A Snowball's Chance of Avoiding Exposure
You've probably noticed. It's been getting colder this time of year. The chances for snow are a lot higher than in other seasons too. Here are some ideas to help you, your gear, and your images make it through the winter without exposure problems.
First and foremost, take care of yourself. If you aren't an experienced winter traveler, it can be easy to get yourself in over your head this time of year. I know you've heard this before, but people die of exposure every year. Some of those folks had unfortunate accidents and sprained their ankle miles down a trail. Some even more unfortunate may have been caught in an avalanche. But some just didn't dress warmly enough and didn't have enough sense to come in out of the cold. They sat down for short rest and simply never got up. Hypothermia isn't something to be ignored. You may be in great physical shape but unless you dress warmly enough, the cold will seep its way in eventually. A word to the wise.
I generally dressing in layers so I can take some off when physically active such as when hiking but layer up when I stop to shoot. There tends to be a lot of standing around when waiting for the light to change. If you find yourself stamping your feet and jumping up and down to stay warm, you don't have enough layers on. You can either put the shed layers in your pack or tie them around your waist. Layers are all about having options.
Keeping your hands warm can be problematic. Heavy gloves can feel welcome indeed but prevent you from manipulating the controls on your camera. If you tether your camera, you may find it difficult if not impossible to operate touch screen interfaces on your tablet or laptop with gloves on. Capacitive touch displays are an amazing invention but have a hard time working when you can't touch them. Some high-tech gloves are touch screen compatible, but most aren't. I tend to go old school and wear gloves with the fingertips cut off as a compromise to at least keep the majority of each hand warm. This gives me full access to camera and controls without too much exposure. And when buying gloves, go for a pair made from synthetic fibers that won't shed. You really don't want wool fibers falling into your camera body and onto your sensor when changing lenses.
Hand warmer packets filled with iron filings and sawdust generate warmth through oxidation that turns the iron into rust. Sticking one in each pocket can create a refuge for your cold fingers, or go for the newer USB-powered alternatives. And yes, the make foot warmers too. Thick-soled boots generally work great, but if the conditions will warrant, consider adding some extra warmth.
Your camera can probably keep on shooting just fine in the cold, but it's not totally immune to the dangers of the season. Be extra careful when working in snow. It has an amazing ability to work its way into places that should stay dry. You don't want those places to include the insides of your camera or lenses. I know it's just trying to be friendly, but you want the snow to stay outside your camera and camera bag.
Modern lithium batteries are less susceptible to the cold that older technologies, but low temperatures can drain them somewhat. I've also noticed that the shorter days this time of year mean I'm shooting more at twilight than in summer. That means longer exposures, and even more battery drain. A spare battery doesn't take up much space in your bag and can serve as a good insurance plan if you find yourself in a pinch.
Now is the time of year to finally invest in a carbon fiber tripod if you don't yet have one. They are more expensive and only modestly lighter weight than aluminum, but one touch with a bare hand in winter weather will show you the real difference. Aluminum tripods conduct heat extremely well. Touch one, and the warmth will be sapped from your hand in no time. Carbon fiber is more of an insulator than conductor, and your hands will know the difference, even with gloves on if they're thin enough that you can still operate your camera. Carbon fiber rules.
When you get home, don't be in a rush to unpack your gear. Leave it in the bag so it can come to room temperature slowly. This can help minimize the chances of warm inside air condensing on the cold parts of your camera.
As you no doubt know, exposure for snow scenes can be problematic. Your camera wants to force everything to medium toned, and grey snow tends not to look all that appealing. Traditional advice has been to boost the in-camera exposure to get the snow to come out white as it should, but that may not be your best advice with modern cameras. The problem with the traditional way is that it can be nearly impossible to get the snow beautifully white without risking burning out the highlights at least somewhere in the frame. But when shooting with the wide exposure latitude of modern cameras, I'd suggest going easy on the in-camera compensation and leave most of the exposure tweaking to the raw conversion phase. This way, you can let the software preserve the highlights while you worry about the general aesthetics of how you want things to look.
While you're at it, feel free to modify the white balance to suite your taste. The "as shot" white balance can sometimes use a bit of help in winter. Go for the look you want, cool or warm. The one camera filter I would recommend in winter is a polarizer. A small rotation can help create dramatic, darkened skies. But resist the temptation to overdo it too much. The sky should be blue, not almost black. There, I said it.
Focus can sometimes be frustrating when everything is covered in featureless snow. If need be, you should still focus directly on whatever your subject may be by choosing the focus point. The entire camera frame is unlikely to be completely white, so focus on what isn't.
If snow is actually falling while you are shooting, it may render as motion in the frame. Rather than considering this a problem though, it can be fun to work with the falling snow creatively. Pretend the snow is a waterfall and play with the shutter speed to alter the way the falling motion is rendered. You can check out your results on the camera back LCD and adjust things as needed until you get that perfect Christmas card look.
So, enjoy yourself this winter. Just make sure you don't suffer from exposure in the cold while trying to get some good exposures with your camera. Sorry, couldn't resist the pun.