Shooting in Extremes

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Nov 21, 2012 | by Kevin Loughlin

Nature is always going to throw you a curve ball from time to time. For me last week, this curve ball took the shape of a massive snowstorm that barreled across the western mountains of Wyoming dumping loads of powder and dipping temperatures into the single digits. Add to this the howling winds that came rushing down out of the Wind River Mountains, and you have a recipe for negative 20 degree wind chill factors that feels more like burning that freezing.

These are the conditions that send many people packing. Who in the right mind would actually want to venture out into this sort of stuff before dawn – battling arctic temperatures, icy roads, and deep snow drifts? Though some may argue my sanity some times, I’m here to tell you that shooting on the edge of extreme weather like this often gives you the most dramatic opportunities to photograph.

When it comes to nature photography, weather equates to drama – simple as that. Be it snow, clouds, or the insane sort of light that only comes at the edge of a major storm, these are the situations that often creates the most memorable photographs.

These past couple of weeks I have been in the middle of filming two new episodes of the PBS series Wild Photo Adventures. One of these shows was on the Wind River Basin of Wyoming. Big horn sheep, monster mule deer, the kaleidoscopic colors of the Wyoming badlands, and Shoshone petroglyphs all featured prominently in our “to do list.” All of which we knew would make for far more interesting subjects and situations with the incoming forecast from the National Weather Service of this November snowstorm. 

First and foremost we knew the heavy snows would push wildlife down out of the steeper and often inaccessible high country of the Wind River Range down to levels reachable without a helicopter or snowmobile. Second, the snow would really add a dramatic touch to any wildlife image or landscape that I had in store for the show. Third, I knew that this snow was simply going to make the Triassic red sandstone and clays of the badlands simply scream at dawn!

The storm and cold did not disappoint. Yes, it was bone chilling (thank God for coffee!). Yes it was windy – so much so that we had a production camera take sail in the wind and explode upon impact with the ground. But, the images that we were able to create because of these extremes were absolutely incredible and allowed us to move beyond the cliché into the realms of something unique.

Some key things to remember when photographing in these sort of conditions. . .

  1. Bring extra batteries! The cold can and will devour batteries with a quickness. Many a photographer has found themselves shut out of a great day of shooting because they didn’t bring spare batteries for their camera.
  2. Tripod placement. Shoot with a tripod. Your hands will get cold. You will get fatigued quickly. Just remember that when the wind is howling you need to keep a hand on that tripod and camera when set up (as one of the camera men from the show learned the hard way). Also, ice and snow make things slippery, and snow can conceal hidden obstacles and holes. So make sure you have a solid footing with your tripod.
  3. Polarizing Filter. Snow creates a lot of glare once the sun begins to shine down. A circular polarizing filter is an absolutely critical piece of equipment for controlling light.
  4. Exposure. Remember that your cameras light meter will give you an exposure that will render the snow somewhat gray in color. You will need to over expose by anywhere from 2/3 of a stop to 1.3 stops. This of course can be done either by shooting manually, or by using your exposure compensation (the +/- button).
  5. Good gloves. Your hands will suffer in these conditions. I have yet to find “the perfect” glove for shooting in the cold. Every pair I have is a compromise in some way. I prefer gloves with cut out fingers, but with a mitten hood that can be folded over your fingers when not shooting. Occasional I will wear thin fleece like glove liners along with these gloves for extra added warmth. When filming and photographing for the show, one of the crew members left their gloves back in the truck thinking he would only be exposed for a couple of minutes. Those couple of minutes cost him frostbite on his hands and a lot of pain and suffering the rest of the trip.

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