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. Overall modern tapeless cameras do very well in extreme cold. The most reliable cameras are larger solid state cameras. Tape cameras are highly problematic and I wouldn’t use a tape based camera in extreme cold. Larger cameras tend to be less problematic as their bulk means that they take longer to cool down and are generally higher powered so the electronics inside will keep the temperature up a little.¬†Condensation is the big deal breaker. When you take the very cold camera inside into a house/hotel/car you will get condensation. If the camera is very cold this can then freeze on the camera including the glass of the lens. If there is condensation on the outside of the camera, there will 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. 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 in the case to condense and the insulating properties of the case mean that it could take many hours to warm up. You can leave the camera outside provided it does not get below -25c. Below -25c you risk the LCD panel freezing and cracking. Very often in cold regions houses will have an unheated reception room or porch. This is a good place to store you 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. Keep you 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.

If your lens has and snow or ice on it, don’t be tempted to breath on the lens or blow the ice off. Also try not to breath on the lens when cleaning it as your breath will condense on the cold glass and freeze. 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.

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. If you have a sewing machine you could make a simple cover out of some fleece type material. 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.

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. Vinten and some of the other tripod companies can winterise the tripod and replace the normal grease with arctic grease.

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. 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 then conventional hiking boots etc will not keep your feet warm. 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 |

5 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.