With winter well upon us I thought it would be good to share some of my arctic shooting experience. I’ve shot in temperatures down to -45c in the arctic in winter. Before considering the cold itself first we need to consider...
Condensation is the big deal breaker. When you take a cold camera inside into a warm house/hotel/car/tent you will get condensation. If the camera is very cold this can then freeze on the body of camera including the glass of the lens. If there is condensation on the outside of the camera, there will almost certainly also be condensation inside the camera and this can kill your camera.
To prevent or at least reduce condensation issues you can place the camera in a large ziplock or other sealed bag BEFORE taking it inside, take the camera inside in the bag. 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 inside the case to condense and the insulating properties of the case mean that it could take many, many hours to warm up.
I don’t recommend storing a cold or damp camera in a Pelicase (or any other similar waterproof case) as there is nowhere for the moisture to go, so the camera will remain damp until the case is opened and everything dried out properly.
LCD displays will become slow and sluggish to respond in the cold. Your pictures may look blurry and smeary because of this. It doesn’t affect the recording, only what you see on the LCD. LCD panels freeze at between -30 to -40c. If you are using a camera in very cold conditions and you notice the edges of the LCD screen going blue or dark you should start thinking about warming up that LCD panel as it may be close to freezing.
Watch your breath
If your lens has and snow or ice on it, don’t be tempted to breath or blow on the lens to blow the ice off. Try not to breath on the lens when cleaning it as your warm breath will condense on the cold glass and freeze. Also try to avoid breathing out close to the viewfinder. When it is very cold and if you are warm in your nice thick winter clothes even standing close to the camera can lead to frost and ice building up on the camera. Small amounts of sweat from your body will evaporate and this moisture will find its way to the camera, even if you are a few feet (1 or 2m) from it.
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 plastic rain covers become brittle below about -15c and can even shatter like glass below -20c. The clear plastic panels in other covers can also suffer the same fate. So, if you use a cover use one made out of fabric. 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 to make a tube you can slide over the camera. If you have a sewing machine you could make a simple cover out of some fleece type material.
For cameras like the FX3 or FX30 a balaclava can be used to cover the camera body to provide some protection. However unheated covers don’t make a big difference when the camera is outside in very cold temperatures for extended periods, eventually the cold will get to it.
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. Wires and cables may become as rigid as a steel rod. Be gentle, bend then too much and the insulation may split and the cable break. I try to avoid bending any cable once it has become very cold.
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. If you are unsure put your tripod head in your deep freeze at home for a few hours and see if it still works when you take it out.
Looking after yourself.
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 and from surplus stores and will normally have an additional “trigger finger”. This extra finger makes it easier to press the record button and things like that. I wear a pair of thin “thinsulate” fleece gloves that will fit inside the mittens, i can then slip my hands in and out of the mittens to operate the camera. If you can get gloves with finger tips compatible with touch screens this will allow you to use any touch functions on a camera or your phone.
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 or standing on ice then conventional hiking boots etc will not keep your feet warm. A Scandinavian trick if standing outside for long periods is to get some small twigs and tree branches to stand on and help insulate your feet from the cold ground. If your feet get cold then you are at risk of frostbite or frost **bleep**. Invest in or hire some decent snow boots. There is almost nothing worse than having ice cold feet when working. Don’t forget that if you do get cold, moving around, running on the spot etc will help get your circulation going help warm you up.
Alister, great tips. I would also mention batteries, they hate the cold. Whenever possible I keep spares in inside pockets close to my body. I have even carried them packed with chemical hand warmers.
I know this is a professional forum and might not be the place for war stories so forgive me if I add one more thing. Don't be stupid! In the photos you can see I am not wearing gloves. I spent over three hours in that harness suspended by riggers. I was shooting Worst Case Scenario for Sony Motion Pictures. The pack hanging off my harness had two spare batteries in it for the digi betacam. I was struggling to change the first dead battery so I took my gloves off. When I pulled the second glove off I watched in horror as I accidentally flung them both into the air and watched them fall 150 feet into a frozen river. It was brutal after that. I was fortunate that once set up, operating a Betacam does not take a lot of manual dexterity. It got truly painful by the time my feet were back on the ground. I know I have worn out these photos in the past but I'm not using them for brag shots here. Freezing conditions can be outright dangerous. Be prepared and don't do anything dumb like I did!
You were lucky it wasn't super cold as you could have ended up with frostbite. Chemical hand warmers are OK down to about -15c/5f but colder than that, while they will work in a pocket close to your body, in a bag they will stop working as there won't be enough moisture in the air. When you get down to -23c/-10f you really do need to take frostbite very seriously as it only takes 30 minutes of exposure for a frostbite injury to occur. at -30c/-22f you only have 15 mins and if there is a breeze you can halve those numbers.
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