Photography In Extreme Cold
Canada is a nation of just over nine million square kilometres, with 40% of its landmass considered Arctic. The coldest temperature ever recorded in this refrigerated country was -63°C or -81°F way back on February 3, 1947 in Snag, Yukon - and that was calculated without wind chill, eh. It demands a special type of dedication to press a hunk of cold-conducting metal to your face for extended periods of time in these extreme colds. Even if you’re willing to endure frost bitten fingers in order to snap a few photos - your camera may not be as willing. What follows are a few things I’ve picked up over the years that will aid you while capturing photos in the extreme cold.
Anyone who has spent significant time outside in the cold knows your body uses more energy in order to stay warm; you need to consume roughly 4,300 calories for a day spent in temperatures of -30°C, this of course varies depending on your level of activity. Your camera is no different and also has increased energy demands, though it’s not so much the camera than the batteries. At 27°C a fully charged lithium-ion camera battery performs as designed, but at –18°C that same battery will only provide 50% charge, and he colder the battery gets the less charge it provides.
There are two simple means of combating the reduced power delivery of your batteries and both are easy to practices. The first is the most obvious; bring more batteries. In fact bring twice as many batteries as you’d typically bring. If you know you’re travelling somewhere particularly cold such as the Arctic, Antarctic or Saskatchewan it’s worth investing in a few more batteries - buy more than you think is necessary because they’ll save your butt. The method of combating the reduced power delivery requires a bit of role play. You’re going to adopt a Wolf of Wall Street persona and treat your batteries like stacks of Bordens, or Benjamins. Imagine you’re smuggling the batteries through airport security by strapping them against your body. Okay, you don’t actually have to tape batteries against your skin, but the closer to your body heat - the better. While outdoors, store spare batteries in the inner pockets of your jacket to keep them warm and maintain a decent charge. If you’re spending the night outside in a tent, be prepared to share your sleeping bag with some energetic and painfully awkward companions.
Picking up a camera at thirty below and pressing it against your face requires a bit a forethought. Most photographers are familiar with the ever so annoying nose smudge. Peering through a camera’s viewfinder inevitably means your nose is flattened against the rear LCD screen - leaving behind a gross oily smudge. However, with temperatures well below freezing and that ever present pesky drip on the end of your nose, the smudge is quickly replaced by a nose-sized patch of ice. The only real way to avoid it is by making a serious effort to not press your nose against your camera; your camera, as well as your nose will thank you.
Similar to the nose-ice-patch, simply breathing can get in the way of your camera. A poorly timed exhale can blanket your camera with a thin layer of frost, making it downright slippery to hold and rendering the viewfinder useless. The longer your camera has been exposed to the cold, the more easily this can occur - and if you’ve been breathing heavily things are made even worse. To avoid Jack Frost’s siege on your camera, pay close attention to your breathing. As you bring the viewfinder to your eye, inhale and hold the breath, exhale only once the camera is far away from your moisture expelling mouth. Of course breathing should be the priority; if you need to breathe - breathe!
After spending a day outside shooting in the cold, you’ll need to prepare your camera gear for the upcoming change in temperature. Before entering your toasty humid igloo, remove the card and battery from your camera and place your camera in a ziplock, or any other type of airtight bag. If you’ve forgotten to bring an air-tight bag, your camera bag will suffice. Once everything is secured in a bag, bring it all indoors with you and over the next few hours leave it undisturbed. Allow the temperature of the air inside the bag to acclimatize slowly. Condensation may form on the outside of airtight plastic bags, but don’t worry, the inside will remain dry.
The acclimatization process is not worth rushing. If you bring your camera indoors directly from the cold without any forethought, there’s potential for condensation to find its way inside your camera which can cause damage. If you know you’ll be quickly transitioning from a cold dry environment to a warm humid environment, you should consider being proactive in the battle against condensation. If you’re a budget minded photographer like myself, start saving those desiccant packs found in shoe-boxes and chuck them into your air-tight plastic bag. Alternatively these lens and body caps by BRNO are filled with desiccants and are a great preventive measure.
