Yellowstone Winter Photography Tour Equipment Needs.
I’m often asked about shooting in cold weather conditions and recently I put together my thoughts on doing just that. This was originally written for a group of friends I’m leading into Yellowstone National Park, February 2008. This information holds true for any cold weather setting and so I thought I would share it with you since winter is fast approaching. If any of you are interested in joining us for this small group excursion in to the winter wonderland of Yellowstone, just drop us an email at email@example.com. We still have a few places left on our first trip. You can find out more by visiting our Tours and Events section and clicking on the Yellowstone Winter Adventure.
First and foremost, Yellowstone in the winter is one of the coldest places in the United States. The other coldest place, International Falls, Minnesota is just north of where I grew up. I know COLD and it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. With the right gear, the intense beauty of Yellowstone’s winter is a sight to behold and this list will help you enjoy it to the fullest.
Lets talk about cold weather gear first and then I’ll make some suggestions about camera equipment as well.
When I’m dressing for the cold, it’s my opinion that the most important piece of gear you can buy is a pair of good boots. Don’t believe the incredible negative temperature ratings all boot companies advertise. What you want to look for is how thick the sole of the boot is. Ideally it should be at least an inch thick and more is better. The reason this is so important is simple. The further the bottom of your foot is away from the snow or ice the warmer your foot will be. You also want a pair of boots with removable liners so you can take them out at night to dry them. There is one exception to this rule and it’s a boot made by a company called Northern Outfitters. Their boots are so good at wicking moisture from your feet they don’t have a removable liner. The Northern Outfitters boot is exceptionally warm and bulky. For me it’s a bit too bulky. I have a pair and I only wear them when I’m planning to sit for extended periods of time. The other two options come from Cabels’s and a local company here in Montana called Schnee’s. The Cabelas boot is a recent discovery of mine and it seems to be a good compromise between a very thick sole and moderate bulk. I found this boot being by the polar bear scientists I’ve been working with on the Beaufort Sea in northern Alaska. This will most likely be the boot I bring for myself. The name of this boot is the Saskatchewan Pac Boot. They produce a similar boot to the Saskatchewan called the Trans-Alaska lll as well. They can be found at www.cabelas.com. Another option is a boot made by Schnees here in Bozeman. It’s called the 10 inch Extreme and though it’s a good boot, it sometimes isn’t quite warm enough for really cold weather. I have worn this boot in Yellowstone for many years however and may bring a pair along with the Cabela’s I plan to have.
Next in importance is your outer clothing. The most effective way to fight the cold is with goose down and synthetic garments. The good ones are expensive but well worth it if you plan to stay warm. Layering your outerwear is imperative. I start with a synthetic type t-shirt close to my body. Patagonia has a nice selection of these kinds of shirts. I often will cover that with a cotton chamois shirt made by LL Bean or Cabelas. It’s warm and comfortable. The next layer is a pile jacket of some sort. Many good companies make pile jackets. If it’s really cold my next layer is a so-called Down Sweater. North face makes the Nuptice, Mont-Bell makes a nice one and so do Mountain Hardware, Marmot, and others. These are not typically outer shells but more of a lightweight sweater type of garment filled with premium quality goose down. On top of this goes either a Gore-Tex or equivalent shell with a hood, or a heavy down parka. It all depends on how cold it is and that’s the beauty of layering. You can mix and match, put on and peel off. The morning starts out really cool and by noon the snow may be melting. You can change accordingly at a moments notice.
Next in line are my pants. Typically in Yellowstone I’m most comfortable with a nice thick pair of pile pull-ons covered by a good pair of outer rain/Gore-Tex or equivalent pants. Some of the outer ones come with suspenders, which can be a bonus for some people. Ideally I like my outer pants to have zippers that go all the way up the sides. It’s easier to get them on and off with big boots on.
