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 -45c in the arctic in winter.
Overall modern tapeless cameras do OK in extreme cold. The most reliable cameras are generally 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. Cameras and electronics with lots of cooling vents can sometimes also be troublesome as the vents allow them to cool more quickly. But cold is not necessarily going to be the biggest problem.
IMPORTANT NOTE: It is EXTREMELY dangerous to charge normal lithium batteries that are below freezing. Below freezing the lithium in the battery migrates to the anode of the battery cell. This cuase permanent damage to the battery shortening its life and if enough builds up around the anode it can short the battery out causing a sudden fire/explosion. Each time you charge a very cold lithium battery more lithium builds up. It is possible for a lithium battery that has been charged when very cold to suddenly burst into flames some weeks/months/years later if bumped or knocked causing the lithium build around the anode to shift. Always warm up any lithium batteries before attempting to charge them.
Condensation is the big deal breaker. When you take the very cold camera inside into a warm 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 the camera and this can kill your camera.
To prevent or at least reduce the condensation you can place the camera in a large ziplock or other sealed 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 case 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 -30c. Below -30c 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.
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 and the quality of the battery (very cheap cells may have a higher water content which can freeze causing the cell to dramatically lose capacity and the ability to deliver power).
Down to about -10c there is only a very marginal loss of capacity. Down to -25c you will lose about 20%-30% below -25c the capacity will fall away further and it becomes impossible to use the full capacity of the battery.
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 (see note above – DO NOT CHARGE a battery that is below freezing, it is very dangerous). One top tip for shooting outside for extended periods is to get a cool box. Get some chemical hand warmers or better still electric rechargeable handwarmers 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. Chemical hand warms typically use an iron powder mixed with salts. The heat comes from the iron rapidly rusting. This process needs moisture to work. A chemical handwarmer will work great in a pocket close to your body moisture but when it is very cold there isn’t enough moisture in the air for a chemical warmer to work when it is away from your body moisture. As a result chemical warmers inside camera covers or in a cool box might not actually produce any heat.
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. Do 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. When it is very cold and if you are warm in your nice thick winter clothes even standing close to the camera can lead to frost and ice building up on it. Small amounts of sweat from your body will evaporate and this moisture will find its way to the camera, even if you are a few feet (1 or 2m) from it. If doing a timelapse of the Northern Lights, once the camera is running you should move away from the camera.
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.
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. For time-lapse long sessions in very cold weather you might want to get a lens heater for the lens. These are normally 12 volt or USB powered and wrap around the lens. They don’t use lots of power but they do warm the lens just enough to keep the worst of the condensation, dew and frost off the lens. They are sometimes also called “dew heaters” and are sold by most good telescope suppliers.
Conventional plastic rain covers become brittle below about -15c and can even shatter like glass below -20c. The clear plastic panels in other covers can also suffer the same fate. So use if you use a cover use one made out of fabric. Special insulated cold weather covers often called “polar bears” can be used and these often have pockets inside for chemical heat packs (although when very cold these don’t work, use a USB hand warmer instead). These are well worth getting if you are going to be doing a lot of arctic shooting with a larger camera and will help keep the camera warm. But for very small cameras the bulk of a thick cover can make it almost impossible to use. 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.
For DSLR’s and stills cameras a balaclava can be used to cover the camera body to provide some protection. However unheated covers don’t make a big difference when the camera is outside in very cold temperatures for extended periods unless it is always left turned on, eventually the cold will get to it.
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 as rigid as a steel rod. Be gentle, bend then too much and the insulation may split and the cable break. I try to avoid bending any cable once it has become very cold.
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. If you are unsure put your tripod head in your deep freeze at home for a few hours and see if it still works when you take it out.
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 from surplus stores 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” fleece gloves that will fit inside the mittens, i can then slip my hands in and out of the mittens to operate the camera. If you can get gloves with finger tips compatible with touch screens this will allow you to use any touch functions on a camera or your phone. Get extra large mittens, then it is easier to slip your hand in and out.
I keep a chemical hand warmer inside the mittens to warm my fingers back up after using the camera (or use heated mittens powered by a USB battery pack).
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 Baffin’s. There is almost nothing worse than having ice cold feet when working. Don’t forget that if you do get cold, moving around, running on the spot etc will help get your circulation going and help you to warm up. Also consider some high energy food and snacks, you will burn a lot more calories in the cold than you would do normally. Also a flask with a hot drink is always welcome. I have an arctic clothing guide here; Arctic Clothing Guide |