In Quest of Warm Hands - Robert Williams Photography

Winter in Ottawa is either overcast and relatively warm (right now, it has been overcast for several days, and it's -4°C (25°F)), or it is sunny and cold (-18°C (0°F) or colder). Most winters, we have a period of time where an arctic high pressure comes down, and we get a week of extreme cold, ranging from -30°C (-22°F) at night, to a balmy -20°C (-4°F) during the day.

Photography under these conditions is extremely challenging, to say the least. When the temperature gets down to -18°C, you have to dress accordingly, and protect any exposed skin to avoid frostbite (and a lot of pain). I have the appropriate clothing -- long underwear, ski pants, heavy winter coat, and warm hat. However, covering my hands is another matter. With proper cold-weather mitts or gloves, it's impossible to manipulate the controls of a camera. With lightweight gloves, you can manage a camera, but your hands freeze very quickly, and it is very painful, especially when they thaw out.

So the question is: how do you keep warm hands in very cold weather?

Late Winter Snow

A number of years ago, I bought some "photographer" gloves that had dots of some material that allowed you to grip a camera. They were knit gloves and gave a bit of warmth, but they were not windproof by any means, and were only good at temperatures above about 5°C (about 40°F). I have also used some cross-country ski gloves that were much warmer, but I still suffered badly when the temperatures were very cold. I could use these gloves down to about -10°C (14°F). Any colder than that, I had to use my cold-weather mitts, and switch to gloves only for short periods.

This year, I have tried out a number of newly designed gloves with modern materials, and some glove liners. The first set of gloves were purchased from a local outdoors store. I bought a pair of Manzella Stretch Fit gloves, rated as "warm, for outdoor aerobic activities", a pair of Manzella Woodsman gloves rated as "warmest, for outdoor activities in extreme conditions, as well as some polypropylene glove liners.

The Manzella Stretch Fit gloves are light skin-tight gloves with a very good palm and finger surface for grip. I first used these gloves on a street-photography walk down a downtown Ottawa street, when it was about 3°C (37°F) and windy. I was using my Canon S90 camera, which is very small and hard to handle with gloves. I found that the glove's grip was good enough for the camera, but some of the controls were difficult as you might expect with a small camera. The gloves were just barely warm enough at this temperature. After about an hour, my hands were cold, but not painfully so. However, these gloves are not windproof, and I think that 3°C is the limit for warmth for my photographic purposes. My walk down the street was not aerobic by any means, and I think the story would be different if I had hiked for a half hour to get there.

Forest Outside  Ottawa

I tried the Manzella Woodsman gloves on a much colder day, when it was -16°C (3°F). These gloves were not designed for photography or activities that need a good grip, but I wanted to see how warm they are, and whether I could manipulate my DSLR with them. In the end, the Woodsman gloves are very comfortable, and reasonably warm, but not suited for photography. I tried them with glove liners to see if they would be good in colder temperatures, but I found the fit too tight. I probably should have gotten one size larger to use with liners. Nonetheless, I really like these gloves, and they have replace my cross-country ski gloves for driving, and most winter activities.

After much web searching to find warm photographic gloves, I finally found AquaTech Sensory Gloves from Outdoor Photo Gear. They are waterproof, breathable, and have a silicon dots on the palm and fingers. On top of that, there are neoprene sections on the thumb and index finger with holes that let you stick your thumb and finger out of the glove to control the camera. After some email exchanges with the people at Outdoor Photo Gear (who were very responsive), I decided to buy them and see what they were like.

I tried the AquaTech gloves out on a windy -16°C morning, along with the Manzella Stretch Fit gloves serving as glove liners. I stayed out in the cold and wind for over 30 minutes, and this combination of gloves and liners did very well. It was still difficult to manage the Canon S90, but I expected that. I used my Nikon DSLR quite easily, and although my hands got cold at times, I never felt that I wanted to get out of the cold. The small holes on the index finger and thumb worked quite well. I didn't pull my finger and thumb right through the holes, but I found that I had a better feel of camera controls.

The Manzella Stretch Fit gloves are a bit bulky as liners. If I had gotten one size larger Aquatech gloves, I think the thickness would be fine. The polypropylene liners that I got from the outdoors store are thinner, and work well inside the AquaTech gloves. The AquaTech gloves are certainly the best I have tried, and I'm quite happy with them. They are very good for modestly cold weather, and when it gets really cold, they work well with glove liners. I highly recommend them for winter photography.

            . . . Rob Williams

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