The leaves may be down and your frost-laden lawn might be making crunchy sounds when you cross it in the morning, but that doesn’t mean you have to pack your cameras away until Spring; 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 cold 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 many claim full functionality down to about 14°F (-10°C), 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.
Your camera’s LCD is particularly sensitive to cold temperatures, especially when the temperatures drop below freezing. 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.
Depending on the make and model, most professional-grade memory cards remain functional 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.
SanDisk produces a choice of robust memory cards that are designed to perform under the roughest of working conditions. SanDisk’s Ultra, Extreme Pro, and Mobile Ultra lines are guaranteed to work in temperatures ranging from 13ºF to 185ºF (-25ºC to 85ºC). According to SanDisk, these cards can also survive the effects of magnets, X-rays, up to 500Gs of shock, and submersion in saltwater for up to 72 hours (SanDisk strongly recommends thoroughly drying and cleaning the contacts before using cards after saltwater submersions).
And Be Careful When Opening and Closing That Battery Door!
When temperatures start dropping past the freezing mark, it’s important to keep in mind 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. When the temperatures start dropping below the freeze mark, take extra care when releasing and closing battery and memory card doors and similarly hinged plastic-based body panels.
Tripods: 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, Miller, and Manfrotto, and inexpensive clear plastic slip-on protectors from 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, that depending on the manufacturer, number of layers used to construct the components, and variables in the manufacturing process itself—carbon fiber becomes brittle when exposed to freezing temperatures and can crack or shatter under the right (wrong?) circumstances. Even though newer-generation carbon fiber technologies are better at handling cold temperatures, carbon fiber tripods should still be handled with caution and respect when shooting in extremely cold environments.
Lens barrels, which until recently were predominantly 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 available from LensCoat, which fit almost every popular lens. LensCoat coverings make handling lenses in the 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.
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 warm, moist 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 in large or small Ziploc-style plastic bags (or trash can liners 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 on your camera in order not to build up a layer of ice crystals on your LCD, viewfinder, or front lens element.
If you know you’ll 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 you 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 nontoxic, 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.
Moisture Removers and Silica Gel Desiccants
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 desiccant silica gel 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 inserts, which feature reusable silica packets and are compatible with all GoPro camera housings. Each pack contains 15 inserts, which can be reused up to four times.
Waterproof Cases, Backpacks, and Bags
To keep your gear dry and protected, there are a number of options for waterproof bags available at B&H, including waterproof camera bags and pouches, duffel bags, dry bags, waist packs, and backpacks.
OverBoard is another company that offers a selection of waterproof bags, backpacks, and duffels. Depending on the model, OverBoard bags feature PVC Tarpaulin construction; electronically welded seams; reflective strips along their perimeters, straps, and harnesses; and numerous pockets and pouches designed to keep dry items dry and damp items safely apart from the dry items.
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.
In total, B&H carries waterproof backpacks from more than a dozen companies.
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. Weatherproof gloves are also available from Aquatech, and RucPac.
Hand and Toe Warmers
If you’ve spent any time out in the cold, you know the first parts of your body to feel the chill coming on are your extremities, specifically your fingers and toes. The Heat Company sells bulk packs of 8-hour adhesive toe warmers (15 pairs per box, 16 boxes), 12-hour handwarmers (10 pairs per pack, 32 packs), and 24-hour XL handwarmers (10 pairs per pack, 24 packs).
Have any questions about cold-weather photography? Please post them in the Comments section, below. And keep warm out there.