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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Not a Fit Night Out For Man nor Photog

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The best lesson I learned (or, rather, taught myself) when photographing in the wet or the cold had nothing to do with protecting my cameras or lenses.

The lesson was simple: if you yourself are not adequately protected from the elements, you quickly will find yourself thinking "who needs this?" and will wind up compromising your vision, your assignment, your whatever, just to get your sodden sorry butt out of the weather and into a warm place where you can wrap the rest of you around a nice cup of coffee, cocoa or single-malt Scotch.

There's nothing – nothing – that can so intrude on your job as a photographer [aside from life-threatening danger] as physical discomfort. The photographer who can laugh at the elements (i.e.: not even think about them) is the photographer who can devote his or her entire concentration to making great pictures.

I learned this lesson decades ago, not in the tundra, but in the Bronx, on a gorgeous day after a huge snowfall, when I set out to make what I hoped would be wonderful weather pictures. Though I was dressed sensibly for making a quick trip to the store, or for getting from point A to point B, I quickly learned that I was not adequately dressed for wandering aimlessly in the wind and cold for hours at a time looking for pictures.

Lesson One: when setting out to make cold or wet weather photographs, dress with at least one more layer of clothing than you normally would wear under the same circumstances. [An extra sweater, an extra pair of socks, a pair of long johns under your jeans, etc.]

This is a bit of wisdom I put into practice every time my wife Judy and I travel to Venice (we leave for our latest extended photography trip just a few days from now.) When you are photographing a book on Venice in winter, it goes without saying that you spend a good bit of time outdoors. And Venice, situated on a lagoon, can be a pretty dank, dreary, foggy place in the winter. This is phenomenal for photographs; not so great for photographers. Judy swears by her silk long johns; I worship my L.L. Bean North Col parka with so many pockets that it's conceivable I haven't discovered them all.

It should go without saying that outdoor work like this mandates wearing a hat since we all know that going hatless on a cold day is a wonderful way to squander precious body heat. But, while I own a way cool, made-in-France, flaps-down, rabbit-skin storm hat, I almost never wear it during prolonged shooting. Why?

Lesson two: when photographing outdoors, take pains not only to stay warm, but also not to become overheated.

You'll wind up generating a fair bit of your own heat if you are having a ball shooting like a demon in the snow or the cold. After a while, you may want to open things up a bit to maintain your comfort zone. Wearing removable layers is a good idea, but not if you have to carry discarded clothing along with your camera gear. In this case, breathable fabrics are a must (Gore-Tex, etc.), as is the ability to open up your collar or coat to let in enough cool air to re-set your internal thermostat. Though my rabbit fur hat is great for really cold temps when I am not working, it almost always makes my head sweat when I do. My solution: a wool beret, sometimes coupled with a skier's ear-protecting headband.

There is no getting around the fact that photographers have to use their hands when working in the wet or the cold, often to make fairly subtle camera adjustments that would be impossible to accomplish with heavy or lined gloves. The oft-cited advice for situations like this is to wear tight-fitting gloves of thin silk or wool under thick mittens. When you have to make a shot, so the theory goes, all you do is ditch the mittens and work briefly with your still-protected hands.

This is a great bit of advice that I think is dead wrong.

Why? Because the first – and last–time I wore thin gloves in cold weather and tried to change a lens, I damn near dropped the lens onto the cold hard ground. And as for making exposure adjustments quickly and easily...fuggeddabahdit. The thin gloves simply offered no adhesion. I would have been better off with more bulky unlined leather gloves – at least their leather surface was tackier than anything made of wool or silk.

My solution? Glad you asked.

Lesson three: when operating a camera in cold weather the photographer's friends are fingerless gloves and hand-warmer pockets.

