Photographing wildlife in cold weather presents unique challenges. Freezing temperatures and some wildlife can make for dangerous situations for photographers, so it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and understand the behaviors of your subjects. Here are five tips for photographing animals in cold weather to help get great shots while staying safe.
1. Adapt Your Kit to The Environment
When it comes to animal photography, speed is key. As a wildlife and conservation photographer, I tend to carry a few cameras with lenses already attached so I don’t have to waste time switching lenses and adjusting in the field. I love pairing a 24-70mm, a 100-400mm or a 12-24mm with my Nikon Z 9, Z 7 or Z 6II. These lenses allow for maximum flexibility when portraying different narratives thanks to their different focal lengths.
Taking photography gear from one extreme temperature to another can create condensation in the lenses and affect your ability to be ready when a shot presents itself. A good way to prevent this is to make sure your kit has sat out in the environment you will be shooting in before you start. Before I even leave my hotel room, I make sure to keep my batteries warm while putting my gear safely outside to give it time to acclimate to the cold outside temperatures. Having warm spare batteries in your pocket can also help extend battery life as cold batteries lose their charge faster.
2. Your Kit is More Than Just Camera and Lenses
Preparation can be seen inside and outside of a camera kit. I have photographed animals in Patagonia, Antarctica and the Austrian Alps, which have some of the coldest temperatures in the world. Always make sure to wear weather-appropriate clothing—especially waterproof boots. Wet feet in particular will bring an early end to a cold-weather photo shoot.
When traveling I also come prepared with a Swiss Army Knife, duct tape and super glue for any unexpected problems that may occur while out in the wild. Keeping energy bars and water in your pack is another must for days that require long hours and demanding hikes. The last piece of your kit should be your cell phone with access to GPS. I like to share my location with a friend or family member before I begin my trek as a precaution, and mark pins within the map so I can keep track of where I am when I’m out in the wild.
3. Customize Camera Settings for Your Environment
Wintery environments with a lot of snow can be a particular challenge because there is likely to be a lot of white in the background of your photographs. This can make it more difficult to achieve correct exposures and it will make incorrect white balance more obvious. To ensure that snow isn’t negatively impacting the overall quality of your images and potentially making you miss important details, watch the white balance and ensure your exposure is accurate. Check white balance settings beforehand and keep an eye on your average exposure meter.
Aperture matters too, but pay special attention to shutter speed. I tend to account for speed specifically as animals can be unpredictable and fast moving.
4. Respect your Environment
As a conservationist, I try to keep in mind what impact I may have on the animals I’m encountering and the habitats I’m entering. So I conduct extensive research on both the wildlife and the environment ahead of time. Knowing what you may encounter while respecting an animal’s space is an absolute must for safety and respect of the environment you are invading.
Additionally, if possible I try to explore with a local biologist who is more familiar with the area. Their knowledge may be indispensable, and I’ve found it has even helped me better understand the animals I am photographing.
5. Cultivate Skills Beyond Photography
Nature photography is an all-encompassing passion. Photographing animals and nature means being prepared for what the environment may require of you. Sometimes to capture a shot you may need to survive in the extreme cold, climb a tree or wade around in water. I recommend looking for new skills that may help you better navigate the environments you will be photographing in safely and efficiently.
About Sergio Izquierdo
Sergio Izquierdo is a conservationist, wildlife photographer and filmmaker from Guatemala. He has worked on assignments for National Geographic and BBC. He is President of ABIMA (Guatemalan Marine Biology Association) and the director and founder of the NGO Rescue The Planet. He’s also currently a member of the International League of Conservationist Photographers (iLCP), a prestigious international organization made up of talented conservationist photographers around the world. His new book, “How to Achieve Every Photographer’s Dream,” will be released in April 2023. To learn more about Sergio Izquierdo, visit his website at sergioizquierdo.com, follow his Instagram and TikTok accounts @sergioizquierdophoto, and subscribe to his YouTube channel.