Winter Photography, Part IV – Dressing for Success   11 comments

The first winter snows in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains often fall before autumn leaves.

I love winter.  Not as much as I used to; I blame the effects of aging.  For at least the first half of my life, winter was my favorite season.  And I still crave that clarity of air, that bracing atmosphere,  Winter has a pure and simple beauty.

The goal of this series is to both convince you to of the value of winter photography and to remove all excuses to avoid shooting in winter.  Check out the previous installments.  Today we’re covering winter safety in the form of the clothes you wear.  By the way, if you’re interested in any of the images you see here, be sure to contact me.

Dressing for Winter

You may have heard this expression:  “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”  It’s so true!  But you’ve probably also heard that clothing can mean the difference between life and death in winter.  This is not strictly true.  Humans of today are very used to being comfortable.  So we tend to equate our comfort with safety.  While the two are certainly related to each other, and I certainly don’t want to minimize the very real risks of hypothermia and frostbite, clothing in most cases simply means the difference between comfort and discomfort, not life and death.

A trail in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge passes several icy waterfalls.

But we’re talking photography.  It helps greatly to be comfortable when shooting.  Not like when you’re plopped in front of a fire in your favorite chair.  The goal is to be relatively comfortable.  There’s a couple reasons why this is important.  One is that no matter how much you want to go out in wintertime to shoot pictures, if when you do your body is sending signals that it’s cold and miserable, next time your mind will just make up excuses to stay inside.  The other reason is that it’s hard to focus on photography while you are wet or cold.

A very recent shot from a hike into a remote canyon in southern Utah.

A very recent shot from a hike into a remote canyon in southern Utah.

Here is what I’ve learned about dressing for winter in nearly 40 years (longer if you count mom bundling me up):

  • Layering:  We’re often told the most important thing in dressing for winter is layering.  Layering is a great concept, especially if your plans include exercise, but it’s a little like saying the most important thing about walking is putting one foot in front of the other.  Of course if you’re cold you will put something else on top of what you’ve already got.
  • What’s Really Important?  I focus on bottom-up and top-down, and also staying as dry as possible.  Bottom-up refers to your feet, and top-down refers to your head.  More than any other body part, when our feet are cold, we humans tend to object strongly.  More heat escapes through your head than anywhere else.  So if you have both of these bases covered you’re more than half-way there.  Lastly, getting wet, either from the outside or by sweating, can eventually lead to the often-deadly condition of hypothermia.

More of a fall shot, but it was chilly here along the Fremont River in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

  • Materials:  This is another thing that people harp too much on.  You may have heard the phrase “cotton kills”.  In wet and cold conditions it sure can.  But if you have three pairs of jeans on I’m guessing you’re bottom half is going to be okay in most circumstances.  Of course you shouldn’t go out in winter clothed in cotton.  The reason is that cotton is unable to insulate when wet.  Also it dries too slowly.  Down is the same way.  Other materials like synthetics and wool are much better because they don’t absorb water as readily as cotton, they dry more quickly, and (most important) they still insulate when wet.

Natural or Synthetic?  For me the answer is both.  Many people will try to steer you away from any natural material, and some even slam older synthetics like polypropylene.  They can become quite ideological about it.  Why?  As mentioned above, I think they conflate discomfort with true danger.  Many forms of clothing can keep you perfectly alive while leaving you very uncomfortable.

Wool:  Wool is time-tested and it works.  It can become a bit heavy when wet, and it doesn’t dry quite as quickly as most synthetics.  But wool doesn’t absorb water quickly and continues to insulate very well when wet.  It’s also pretty inexpensive and lasts a long time.

Down:  Down is superior to all else in keeping you warm.  Nearly every Sherpa I met in the Himalayas had a down jacket.  But it can be spendy, and you must keep it dry.  Down should be worn over at least one wicking layer.  If the temperatures are near freezing, you probably don’t need down.  But if you bring it make sure you have a good waterproof shell that fits over it.  Down is a good choice for photography because of the standing-around nature of many shooting situations.

