Winter in Yellowstone, Part 2

Winter in Yellowstone, Part 2

Having given you an insight on the best way to reach Yellowstone National Park in winter, Roger Reynolds goes on to discuss the issues that surround photographing in the extreme cold.

When considering any photography in the cold weather there is always one place to start, not with your photography gear but with you. There is absolutely no purpose in preparing all of your gear if you are too cold to get out there and take photographs.

In Yellowstone and the surrounding areas the temperatures can drop down to a low as -50 Fahrenheit (-45 Centigrade) and when the wind blows the wind chill can drop it even lower. Not the most hospitable of climates I hear you say and ask and I am sure you wonder why anyone would want to do photograph when it is so cold. My answer is that you need only experience this once to realise what an amazing experience it is and when faced with such beauty and exciting photography you quickly forget the cold and get engrossed in your photography. That is why you need to be properly protected.

In these cold climates the order of the day is layers. Start of with some good Damart underwear (www.damart.co.uk) or silk underwear, long johns and a long sleeved vest. I find the silk underwear the best as it is light and not as bulky. This can be obtained from a company named Patra (http://www.patra.co.uk/) at a reasonable price. They also sell silk glove liners that are a must for these conditions. On top of this you can pile on the layers, T shirt, long sleeved thick shirt, lined trouser, Rohan, Berghaus, North Face and Crag Hoppers manufacture these together with other warm clothing.

A fleece jumper, or sweatshirt are next followed by a fleece jacket and a wind and waterproof outer jacket. Pair of lightweight, waterproof over trousers are also good when it gets really cold and snowy. For the feet two pairs of socks, not nylon and stout walking boots. To prevent the snow getting in a pair of snow gaiters are excellent and available from most outdoor shops. For the hands top quality gloves or mittens are required together with silk liners. Lowe-Alpine produce a mitten that also has open fingers and this style of glove can be found in some good angling shops as well. The benefit of these gloves is that the mitten part can be pulled back from the open finger section thus allowing easy access to the small camera controls when needed as well as offering good cold protection at other times.

The major problem with gloves suitable for this extreme cold is their thickness, which makes it very difficult to feel and operate the small camera control. This then requires the removal of the complete glove to get the job done. Not only is this inconvenient it also gets your fingers colder much quicker. I also think it is now obvious why you also need the silk liners, not only for the extra protection but because they allow you better feel of the small camera control without allowing your skin to touch cold metallic parts. In the extreme cold bare skin touching metal that is very cold can result in you skin sticking to the metal and to free this is very painful. This factor should be kept at the forefront of your thought whenever you are working in the extreme cold with metallic objects. Last and by no means least your head, a most important part of the body to cover up. A full-face balaclava and a really good hat are the order of the day here. When I say hat I mean one that covers the ears, as these are most vulnerable to the cold.

As an added bonus it is possible to purchase special gel pads that act as hand and feet warmers. These fit in your gloves and boots and when twisted before insertion a chemical reaction begins within the sachet that can keep your feet or hands warm for a few hours. These are cheap to purchase and readily available in many good outdoor shops.

The final thing to do is to pack a small day bag with some dry socks, gloves and a towel just in case you feet or hands get wet. It is the feet and hands that will feel the cold most and if you get these wet then it can be most uncomfortable to say the least. The towel is good for a number of reasons, to dry wet hands and feet but also to dry your gear, which can get pretty wet if it is snowing.

 

When it comes to your camera gear there are certain things that you can do to improve performance but a lot of it comes down to a common sense approach. Provided you put you thinking cap on most of the time you should not experience too many problems. The first rule of thumb is to carry your gear in a sealed camera bag or backpack at all times when you are not using it. This will keep it protected from the elements, especially from the bitter cold and the steam from the hot springs. In addition to this you should always carry a spare battery in you pocket where your body can keep it warm? Batteries are the first things to suffer in the extreme cold and it is the performance that suffers not the battery life. By having a warm battery you can quickly swap these over, the warm battery will improve camera and flash performance and the cold battery can be warming up again to get it to working temperature. Another useful item to carry is a large plastic bag, these are great for covering your camera when it is snowing. There are proprietary rain covers that work just fine but a plastic bag is cheap and easy to adapt.

