This is from a winter assignment several years ago. Lauri on a cold, windy return across Portage Lake, Alaska wearing her thick wool mittens and Outdoor Research outer shells.

Keeping hands warm and being able to feel and operate camera controls and your tripod is the biggest challenge for photographers for cold weather shooting. This is the hardest part of your winter outfit to get right.

Like everything else in your winter apparel system, gloves are no different and layering with multiple pairs of gloves and mittens works best. The colder it is, the more difficult it becomes to keep your hands warm and maintain the dexterity you need for camera and tripod operation without high performance gloves and the aid of hand warmers. But first, you must keep your core warm. When your core is cold and you are approaching hypothermia, your body robs heat from your extremities and sends it to your core. It will be impossible to keep your hands warm no matter what you do if the rest of you isn’t warm first.

When it’s cold enough for a down parka or 2-3 insulating layers, I make sure my outer layer has large, slanted pockets that sit above where a harness or pack waist belt would ride. That way I can easily place a cold hand with gloves on in that pocket. This is why I stick mainly with performance outdoor brands because they usually think of things like that. That feature is also important to ice climbers and mountaineers.

When I’m out for a while and away from any other source of mechanical heat, I bring 2 glove systems with me, one being a mitten system. Medium weight, waterproof/windproof mittens that fit loose enough to maintain circulation will keep your hands warmer than any glove. Mittens are great for walking and standing around but limit camera operation. For camera operation, I use liner touch sensitive gloves and/or insulating fingerless gloves. But, if they get wet or fail to warm my hands, the mittens are there to save the day.

Photographing in Zion National Park in winter with fleece liner gloves.

 

Here are my systems for both active shooting and for in-transit to and from photo locations in cold weather.

 

ACTIVE PHOTOGRAPHY GLOVE SYSTEM

This is what I use when actively shooting – when I have my hands on the tripod and camera long enough for them to get cold and painful if exposed.

Liner Gloves:

Really lightweight liner gloves by themselves don’t keep my hands warm with temperatures much below 35F assuming it’s dry with little to no wind. A critical consideration for liner gloves is if they are even the slightest bit snug. Restricting circulation, your hands will get cold quick. My liner gloves are Arc’Teryx Gothic gloves. A good alternative liner glove from Outdoor Research which makes great gloves/mitten systems is the Vigor Lightweight Sensor glove. I don’t really care about the touch sensitive index finger and thumb tips. I just want a liner glove that is soft and stretchy, maintains dexterity, and prevents any exposed skin in extreme cold. Using my phone and texting are not priorities for me while photographing in winter conditions.

Fingerless Gloves:

By themselves, with no liner glove underneath, fingerless gloves are my go-to for camera operation down to about 25F. My latest pair are Red Head rag wool fingerless gloves from Cabela’s. They are thick and stretchy with a soft and non-itchy fleece inner lining. These gloves keep my hands warmer than my Arc-Teryx Gothic liner gloves do even though my fingertips are exposed. They are relatively inexpensive and easily accommodate hand warmers in the palms. Because of their thickness they provide much more warmth than liner gloves even though my fingertips are exposed. I have a size XL which allows me to retract my fingertips into the glove, like cat claws, when I need to warm them up.

The key to buying fingerless gloves is to make sure they cover your fingers at least to your outer joint (closest to your fingertips). If they end just past your knuckles and are tight on the base of your fingers, they are not likely to keep your fingers very warm. You may have to size up to get your gloves to cover most of your fingers. Just like with any glove, if they are tight around your fingers and/or squeeze on your knuckles when your fingers are bent, your hands will get cold, quick! There are many options on the market. For years I used a pair of Simms Windbloc fleece gloves designed for fly anglers. Another alternative pair of thick fingerless wool gloves from Outdoor Research is the Fairbanks Fingerless Gloves.

Left to Right: Arc’Teryx Gothic liner gloves: 1 ounce; Red Head (Cabela’s) fingerless rag wool gloves: 3.8 ounces; Liner glove inside fingerless glove. In dry, calm weather the liners keep my hands warm to 35F, the fingerless down to 25F, and together, with the aid of handwarmers, below 20F.

Waterproof/windproof/breathable shells:

These are absolutely essential if there is any risk of getting your hands wet, even if just tripping and falling into snow. For cold/wet conditions into the mid-30’s, I have a loose fitting mitten shell I wear over my liner gloves or fingerless gloves. Again, I err on the side of too big as to avoid any restriction in circulation which leads to colder hands. My shells for my lightweight liner and fingerless gloves are Z-Packs Vertice rain mitts. I don’t use these often but when I do, they are invaluable. And they only weigh an ounce! You could also use these as a shell for tightly knit wool mittens.

I wear my liners under my thick fingerless gloves when it’s too cold to risk any exposed skin. Exposed skin can physically begin to freeze near zero degrees Fahrenheit (-16 Celsius) in as soon as 30 minutes. Your fingers can become painful at temperatures warmer than that. Even in Southern New Mexico, photographing cranes and geese, where it can drop into the teens at sunrise, your hands can get painfully cold really quick if not properly protected. I will put my liner gloves on under my fingerless wool gloves and use a hand warmer to rapidly rewarm my fingers that were exposed while working camera and tripod controls for minutes at a time.

