Most SLRs cope remarkably well with freezing temperatures. I’ve had no problem using Canon EOS SLR cameras below zero for weeks on end, often down to -20°C and in extreme down to -30°C. This article is for those trying to keep such a camera going under expedition conditions, such as an icecap crossing or mountaineering expedition in the arctic: ie no power sockets, adverse weather, sleeping in tents on the ice and for a period of weeks. However much of the advice also applies to using a camera in cold conditions generally.
The two main technical problems to overcome are :
Condensation forms when moving from a cold to a warmer environment, you don’t need to worry about damage to your camera moving from a warmer to a colder environment. Even in arctic conditions the temperature inside a tent is often well above zero yet well below zero in the shade. this means there is often a temperature gradient when bringing a camera into a tent which leads to condensation forming. Condensation on the front element or view finder is an inconvenience, but condensation on the electronics can give permanent malfunction, and condensation in the inside glass elements can write off the camera off for hours or days till the lens totally dries out.
2. Reduced Battery efficiency
Batteries are many times less efficient in cold weather due to the reduced speed of the chemical reaction that powers them.
Tips for Reducing Condensation
1. Place camera in plastic bag
The camera should be placed inside a polypropylene freezer bag, loosely knotted or twisted and then placed back inside the camera bag. You don’t want to put a waterproof bag around the entire camera bag as any moisture in the camera bag would then condense on the camera body. Ziploc bags, and Ortlieb style dry bags may sound better but often don’t fit neatly inside the camera bag and are much heavier and more expensive. The freezer bag also has the major advantage that you can stuff it below your camera in the bag when not in use, but you need to take spares for when it gets damaged.
2. Use camera bag insulation
The padding on most camera bags (especially the holster style common on expeditions) offers some insulation value which can reduce the dramatic temperature change, when moving from environments of different temperatures.
3. Try and warm up slowly
If there are environments of differing temperatures try and make the warm up process for the camera as gradual as possible.
4. Avoid breathing on the lens
Obvious maybe, but If you need to clean the lens just use a camera cloth to avoid ice forming.
Tips for dealing with Reduced Battery Efficiency
1. Carry multiple batteries
As a rough guide plan to take 2/3 times the number of batteries you’d need for equivalent shooting in temperate climates. My personal strategy if to take multiple batteries for an extended trip in the wilderness rather than deal with the uncertainties of solar chargers. This makes planning easy as one can ration a battery to last a given amount of time.
2. Warm batteries by keeping close to skin
Carry your spare close to your skin so your body can warm then. An apparently dead battery can be given more life by warming in this way so on very cold days you may find yourself rotating batteries in this way.
3. Adjust shooting style to conserve power
Accept you will get less out of your batteries so adjust you shooting style to conserve power. The biggest thing you can do is turn off after shot preview and reduce to a minimum previewing your images later. Addition power saving tips to get the most out of your battery are to turn off image stabilisation, don’t use flash and minimise half-press pre-focus.
View Light & Ice: East Greenland photographs here
Text & Photography © Quintin Lake, 2009