18 Dec 2015

What to do with the camera during the winter...

What to do with the camera during the winter...

Updated December 18th 2015
© Jouko Lehto
Lappajärvi, about -20 centigrade. Olympus E-3, Zuiko 70-300mm f11, 1/2000s, ISO200. © Jouko Lehto

And the cold keeps coming...

This blog text got the idea from the questions in different forums: people asking can they take photos in cold, will the camera get broken, how to handle the camera and what to wear. For those of you who have been taking photos during winters there might not be that much new - you might even find some hints missing. Please make your comments in the end, there is a place for that. If You have a good hint, please share it!

Here in Finland we have a real winter for some months every year.  Temperatures  will go at least down to -30 centigrade also this winter, we'll get enough snow... So I have some experience on this matter. For more than 50 years...

To make this short for those in hurry, here is a short list first:

How to keep the camera working during the winter

1. Keep the camera dry.
2. Use the lens hood.
3. Keep extra batteries in a warm pocket in a small, closed plastic bag.
4. Keep yourself warm.

Easy? No.

The longer version. And some history

Now and then there are questions in different forums about how to use camera in wintertime. The manufactures usually recommend the use to some degree, like 0 or -10 centigrade or something (32F or 14F), and that's kind of restrictive for us living in the areas where it can get a lot colder. Here in Finland it can go at least down to -30 centigrade (-22F) every winter. In fact, it already has done that in the north.

In the old days about every pro photographer had a manual, fully mechanical camera(s) for winter use - everyone I know anyway. Those little button-sized batteries kept the power for an hour or two in the cold, and changing them on those conditions was a pain nobody wanted to do. Now the batteries are larger (also in the size), but, again, they keep the power for a couple of hours in cold. Fortunately they are easier to change...

So, while waiting for the fully mechanical digital camera to appear, we have to use these battery eaters. And I suppose we'll use them a long time.

Of course there are reasons for camera manufacturers to make those recommendations about useful temperatures. The battery life drops, the humidity problems and freezing lubricants can cause some damage, and maybe even some body and lens materials can get too fragile in extreme conditions.

Anyhow, I have not broken a single camera or a lens in my life because of the winter. Closest call was the "hammer", Konica ART3, with it's original lenses. At about -30 centigrade it got frozen, and I could wind it up only by taking the lens off after every shot... But then the film broke into pieces. The Olympus OM1 never left me in trouble, but even the slowish winder was too fast for film in wintertimes - usually just some electric flashmarks on sides, but sometimes the snap (film)...
Memory cards won't break that way. At least the ones I have  haven't. But don't try to bend them in cold.

Snow games. Olympus E-3, Zuiko 70-300mm f 5.6, 1/640s, ISO 200. © Jouko Lehto

Keep the camera dry

This is the difficult part. It's not the snow or rain, it's the humidity in the air that's the problem.
The snow is easy. Just keep it away from the lens. It can be cleaned off from the lens with a clean handkerchief or tissue paper or something, and blown away from the body, or wiped off. Hood helps a lot, it just keeps the falling snow away from the lens in the first place. And even if you make a dive into the snow with your camera, the hood protects the lens. You can also use a protective filter (UV, skylight) if you like, but use the hood anyway. The lens cover is off course a good thing to use between the shots. Wipe the camera and lens clean before putting them into bag while you are OUT.
Rain is just a bit more difficult. If your camera and lens are both "weather sealed" and you trust that, threat the water just like snow. Wipe it off and keep on shooting. Dry the equipments before putting them into bag.

But the humidity...

There is always water in the air. No problem. We need it. But here we are dealing with things like dew points in different temperatures.
Usually, the colder the weather the dryer the air is. But usually we don't stay outside in those cold temperatures for days. We get in to our homes and cabins and hotel rooms when possible. And our living produces humidity - breathing, sweating, coffee makers, potato boilers, showers, sauna... You name it.

When we get in to a normal warm room from the cold, the camera is still cold. Under the dew point. If the cold camera is in touch with that "humid" air, all the humidity condenses to the camera and lens. The larger  the change in temperature is, the stronger the effect. So we have to avoid that.
Before getting in or into a warmish place like a car or a tent or a house  PUT THE CAMERA AND LENSES INTO A TIGHTLY CLOSED PLASTIC BAG OR A GOOD TIGHTLY CLOSED BAG WITH ZIPPERS OR SIMILAR. And don't open the bag before the bag and the camera equipments have warmed up! You will never get good photos inside, in any case, with that cold camera! Just more or less foggy scenes and shades of gray.

If you forget to put the camera into a bag, and got moisture on your camera, wipe it as dry as you can, and let it warm up before you use it. Let the lens cover be off. If you can, put the camera over or close to a moderate warm heath radiator, not on a hot one. Do not take the lens off! And hope the camera and  lens were weatherproof - do not zoom the lens  in and out, just leave it as it is.

If you took the lens off from a cold camera in a warm room, pray for the best. You have moisture all over and in the camera. Do the next steps: Take battery and card off, leave the doors open and take the lens off again - leave the lens mount open. Find the warm radiator and place the camera and lens close to it, and if possible, aim some "wind" into the camera. Hope the camera dries out fast. After you are sure the camera has warmed up and dried also from the inside, put the battery and card in and take some test shots. If they are ok, you're fine. If not, contact the service.

Frozen pines. Seitseminen National Park, Olympus E-3, Zuiko 12-60mm f5.6, 1/80s, ISO 100. © Jouko Lehto

Cold sweat?

Hanging the camera in your neck is ok. Keep the lens cover and the hood on if it is snowy / rainy / windy, and take the cover off just when you are planning to take photos. Snow and water on the lens is not a good thing for IQ - usually. Sometimes they can create a nice artzy image, anyway.

