On Location Photography Tutorial: Extreme Weather | KelbyOne
On Location in Extreme Weather
Colorado always gets a cold snap in January: 20° below temperatures grip the mountains of the Continental Divide and low-lying valleys. These crispy temperatures somehow prompt me to go camping and snowshoeing in the high country. Why? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m convinced it relates to living in Alaska for years, experiencing the same conditions. Listening to a Boreal Owl pierce the silence of a 20° below night is a Jack London moment. Chilly winter nights also conjure pristine camping scenes under magical crystalline skies. My objective for this image is to capture the beauty and solitude of the winter landscape. I loaded my truck with everything needed: camera, tripod, lights, model “Bob,” and arctic clothing to keep me warm. After a short drive, I arrived at a remote snowy meadow around 10,000′ elevation.
Scouting the location for this winter solitude shot meant finding an untracked meadow, and ideally a scene with snow still in the trees. Evergreen trees look much better with snow in them, and this also helps to soften the dark (almost black) trees against a white background. Untracked snow would allow me to create my own winding path to the tent, adding a supporting design element to the image. Straight lines don’t work as well because they imply travel with a purpose, not peaceful wanderings. I strapped on my snowshoes and started to stomp out my curving trail into the forest. The snow was 3′ deep and very soft; without snowshoes I wouldn’t have gone anywhere. At this point it felt relatively warm at 17°.
The next step was setting up my favorite yellow North Face tent that doubles as a prop on photo shoots. My favorite prop tents are yellow; these tents produce a warm light when illuminated, adding a nice contrast to cold winter scenes. My model, Bob, was patiently waiting. He never complains; for that matter he never talks, eats, or sleeps. Yes, Bob is a cardboard guy that has been with me on many photo shoots. This may seem a little crazy, but after years of begging friends to sit in frigid tents while I shot photos, I decided a better solution was a cardboard guy. Plus, you don’t need a model release. I put Bob in the tent and taped his head to a light stand to keep him from falling over. While glowing tents can look nice, seeing a person’s silhouette helps viewers relate more to the image.
Now that my model and tent were in place, it was time to set up my lights. I decided to use an Elinchrom Quadra with the new lithium battery. With the temperature hovering around zero, I knew the lithium battery was the best choice for operating flawlessly in the cold weather. I put my pack in a Lowepro camera case to insulate it from the snow. I used an Elinchrom Quadra A Head with standard reflector, and placed this inside the tent behind Bob. To trigger the flash, I used an Elinchrom EL-Skyport on my camera. The radio signal from the Skyport doesn’t need line of sight to work. I set my pack at 41 Ws, enough power to light up the tent for my image, took a few test shots, and things looked good. Now all I needed to do was wait for the sun to set so I could blend the exposure between twilight and my flash.
A lot of landscape photography is hurry up and wait. You get everything in place, and then you wait for the right light. As I waited for twilight, I watched my thermometer slowly drop—and drop. With the temp dropping below zero, I dressed in my huge down parka; nothing like sitting in the snow at 10° below waiting on a picture. I noticed some interesting clouds forming in the scene, and starting shooting away, except I had a problem; the cold temperatures had zapped the battery in my Skyport. Luckily, I thought this was a possibility and exchanged my Skyport for PocketWizard Plus IIs with AA batteries. The PocketWizard II was plugged into the Quadra sync port using a PocketWizard MM1 cable. This solved the problem, and I was able to get some interesting cloud shots with the glowing tent.
I knew the glowing tent would be a nice shot, but I also wanted to add another element to the image. I brought a headlamp so I could walk through the frame during a long exposure and add an interesting light streak in the shot. I had to wait until it was almost dark to blend the headlamp and tent flash with a 20-second exposure. I set my camera to self-timer with a 20-second delay, which allowed me to run into the shot, wait for the shutter to open, and then snowshoe through the frame with the headlamp glowing. The first attempt worked okay, but I needed to point my headlamp away from the ground so the snow wasn’t so bright. I got ready to shoot the second shot, and guess what? The PocketWizard batteries had died in the cold weather!
Rule number one on a photo shoot: always have a backup for the backup. My last resort was to use a battery lantern. I brought this lantern because I thought it might be useful, and in the end it saved the day. I knew it would only last about 30 minutes before the cold started to wear on the batteries, but that was all the time I needed. I did a number of headlamp/glowing tent images before things got too dark. In the end, I used multiple light sources and triggering options for this one image. The cold became a big issue for gear, and with temps heading toward 20° below, it was time to head home.