Tips for shooting in very cold weather.

With winter well upon us I thought it would be good to share some of my arctic shooting experience. I’ve shot in temperatures down to -40c in the arctic in winter.

Overall modern tapeless cameras do OK well in extreme cold. The most reliable cameras are larger solid state cameras. Larger cameras cool slower than small ones and larger cameras will hold on to heat generated internally better than small ones.

Condensation:

Condensation is the big deal breaker. When you take the very cold camera inside into a house/hotel/car/tent you will get condensation. If the camera is very cold this can then freeze on the body of camera including the glass of the lens. If there is condensation on the outside of the camera, there will almost certainly also be condensation inside and this can kill your camera.

To prevent or at least reduce the condensation you can place the camera in a large ziplock bag BEFORE taking it inside, take the camera inside in the bag. Then allow the camera to warm up to the ambient temperature before removing it from the bag. Peli cases are another option, but the large volume of the pelicase means there will be more moisture inside the case to condense and the insulating properties of the case mean that it could take many, many hours to warm up.

I don’t recommend storing a cold or damp camera in a Pelicase (or any other similar waterproof case) as there is nowhere for the moisture to go, so the camera will remain damp until the pelicase is opened and everything dried out properly.

Rather than moving a camera repeatedly from outside to inside and repeatedly generating risky condensation you should consider leaving the camera outside. You can leave the camera outside provided it does not get below -25c. Below -25c you risk the LCD panel freezing and cracking. LCD  panels freeze at between -30 to -40c. If you are using a camera in very cold conditions and you notice the edges of the LCD screen going blue or dark you should start thinking about warming up that LCD panel as it may be close to freezing.

LCD displays will become slow and sluggish to respond in the cold. Your pictures may look blurry and smeary because of this. It doesn’t affect the recording, only what you see on the LCD.

Very often in cold regions houses will have an unheated reception room or porch. This is a good place to store your camera rather than taking it inside into the warm. Repeatedly taking a camera from cold to warm without taking precautions against condensation will shorten the life of your camera.
If you can, leave the camera on between shots. The camera generates some heat internally and this will prevent many issues.

BATTERY LIFE:

Li-Ion batteries are effected by the cold but they are not nearly as bad as Nicads or NiMh batteries which are all but useless below freezing. li-Ion battery life gets reduced by between 25 and 50% depending on how cold it is. Down to about -10c there is only a very marginal loss of capacity. Down to -25c you will loose about 20%-30% below -25c the capacity will fall away further.

Keep your spare batteries in a pocket inside your coat or jacket until you need them. After use let the battery warm up before you charge it if you can. Charging a very cold battery will reduce the lifespan of the battery and it won’t fully charge. One top tip for shooting outside for extended periods is to get a cool box. Get some chemical hand warmers and place them in the cool box with your batteries to keep them warm. If you don’t have hand warmers you can also use a hot water bottle.

Watch your breath

If your lens has and snow or ice on it, don’t be tempted to breath or blow on the lens to blow the ice off.  Also try not to breath on the lens when cleaning it as your warm breath will condense on the cold glass and freeze.  Also try to avoid breathing out close to the viewfinder. A small soft paint brush is good for keeping your lens clean as in very cold conditions you’ll simply be able to brush and snow or ice off. Otherwise a large lens cloth.

Covers.

Conventional rain covers become brittle below about -15c and can even shatter like glass  below -20c. Special insulated cold weather covers often called “polar bears” can be used and these often have pockets inside for chemical heat packs. These are well worth getting if you are going to be doing a lot of arctic shooting and will help keep the camera warm. As an alternative wrap the camera in a scarf or cut the sleeves of an old sweater to make a tube you can slide over the camera. If you have a sewing machine you could make a simple cover out of some fleece type material.

Your lens will get cold and in some conditions you will get frost on the front element. To help combat this wrap some insulating fabric around the body of the lens. Wrist sweat bands are quite good for this or an old sock with the toes cut off.

Brittle Plastic.

Plastics get brittle at low temperatures so be very gentle with anything plastic, especially things made from very hard, cheap plastic. The plastic Sony use appears to be pretty tough even at low temps. Wires and cables may become ridged. Be gentle, bend then too much and the insulation may split.

Other considerations are tripods. If outside in very low temps for more than 30mins or so the grease in the tripod will become very thick and may even freeze, so your fluid damping will become either very stiff or freeze up all together. Contact your tripod manufacturer to see what temperatures their greases can be used over. Vinten and some of the other tripod companies can winterise the tripod and replace the normal grease with arctic grease.

Looking after yourself.

I find that the best way to operate the camera is by wearing a pair of large top quality mittens (gloves are next to useless below -15c), consider getting a pair of Army surplus arctic mittens, they are very cheap on ebay and will normally have an additional “trigger finger”. This extra finger makes it easier to press the record button and things like that.  If you can get Swedish or Finnish military winter mittens, these are amongst the best. I wear a pair of thin “thinsulate” gloves that will fit inside the mittens, i can then slip my hands in and out of the mittens to operate the camera.

I keep a chemical hand warmer inside the mittens to warm my fingers back up after using the camera. The hardest thing to keep warm is your feet. If you’ll be standing in snow or standing on ice then conventional hiking boots etc will not keep your feet warm. A Scandinavian trick if standing outside for long periods is to get some small twigs and tree branches to stand on and help insulate your feet from the cold ground. If your feet get cold then you are at risk of frostbite or frost nip. Invest in or hire some decent snow boots like Sorel’s or Baffin’s. I have an arctic clothing guide here; Arctic Clothing Guide |

6 thoughts on “Tips for shooting in very cold weather.”

  1. Hi Alister
    What about larger camera,s eg PMW500.. In Japan anyway Ive seen a zip lock bag any where near big enough for a 2/3 inch camera with lens..

    Would putting the camera inside padded portabrace camera bag then bring inside and wait to heat up be of any good.. not really talking super cold.. but maybe just under freezing.

    1. The Ortlib bags look nice, but in this situation you want the camera to warm up quickly while protecting it from moisture, so you don’t want any insulation and the clear plastic of a ziplock bag allows you to see the camera to check for condensation. In addition the plastic is thin enough that you can feel the temperature of the camera through the bag.

  2. All good advice there.
    I’ve had success with dry-bags – the kind used for canoeing or expeditions etc. You can get big enough ones to take entire cameras and long lens kit.
    Test how the material behaves (or how any piece of kit, even cameras and lenses behave) first by putting in a domestic freezer for a good few hours. These should be giving around -18C.
    I prefer a thin leather instrument or pilot’s glove rather than fleece gloves for working when hands are out of mittens. They must be close-fitting but not tight fitting. They must give a slight air gap inside for insulation. I have recently found MacWet gloves (I have no connection) that are really good – they are leather-like on the palm side and I can operate even the smallest controls on camera.

  3. My Son is getting Blue lines (left) and Red (right) in my footage along with getting jagged lines on a Sony EX1r
    I’ve read it could be issues with the sensor (cold weather shoot) or white balance.
    I can send frame grab example jpg
    Thanks
    Peter

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