It’s winter, and for many film camera enthusiasts that means hours of frozen fingertips, chapped lips, and silent prayers that our gear is going to function in sub-par conditions. I’ve spent many an evening clinging preciously to my solid brick of metal, with each click of the shutter bringing my index finger one step closer to frostbite.
But it’s not just my fingers and toes—sometimes reduced to ineffectual lobster claws—that are problematic in wintery conditions. Snow can be perplexing to light meters, batteries can die quickly in the cold, and nailing the correct exposure for snow can take some practice. With my experience shooting in the high mountains of British Columbia, plus additional advice from fellow Field Mag contributor and professional photographer Taylor Burk, we hope to provide you with some helpful tips and tricks for shooting film in the snow.
Read on for five key tips to making better film photographs in the snow and amid winter conditions.
How to Keep Your Camera Batteries Alive in the Cold
Rapidly losing battery life is one of the most common problems photographers face in cold weather. When you shoot in the cold, the battery life deteriorates much faster than in temperate weather (most batteries perform best at around 20 Celsius or 68 Fahrenheit). This is because the chemical reactions inside a camera battery slow down in colder temperatures, meaning that they drain faster, sometimes leaving you shit out of luck when that perfect moment occurs.
I’m not a seasoned East Coaster who thrives outside when it's -40, so there's nothing worse than braving the bitter cold only to find my batteries refusing to cooperate. Because of the inherently shorter life of batteries in the cold, I always keep at least one spare battery in my inner pocket or close to my body (in my sports bra or sock for example!). The closer to the body, the warmer my batteries stay and the best chance I have at getting my shot.
Depending on your camera, you might not encounter the cold battery problem. Recently, the battery in my Olympus Mju II died for the first time, but after a quick ten-minute warm-up under my armpit, it was back in the game. My Nikon FM2’s battery hasn’t failed me yet, even after full days of walking in -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit). A Leica M4 on the otherhand, is purely mechanical, meaning no battery to die in the first place.
As for Burk, who often packs spare hand warmers specifically for keeping his camera warm, he's had better luck lately. "My Yashica T4 and Canon AE-1 are both pretty burly cameras and I haven't had any issues pertaining to cold weather thus far," he says, "knock on wood."
Dealing with Condensation
If you're shooting outdoors in the cold and going in and out of warm spaces like ski lodges, yurts, or cabins, you'll probably notice your camera fogging up with condensation upon arriving inside. "I’m very mindful of condensation when bringing cameras in and out of extreme contrasting temperatures," says Burk. "Don’t bring your frozen camera into a hot room, slowly introduce it to the warmth by keeping it in your bag or in an entryway that isn’t fully heated."
How to Meter for Snow, Correctly
I have found that most built-in light meters meter snow as gray, as opposed to white. So if you were to stick your camera on auto in anything other than bright, sunny conditions, you may find that your photos come out a bit dark and muddy. If I’m shooting on an overcast day, or during active snowfall where there is already a gray presence, I manually overexpose by at least one stop. I don’t have to do this on true bluebird days, but I will occasionally have to bring the highlights up in Lightroom in photos from my Mju II, since I can’t change my exposure settings on that camera. However, one of my main draws to film photography is the lack of editing required, so I find it easiest to let the developing lab know that I want my highlights bright and my snow white.
“I tend to meter somewhere in between the highlights and low light areas," adds Burk. "If I’m really unsure of how to properly meter a scene and I have my digital camera with me I’ll take some shots on that and then transfer the settings over to my film camera. Film is not cheap so you want to make sure that you’re getting the most out of each roll!”
How to Choose the Right Film for Shooting in Snow
Not all snowy days are the same, and that’s where film choice comes into play. If it’s a bright, sunny day, you’d do well to choose a punchy, saturated film like Kodak Ektar 100. This will really bring out the blue skies and bright whites of your scene. For black and white film lovers, Kodak Tri-X 400 will give you great contrast and photographs really well in winter conditions. I personally shoot mostly Portra 400—I love how this film turns out in both sunny and overcast conditions, and I’m not scared to push or pull it if I need to. Portra is great for if you’re just learning the ropes, as it handles under- and overexposure really well (basically, it’s forgiving if you make judgment errors!).
Dress & Pack for the Conditions (& More)
Dressing and packing right has got to be one of the most important contributing factors to having fun taking photos in snowy conditions. I’m usually skiing or ski touring when I’m shooting film in snow, which helps me stay warm through activity. Other than that, I have heated socks (they're life-changing), two pairs of gloves (in case one pair gets wet), a synthetic insulation layer, a down layer, a hot thermos of tea, and a waterproof outer jacket. If you’re in or near the mountains, the weather can change in a heartbeat, so it’s important to be prepared.
Safety is another important consideration, especially if you're venturing out into the backcountry. “I like to ensure that I am well prepared with all of the winter safety essentials," says Burk. "I use Packup to double-check that I have all my cold weather gear (base layers, mid layers, gloves, toque, etc.) with me whenever I leave the house. I also always carry an emergency bivy in my backpack in case of an accident or injury, it’s super tiny, lightweight and can save your life.”
Scroll on for more examples of beautiful snow photography made on film. Then do a snow dance and get outside yourself!