up photographing an accident! Remember, you won’t be able to move as fast, so allow plenty of sprinting room and also bear in mind that the car isn’t going to stop as easily. On the plus side, with a talented driver, you can get some great angles that you’d never normally see.
5. Video. Shooting video in very low temperatures brings more things to consider. If the location is truly arctic, the actual stillness makes the slightest sound ring out. The crunch of snow under foot can have great emphasis and engine notes in snowy locations ring out and echo. It’s worth paying particular attention to recording engine noises, as they do have a more spectacular tone.
If you’re using a fluid head video tripod, most of them become difficult to use below -10c. The fluid in the head loses it’s viscosity and becomes still. Not matter how much you back off the preload, getting a decent panning shot can become almost impossible.
6. Rigging on car cameras. If you’re using suction mounts to mount cameras on cars, take care to wipe away frost from the mounting surface. We use Woods Pwer Grip, read the review here. We’ve had Canon cameras mounted in cars at 80 mph at -28c with no problems. However, don’t forget to keep your gloves on when touching the mount after the car has been running. I forgot that at -28c, plus the 80mph wind chill, the metal of the Manfrotto Super Clamp was bitterly cold and I almost lost the skin from my fingers. I let go just in the nick of time….
7. Return to base. The biggie about taking care of your gear is not just how you treat it outside, but what you do when you’re done. DO NOT bring all your gear back indoors with you when you get back to base. It’ll fog up with condensation both on the lenses and more importantly, inside. I’ve seen perfectly good cameras die because of internal damp after being taken inside when the metal and glass was still icy cold. Instead, put your gear in the boot (trunk) of the car and then let it come up to temparature gradually in a hallway or other intermediate area.
I’m sure there are other things you’ve found yourself if shooting in the snow, feel free to add your comments below. These are the seven things I’ve observed others getting into difficulties with, plus a few I’ve fallen for myself in the past! Above all, don’t sit there looking at the snow, get out there and shoot something.
These images were all shot in Scandinavia working with Ice Driver.