Visiting Lac Sacacomie and the Hotel of the same name, I joined the talented FEL crew for a four-day Audi Canada event that saw nearly 100 guests and Audi personnel visit the snowy escape in the hills of Quebec backcountry, just two and a half hours north of Montreal. The event marked my second with Audi X FEL and the first time I would be shooting full days in snow and sub-zero temperatures, something I wanted to be prepared for.
Doing some research beforehand, the only major difference in gear outside of a typical event/motorsport weekend was the clothing and additional batteries. The cold loves to suck up your power quickly. On the clothing front, it was a lot of wind & waterproof gear - in this case, neither one more or less important that the other. I packed a polyester/cotton windproof UNIQLO hoodie which acted worked great with two or three layers, underneath a StormTech jacket. Thick, woollen-lined joggers from Lulu Lemon and GapFit were perfect underneath a set of Hally Hansen wind and waterproof snowboard shells. Many of the snowboard pants/shells also come with a bit of knee padding, which is perfect for softening those kneeling shots in icy conditions.
Knowing the temperatures would be very cold and that I’d likely need to wear gloves at all times, I brought a set of Kombi primaloft waterproof ski gloves, as well as a set of thin, gripped Columbia running gloves for smaller tasks or an added layer. I had to make sure my larger Kombis were also versatile and precise enough to operate my camera, so I found the tightest, most flexible fit in that range of protection. On numerous occasions, my windproof and collared balaclava was of huge service, as were my thermal socks and North Face Thinsulate waterproof boots.
Our arrival on Thursday largely involved setup, location scouting, and logitistics. A small number of guests also arrived, each taking part in either the dogsled or snowmobile tours, and venturing across the thousands of acres of mountainous and ravine-filled terrain.
The weather was -3°C/26°F, and with light snowfall the day before, it gave the crew nice weather to carve out the ice course, which is actually held on the adjacent Lac Canitchez, a small drive past the garages and “Sugar Shack” clubhouse where the participants have their debriefings and buffet lunch. For movie buffs, the house at the entrance of the lake is the site for the 2004 Johnny Depp thriller, Secret Window.
There was well over a foot of existing snow, and ice depths of 28 to 30 inches ensured a consistent, slippery surface on the slalom, skid pad, and circuit courses for all 15 Audi TTSs, RS3s and S5s.
For the first driving day on Friday, it was sunny and temperatures had dropped to -18°C/0°F, with steady winds across the lake that saw a wind chill of -25°C/-13°F. I brought my most robust equipment, and while I knew my cameras would operate below their official 0°C/32°F temperature rating, at these temperatures, nothing was a guarantee.
As I do for every shoot, I brought my CP (circular polarizer) filters. On sunny days filled with bright snow and strong reflections, these (or a neutral density (ND) filter) are a must. I also brought my usual Aquatech and Canon rain covers but soon realized I wouldn’t need them. The snow was cold enough that it wasn’t melting on impact, and because I needed my gloves while using my equipment, any covers would be too cumbersome and likely cause moisture build up due to the trapped heat, making it difficult to review images or see my camera functions.
(For photographers who are using non-weather sealed bodies, as a cover is still necessary, I recommend going to your local photo store and playing with different options to see what works best with your equipment and any peripheral gear (gloves, etc.))
Image review and knowing how to read your histogram are also very important in snowy conditions. Because cameras are made to measure luminance (brightness) based on an 18% gray scale, on sunny days when the snow is glowing, your meter will read as if it needs to bring the entire image back down to 0 EV, when it's actually underexposing everything in the photo except for the snow. With that in mind, light changes in a snow-filled environment can affect the brightness or darkness of your exposure more drastically than usual. I almost always shoot in manual mode, but knowing how your light meter and histogram are interacting, and how the snow “lies” to your camera can help you anticipate and set up a shot in environments where things happen quickly. If you're not sure, take a few test shots, and see how everything responds.
Being my first shoot in the snow for an extended period, there were a lot of new things that I hadn’t anticipated, like how quickly fog can turn to ice. I had my balaclava over my nose while taking a photo, my breath would come up and fog my review screen, freezing it instantly. Having gloves with a goggle wiper or goggle thumb made it easy to clean off. A dense cotton or tough microfiber cloth would also work, but the gloves made it easier.
The next issue was how cold the magnesium bodies on my 1D Xs would get. Someone described them as “bricks of ice,” and they act like it too. When I lowered my balaclava, my cold, wet nose stuck to them like a kid licking a pole. I quickly learned to keep my nose and camera as dry as possible.
(For standard plastic camera bodies, freezing isn't the issue as much as them becoming brittle, so take extra care.)
It is also important to keep moisture away from your viewfinder. You don't want to rying to wipe moisture that’s freezing in a tiny eyehole with minus-20 wind gusts while wearing huge gloves with a surprise fleet of RS3s driving towards you isn't the e. Thankfully for the next time, Canon (and every major brand) offers an anti-fog eyepiece that saves you from dealing with the tedious task of constantly wiping your viewfinder clean.
