How Should I Handle My Camera In Cold Weather?

‘Tis the season, the folks at the New York Institute of Photography are getting
lots of letters from NYI students and other Web visitors about taking photos
in cold weather. They’ve been kind enough to contribute this piece and another
which discusses how to take great ski photographs, and that means going out
in the cold. So you better be ready. In fact, there are lots of great photo
opportunities in the winter wonderland near where you live, you just need to
get out there and take the proper steps.

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 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.


Winter scenic © Tammie Rawlings - NYI Student
©Tammie Rawlings – NYI Student

ice climber

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!

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, be prepared for 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 the 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 yon 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.

As we already noted, if you find your battery power failing, you have extra
warm batteries with you.

Québec City Winter Carnival
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.

You need thick gloves to ski, but these are not great when it comes to pressing
the small buttons on your camera. So consider mittens that can be folded back
so that you can momentarily use your bare fingers. Another option would be to
wear polypropylene glove liners under your ski gloves.

bronze bull in snow - ©Chuck DeLaney - NYI Dean
©Chuck DeLaney – NYI Dean

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.
This past December, 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.

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, waterproof cases that
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 the greater 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
cleaning cloth.

If you follow these precautions, you should have no problem working outdoors
and taking all the great photographs that you encounter.

orchard under snow
©Steven M. Windham – NYI Student

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 when you bring it back indoors 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.


railroad tracks in winter
©Adam Olejniczak – NYI Student

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, and get

Reprinted with permisssion from the New York Institute of Photography website

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