Finally, hand and head ware. I typically use gloves if I’m in a snow coach, which is how we’ll be traveling on our trip to Yellowstone. Often I use the thickest gloves you can buy. Gates makes some nice ones but there are many off brands as well. My favorite gloves happen to be made by a company called Scott and they’re actually cross country ski gloves. I like them because they have moderate insulation, typically thinsulate, they have supple, leather palms and fingers and they’re easy to work camera controls with. The down side is that they often are not warm enough so I bring a thicker pair as well. I DO NOT use fingerless gloves as I see so many people doing when shooting pictures. I’m amazed at how this idea has taken hold. I don’t get it! The palms of my hands have never gotten cold that I can recall but my fingers often freeze. Why would anybody use a glove that has no protection for the fingers? The reasoning many people give for fingerless gloves is so they can, “feel the controls of the camera”. I challenge anyone to tell me they can feel anything after they’re fingers have been mashed against the metal casing of a camera for more than five minutes in subzero temperatures. Admittedly, using a heavy or moderately thick glove has its problems with feeling camera buttons and the like but you can get used to it. No questions it’s not as fast as gloveless hands in warm weather. You will make some mistakes and even miss some pictures but good gloves are at least as fast as fumbling with frozen, numb fingers and you have the advantage of not being frost bit or worse yet, freezing your flesh. Bring a good pair of gloves for comfort. No picture is worth loosing your fingertips.
A good hat is a must. Ideally a hat with some sort of wind guard or wind proof material is best. I like the type that has the flaps that come down around your chin. Again, Cabelas is a good supplier as well as LL Bean. You might also want to bring a baklava or face mask. The wind can be harsh this time of year and a cover up for your face is a nice bonus.
Next on the list is camera equipment. The most problematic piece of your gear in cold weather is batteries. If your camera uses lots of battery power in warm weather plan for double the use in the cold. Typically in really cold conditions I have a spare battery that I keep in my pile pants pocket, the one closest to my body. My body heat keeps it warm and when the battery in the camera starts to die I just swap it out for the one in my pocket. When the new one in the camera gets cold and starts to go dry I just reach for the pocketed one and by this time my body heat has warmed it back to life. If you’re using AA batteries make sure you bring plenty and ideally I would suggest spending the extra money on the Lithium version.
I’ll be caring my camera gear in a Lowe Pro camera pack, something that has shoulder straps for easy travel when we hike out through the geyser areas such as Old Faithful. In that pack I’ll have at least two bodies. Most likely a Nikon D3 and a D300. Lenses will include a 12-24mm, 14-24, 70-200 and in some situations a 200-400mm lenses. I’ll also have with me a 1.4 teleconverter as well as a strobe for times I may want some fill light. Included with camera gear will be paper lens cleaning tissues as well as a micro fiber cloth for cleaning lenses. Snow and steam from the geysers make cleaning lenses mandatory. I’ll also be caring a small paintbrush I use for cleaning snow off my lenses and camera bodies if we’re lucky enough to be able to shoot in falling snow conditions. Falling snow can create some of the most beautiful images you can take in the winter, especially if you have animals in the scene. If the temperatures are really cold the snow easily brushes off with the paint brush. If it’s wet snow then I’ll be using a rain cover. I can’t make and good recommendations for rain covers since mine were supplied by Nikon and as far as I know they don’t sell them. For several years I used nothing more than a homemade cover constructed from the leg of a worn out rain pant. I cut the leg off, slit a seem down the middle and sewed Velcro on each side of the seam. It works great and I still carry it with me as a backup to my Nikon covers.
Finally a tripod is a must for longer lenses and landscape shots. I use a Gitzo carbon fiber with a Kirk ball head. This combination is light, fast, portable and relatively compact. I do not recommend the full sized Wimberley head. This head is great for some situations but for this shoot it will be too bulky with all the cold weather and camera gear we’ll be putting in our van.
I hope this answers all your questions regarding travel and shooting in winter conditions. If not feel free to ask questions on the blog site and I’ll do my best to answer them in a timely manner.