Dan Carr
Dan Carr

In the resort town of Whistler, Dan turned to photography as a full time career and quickly made a name for himself amongst the action sports community shooting the worlds best athletes.

Taking care of your photo gear in cold environments

February 05, 2014

Photo by Dan Carr


When winter rolls around, many landscapes go through dramatic changes that open up new possibilities for great photos. Snow-laden trees, icicles, frost patterns on foliage and winter sports are just a few of the many options. While many cameras are designed to work flawlessly at even down to 32 ˚F (0 ˚C), most will operate beyond this with a few simple precautions.

If you take a camera into a cold environment, the first thing you might notice is that battery life begins to drop. By 32 ˚F (0 ˚C), you might only lose 10% of the battery’s potential, but if it grows colder then it starts to become more noticeable. The first step to combat this is to keep your spare batteries inside your clothing, as close to your body as possible. In moderately cold conditions, this will be more than enough to keep the batteries within a normal operating range. It might be tempting to keep smaller point-and-shoot cameras inside your layers as well, but even in cold temperatures, we sweat when exerting energy like when you’re walking through deep snow or skiing. This sweating will cause condensation on your lens and potentially inside your camera, so it’s best to keep smaller cameras in a backpack or outer pocket.

For prolonged periods in much colder temperatures, oxygen activated hand-warmers are readily available at most grocery stores or pharmacies. Once opened, a chemical reaction gently warms them for up to 12 hours. Because they’re designed to be placed against your skin inside a glove or shoe, they’re safe to place in your pocket and can be attached to batteries to preserve some battery life in more extremely cold environments. From my personal experience shooting in mountains all over the world, I can say that those using Canon 1-Series cameras like the EOS-1D X need not worry about battery issues. Their batteries have such a large capacity that they easily outlast our own abilities to stay out in the cold.

Photo by Dan Carr
Hand warmers are readily available at your pharmacy


If snow starts to fall, there’s still no reason to pack up and head indoors so long as you’ve got a rain cover for your camera. You’ll want to limit your lens changes, though, as rogue snowflakes in the camera body or lens during the change can add to potential condensation issues later when you bring your gear back inside to the warmth. Keep your lens hood on to try and prevent flakes falling onto the front element during use and carry at least a couple of lens cloths with you to dry the glass before you put it into the bag. Make sure you remove the waterproof cover and store that, along with any wet lens cloths, in a pocket of your camera bag away from your camera body and lenses. Your goal should be to keep as much moisture outside your bag’s main camera compartment as possible. Small packs of silica gel desiccant can also be placed inside any interior mesh pockets of your bag to help absorb any moisture that does become present.

Photo by Dan Carr


Once it is time to head back indoors, there’s a couple more things to think about. Cold winter air is very dry and it’s almost certain that you’ll be entering a more humid environment when you head inside to warm up. Taking a cold camera straight inside will instantly cause condensation to form all over the lens and the body, just like taking a can of cold soda outside on a hot summer day. One way to tackle this is to place your camera in a sealable plastic bag while you’re still outside and let it slowly come up to room temperature indoors. As long as you place the camera in the bag outside while you’re in the cold air, the condensation will form outside of the bag and not around or in your camera. If you go out regularly, you can keep a couple of bags outside your front door so that they’re cold for your return. This works well for smaller cameras, but it’s not a practical solution if you have a couple of larger DSLR bodies and a bag full of lenses. In my experience, I’ve never seen a sealable plastic bag big enough to fit my EF 200-400mm f/4 IS USM Extender 1.4x lens into!

My personal ritual is to bring all of the gear inside and immediately spread it out on a table with the lens caps removed. I then place the camera face down, to prevent dust from falling into the chamber, and I cover everything up with a dry towel. Condensation will often form, as expected, but once the gear has gently warmed to room temperature, this will evaporate and much of it is absorbed straight into the towel.

Photo by Dan Carr
Lens caps off and camera body facing straight down!


 

Photo by Dan Carr


There’s one more piece of important equipment that needs a little special treatment in the cold weather: you! Keeping yourself warm will allow you to really concentrate on creating the best images. Layer up with moisture-friendly materials and pay special attention to your extremities. Warm winter boots will go a long way for insulating you from a cold environment, but you’ll want to protect your hands as well. I read about a lot of folks who recommend gloves with peel-back fingertips, but I’ve personally always found that they are a compromise on a really cold day and no good at all if the snow is falling. I much prefer to operate the camera using thin glove liners, like something made out of merino wool. Simple liners are thin enough that you can maintain enough dexterity to operate the cameras controls and, between shots, you can slip your hand into a genuinely warmer and thicker winter glove. For those of you using cameras with touchscreen controls, there are several manufacturers who have engineered “touch friendly” liners that feature conductive fingertips.

Photo by Dan Carr
Always have a couple of lens cloths for drying a wet lens before you put it into your bag!


With these simple precautions and considerations, you’ll be able to enjoy your winter wonderland and concentrate on your photography instead of worrying about your camera gear.

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