Photography in the Cold
Using Cameras in Winter Weather

Taking pictures in extreme cold climates is less to do with the kind of photographic equipment that you have and more to do with how you protect and use that equipment. Modern cameras are electronic devices, more than anything this is what affects their use in cold temperatures.

 Batteries - it's all about power

batteryThe biggest difficulty that is faced by cameras in the cold is the reduction in battery power in a device that is designed to use battery power for every function. The extent of the effect is dependent on a number of variables such as the particular camera, particular battery and the actual temperature. The battery can have an effective capacity that is a fraction, maybe 50%, 10% or even less of its normal functionality. It may also just decide to pack up working completely if it gets cold enough.

There are a number of steps you can take to ensure your camera keeps going in cold conditions.

  • Carry a spare battery or batteries and keep them warm until needed. Inside your clothing, in an inner pocket that is reasonably easy to reach while outside in cold conditions. How many batteries? At least one extra, maybe 2 or 3.

  • Turn off non-necessary camera features.

    • The LCD display that shows your picture and exposure information as you take them use up power and will run your battery flat faster. You may not need to do this as such displays may just stop working if it gets cold enough while the rest of the electronics keep going.

    • Auto-focus while extremely useful is not vital. Many DSLR's have the ability to focus manually. If your batteries run down too quickly or the focus becomes very sluggish, switch to manual focus.

  • Re-warmed batteries can often have a second lease of life. When the battery you're using finally stops and you swap over with the warm full one from your inner pocket, put the old one in there and by the time you've run out of battery power again, the re-warmed one should still have something left to give.

  • It is also possible to purchase external battery packs for some cameras that connect by a wire, so you can keep the battery in your pocket for warmth. It does introduce other inconveniences however and is only usually necessary if using your camera for extended video shooting.

DSLR's with their optical viewfinder and manual focus options are better for very cold weather than cameras that are dependent on batteries for every function.

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 Don't rely on weather sealing only

weather sealed camera gear

Many cameras are described by their manufacturers as being "weather sealed". This means that at entry points to the camera, where the lens meets the body, at buttons, at access doors for the battery and memory card etc. there are seals that help keep moisture and dust out. While this is a good thing, there is no universal description of exactly what it means or any universal standard within or between different manufacturers.

Having a weather sealed camera is no substitute for keeping it protected against the weather. I once spent a very wet day in near freezing temperatures on Svalbard where one of our group insisted in carrying her very expensive weather sealed camera and lens round her neck as it was more convenient than keep putting it away and taking it out of the bag like the others in the group were doing. Later on that day, she was asking for advice on what to do with a professional grade camera and lens that had got moisture inside.

Cameras and lenses have many potential ingress points, while buttons can be fully waterproof, dials and other rotating or sliding mechanisms such as focusing and zoom movements are much more difficult to seal. They may prevent ingress if left static, but when these parts start moving they can start to get leaky. While I use a DSLR that is described as "fully weather sealed" and that factor helped sway my purchase decision, I treat it pretty much like I would if it wasn't, weather sealing is best seen as an insurance measure rather than a guarantee. Generally it is mid range and upwards cameras that have weather sealing.

 Take active steps to protect your gear from the weather

Weather as in snow, rain and wind as well as cold.

  • Avoid changing lenses if it's raining or snowing, a single snow flake inside your camera could cause problems, probably not immediately (unless it ends up on the sensor) but possibly by causing corrosion later on. If you must, then find shelter as far as possible in the lee of the wind and do it protected by a semi-open jacket, do it quickly though preferably not at all.

  • Keep your camera in its case when you are not using it to take pictures. Exposed to the air, frost may build up on it which could obscure the viewfinder or lens or find its way inside, particularly when you focus, zoom or operate any dials. Inside the case it won't get any warmer, but there is only a tiny air volume which means a lot less frost build up.

    There are rain covers you can buy that work like a poncho for your camera that you may wish to use. Personally I've never liked these and always prefer to keep the camera in its padded protective case when not in use, though they can be good for sports photography.

  • Put the the lens cap in place when the camera is not in use. It will help prevent condensation and frost forming on the front of the lens.

  • Returning indoors with cold camera gear - leave your gear in the bags or case until it has warmed up, close and zip the bag fully while still out in the cold. If you take it out too early in a warm room, condensation will form on the camera and lens surfaces. This could find its way inside or leave marks on the lens. Leave it for an hour or two first, longer if you can.

Adelie penguin

Holster style camera cases worn on a waist belt protect your camera from the weather, but allow ready access when needed, if in the way when harnessing up to descend into a crevasse (for example), just push it round the back. A snap closure and a zip allow for quick access or better weather proofing depending on conditions using one or both.


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