The most important thing to do when shooting in the cold of winter is to curb your desire to breathe. This is because the moist air you exhale -- those plumes of mist from your mouth and nose -- wants to condense on the front element of your lens as well as on other parts of your camera. At the least this will fog over the lens and you'll have to keep wiping it off. At the worst it will freeze on contact, making wiping it off dangerous to the optical surface of the lens. If you feel you absolutely must breathe, be sure to turn your head away from the camera -- preferably downwind -- before doing so. I must look pretty goofy shooting in cold weather: I hold my breath for as long as I can while working the camera, then turn away to gasp a few quick breaths, then return to my viewfinder for more work.
There are other things you can do to protect against the ravages of the cold. For example, if your camera body is metal, covering it with duct tape makes it slightly insulated, hence easier to handle with bare hands. You can also wear thin polypropylene gloves to protect your hands while maintaining some measure of dexterity. If these gloves aren't enough protection for the temperature, you can get fingerless woolen gloves to go over the polypro gloves, warming most of the hand but leaving the nimble fingertips still exposed. If it's too cold even for that, I just wear woolen mittens over the polypro gloves and take off the mitts for short periods while shooting.
It's a good idea to insulate your tripod legs as well as the camera. You can get foam rubber insulation sleeves for maybe $30 at a camera store, or go to K-Mart and buy pipe insulation, which is the same thing, for about $5. I slip these foam sleeves over the tripod's uppermost leg tubes and wrap them in duct tape to keep them in place. These sleeves not only offer insulation, they offer padding so the tripod doesn't wear a groove into your shoulder as you tote it around.
Cold is also the greatest enemy of the batteries your camera depends on to function -- cold slows down all chemical reactions, and batteries produce their juice through a chemical reaction. There are several ways to deal with this. One is to carry a spare set of batteries under your coat close to your body to keep them warm, and then exchange them for the camera's cold batteries when they show signs of slowing down. For most cameras you can also buy an external battery pack with a wire running to the camera. Not only is this external pack usually beefier than the AA or button batteries in the camera, you can keep it warm close to your body while the wire carries the electricity to your camera. Finally, you can use lithium batteries -- available in both button and AA versions -- in your camera. Lithium batteries work extremely well in even the coldest weather. Be sure to check your camera's instruction manual, though, as the special electrical characteristics of lithium batteries are incompatible with some camera's electronics and might even damage them.
Some people keep their entire camera under their jacket to keep it warm, bringing it out only to shoot. If this works for them, more power to them, but this technique worries me. Not only must it be uncomfortable, but I worry about that nasty moisture from your body freezing on the camera when it comes out from under the jacket.
When you're done shooting, by the way, and ready to go inside where it's warm, either leave the camera in a safe place outside or put it in an airtight plastic bag before bringing it in from the cold. Just as eyeglasses fog over when one leaves the cold to go into the warmth, so too will your camera, and all that moisture condensing on it can't be good for it. The bag lets the condensation appear harmlessly on the outside of the bag until the camera warms up to room temperature. You can remove it from its bag once it's warmed up. I just leave my camera outside locked in the car for days or weeks on end when it's winter -- days of perpetual cold may bother people, but your camera won't really mind.
The cold temperature is one of the two major problems when shooting in winter; the other is blowing snow. It will get on your front lens element and inside your camera when changing lenses. This is another reason to keep the camera cold, so the snow won't melt on the front of the lens but will simply blow or brush off. (Don't blow with your mouth, of course; use a squeeze-bulb blower. Then wipe with a microfiber cloth if necessary.) A lens hood, which you should be using anyway to minimize flare, will help keep snow off the front of the lens. If it's not too windy an umbrella is handy to keep snow off the entire camera, lens and all, although I sometimes have difficulty handling it and camera controls simultaneously, lacking, as I do, a third arm. I do take care to carry the camera with the lens pointing down if the wind is light, so no snow hits the lens; if it's breezy I'll put a plastic bag (Ziplock or garbage) around the camera to protect it between shots.
I don't like using zoom lenses for a number of reasons, but if it's snowing I must admit they are handy since you don't have to change lenses as often. Every time you have a lens off the camera, blowing snow can get inside. When I do change lenses, I first turn the camera downwind and point it down to minimize the chance of snow getting inside.
I have two final comments on preparing to photograph in the cold. One is that cameras rarely have to be "winterized" these days. It used to be that the lubricants would gum up in severe cold and one had to have a technician remove the lubricants prior to winter shooting. The myth persists that there is some sort of camera modification necessary before winter shooting, but except for buying extra batteries, there is no real preparation necessary. But while cameras don't need much help in the cold, the human body does. Don't ever forget that the most important piece of photographic equipment at your disposal is you yourself, and your body and brain must be in good working order if you are to succeed in your photographic endeavors. Be sure to keep yourself warm in winter with layered clothes (avoiding cotton if possible), keep yourself fed, and keep yourself hydrated. Getting enough sleep is important, too, if you are on a multi-day photo expedition. Taking care of yourself is not a luxury, it is mandatory for bringing home the best pictures -- and the best experience.
Timothy Edberg / 6511 Homestake Dr. South / Bowie, MD
(301) 809-5857 / 1-877-471-6414 (toll-free)