I’ve been getting a lot of comments recently about shooting in cold weather. I’m not shy about saying that I LOVE cold, snowy weather, but I’ve also learned to take the preparative steps that make time outside in winter immensely more comfortable. An enjoyable winter shoot really comes down to ensuring that you have adequate clothing for the conditions, and that you know how your camera gear responds to the cold.
Part 1 – Equipment
Every digital camera manual has in it a recommended temperature range, and rarely is it suggested that you shoot in temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. This is, of course, not possible for half of the year in New England. So, what can be done…
There are two demons here that we need to be concerned with…temperature and moisture. When in the field, the bigger of the two problems is the temperature itself. Cold weather simply zaps energy from the batteries. I can go a whole weekend on two batteries in the summer, but the same batteries can barely last a sunrise in winter. A couple of things that I’ve discovered along the way have saved me significant anguish though. First off, a dead battery in winter is rarely a truly dead battery; it’s usually just a cold battery. Sticking this battery in an interior pocket, or as close to the skin as possible will usually bring it back to life. Rotating warm batteries is key here. Additionally, I’ve seen photographers duct tape or rubber band chemical hand warmers to the battery compartment. While I don’t think it helps too much…it couldn’t hurt!
Also, at REAL cold temperatures (below -10F), increased viscosity of the grease in the lenses can cause strain on the auto-focus motors. At this point, it may make sense to turn off the auto focus and eyeball it close, then turn the switch back off and only let the system fine tune.
Moisture causes a few problems with winter camera operation as well. Whenever you bring the camera from out in the cold back into your car or a building, you run the risk of the entire camera ‘fogging’ up. It works on the same principal as a cold pop can on a hot summer day, except the entire temperature scale is skewed downwards thirty or forty degrees. There is an easy way to prevent this from happening though. By simply putting the camera in a dry sack (or ziplock) while still outside, and letting the camera acclimate to the indoor temperature in the bag, you will stave off condensation.
Another consideration to deal with while using the camera in winter is your own breath. Looking through the viewfinder will put your warm breath dead center on your camera, causing large amounts of frost to build up on the camera back. A face mask helps eliminate this…and I’ve gone as far as breathing through a large plastic kids bendy straw to keep ice off my LCD.
Lastly, moisture can come from precipitation itself. In winter, wind driven snow can find its way into every seam, seal and switch in your camera. Fortunately, if it is below the freezing mark, this can just be brushed off/out. Protecting your camera from the heat of your body will make removing snow easier. When the camera is cold and it’s snowing…keep it cold.
Part II will cover how to keep yourself comfortable when shooting!