If you’re planning on capturing time-lapse imagery in the depths of winter, you’ll want to prepare your camera for prolonged cold - paying specific attention to your lens. If left unattended for long a duration the front lens element is susceptible to condensation and frost accumulation. The solution may seem primitive, but it really does work. You’ll need tape, one or two chemical reaction hand warmers and a sock… preferably one of your grandpa’s old knee-high socks. Compose your frame as desired and use the tape to secure both the zoom and focus rings. Activate the hand warmers and place them inside the sock, then wrapped the sock around the lens and tape it in place. Double check you haven’t accidentally altered your composition and then start your intervalometer. The success of this technique will vary depending on how cold it is, how humid your surroundings are and how long your camera needs to endure the cold.
Generally speaking your actual camera is going to be one of the last things to have issues due to cold - it’s not likely to stop working completely. What you may encounter is the camera’s LCD screens becoming a little sluggish. The liquid crystals in your camera’s screen don’t actually freeze solid, but they do slow down - significantly. The sluggish liquid crystal displays can be awkward to work with. Turn a dial to adjust aperture or shutter speed, and be prepared to wait for the LCD to reflect the changed setting. Even more frustrating is the latency experienced when capturing video; movement within the frame has a blurred ghosting look that makes focusing and panning rather difficult.
Looking past mother nature’s beautiful winter gown, cold weather offers some of the best shooting conditions imaginable. The cold air is clearer and holds less moisture, which together results in sharper, cleaner photos. As an added bonus, the winter sun never strays too far from the horizon creating lower angles of light and more dramatic shadows throughout the entire day. And because the days are shorter, you’re not having to wake up at ridiculous hours to catch sunrise and you can catch sunrise prior to dinner. Basically, the inclement weather associated with winter may be intimidating, but the benefits of enduring those elements are seriously worth it.
They both taste the same, but one offers a similar mid-winter experience as licking a school yard flag pole. An aluminum tripod is easily one of the most dreaded aspects of cold weather photography. Handling an aluminum tripod without mitts or gloves at thirty below is a guaranteed means of experiencing frostbite - even with a good pair of mittens, holding for extended periods is very uncomfortable. Carbon fiber tripods don’t conduct cold well and are much easier to work with at cold temperatures. However, if you’ve ever read the tiny owner’s manual for your carbon fiber tripod, you may have noticed a little warning about extreme temperatures. Carbon fiber becomes very brittle at extremely cold temperatures and is susceptible to cracking and shattering. Tripod leg warmers will help reduce the potential of carbon fiber breaking, but personally I don’t feel like taking the risk.
Beyond the technical logistics of capturing photos in the cold, there are a few things to consider prior to pressing your shutter button. Most of it surrounds how to approach photographing snow. Snow maybe white, but it should not be used to set your white balance, instead bring a proper white card with you. It’s likely all the fluffy white stuff will give your photos a cooler, bluer colour temperature, so be sure to properly set your colour temperature with that white card or alternatively you could use your camera’s cloudy preset. Additionally, a composition comprised of primarily snow will confuse your camera’s meter into underexposing - if you’re using shutter or aperture priority adjust your exposure compensation accordingly. It’s a fine line between underexposing and overexposing snow, so take the time to get it right in camera and don’t rely on raw adjustments to save your photo.
At really really cold temperatures - anything lower than forty below, much of your kit becomes incredibly fragile. I experienced this firsthand while working in Gjoa Haven Nunavut, at temperatures below minus 50 degrees celsius: XLR cables began snapping, metal zippers and tabs broke as if made of soft plastic, more than one microphone shock mount shattered and lenses began struggling with autofocus. The best way to prevent a piece of your gear breaking is simply treating it with care, don’t be overly rough and refrain for using excessive force. If anything becomes stuck, don’t force it: a lens mount, a zipper even your eyelids.
Finally, the single most important part of capturing photos in extreme cold has nothing to with your camera at all. It’s all about taking care of yourself. If you get cold you’re not going to enjoy what you’re doing - you’re not going to want to take photos - believe me. So dress appropriately to ensure you remain nice and toasty the entire time you’re outside. That means wearing multiple layers - more - more Don’t even bother with cotton - if it becomes damp or wet, you’ll freeze. Wool will become your new best friend. It’s not clothing, but it impacts your well being greatly and as I mentioned earlier you need to consume huge amounts of calories in the cold - so bring plenty of food with you. Also, a cold dry environment will suck the moisture from your skin and can quickly lead to dehydration - so make sure you’re drinking ample water. Oh, and here in the Great White North we all wear a toque.