If you know that you are heading for a cold climate you should ensure that you camera gear is in top condition before you leave home. Get you cameras serviced and cleaned and make sure all of your lenses are operating correctly. Fit brand new batteries to camera and flashguns and make sure you have plenty of spares. If you are using a metallic tripod you need to make sure that the legs are lagged. There are a number of proprietary products on the market for this and Manfrotto/Bogen make an excellent leg protector for their tripods. However a cheap alternative is pipe lagging. This can be obtained from any DIY shop and easily cut to length with a ‘stanley’ knife. It is always split down the length so easily fitted round the leg and held in place with duck tape. If you have a carbon fibre tripod then you do not need this lagging. However a word of caution here? The cold can cause problems with some of the carbon fibre tripods. If you have an old model it is worth checking with the manufacturer to be safe.

If you are going to venture out on a snowmobile then you need to take extra precaution to prevent the cold and damp getting to your camera gear. Your camera bag and tripod will not only be exposed to the elements but will also be constantly showered with snow and ice thrown up by the vehicle’s track. It will also be exposed to continued vibration and buffeting and to have the equipment in a padded camera bag is essential. If you possess a Lowe-Pro AW bag then you need to ensure the waterproof cover is on at all times. If you do not have this luxury you need to get your bag inside a large waterproof outer bag. Inside your bag you need put all of you lenses and cameras in plastic bags for protection from moisture. Your tripod should be inside a protective tripod bag, if not it will get covered in snow and ice and be impossible to erect without a great deal of effort, that’s if you can get the ice of at all. I think that from this small paragraph you will understand why my preferred choice for photography here is a snow coach. Yes Snowmobiles are fun to use but the hassle involved for using them to do photography is a bit too much in my view.

  When out in the field on an extremely cold day the first thing you will notice is that plastic becomes brittle. It is important that you treat any plastic item with extreme care. This goes from your film, for those that still use it, to your camera bags. When loading film in the extreme cold you need to be extremely gentle as the leader will become brittle and can break off with rough handling. Your electronic cable release will no longer be flexible but become rigid. Under no circumstances should you bend it when it is in this state because it could snap. Get it warmed up before you put it back in your bag. You should also be careful with your camera bag because the vast majority are lined with plastic and this becomes extremely brittle in extreme cold and can easily be cracked by rough handling.

 

In the extreme cold every thing slows down, your cameras have to work harder, you work slower because of all the layers and difficulties that brings. So slow your mind down, work methodically and take your time. Remember you are working in difficult conditions and the cold can cause many hazards such as slippery surfaces. If you do slip up and fall then it will be like landing on concrete and camera gear and concrete do not really mix. If you fall in the snow make sure you get the snow off your gear straight away, that is one reason for taking that towel along in your spare bag. Believe me you will need it.{mospagebreak}

If you take all of the precautions and prepare well before you begin then winter photography can be an extremely rewarding experience. It offers something unique and an opportunity to see nature in its most extreme state. When you get out, even in the coldest conditions, you will soon get engrossed in you photography and generally speaking you will not even notice the cold toes and fingers until you come to the end of the shoot or need to change films or digital cards. A pause then to warm the hands and toes will soon have you ready to start again. The other thing to consider in respect to photographing in Yellowstone in the winter is the altitude and the dry climate. Here because the humidity is low the cold does not feel so bitter as in a damp climate. With altitude and the sun reflecting from the snow the temperature can appear much warmer than it is. After the sun has risen, the temperatures usually rise quickly and  it becomes an extremely pleasant environment in which to photograph, even when temperatures are well below freezing.

So what seems at first glance to be something that is far too cold and extreme, can, with proper preparations, planning and guidance be one of the greatest photographic experiences to be found anywhere.