Cold-Weather Photography

Share

Even though the leaves are down and your frost-laden lawn makes crunchy sounds when you cross it in the morning, that doesn’t mean it’s time to pack your cameras away until March or April; if you do, you’re going to miss some fine picture-taking opportunities.

Appropriate layers of warm clothing and insulated boots aside, capturing strong stills and video during the colder months of the year requires a bit of foresight, a few recommended weather-related accessories, a measure of common sense and the desire to take great pictures despite the cold. According to a buddy of mine who enjoys driving around in snowstorms with the roof of his car down, this is a clear sign of mens sana in corpore sano.*

How Your Camera (Mis) Behaves Below the Freezing Mark

With few exceptions, cameras are designed to function without problems down to 32°F (0°C) and most will perform reasonably well at temperatures far lower, albeit with increasing signs of sluggishness as the temperature drops. Batteries are greatly affected by cold as the temperatures approach the freezing mark, and ultimately they poop out regardless of the condition of the battery or how much reserve power they contain.

The good news is that charged batteries quickly recover once they warm up, which is why seasoned cold-weather photographers always keep a few spare backup batteries tucked away in the warmer recesses of their inner coat pockets. By keeping spare, charged batteries on standby, you can quickly swap the chilled battery for a toasty one and be up and running with a minimal loss of shooting time.

Generally speaking, you will get the best cold-weather performance from non-rechargeable batteries. If you’re going the rechargeable route, you can expect to get the best cold-weather performance from lithium-ion batteries, followed by NiCad, followed by NiMH batteries.

An alternative approach to maintaining a constant flow of juice to your camera, when shooting in colder climes, is to power your camera with an Anton Bauer ElipZ 10K Battery Kit.

Available for a variety of still and video camera systems, the ElipZ 10K battery, when used with the appropriate power- and camera-connection cable, allows you to tuck the kit’s 7.2V power source into an inner coat pocket or other warm environment. As long as the battery stays warm, you can expect to power your camera anywhere from two to five times longer than you can with your camera’s OEM battery. According to Anton Bauer, you can power a 10W camera load for up to 7.5 hours on a single charge.

Your camera’s LCD is particularly sensitive to colder temperatures. The first signs of LCD failure are usually sluggish refresh times, followed by loss of contrast and “gray-outs,” which in turn are followed by a total cold-induced blackout. Displays may sometimes show odd colorations along the way, but regardless of how your LCD announces its displeasure with the cold, all systems return to normal with no lasting effects once the ambient temperature gets back up to more favorable operating conditions, i.e. warmer. The camera will still work, but you’ll be flying without the comfort of being able to view your imaging efforts moments after you press the shutter button.

If the thought of shooting without benefit of instant visual feedback makes you shudder, keep in mind that until about 20 years ago, unless you shot Polaroids, this was the norm.

As for memory cards, many of the professional cards are rated down to -25°F (-31.7°C), a temperature level that’s not for the faint of heart, regardless of how many layers you’re wearing. If for some reason you’re still using Microdrives, which are mechanical and therefore freeze sensitive, now’s a good time to consider purchasing a quicker and far more reliable solid state CompactFlash card. As for consumer-level memory cards, they are invariably usable well below freezing.

Remember that plastic battery and memory card doors, as well as any hinged plastic connector covers, can become brittle and crack when exposed to extreme temperatures for extended periods.

Aluminum versus Carbon Fiber

Cold metal surfaces have to be treated with respect, as anybody who has ever been snookered into licking a metal flagpole can attest. Even though the surface areas of most cameras are made of—or covered with—polymer-based materials that are poor transmitters of excessively cold or warm temperatures, aluminum tripods can be downright painful to operate when the temperatures start heading south of the freezing mark. Ditto metal lens barrels.

To ameliorate the challenge of handling metal-alloy tripods and lens-barrel surfaces, many cold-weather shooters rely on padded, closed-cell “leg warmers” for their tripods, which are available in a variety of sizes, colors and patterns from LensCoat, Gitzo, Aqua Tech, Manfrotto and OP/TECH USA.

If you own a carbon fiber tripod, the good news is that carbon fiber is not only light and strong; it’s also a poor conductor of extreme temperatures, which makes a carbon-fiber tripod less punishing when used barehanded. Do be advised however, carbon fiber—depending on the manufacturer, number of layers used to construct the components and variables in the manufacturing process itself—becomes brittle when exposed to freezing temperatures and under the right (wrong?) circumstances can crack or shatter. That said, use carbon fiber tripods with caution and respect when shooting in extremely cold environments.

Lens barrels, which with the exception of consumer-level lenses and kit zooms are generally made of aluminum alloy, can be equally challenging to use in icy-cold weather conditions. To make your camera lenses more manageable, try some of the soft, padded, custom-made coverings that are available to fit almost every popular lens, from LensCoats and LensSkins. Lens covers from these companies make handling lenses in cold easier without hampering the performance levels of your gear. Lens covers also protect the surface finish of your gear against scuffs and scratches, and are available in colors and textures to meet the gamut of tastes, needs and preferences.

Moisture

Even if it’s not snowing (or worse in my book: 33°F and raining), moisture can easily disrupt your shooting plans and cause havoc—temporary or otherwise—depending on how far the moisture weasels its way into your camera’s innards. Although random raindrops and snowflakes are fairly harmless, they do start adding up after a while; and even a couple of sprinkles on your front lens element can greatly diminish the image quality of your stills and video.

In cold weather, moisture can be problematic even when you’re doing something as simple as coming in out of the cold. That’s because as soon as you bring your chilled gear into a warmer, moister environment, water molecules in the air quickly condense on all metal surfaces—inside and out—causing your camera and lens to “sweat” like a Coke can on a hot summer day. Although this layer of pooling moisture is more of a nuisance than a cause for alarm, sweating that occurs inside your camera or lens can over time become problematic, since moisture in the wrong spots can be corrosive and encourage mold to grow.