I tested many pairs of liner gloves and fingerless insulation gloves in stores to make sure that when I do this, nothing is too tight that would result in even colder hands on location due to the slightest restriction of circulation.

Left to Right: Arc’Teryx Gothic liner gloves: 1 ounce; Red Head (Cabela’s) fingerless rag wool gloves: 3.8 ounces; Z-Packs Vertice rain mitts: 1 ounce. With wind and/or rain/snow, the mitts add 10 degrees of warmth.

Hand warmers:

I use these for serious cold (below 20F). The chemical hand warmers that have been around for decades work well and are cheap. You activate them by exposing to oxygen, but they only get and stay warm if they are in an enclosed space like in your glove or in your pocket. The advantage of these over battery operated hand warmers is they produce heat in both directions. I place them in the palms of my fingerless glove so when my exposed fingertips (especially my right hand) get cold, I can retract my fingers and place them on the heated warmer.

I also use rechargeable battery hand warmers like the OCOOPA brand. They warm up quick, have 3 power levels, and last a long time, even in the cold. The downside is they only warm on one side. I frequently rotate them. They are either facing down so they warm my palm and keep the blood flowing to the fingers warm, or I face them up, so I can warm my fingertips after they’ve been exposed during camera operation.

You need back-up! Let’s say you were on something good and it’s seriously cold. You had your hands out for a while. They are now painful and stiff. Your photo gloves are wet or worse, frozen, and you still have to put your gear away. And it’s an hour ski or hike back to the trailhead. Time to break out the heavy artillery. Whatever a good mitten system weighs, they are worth their weight in gold when your photo glove system has failed.

IN-TRANSIT AND IDLE TIME MITTEN SYSTEM

Hands down (no pun intended), mittens keep your hands warmer than gloves. For extreme cold (below 0F) I have a pair of arctic mittens that consist of heavy fleece/pile shells and a waterproof/windproof shell. An important note: They are sized large enough for me to easily slide my hand in and out of them even with a liner glove on. If you are just walking, snowshoeing, or skiing to and from location, you don’t need dexterity so mittens are fine. If you are doing a lot of physical exertion going to or from the shoot location and your hands start to sweat (you want to really avoid that) you can wear your liner glove, remove the insulating mitten shell and just use your outer mitten shell.

My system is a long expired model from REI. The current production product that is closest to what I use is the Switchback GTX mittens. Similar systems from Outdoor Research, a brand that makes great glove and mitten systems for ice climbing and mountaineering, 2 other activities where you need both warmth and dexterity, include the Alti II GORE_TEX Mitts and the Carbide Sensor Mitts.

REI brand arctic mittens that consist of a waterproof/breathable shell (left) and the insulating mitt which fits inside the shell and is secured by a Velcro strip-weight: 11.4 ounces; Ocoopa re-chargaeble, battery operated hand warmers: 5 ounces; and my Arc’Teryx Gothic liner glove: 1 ounce. This is my sub-zero system. When active and generating heat, I remove the liner mitt to keep it dry from perspiration and just wear the liner glove under the shell.

WHAT TO AVOID

1. Un-lined leather or neoprene gloves are not good choices for serious cold. Leather has almost zero R-value and neoprene only works by keeping a layer of moisture next to your skin warmed by your own body heat. They do not work in dry cold with below freezing temperatures. The last thing you want is wet hands in any sub-freezing environment.

2. Fingerless gloves/mitten combos. Most of these products are rather cheap and not really good fingerless gloves OR mittens. The usual cheap design is a fingerless glove that has a mitten cover you can fold back out of the way. If you spend significant time photographing in serious cold (below 20F), get real mittens. These glove/mittens are kind of like Ranchero’s or El Camino’s – not really a good car or a good truck.

3. Battery operated liner gloves. Recently I tested a pair of Weston battery operated liner gloves. They didn’t work as advertised. Even at 30F, at maximum power, I could hardly feel any heat at all from them. They had to be inside a pocket or shell to feel the warmth at all, so there was no point. These were the most expensive brand I’ve found. The idea of battery operated liners would be an almost too-good-to-be-true scenario. Maybe one day I will find such a pair of light gloves that keeps my hands warm with full dexterity down to 20F or even lower. So far, we are just not there yet.

I’ve tried special “photographer” gloves from Vallerret. They worked great at near freezing temps. However, when it got down below 20F they were not warm at all. My own system I’ve used long before they came along works better and is less expensive. (Described in detail above.) The best glove layering system specifically for photographers I know of is The Heat Layering System from the Heat Company. They look well designed but expensive. I think you can do just as well with brands like Outdoor Research or Arc’Teryx. They make products specifically for climbers, mountaineers, and backcountry skiers and riders.