Synthetics:  Nylon- and polyester-based blends make up most synthetic clothing.  Fleece of various types is most common for sweaters, jackets, hats and gloves.  Capilene tends to rule the long underwear world.  But there is an ever-expanding selection of fancy materials to spend your cash on.  One note: synthetics are overwhelmingly petroleum-based, so they’re not the best for the environment.  Most good manufacturers (Patagonia being the stand-out) offer recycled fleece and other clothing.

Ice over the Slickrock: one cold recent morning in East Zion National Park, Utah.

  • Your Head:  Take a good warm hat.  In cold where I know I’ll be hiking or skiing, I sometimes bring two hats.  One is a thin stretchy fleece or other material designed to wick away sweat, the kind runners and other athletes wear.  Running shops (in places with real winters) and stores like REI are good places to look.  The other hat is a thick, warm wool or fleece hat, which you can either layer over the thin one or wear by itself.  In truly frigid places a balaclava (which covers your face too) is in order.
  • Your Feet – Socks:  Good warm socks are a must.  Use nice, tall liner socks plus a thicker wool or wool-blend pair over those.  Stick an extra pair of wool socks in your camera pack and leave them there.  You never know when your feet might get wet, and that can be catastrophic if you don’t have a dry pair to put on.
  • Your Feet – Boots:  Boots made for winter are available.  They’re insulated and usually have built-in waterproofing of some kind.  Be careful though.  Some winter boots (Sorels for example), while amazingly warm and comfortable when you’re standing around, are not really made for hiking.  If you’re short on cash and already hike seriously in summer, good thick leather hiking boots, treated with waterproofing, do very well.  You don’t need special winter boots.
Mount Hood, Oregon sports a fresh coat of snow as it rises above its surrounding forest.

Mount Hood, Oregon sports a fresh coat of snow as it rises above its surrounding forest.

  • Your Hands:  The other important body part to protect is your hands.  One of the main reasons people get frustrated and avoid shooting in winter is cold hands on cold cameras (another is cold feet).  Nearly any glove can be used with a camera.  All it takes is practice.  When looking for the right glove combination for photography, realize you’re looking for the same thing as hunters.  Try shopping where they shop.

Layering for Hands:  Unless the cold is extreme, life will be easier if you get a thin pair of liner gloves for shooting in.  They’re often made of Capilene like long underwear, and they layer under thicker wool, fleece or ski gloves.  Mittens, worn over a pair of thin liners or other gloves, are a great way to keep hands warm between shooting.

Fingerless gloves:  These are obviously nice for operating the camera, but they expose the worst part of your hands to the cold, your fingertips.  Try thin liner gloves under fingerless gloves.  And have a pair of looser-fitting mittens or ski gloves to go over the fingerless gloves.  I have a pair of thick wool fingerless gloves that have an extra piece of thick wool that flips over my fingers, making a mitten.  That piece stays back with velcro when not in use.

  • Other Clothes:  Long underwear is a must.  Capilene is perfect, but so is silk when temperatures aren’t extreme.  Layer over with fleece or wool, then a good water-resistant parka.  Remember, no cotton.  A pair of goretex or other shell pants is important to at least have in your pack.  If it’s very cold, invest in a good down jacket or sweater (that can layer under the parka).
A full moon rises high up in the Oregon Cascade Range.

A full moon rises high up in the Oregon Cascade Range.

11 responses to “Winter Photography, Part IV – Dressing for Success

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  1. I’ve been looking for “a pair of thick wool fingerless gloves that have an extra piece of thick wool that flips over my fingers, making a mitten.” Do you have a suggestions as to where it can be found??? Marty

    • Hi Marty. I actually found exactly what you describe but darned if I can remember where. I think it was at an army surplus store but I’m not sure. The mitten part pins back with velcro. All I can say is what you want is out there. Sorry.

  2. Great post. For our class at Yellowstone they stressed wearing layers. I’m sure thankful for that advice. I don’t do well with heat or cold. A few mornings were down to 23oF. So I started out with 6 layers for the first 4 or 5 hours. Thank you so much. I save your posts!

  3. Great images and useful advice if I ever get a chance to go somewhere that cold 🙂 I can always hope!

  4. Stunningly beautiful. Mount Hood.

  5. Thanks for the great advice.

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