Winter Safety 101 – Driving to the Shooting Locale
Okay, now that we’ve made sure our equipment is protected (see Part I), it’s time to talk about winter photography itself – how to get the best pictures when it’s cold and snowy out. Right? Not so fast! Be patient, we’ll get there. There’s no sense shooting in winter if you’re not going to stay safe yourself.
And before worrying about coats, layering, snowshoes and all that stuff, it’s a good idea for all of us to take a good hard look at our winter driving skills. Of course most guys (and some girls) think they’re expert winter drivers. But we’re literally talking life and death here. So forget about ego. No matter how much experience you have, before snow and ice arrive, do some brushing up.
- To Go or Not to Go: This would be an easier decision if stormy weather did not so often present some of the most beautiful, dramatic light. So check the forecast, think about your tires, your vehicle, and most of all your skills. Discretion is the better part of valor, but I don’t think avoidance is a good policy either. Practice makes perfect in winter driving as in all else.
- Leave Extra Time: Being in a hurry when you’re driving can be dangerous at any time, but when it’s slippery out, driving too fast could be the last mistake you will ever make. Head out to shoot earlier than you normally would.
- Slow Wins the Race: It’s worth repeating: going slow, especially on curves and down hills, is the most important thing to practice when driving in slick winter conditions. Go slower than the conditions dictate (except when starting up a hill – see below). This goes for every type of vehicle out there, from beefy 4×4 to rear-wheel drive sedan.
- It Helps to See: Keep your windshield clear. Stop and scrape it if necessary. If visibility is extremely poor, you may need to pull over and wait for things to improve. Don’t push it whatever you do.
- No Cell Phones Here: Winter driving demands maximum attention. First, increase your following distance by quite a bit. And look further ahead than usual. Keep a special eye on other vehicles to catch on to out of control drivers. Use your mirrors when you slow to make sure somebody is not ready to rear-end you.
- Light on that Brake! As much as possible, stay away from the brake. To slow, let off the gas well ahead of time, shift down (auto transmissions also have low gear options – use them) and avoid turning the wheels sharply. If you must use the brake, alternate pressing and releasing, looking out for areas of better traction to hit the brake in. If you have more distance, you can try feathering the brake. Never press and hold. If push comes to shove and you must stop quickly, stomp on and immediately release the brake, and keep doing it until the emergency is over. This is one of only two times that it’s okay to make strong, aggressive movements when you’re driving in snow and ice.
- Momentum is Your Friend: Keep momentum up on hills. At the approach to an uphill, get up speed. On the way up, if you slip, back off a little on the gas. Knowing when to hit the gas is a feel thing when it’s slick out, and like braking, it helps to look out for areas with more traction and hit the gas there. On downhills it’s the opposite. Slow down on the approach and shift down before the steep part. Gently feather the brakes if you need to slow more.
- Curves: The Approach. Recall what you were told when you learned to drive – slow on the approach, gentle acceleration through the curve – and take that to heart. Slow well ahead of the curve then gently accelerate through it. You should never have to touch the brake on a curve.
- Curves: The Fish-tail. If your rear end slides sideways (a fish-tail), it means one of two things. Either you are going much too fast or you hit the brakes when you shouldn’t have. Turn your wheel in the same direction as your rear end is going, toward the outside of the curve. The sooner you do this the better; the second you notice it starting is good. By the way, this is the only other time it’s okay to make quick movements on slippery roads. Just make it quick and smooth.
**But there’s a catch: it’s very easy to overdo steering into a slide. Back off the second you feel your rear end coming back out of the skid and be ready to swing the wheel quickly the other way, in case you fishtail in the opposite direction. Again, it’s about feel: steer smoothly and no more than necessary. Feel what’s happening and adjust accordingly.
- Keep your Cool: In any emergency situation, keep calm but react. The sooner you make the (correct) adjustment, the better things will be. The key is to not freeze up but also not to panic and over-react. A relaxed focus plus action will get you through a lot! Your attitude should be one of confidence up to a point; don’t get overconfident and go too fast. If the conditions deteriorate, just turn around.
Next time we’ll talk about equipment specific to winter photography. Have a great weekend!