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When you’re walking in a winter wonderland, it’s the perfect time to bust out your camera! But the weather outside is frightful if you aren’t prepared for some of the challenges it presents to your film photography. So, we have 10 tips for shooting film in the cold, with some firsthand insights from our photographer friends…
Photo by Ray Larose
Handle Film with Care
In the cold, film becomes extra fragile. If you’ve ever tried to load film right after pulling it out of the freezer, you know how brittle it can get. So, be sure to load your film extra carefully and advance it through your camera slowly when shooting in the cold.
Photographer Ray Larose, who is based out of New Hampshire and knows a thing or two about shooting in the cold, suggests keeping rolls in the pocket of your outermost layer. “It allows the film to acclimate to the cold but not to the point of being brittle."
Invest in Batteries
Get high-quality batteries and bring backups! See, cold weather slows down the chemical reactions inside a battery that create the electrical current. As the battery is used, it will quickly reach a point where it cannot deliver enough current to keep up with the demand from your camera. Even the smallest functions, like automated film wind, will drain your battery much faster than normal if you’re out in the cold.
Get a Set of (Warm) Helping Hands
Even with gloves, shooting outside in winter can leave your fingers in a frigid & stiff state. Emily Furney, of Emily Jane Photography, is based out of Michigan where the winters are some of the snowiest. She advises to “always have an assistant with warm hands. When you've been shooting in the cold (especially if there is wind), sometimes you can’t even move your fingers! I have my assistant keep their hands in their pockets with warmers so their fingers can work fast, holding bags and rolling film, while I keep working.”
Photo by Emily Jane Photography
Be Aware of Reflected Light
A blanket of fresh snow can create a beautiful scene, but it also presents a challenge. “You are essentially shooting on top of a huge softbox,” Emily Furney notes. Metering with a handheld light meter is key! Meter for a middle tone—if you meter for the snow then everything else will be too dark, but if you meter for the shadows then you’ll lose all the detail in the highlights.
Warm Up the Scene
An overcast, winter sky can oftentimes provide very cool-toned lighting, which can make the subject of your snow-filled portraits look pasty and lifeless. Add a little warmth back into your chilly scene by using a film stock that provides a warmer base (like Kodak Portra), use a gold-colored bounce, and/or let the lab know you would like your order scanned on the warmer side.
Watch Out for Rudolph!
What happens when you go out in the cold? You get a red, drippy nose as your body rushes blood to your extremities to warm them up. It’s not the ideal look for any human subjects in your photo shoot… Emily Furney suggests scheduling short breaks throughout your shoot for your clients or models to warm up and get rid of that rosey nosey!
Stop Static—Rewind Slowly
Ray Larose explains, “In arctic temps, the interior of the camera is super dry. Rewinding too fast can cause static discharges (think of running across a carpet in socks in the winter, then touching someone on the nose). This discharge is light, so can add odd light leaks onto your film.” Light leaks caused by static can leave a strange, speckled pattern on your film.
Photo by Ray Larose
Water is the enemy of your camera, your lens, and your film. And when warm air hits the cold surface of these items, it reaches its dew point and condensation forms—yikes! One way to avoid moisture is to put your gear in a tightly sealed plastic bag before you go into a heated space. This way, the condensation forms on the outside of the bag.
Another method is to simply heat your gear back up gradually. “I am always sure to slowly warm the camera and film on the way home. I do not put it up front with in the warm air but, rather, keep them in the trunk where it’s somewhat cool. If it's been brutal weather (I’m talking -30°F), I might then leave my car in the garage a couple hours to allow the gear to continue to slowly, then move to the basement for another hour or so before bringing into the house.”
If your film appears to have gotten wet from condensation, put it in a sealed plastic bag and send it to the lab ASAP with a note that it’s wet so we can do our best to save it!
Move With Care
Ice and snow on the ground can make walking outdoors, well, a little precarious. Add an armload of camera gear, and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster!
Emily Furney is no stranger to such disasters. “I had just finished up some bridal party photos in -9° temperatures on a very windy Valentine's Day a few years ago,” she explains. “I was walking back into the hotel when a gust of wind came in the door behind me, and I took a bad fall. My bride was in tears! Lenses were broken and my leg was pretty bad. I took some strong pain reliever and shot out the wedding for another seven hours, then headed straight to the ER. I had torn a few ligaments and had six months of painful physical therapy, and I still cannot run on my left ankle. I was even wearing boots! Just goes to show you have to be so careful during that kind of weather.”
Leave Your Best Gear At Home
This one is simple… taking your camera equipment out in freezing weather is a risk for all of the above reasons. Don’t take that risk with your very best gear! Leave your rare or valuable cameras, lenses, etc. at home.