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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Shooting in the Cold

Landscape photography often entails having to work quite hard to get to the actual landscape itself. As a result a lot of landscape photographers are also keen hikers and trekkers, since this is what is often needed in order to find interesting compositions. After a recent hike into the Drakensberg with another landscape photographer, Carl Smorenburg, to chase some snow (which didn’t materialise unfortunately) someone suggested on post that I write about the equipment required to get the shot (thanks for the suggestion Jeff Dell).

A little backstory first (particularly for non-South African readers): The Drakensberg is an extraordinary mountain range on the eastern side of South Africa. By various measures it stretches from the southern end of the Eastern Cape all the way to the Limpopo Province (although geologically speaking it actually only runs from around Clarens in the Free State Province to the southern end of Lesotho. Several times a year there is snowfall - enough to coat the mountains in dress of layered white. The snow doesn’t usually last long, so when it falls it is seen as something of an event. The Drakensberg is truly breathtakingly beautiful on the occasion that it dons this wintry dress.

A recent weather forecast predicted a fairly sizeable dump of snow throughout the Drakensberg. Carl Smorenberg a well known landscape photographer in Kwazulu-Natal, who specialises in photographing the Drakensberg, messaged me at the eleventh hour asking whether I would like to join him on a ‘snow mission’ to the ‘Berg’. Permission was granted by my long-suffering wife, Jackie, and the next day we were headed to the Mweni region of the Northern Drakensberg. 

Landscape photographer Carl Smorenburg photographing the Mweni Pass in the early morning after a night on top of the Berg

To put this into some sort of meteorological context, we were expecting temperatures of between -17 to -21 degrees centigrade with the chill factored in. Wind speeds were predicted to reach a maximum of around 18 metres a second. About 2cm of snow was expected where we were heading - not a lot, but enough to make a nice snowy mantle for a short period of time. Our intended goal was a view of the Mweni Needles from a perch of just under 3000 metres above sea level. To get there would require a two days of hiking to cover about 17km of distance and 1400m of ascent. This is not something you can go and do wearing sandals and a t-shirt, hence the suggestion to discuss what is needed to go and capture the shot.

Safety First

Before even thinking about the actual photograph you have to think about your own safety on the mountain. The Drakensberg is very much a real mountain, along the lines of the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, the Alps in Europe and the Andes in South America. If you are not prepared, the mountain can kill you.

Venturing on to the Drakensberg escapement in winter means that you have to dress appropriately and have the right sleeping equipment and tent. Carl and I both used down filled sleeping bags with comfort ratings of -8 degrees centigrade. We also both slept on four season rated air mattresses (the season rating refers to the fact that it is good for winter use). We also used a 4 season two man tent. Without the tent the sleeping bags probably wouldn’t have been sufficient to keep us comfortably warm. A decent four season tent is also essential to withstand the gale force winds that you are likely to encounter on the escarpment. We crested into the 3000m altitude band which is also high enough that you feel the physical effects of altitude on your body: shortness of breath, lagging muscles and potential dizziness (the last not something that I suffer from thankfully). This is of course can also impact on the way your body handles the cold. 

The four-season K-Way Kilimanjaro 2-person tent that kept us warm, dry and wind proof in 80km/h winds.

So in a nutshell, this is the kit required before you even get to take a photograph:
  • Four season tent (shared between Carl and I)
  • Sub-zero rated sleeping bag
  • Winter rated sleeping mat
  • Warm clothing - down jacket, polartec fleece, warm socks (multiple pairs in case they get wet), beanie, thermals etc.
  • Waterproof Boots (not everyone likes wearing boots but if you are expecting snow expect cold and wet toes…frostbite is a thing even in Africa)
  • Gloves - same as the above, preferably more than one pair
  • Waterproof shell (jacket and pants preferably) - Again, snow and exposure to freezing wind can literally kill you, and a decent shell will make a huge difference to your comfort.
  • Stove with fuel (Shared between Carl and I) - My preference is for the slightly heavier but bombproof benzene stoves which are manually pressurised so burn more efficiently at altitude (I use a 20 year old MSR Dragonfly).
  • Food and supplies for the duration of the trip - volumes could be written on this and is a favourite discussion among dedicated trekkers and hikers.
  • Needless to say a backpack to carry all this in.