Similarly with my lenses, I left them alone as much as possible. The lens hood did its usual job, and for the most part, snow that hit my lens didn't melt or stick on - until the last day. I had to make sure to use a chamois cloth, as any melted snow (or breath to blow it off), resulted in relentless moisture that wouldn't go away. Thankfully the chamois (the same as a car chamois) dried things up with little effort.
Because I was also shooting with a larger, 300mm f/2.8 lens on a monopod, I frequently found myself wanting to lay it down to shoot with my wider, secondary camera. Having a small waterproof backpack can act as a great table, as well as a home for your extra necessities outdoors (a dry set of anything, food, emergency hot packs, ski goggles (for extreme wind), etc.).
Originally, I also thought a pack would be great for storing extra lenses should I want to change any of them on the go, but with wind and snow a constant occurrence, I decided against any lens swaps outdoors. Dust in the summer is one thing, but wet snow is a different ballgame. For any indoor swaps, I had to make sure that my camera temperatures were regulated enough to prevent any moisture as well, something to keep note of.
By lunchtime, I found my batteries at 40%. Typically, I can get 2,500-3,000 shots out of one LP-E4N, but with the cold eating them up, I was getting about 800. I can imagine these temperatures would affect the life of smaller, standard sized batteries as much or even more so. Extra batteries are always recommended, but especially in the cold.
What I found on Friday, and which was much more pertinent on Saturday, was the importance of staying in motion in the cold. With so many participants taking part in each activity, I found myself in the same small spaces for events like the skid pad, where you’re waiting to get that hero shot of participants while they get acquainted with spinning their wheels in a full-lock drift. Saturday dropped to a bone-chilling -33°C/-27°F with the wind chill, which forced me to move from station to station more frequently. In the end, it gave me a larger variation of shots.
The only operational difference I noticed with my cameras was a delay in the LCD screen, which is expected in these conditions. The same can't be said for my iPhone 7 however, which shut down on numerous occasions after brief exposure.
Because of the drastic drop in temperature, even my thermal socks were no match for a day standing on Saturday’s ice. I was forced to retreat to my car on a few occasions in the morning, though I had to be mindful that the car’s internal temperature wasn’t so warm/humid compared to the outdoors that it would cause moisture build up on my gear. Conversely, I had to make sure everything was dry upon exiting the car, as the water would turn to ice almost instantly, and could effect weather sealing or operation.
It was the coldest day by far, but another beautiful one emphasized by the sun, track, and a great round of guests.
The third day was perhaps the most picturesque of the weekend. Temperatures rose to -8°C/46°F overnight, allowing a dusting of snow that began before sunrise and continued throughout the day. Compared to previous days of direct sunlight, the snow and overcast skies on Sunday really worked with the colours well, helping create more dramatic images. Where I might have been shooting at -1 EV or less on the previous days, Sunday had me shooting as high as +2 EV, depending on the light and the mood.
(One point to note while shooting in snowy conditions, in autofocus, regardless of the mode (AI Servo, AI Focus, One shot), your camera may lock on the snowflakes between the subject and yourself. You might find manual focus more appropriate in certain conditions)
The winter atmosphere made for a perfect day for head of Volkswagen Group Canada, Daniel Weissland (pictured below, third from the left). The snow brought the environment to the forefront, while also adding an element of excitement as cars ploughed through the powdery terrain.
Being a warmer day, but one that was still below freezing, I found myself more attentive to the moisture build up on my lenses and cameras, as snow would turn to ice far quicker than on colder days when it was harder for the snow to melt. I kept a larger microfiber cloth than usual just to keep things dry.
At the end of each day, I made sure to hand dry each piece of gear and allow it to come back up to temperature naturally. I avoided using anything until the following day when it was completely dry.
The ice experience was a fantastic event, with great staff and participants who were ready to have fun. Paired with a picturesque location and a range of Audis that were absolutely beautiful to shoot, and it made for an amazing four days in a winter wonderland. Thanks to the entire crew at FEL and Audi Canada for your help and support, and for putting on such a great show!
- Waterproof/windproof jacket
- Waterproof/windproof ski/snowboard pants/shell
- Waterproof, fitted ski/snowmobile gloves (fitted well enough to shoot with)
- Waterproof, insulated boots
- Fitted Gripped athletic gloves (thin/jogging style for more precise tasks in the cold)
- Windproof balalclava
- Windproof hoodie
- Long sleeve shirts (2-3 layers)
- Second layer pants (thick cotton track pant/Lulu Lemon/GapFit, thermal)
- Ski goggles (for extreme wind conditions)
- Thermal socks
- Canon 1D X (x2)
- Canon 17-40mm f/4
- Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
- Canon 70-200mm f/2.8
- Canon 300mm f/2.8
- Canon UV filters
- Hoya CP filters
- Lexar 32GB CF cards (x4)
- Extra batteries/chargers
- Rain cover
- Extra microfibers (to dry equipment)
- Chamois (for extremely wet conditions) Circular polarizer (CP) filter
- Circular polarizer (CP) and/or Neutral density (ND) filters