This week's column by Ctein
Once again I'm asking you, my gentle readers, for technical advice. How are you doing digital photography in really cold weather?
Here's my situation. A friend has invited me to go with her to Yellowknife next March in hopes of catching the aurora. I've photographed the aurora before, as the accompanying illustrations show. From the purely photographic side of things, I know exactly what I want to do both technically and aesthetically this time.
The thing is, the last time I photographed the aurora I was using film...and the temperatures didn't even hit freezing. This time, I'll be digital. (Don't even suggest I return to film. If that's my only option, then I won't be making any photographs. Subject closed, end of story.)
At the time of year I'll be going, the average low is –25 Celsius. The possible excursions from that are rather substantial; it can go +/– 10 to 15 degrees either way. Great for me if it goes to the plus side, but I have to assume the worst. This last March, for the same time period, the lows ranged from –35 to –38. That's in the "is that Celsius or Fahrenheit?" old-joke territory*.
I know how to dress for such conditions (and I have experts on tap to vet my knowledge). I don't need any advice on that. It's the camera equipment that's the problem. What even operates under those conditions?
Just off the top of my head, I've identified four problem areas (please let me know if I missed others):
- Camera Battery
- Camera Shutter
- Lens diaphragm
- Lens focusing motor
The battery has a known solution, which is an external battery pack with a cable, so you can keep the battery close to your body while running power to the camera. So far as I know, there is no such thing for my Olympus E-M5 (is that right?), which means I'll be having to rent a camera for this trip. It would be nice if it were a Micro 4/3 body because then I could use my existing lenses. Assuming there is a body out there for which there is an external battery pack and assuming its shutter can operate in those conditions.
Except...maybe I can't use my existing lenses! Only one of them is entirely manual, and its focal length is not ideal for this purpose. Do any of today's highly automated lenses work under such extreme conditions? The manufacturers' technical spec websites are useless; nobody is specifying this stuff to near-arctic temperatures. Which doesn't mean it won't work there, but it sure doesn't mean it will, either.
I can't even run my own tests. My deep freeze only goes down to about –15 Celsius. Something that works there may well fail entirely when it's 20° colder.
I have a few polar-visiting friends I can tap for advice in this area—Michael Reichmann, Charlie Cramer, Stuart Klipper. But I figure among Mike J.'s 20,000+ readers, there's gotta be a lot more hands-on expertise, and that's what I need. Not theory; I'm really good at spinning my own theories. On occasion they're even right, he said wryly. Hands-on, honest-to-Betsy practice: It'll trump theory any day.
Okay, all you polar bears and penguins, tell me what you know!
P.S. One of my readers just privately emailed me a link to these camera heaters. Anyone have any experience with these?
[*Celsius and Fahrenheit are the same at –40°. —Ed.]
Ctein's weekly column appears on Wednesdays. Here's his website.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
adamct: "To my knowledge, Bjørn Rørslett, a Norwegian nature photographer known for taking pictures in extreme conditions (including extraordinarily long exposures in Arctic conditions) is the expert on this subject (at least when it comes to Nikon gear). His website is here. What he refers to as his 'legacy' site was an invaluable resource for years, but has not been updated since the D3 became available. (See his comments on the D3's long-exposure performance in cold conditions.) Anything from him since then will be available on Nikongear.com, but you can also just contact him directly (see the contact details on his legacy website)."
Chris Gibbs (17-year Alaska shooter): "All you need to know is contained on this blog; the e-book is a bonus. [The same source of information is recommended by Peter S in another comment. —Ed.] It's not that tough. Just don't overthink it. Spare battery in your pocket, Ziploc bag (just in case you need to take the camera from cold to warm). AF lenses will be fine. You can set infinity focus in good light, then use some electrical tape and tape the focus ring (zoom ring too if needed). Modern digital bodies are way better than old film cameras in the cold; nothing at all to worry about other than batteries and taping down the AF ring at infinity (switch off AF though!!!). I never used a remote battery with the 5D Mark II and 5D Mark III batteries; modern lithiums are superb in the cold. Those remote releases freeze too—check out Patric's blog for some funny examples."
Bryan Hansel (partial comment): "I photograph in –20°F regularly in the winter and often down to –30°F or so. There aren't many issues with higher-end bodies, other than LCD lag, and it's less bad with newer models. I also teach winter photography workshops, and I've seen a few issues with lower-end models, but it's rare. The problems I've seen include one camera freezing up and not working until it warmed up, repeat all day. I've also seen autofocus systems freeze up, but not often and only with kit lenses. It'll be interesting this winter, because I suspect I'll have a few people with cameras that use touchscreens. I suspect based on a fall workshop that I taught that the touchscreens will be an issue for winter photography...."
[Bryan proceeds to discuss Ctein's four possible failure points one by one. It's informative but too long for the Featured Comments; please refer to the Comments section to read his entire contribution. —Ed.]
Peter Zimmerman (partial comment): "As a former born and raised Yellowknifer [...] –25C and –40C are not the same, not even close, in terms their relative effects on your gear and you. At –40 everything plastic and flexible becomes hard and rigid, and is somewhat more susceptible to breakage. Connectors will contract and on occasion lose contact. Your tripod legs may be difficult to extend, and if they are aluminum will be bitterly cold to the touch. Your breath may freeze to your eyelids making framing (even blinking!) a challenge. If you make the mistake of breathing on your viewfinder or your lens, it will instantly condense and freeze, rendering your gear useless until you can warm it back up (I hold my breath when I'm framing for this reason). On top of this, you will have very little time to adjust your gear with your bare hands...."
Herjulfr (partial comment): "Someone has mentioned breathing in the viewfinder: it's the biggest problem, along with totally frozen, unresponsive fingers. Hold your breath, and take care of the fingers, and everything should go well."
Michael Bearman: "I live in lovely temperate Melbourne, Oz, and think you are all insane."