As a workaround, many photographers place their gear into large or small Ziploc-style plastic bags (or garbage bags for longer telephoto lenses) before heading into warmer spaces. That way the moisture gathers on the outside of the bag while the camera gear remains dry. Any moisture that gathers dissipates as soon as the camera returns to room temperature. But whatever you do, avoid breathing directly onto your camera in order not to build up a layer of ice crystals on your LCD, viewfinder or front lens element.

Heavier-duty, waterproof vinyl pouches are also available from Ewa-Marine.

If you know you’re going to be going back and forth between cold and warm environments, it’s a good idea to leave your gear out in the cold rather than have to repeatedly go through the acclimation process. Just remove the battery before you head inside, and keep in mind that while your LCD may or may not be responsive if your go this route, as long as you have battery power your camera should otherwise maintain full functionality.

For extended shooting sessions in colder climates, you also have the option of enclosing your gear in a Camera Duck All Weather Cover that not only keeps your gear protected from the elements, but also features mesh pockets for non-toxic, air-activated warming packs that keep both your gear and your hands warm and toasty.

Similar in concept, though minus the heat packs, are Ewa-Marine’s Rain Capes, which are clear, heavy-gauge vinyl enclosures designed to keep your camera and lens dry while you go about your business.

Dehumidifiers

If you live or work in damp or humid environments, preventing moisture buildup should be a priority for you. To keep their gear dry while in transit or in storage, many photographers make a habit of packing silica gel desiccant packets in their cases and camera bags. “Rechargeable” by simply leaving them in a warm oven for a short time, these packets of silica are a simple, passive method of absorbing excess moisture in camera cases.

A particularly innovative method of keeping camera bodies free of humidity is the use of BRNO dehumidifying lens and body caps, which are lens and camera-body caps that incorporate small packets of silica that absorb any ambient moisture that might find its way into your lens or camera’s interior. Once they reach their absorption limits, the moisture-eating packets change color from orange to green, indicating it’s time to insert fresh packets of silica.

GoPro camera enthusiasts who shoot in damp environs can keep moisture buildup in check by using GoPro Anti-Fog camera housing inserts, which feature reusable silica packets and are compatible with all GoPro camera housings.

Freeze-Proof Pocket Cameras

You don’t need a big bruiser of a camera to photograph winter wonderlands, because there are a number of ruggedly built waterproof, shock-proof, and freeze-proof pocket cameras from Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Fujifilm, Ricoh and Panasonic, each of which can be used trouble free at temperatures down to 14°F (-10°C). For further details about these tough digital cameras, see the B&H InDepth article, Tough and Rugged Point-and-Shoot Cameras.

Waterproof Cases, Backpacks and Bags

To keep your gear dry and protected, there are a number of camera bag options available at B&H including waterproof camera bags, duffels, messenger and briefcase-style bags and backpacks.

Kata Xpacks, recognizable by their reflective gray outer shells, are thermally insulated, feature dual zippers to keep the elements at bay and are available in three sizes.

OverBoard is another company that offers a selection of waterproof backpacks, bicycle/messenger bags, duffels and kayak deck bags. Depending on the model, OverBoard bags feature PVC Tarpaulin construction; electronically-welded seams; reflective strips along their perimeters, straps and harnesses; numerous pockets and pouches designed to keep dry items dry, and damp items safely apart from the dry items.

OverBoard Waterproof Kayak Deck Bag

Lowepro DryZone 200 Waterproof Backpack

The Lowepro DryZone 200 waterproof backpack may be the original waterproof backpack. Built in line with Lowepro’s design philosophy that dictates form and functionality can coexist in a tough, rugged backpack design, Lowepro’s DryZone 200 is rightfully described by its maker as being a “dry suit” for your camera gear.

Other waterproof backpacks include the Crumpler Local Identity and Customary Barge Deluxe bags.

Apparel

Now that we’ve covered the gear-related part of the story, we have to make sure you, too, are up to the challenge of cold-weather shooting. Although we won’t even attempt to choose a wardrobe for your cold-weather ventures, we strongly advise you to wear multiple layers of thermally protected, moisture-friendly materials; and by all means wear gloves. As for whose gloves, we recommend you check out the warm, yet digit-friendly gloves manufactured by Freehands. Waterproof, windproof and lined with Thinsulate, Freehands gloves feature peel-back fingertips on the thumb and index finger that enable you to tap touch screens, dial phones and operate camera controls regardless of the weather.  

Similar in design and concept are Aqua Tech Sensory Gloves, which like Freehands, are available in a selection of styles for both men and women.

Finally, we recommend taking a closer look at the Manfrotto Pro Field Jackets. In addition to being waterproof and wind resistant, they have sealed-seam construction and feature dual oversized integrated pockets—and the Pro Field Jacket has a style sensibility that won’t make your kids cringe when you’re wearing it in their presence.

Have any questions about cold-weather photography? Please post them in the Comments section below. And keep warm out there.

Add new comment

I was in Northern Alaska in November, north of the Arctic circle.

I had my Nikon D-80 out in -40F conditions at night, shooting the Northern lights. It survived just fine (with quite a few battery changes), for almost 4 hours!

Beyond the specs.... well beyond, but it was a great performance!! Good shots too, although the color balance went a bit odd towards the end (I was fairly blue too!!!).

Terry - any other recommendations? I'm going up in January '14. Looking for any tips ya got!

I clicked on manfrotto pro field jackets, there were none. tripods and back packs???