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Despite the beautiful weather, my backpack bulged when I set up to shoot a skier coming down Tuckerman Ravine on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. It was a great day, but if there is one thing I’ve learned in years of photographing skiing is that conditions can change quickly. One minute it might be 70 degrees and sunny and the next it could start snowing.
I have been shooting photos of skiing, ski racing, and winter scenes since 1970 for a variety of publications, and most recently as a staff photographer for Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vermont. Over the years I learned a few thing about how to keep myself and my photo gear functioning – often under adverse conditions. It all starts with being prepared.
Since cameras went digital, one of the most important items to have while shooting outside in the winter are extra well-charged batteries.
I keep at least three extra batteries on my body to help keep them warm. More batteries are even better.
I try not to put my camera between my outer jacket and body. That usually creates a cold pocket. During times of extreme cold, I have found that my body can get cold very quickly. Also carrying the camera in such a way can create moisture around the camera and when you bring it out to shoot in the cold weather that can cause problems. The best way I have found to carry a camera is in a small belly pack. If you have longer lenses, then a photo backpack might be necessary.
If you are going to shoot snow sports, chances are that at some point it’s going to snow. If you don’t have a cover for your camera and lens, use a shaving brush to whisk away flakes. A cloth tends to smear lenses and might cause your gear to freeze and malfunction. You can also protect your gear using a studio umbrella clamp to attach to your camera and an umbrella.
Freezing equipment can be a constant challenge- even when you get to go inside. If you head in after shooting outside in the cold, cover your equipment with a plastic bag so the warm moisture clings to the outside of the bag and not your equipment.
I like to use a hairdryer to warm and dry my shooting gear so everything is clear when I use it again.
Keeping your equipment warm enough to function is key, but it won’t do you any good if you can’t function.
Dress in layers. Start your clothing with good wicking undergarments and then layer up from there. That way if you have to trek across a trail and you get a little warm, you can store your top layers. Once you get to your location, you can bring the clothing out again. A breathable outer jacket is a must. It will wick moisture away from your body keeping you warmer and more comfortable. You’ll also need warm insulated footgear and a good hat.
I pay special attention to my feet and fingers. When I put on my ski boots, I change into another pair of socks. You would be amazed at how much moisture accumulates in your socks just from the walk from your car to the mountain base. I use foot powder to keep my feet drier. Then I wear a pair of thin wicking socks. If you are shooting an event that involves a lot of standing, like a ski race, put a small insulated pad underneath your feet. It prevents the cold from transferring from the snow to your feet. If you are going to spend a lot of time shooting skiing, investing in heated ski boots is worth it.
The other part that gets cold on me are my fingers. I’ve seen photographers shooting with fingerless gloves so they can feel the camera and change settings. I can’t imagine doing this. I shot photos of fireworks one evening and it was so cold with the wind that my camera froze. While changing to another camera and lens, my finger blistered from frostbite. So I believe in insulating.
I used to wear army woolen liners while shooting. When not shooting, I put my hands into mittens. But I found that a good pair of hunting mittens with removable thin glove liners keeps my fingers manageably comfortable. Usually those mittens come with a pocket which allows you to put small hand heaters inside. With these types of mittens I can keep my hands protected and still get the photos I need. Be smart. Know your body and how far you can push it without getting in trouble.
Also know in advance what the assignment might entail. If I am shooting off-piste, or away from groomed ski runs, I bring a compass and GPS just in case. I adopted this practice after hunting in an area I knew while it was snowing. After about an hour of walking in a course I thought was straight, I came upon my own boot prints.
Let people know where you’re headed and what you plan to do. Pay attention to weather reports and if applicable, avalanche warnings. And if possible, don’t ski after 3 p.m. It gets even colder extremely fast as it gets dark.No matter what, take what you can in your pack. No matter where you are shooting, in the backcountry, or at a ski resort, bad weather can move in fast. Be prepared, stay warm and create the images those unwilling to brave the cold can’t get. ♦
—Sandy Macys is a staff photographer for Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vermont, where he takes photos of skiing, mountain biking, hiking, fishing and other outdoor activities. He also freelances for various publications including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe. His headshot was taken by Carolyn Bates.