Penner: Winter photography takes planning, patience and parkas

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Considering the temperature was hovering around a bazillion degrees below zero (why bother with infinitesimal detail), my Castle Mountain “shoot” timeline looked like this: 3:30 p.m. – parked car just stopped east of the bridge over Bow River. 3:31 p.m. – place hood over head and insert hand warmers into gloves. 3:32 p.m. – said the final prayer and exited the vehicle in the kind of numbing cold that only a Siberian yak would have enjoyed. 3:33 p.m. – Closed photo of Castle Mountain from the bridge. 3:34 – stumbles back to vehicle, says quite a few swear words and thaws areas where skin was exposed.

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Yes, in photography, the word “exposed” can have several different meanings. Especially in the midst of one of the vilest cold snaps you can remember.

But when it comes to winter wildlife and landscape photography, the idea is of course to “expose” something. An icy stream framed by snow-covered stones, a warm glimmer of the Alps on a cornice peak, a backlit buffalo breath; indeed, the opportunities to get creative can be quite plentiful – and beautiful! – in winter. That is, as long as you don’t expose yourself for too long.

But, luckily, you can dress for the cold. And if, due to the dozen layers of clothing you’re wearing, you have to waddle around like an emperor penguin, so be it. After all, it’s not a fashion contest over there. It’s about surviving and getting great pictures, of course!

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Castle Mountain from the bridge over the Bow River.  Courtesy, Andrew Penner
Castle Mountain from the bridge over the Bow River. Courtesy, Andrew Penner .jpg

When it comes to those great pictures, when the mercury dips to those levels, there are opportunities that simply don’t exist when the weather is simply ‘cold’.

“Cold winter days can be great for photography,” says Dennis Fast, an internationally acclaimed Canadian wildlife photographer who lives near Steinbach, Manitoba. “In extremely cold weather, areas near water with the resulting fog and haze can be magical. These types of scenarios can often create a soft, mysterious aura around your subject. Additionally, scenes with drifting snow, sundogs, or ice-crusted animals shielding themselves from the elements can be dramatic and rather “chilling” to the viewer—much more than, say, a pristine photo of frost.

Unsurprisingly, Fast, who has taken more than 50 photographic trips to Churchill and other chilling northern environments, is familiar with shooting in freezing temperatures. “In 2000 I was working with a Japanese photographer at Dymond Lake Lodge west of Churchill and a blizzard hit us hard for four days. The wind chill reached -72 degrees Celsius. For the most part, we just watched the storm rage from our igloo, which we used as shelter during the day. It was just too dangerous to be out for long periods of time and when we tried our cameras only lasted a few minutes before they died.

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Besides many layers of clothing, a lot of passion and perseverance are important when working in the cold. Especially if animals are the subject.

Polar bear and cubs near Churchill, Man.  Courtesy of Dennis Fast
Polar bear and cubs near Churchill, Man. Courtesy of Dennis Fast Photo by Dennis Fast /DENNIS FAST

“Photographing mother polar bears and their young cubs as they emerged from their natal den in March at Watchee Lodge in Wapusk National Park was also a chilling experience,” Fast recalls. (By the way, his 2003 book, Wapusk: White Bear of the North, features his many stunning images of polar bears. The book was a Canadian bestseller.) “It was -40 degrees Celsius and we had to stay still for four or five hours at a time so that the cubs come out from under their mother to suckle and play for about fifteen minutes a day. Then they would immerse themselves again for hours. It was a painful but worthwhile waiting game in the end.

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Naturally, Fast, who has photographed polar bears, arctic foxes, beluga whales, wolves, caribou and yak-like musk oxen on his many assignments in the North, learned some “tricks of the trade” while working. in these extremely harsh environments. For example, equipment issues are obviously a major concern when it comes to these types of temperatures.

“At that time,” Fast recalls, “my friend and I had the first professional digital cameras, and in order to operate them, we placed the batteries under our armpits with ‘umbilical’ cords attached to the camera. But in these extreme conditions, the shooters had worse. Winding the film quickly would often cause it to break in the camera, leading to serious problems and frustration.

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Post-blizzard (-72 Celsius) photography of the aurora and an igloo near Churchill, Man.  Courtesy of Dennis Fast
Post-blizzard (-72 Celsius) photography of the aurora and an igloo near Churchill, Man. Courtesy of Dennis Fast Photo by Dennis Fast /Denis Fast

Another big issue, says Fast, is bringing your camera back inside after it’s been outside in severe cold. “Always seal the camera tightly in a plastic bag that is first exposed to the same temperatures,” he says. “Do not open the bag until the camera is warmed up [about 30 minutes] to prevent condensation on and inside the camera and lens. This especially applies if there’s a chance you want to take the camera outside before it’s fully warmed up. Sensors and lenses do not work well when condensation freezes. I’ve seen a number of people learn this the hard way when they don’t follow this advice.

Interestingly, in my mid-teens, Fast, who also worked as a high school principal (my own), was an early inspiration to introduce me to photography and fuel my passion for exploring wild places. Needless to say, whenever he returned from an expedition, we always looked forward to hearing his stories and seeing his amazing images.

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Buffalo backlit to -30 Celsius.  Courtesy, Andrew Penner
Buffalo backlit to -30 Celsius. Courtesy, Andrew Penner .jpg

Although 35 years have passed since Fast first introduced me to his wildlife photography – and I, too, have been on various winter photography assignments around the country – I have yet to venture to Churchill to photograph furry creatures when it’s minus 72 outside. This may be due to my fear of exposure. And also the fact that I consider the number “72” to be much more pleasant when it comes to playing golf.

Andrew Penner is a Calgary-based freelance writer and photographer. You can follow him on Instagram @andrewpennerphotography. To learn more about Dennis Fast, visit www.dennisfast.com.

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