Putting the camera inside a jacket or coat is not a good idea. Ever. NEVER, NEVER PUT THE CAMERA UNDER YOUR COAT. Or any other clothes you are wearing. The sweat is more dangerous to the camera and lenses than water. And the humidity of sweat will get everywhere under your coat. We all sweat all the time, more or less. If you really don't sweat at all, contact your doctor immediately.

The sweat does a couple of things to electronics. First, it conducts electricity. It can make some unwanted connections to the camera. Second, it is corrosive for connections, materials, oils and also for some lens coatings, at least on old lenses. I wouldn't want to make a test on sensor coatings or new lenses. Third, the sweat is mostly water. It can freeze. And if that ice is inside your camera, the camera stops working for a while.

The corrosive (and connection) problems can occure after a long time, the freezing can be immediate. Better to avoid both. Use a bag, it's better.

But the batteries...

This is easy. Take some spare ones with you when going out. In my use the batteries usually last for about 1-4 hours real winter photography, depending on how cold it is, what I am photographing, and how. The colder and more intense shooting, the shorter the battery life.

Keep spare batteries in a warm inside pocket IN A SMALL, CLOSED PLASTIC BAG or something similar, to keep them warm and dry. Change battery when needed. You probably can reuse the "dead" ones again when they have warmed up, without charging. They will also charge up nicely when they get warm.
Nowadays the battery change is quick and easy on about every camera, so that is not a big problem if you are ready to do it.

Bohemian waxwing eating rowan berries, about -25 centigrade. Olympus OMD E-M1, Zuiko 50-200mm, f5, 1/250s,  ISO 800. © Jouko Lehto 

The cold

And I mean cold. Around the freezing point everything works fine. The batteries can run out a bit faster than usual, but nothing to worry. Just remember to put keep the camera dry etc, and put it into a bag before going in, letting it warm up in a dry bag. No problem.
I'm talking about temperatures below -15 centigrade, way below freezing point. At certain point lubricants like oils lose their quality, plasticks and metals get fragile and the photographer just wants to get in as fast as he or she can.
I have been shooting with different cameras below -30 centigrade... Maybe somewhere like -35. That was cold. I know there are much colder places on earth every year, and I'm glad I don't have to be there.
But the point is, that the cameras usually worked - at least as long as the batteries worked. They slow down - the focusing gets slower, aperture works slower etc, but they work. Oh yes, everything is slower on those temperatures anyway.
The problem is the photographer and the ergonomics.
It's not a good idea to handle camera and lens bare handed on those circumstances.  Using cloves or mittens makes handling harder, the harder the smaller the camera is.
I like small and light cameras and lenses. I use Olympus gear now for that reason. But the only camera suitable for use with mittens in my gear is the OMD E-M1, with the grip. Luckily it works about fine, even if it is still on the smallish side for that. All those buttons.... And the smaller lenses just vanish into mittens. I still use the older FT-lenses (12-60, 50-200 etc) because of the quality, but also because they can be used with gloves and mittens. The new 12-40 and 40-150 seem to be ok for that too. The pancakes are for warmer conditions. Of course they work, but...
Fortunately the cameras are automatic nowadays. You can set about everything to auto-mode, from AF to auto iso, bracketing etc. That helps. You know, with snow the light meters usually get fooled. You have to compensate. For AF there usually is enough contrast and light, except the nighttimes. IS / OIS / VR /whatever shake reduction helps with low light shooting. Never has it been this easy before. Even framing from the back screen helps - the OVF/ EVF/RF -finder won't get that steamy, and you can even breath during photography sessions. In the long run that helps a lot.


Keep warm

Yourself, I mean. The doctors don't like to do amputations that much. A photographer with frozen fingers or toes is a useless photographer - and maybe fingerless or toeless soon.
Check the weather (and forecast) before going out, and dress yourself properly. I don't mean Mr. Bond-style... We do use wooly underwear here when necessary. Don't forget the gloves,  good warm shoes and something warm for your head. You know it can be even 30% of the escaping body heath that goes away from the bare head? A wooly hat or something helps.
First body parts getting serious cold bites are ususally auricles, nose, cheekbones, fingers and toes...
For the rest of the body... Think what you are going to do. If you are going to stand on one place, you'll need a lot of warm clothes. If you are going to walk around all the time, less - even if it is really cold. If you are going to sleep outside, you'll need a very good sleeping bag. If it's windy, the cold is more biting. Think. Remember also, that wet clothes won't keep you warm. Wear layers, layers...   Maybe it's a good idea to put some extra into the bag? 
The reason I'm writing this is sentence here is, that I have seen some tourist groups going for an arctic safari in Lapland. They have been properly dressed on the safari with the help of the organizers - maybe even  a bit "overdone", but they have been from southern parts of Europe or Asia and not used for cold, so better that way. But, after the tour, they have left their overalls and caps, even gloves and boots and in a few minutes have started the body-shake autodance - the tremor that starts when the normal body temperature gets too low. A good reason to get inside quickly. But if you want to take photos outside...
The cold also takes quite a lot of energy from you. Some hot drink in a bottle (non-alcoholic!) helps a lot. Alcohol is not a good idea - it does make you feel warmer, but in fact cools your body faster.

First snow at Seitseminen National Park. Olympus OMD E-M5, Samyang 7.5mm Fisheye f5.6, 1/13s, ISO 400.  © Jouko Lehto 

Be creative!

Winter here in north is very beautiful time. The lights may be low, the weather may be cold, but it's beautiful. Polar night, Aurora borealis, snow, stars, nature... And winter activities like skiing and skating, all open  good possibilities to be creative and take (and make) good photos.

Don't be shy, get out!

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