I can't tell you how well this has worked for me in Venice, where the wet cold really can be biting. Shortly before one of our trips, and not willing to risk almost dropping another lens while wearing white silk gloves – I stopped at REI and bought a pair of black fingerless gloves made of ever-popular polar fleece. [Actually, only the fingertips are missing on these gloves, which explains why they still can kept my hands comparatively warm.] These gloves also featured leather-lined palms and fingers, for added traction. I'm not going to say they were as warm as fur-lined or wool-lined leather mittens, but while walking through Venice late at night, they were plenty warm enough. And whenever my fingertips complained, I just stuck my gloved hands into my parka's side hand-warmer pockets for a quick warm-up. In fact, the best endorsement I can give these admittedly funny-looking gloves is that my wife Judy finally weakened and bought a pair for herself – in Venice. Hers, by the way, were made of thicker wool, but also with leather-lined palms and fingers.

Working in really cold weather creates challenges not only for you but for your equipment as well. Happily, in virtually all cases with modern 35mm gear you no longer have to have your cameras expensively (and in some ways irrevocably) winterized by a professional camera tech who removes all lubricants from your camera body and lenses, lest they grow thick and sluggish in Arctic cold.

But as noted in the excellent Kodak Technical Publication C-9 on working in extreme cold [Go to the Eastman Kodak website, or do a Google search on "winterizing cameras"] the danger for all cameras is that they be subjected to "cold soaking" – prolonged exposure to sub-zero temperatures. This can foul things up for any camera, and Kodak recommends carrying gear under your coat or parka until ready to shoot. In fact, it even notes some cold-weather shooters who tape a chemical hand-warmer to the back of their working camera to avoid the dreaded cold soak.

Have I mentioned batteries? They hate cold weather and usually can be counted on to act erratically. Good reason to bracket your exposures liberally, as well as to keep your camera and meter – and flash, for that matter – under your coat so they don't get too cold. You are looking to make pictures, remember, not a fashion statement, so who cares if your normally trim figure starts to look like a sack of spuds. Of the several kinds of battery out there, lithium cells tend to work best in the cold, even down to -40F. The more conventional alkalines start to get ziggy at around zero F.

Two other fairly familiar bits of cold weather advice are worth repeating here:

When working in extreme cold, never use your breath to blow off snow from lenses or cameras. That will invite, for example, frozen condensation on a front lens element. Use a camel's hair brush instead to gently wipe the snow away. Remember: in extreme cold, the air usually is very very dry and frozen particles usually can be wiped away easily.

A more common problem is avoiding condensation on (and even inside) your gear when going from an extremely cold environment into a warm one. Here, I'm going to quote from Eastman Kodak's tech pub:

"When entering a warm room with a cold camera and lenses, place camera and lenses in a plastic bag, squeezing the air out, and seal bag tightly. Allow the equipment to warm to room temperature (an hour or two) before removing it from the bag."

The concept of a protective bag is a good one when working in the wet as well.

A number of pros recommend "dry bags" used by rafters and kayakers as a way to protect cameras and lenses when working in or near water. But these bags are for storage only and cannot be used when working. So-called "waterproof bags" are offered by places like diving supply stores, and are little more than thick clear plastic bags that allow a clear waterproof filter to be screwed onto a camera's front lens element while the rest of the camera is protected by the plastic. If all this sounds like a Brownie in a Baggie, you'd probably be right. In fact, taking nothing away from the more sophisticated commercially available waterproof bag, much the same kind of protection (from heavy rain anyway) can be had simply by placing your camera inside a heavy plastic kitchen bag and stretching the plastic over the front of your lens. Screwing a clear filter over the stretched plastic will cut a perfect hole in the bag. Remove the filter and the circular hole of plastic, and then replace the filter carefully. Ideally, the filter will hold the plastic bag in place and you will be ready to work in any but torrential downpours.

Oh, and don't forget to wear your rubbers.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.


© Judith Goodman
These little piggies took a picture. My fingers-free shooting gloves from REI were just what I needed when shooting in Venice in the winter. Working this way is superior to working with thin silk or wool gloves because your grip is so much surer.


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Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

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