How Should I Handle My Camera in Cold Weather?
by The New York Institute of Photography
'Tis the season,
and we're getting lots of letters from NYI students and other
Northern Hemisphere Web visitors about taking photos in cold weather.
There are lots of great photo opportunities out there whether
your idea of a good time is ice fishing, snow shoeing or just
plain walking in the winter wonderland. You just need to get out
there and take the proper steps.
The letters we get reveal that the proper steps
to protect your camera are often confused in people's minds. Here's
an e-mail we got recently from a photographer in Ontario, Canada,
that is typical: "I am happily snapping away, but having
a bit of a problem keeping my camera warm and unfrozen in our
cold, blustery weather. If I carry it bundled under my coat, should
I keep it in a plastic bag (I read about this somewhere) to prevent
condensation? Any suggestions?"
Okay. You asked. Here are the facts and the answers
to all the basic camera tips regarding cold weather.
The problem with lots of tips about cold weather
photography is that they get out of sequence. Here's why. There
are really three different scenarios to consider: First, what
to do when you take your camera from a warm, cozy home or car
into the bitter cold outside. Second, what to do when you're shooting
pictures outside in the cold. Third, what to do when you finally
bring your freezing camera back into that warm cozy house or car.
Okay. First, what should you do when you bring
your warm camera outside? Do you have to worry about moisture
condensing from the cold air onto the warm surface of the lens
or the film or the electronics? No. Cold air has low moisture
content. There's little or no condensation when you go outside
into the cold. (As we'll discuss, this becomes a problem when
you go back inside.)
So what's the problem? The main problem is loss
of battery power!
The chemistry and physics of how batteries generate electrical
energy means that at very low temperatures all batteries lose
power. They're just not as efficient. This is a particularly serious
problem with today's auto-everything cameras that are totally
dependent on battery power. So, when you take your camera and
strobe out into the cold, you should anticipate a loss of battery
power. How do you prepare for this?
First, by keeping the camera and strobe (and their
batteries) as warm as possible, even outdoors. To do this, when
you go outdoors, carry them close to your body, for example, under
your coat. Let them share your body warmth except for those brief
moments when you are actually taking a picture. (Keeping your
camera warm this way will also minimize the possibility of a manual
shutter sticking because its lubricant freezes.)
The second way you prepare for the expected loss
of battery power in the cold is to bring spare batteries with
you when you go outside. And keep these spares close to your body
too; for example, in a shirt pocket where they will also benefit
from your body heat. Then, if your camera (or flash) batteries
start to fail, you can insert warm fresh batteries.
All right. You're outside
now. What should you do differently because of the cold? Your
objective is to continue to try to keep the camera and strobe
as warm as possible. For example, let's say you're staked out
waiting for wildlife to appear over yonder hill. Set up your tripod,
but if possible keep your camera under your coat until you're
ready to shoot. Here's where a quick-release head comes in handy.
When you see your quarry, pop the camera onto the tripod quickly
and quietly. An ice-cold tripod will still do its job, but an
ice-cold camera is likely to fail.
We've noticed that some digital cameras, which
tend to eat batteries anyway, conk out very quickly in cold weather.
Carry lots of batteries. As we already noted, if you find your
battery power failing, you have extra warm batteries with you.
What other problem bedevils the photographer in the cold (other
than frozen fingers and runny nose)? Static electricity. If you
live anywhere in the North, you know the problem during the winter
- if you walk on a carpet, you may get a shock when you shake
hands or touch a doorknob. Realize that static electricity is
a problem only when the humidity is low. And cold weather means
low humidity because cold air cannot hold much moisture. When
you use your camera outdoors in the cold, therefore, you risk
creating a buildup of static electricity when you advance the
film (this is the equivalent of walking on that carpet) and when
the buildup is sufficient a spark may flash inside your camera,
fogging the film. While this is rare, it does happen. We've seen
it and the results ruin the affected photographs. How can you
minimize this possibility in cold weather? Advance your film carefully.
With a manual camera, advance the film slowly. With an autowind
camera, shoot only one frame at a time.
Keep Yourself Warm
And the final tip for shooting outdoors is for you to keep warm.
Dress in layers. Wear good warm boots. Bring along a Thermos of
hot soup. (Coffee and alcohol are counterproductive; they make
you less able to maintain your body warmth!) And, if it's really
cold, consider some supplementary heating devices, such as skiers
use - plastic packets of chemicals that can warm the hands or
feet when they are kneaded, or even battery heated insoles for
your boots. You need thick gloves, but these are not great when
it comes to pressing the small buttons on your camera. So consider
gloves sold in backpacking stores that have fingertips or mittens
that can be folded back so that you can momentarily use your bare
What about taking photographs when it's actually snowing or sleeting?
If it's just a few flakes, just keep your camera under your coat
except when you shoot. Not long ago, we were outside photographing
when a heavy snow squall hit. In a few seconds, the whole world
was awash in swirling, blowing soggy snowflakes. This kind of
heavy downfall can play havoc with the exposed parts of an SLR,
particularly the highly electronic models where any moisture can
snarl the all-important circuits that control all the camera's
functions, as well as digital cameras.
Our advice is when it's really coming down, don't
use your SLR unless you have it protected by a waterproof device
such as the plastic-bag type housings made by Ewa. These handy
gadgets are designed for snorkelers -- you put your camera into
the plastic bag and seal it. Your camera's lens is positioned
so it "sees" though a clear optical glass filter. Your
camera is protected from moisture by the plastic sack and the
lens by the glass filter. We should note that these are fine for
snowstorms as well as snorkeling. They aren't made for higher
water pressure that scuba divers encounter at greater depths.
That's another topic for another month.
Another approach in snowy conditions is to use
a waterproof point-and-shoot or even a waterproof single-use camera.
The most recent single-use models put out by Kodak and Fuji have
ISO 800 film and should be able to capture an image as long as
it's not too dark.
Whether you're using a waterproof holder or a
waterproof camera, you'll have to make sure that snowflakes or
water droplets don't obscure the view of the lens. If necessary,
wipe your lens with a dry, lint-free absorbent cloth. We use either
a well-worn all-cotton t-shirt for this purpose, or a microfiber
If you follow these precautions, you should have
no problem working outdoors and taking all the great photographs
that you encounter.
Now it's time to come back indoors. Here's where condensation
can be a problem. You've seen moisture condense on a cool glass
of water on a hot summer day. Your lens and the film inside the
camera behave the same way when you bring them inside - moisture
from the warm inside air condenses on their cold surfaces. The
lens can become completely covered with moisture, as can the film
and the mechanical and electrical components inside the camera.
You don't want moisture - water! - on your lens or inside the
camera. So how can you avoid this problem?
Let your camera warm up slowly. Place it on a
cool windowsill or an unheated porch for a couple of hours so
it can rise slowly to room temperature. Since condensation can
play havoc with an all-electronic camera, you want even greater
protection for them. This is where the suggestion of wrapping
a cold camera in a plastic bag comes into play. The moisture will
settle on the outside of the bag rather than on the camera's outside
and inside surfaces. You can protect the delicate electronics
this way. In fact, it's best if you place the bag on the camera
while still outside, not when you bring the camera in.
With these simple precautions,
you'll be able to take great photographs outdoors in cold weather.
Cold weather offers exceptional opportunities for wonderful landscapes
because of its crystal-clear air. So don't be daunted when the
temperature drops into the Arctic zone. Just dress properly, take
these few precautions, head outdoors, and get going!
Reprinted with permission from the New
York Institute of Photography web site at http://www.nyip.com