Now For the Image Making

There’s more besides the above, like first aid kit, hat etc. but these are the essentials for the kind of photography we were planning. Then comes the actual photographic equipment. I am one of the more masochistic of landscape photographers and insist on carrying quite a lot of equipment whereas others will go minimalist and take just one camera and lens with a lightweight tripod. The equipment I carried to the top was:
  • Nikon D850 DSLR camera
  • Nikon 24mm f2.8 Ais lens
  • Nikon 50mm f1.8 AFS lens
  • Nikon 70-200mm f4 AFS lens
  • Zeiss 18mm f2.8 Milvus lens
  • Nisi V6 holder with adapters for all lenses
  • Nisi Landscape CPL, 0.9 Medium Grad, 0.9 Soft Grad, 1.8 ND, 3.0 ND
  • 3 batteries + 20000mAh battery pack for charging phone and batteries via a USB charger
  • Small camera bag which I chest mount to my rucksack harness
  • Medium F-Stop Accessory bag to hold the tele lens, batteries, blower, and battery pack (and goes in the main compartment of the rucksack.
Most of the kit (all the clothing and food not necessarily shown) required for a winter shoot on the top of the Drakensberg
Lastly, and very importantly is the tripod. I currently use a Leofoto LS-284CEX tripod with a Leofoto LH-40LR ball head for hiking. This is a full height tripod with a built in levelling base which makes panoramic photography very easy (I’ll have more to say about this in a future article). For a tripod of this size it’s really light weight and easy to use. Still, all the above adds a good 6kg to the amount of equipment you have to tote up the mountain. 

Out in the Cold

Needless to say the most important thing to remember is to layer clothing. Walking many kilometres, then setting up and essentially remaining stationary (often at the cusp and tail end of daylight) means that you are going to experience vast range of temperature variation.

Admittedly not from the Drakensberg, but an image of fellow Nature's Light instructor Nick van de Wiel in Iceland, but showing the type of clothing to stay warm and safe when shooting in the proper cold (not quite polar, but cold enough).
Actually shooting is the next tricky bit. European winter photographers will know of the difficulty of shooting in sub-zero temperatures. The most important thing is to stay as warm and dry as possible. Safety first! After that you can start to think about the image-making.

The first thing to be aware of is that your camera and lenses have some difficulty transitioning from the warm to the cold. As weather sealed as modern cameras are I have had the occasional condensation build up moving from the warm (relatively speaking) interior of the tent to the extremely cold outside and vice versa. The temperature change, particularly the latter, can cause moisture droplets to form inside the lens array. It’s worse with unsealed lenses (and even the most weather sealed lens still allows some air, and therefore moisture in). My solution to this is to always have the camera bag with the camera. If I am shooting outside I put the camera into the new cold bag and then take it into the tent. The cold bag means that the camera will slowly warm up, lessening the chance of condensation. When leaving the tent, do the same In reverse.

The next thing is how to deal with batteries. As the temperature drops, so too does the efficiency of the camera batteries. For this reason always have a spare battery on hand, and close to your body. You’re keeping it close to your body so that it stays warm. I’ve even had a supposedly dead battery suddenly recover to about 50% capacity after being placed in an inside pocket close to my body for an hour. 

Also, make sure to look after your fingers! As a photographer we have to use our fingers to operate the camera. A non-photography hiker will likely keep their hands in pockets to keep warm. The photographer has to have their hands out in the open all the time. My personal preference is to wear a thin liner pair of gloves and then a second pair of fingerless mittens over these. This means I can have the dexterity of ‘almost’ gloveless hands while working with finicky bits of photographic equipment, but can get the mittens back on quickly to try and keep the finger tips warm. On top of this I also have a pair of wind-proof (once upon a time water proof) over-mittens which keep the wind and some of the water out in a storm. Needless to say it helps if you have a camera with chunkier buttons. I still miss the design simplicity of the old film Nikon F4 which could be handled dexterously with welding gloves! Unfortunately modern DSLRs are not made with gloves in mind (Sony in particular). Still, I’m thankful a for at least a few over-sized buttons and dials on my Nikon D850. If you are looking for a winter camera, be aware of the fact that you are likely to be wearing gloves while shooting. 

The rewards of shooting in the cold are immense for the small amount of discomfort that is likely. Snowy vistas, mist shrouded peaks, violent oceans and ice encrusted streams are all potential subjects. Just remember to stay safe and warm and it will be that much easier to create great images.  


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