Protecting your equipment for winter photography is essential. After all, you don’t want to ruin all that expensive camera gear.
I live in Fairbanks, Alaska. That’s about 65 degrees north latitude, or just a little over a degree south of the Arctic Circle. We are deep in the interior of this most northern of US states, far from the temperature-mellowing presence of the maritime areas.
My point is this: it gets cold here. Not just chilly, “I need to put on a sweater” kind of weather, but honest-to-god, bone-chilling, spit freezes before it hits the ground, kind of cold.
Yearly, our little northern city will reach temperatures colder than -40F (-40C). We will go for weeks at a time where, even during the day, our temperatures do not climb above -20F (-29C).
You might think that I wouldn’t even want to step outside in conditions like that, let alone take all my equipment out to take winter photography. But, you’d be wrong.
The light during the short days of winter is absolutely sublime. The sun never rises far above the horizon and the low-angle, warm-toned light is often too much for me to resist.
Winter is also the time that the aurora borealis dances overhead, during our long nights. Frequently, I will spend hours out, alone, in the dark and cold, photographing a display of northern lights.
To venture out in those conditions for any length of time, you and your winter photography gear need to be prepared.
You need the right clothes to keep yourself warm, and you need to make sure your camera equipment is ready too.
Winter Photography Clothing
Two students on one of my aurora photography workshops model the right kind of clothing for a cold night out photographing the northern lights.
You’ve got to dress right. It doesn’t matter what the light is doing if you get frostbite on your fingers, and can’t operate the camera. When dressed for extreme winter photography, I feel a bit like an onion, wrapped in layer upon layer.
From inside to outside my system goes like this:
- long underwear;
- fleece or wool sweater and pants;
- down or synthetic vest;
- 800 fill down jacket with hood;
- windproof Thinsulate pants;
- two pairs of thick wool socks topped by expedition quality winter boots;
- a musher’s style hat complete with ear flaps;
- a balaclava or face mask;
- thin nimble gloves with a pair of expedition over-mitts dangling from wrist straps.
Lastly, I’ll often throw a couple of chemical hand-warmers into my jacket pockets. When temperatures drop to -40F, it’s best not to mess around.
Keeping a camera operating in the cold can be one of the biggest challenges to winter photography when the mercury drops. Cold temperatures increase the internal resistance in a battery, limiting how much electricity it can discharge.
On a warm day, a battery can dump all of its available power, but when it drops down to 0F (-18C), you may only get 50% of the available power. At -40, it’s a relatively small fraction.
In other words, much less time to shoot before your battery gives up the ghost.
The solution is pretty easy: carry multiple batteries. I keep at least a couple of spares in an inside pocket, where they will stay warm. When one dies, I swap it out for a warm battery.
By alternating back and forth, you can really extend the life of the battery, and keep shooting hours longer than you would otherwise be able to.
The more power hungry your camera, the more batteries you will need. I’ve recently switched from Canon to Sony and Lumix, and one of the things I miss is the long battery life of my Canon DSLRs.
With the comparatively small batteries of the Sony and power-hungry mirrorless system, I have to carry twice the batteries, maybe more, as I did with Canon. My Lumix however, despite also being mirrorless, has a larger battery and a much longer life than the Sony.
My point is, even really good cameras have their limitations. You need to know your gear, and plan for it. I can work with a shorter battery life as long as I have spares available.
Camera Mechanics in the Cold
Within your camera’s manual, you’ll usually find a temperature range within which it is designed to work. Never does that range include some of the conditions in which I frequently work. Yet, despite shooting for many hours at a time in temps as low as -45F, I’ve never had a camera seize up.
However, I have had students, on aurora photo workshops, experience that. Frequently this is a battery issue, just not enough juice to drive the shutter and other mechanic parts of the camera. But occasionally it’s a deeper problem.
On a workshop a year or two ago, a client’s Nikon DSLR completely seized. Nothing worked. No shutter, no focus, nothing. The screen on the back flickered with a warning code, and then died.
When a fresh, warm battery refused to bring it back to life, we packed it in for the evening. After a night stored safely in a dry bag (see below) he turned it on. The camera popped to life, no worse for wear.
When shooting in the most brutal occasions, sometimes you may just need to stop and warm up your gear. Your gear will likely suffer no ill effects.
This is what happens if you bring a cold camera indoors unprotected by a plastic bag. The lens and camera body are completely covered in frost.
Cold temperatures require you to be careful not just with your batteries, but also with how you handle it. The cold comes with other risks. One in particular, can ruin your day of photography, and that is – watch your breath. I mean it.
A mistimed, warm, humid, breath will condense on your lens, resulting in a layer of milky frost on the glass. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on your lenses, no amount of sharpness will make up for that kind of damage. Wiping at it usually just smudges it more, and defrosting it inside (see below), can take hours.
Watch where you breathe, if you turn your camera around to check lens settings, don’t exhale. I also usually wear a neck gaiter or balaclava that I pull up over my mouth and nose. When wearing a mask, with your mouth covered, your breath is directed up, where it frosts on your eyelashes instead of your camera.
Use That Lens Cap
Breath is the usual culprit of fogged lenses, but when shooting at night, there is always the chance that natural frost will form. To avoid this, use your lens cap when you aren’t shooting. If you are walking from one location to another, taking a break, or searching for a new composition, put the cap back on your lens.
When I’m out shooting the aurora at night, my cap is on my lens, even if I’m just walking a short distance to a new shooting location.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, is the return indoors. You know how on a hot day, your cold beer glass gathers condensation? Ever watched how those drips can form and run down the bottle, pooling in a messy ring on the hard-wood table?
Imagine that happening to your camera gear. It can, and it will.
If you bring a camera indoors that you’ve been using in cold temperatures, the equipment will be cold. After a frigid night photographing the aurora borealis, an unprotected cameras will grow frost crystals in seconds after coming inside.
This condensation can wreak havoc with the camera’s electronics, and cause moisture to build up and fog in the internal workings of lenses and bodies alike. I know from experience, it’s ugly, and it can wreck a camera.
Fortunately, it’s easy to deal with. When you step back indoors to take a break, warm up, or finish up for the day, place your camera and lenses into an airtight bag. Simple.
Though a zip lock style plastic bag like this will work, even better is a roll-top style dry bag, like those used by boaters.
Ziplocks are good, but I favour lightweight roll-top dry bags like those used by boaters to keep their gear dry. These are tough, reusable, and work like a charm.
Once sealed up tight in a ziplock or dry bag, condensation can’t form on your gear. Just let your camera warm up to room temperature before you pull it out.
The cold scares a lot of photographers, and make no mistake, a frigid, mid-winter Alaskan night is nothing to mess around with.
But with a few precautions – warm clothes, spare batteries, avoiding frost, and protecting against condensation – you can take advantage of the stellar beauty of crisp, clear, days and nights.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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