Monday, March 30, 2009

Using Your Camera in Cold Weather and Extreme Environments.

This is an article I wrote a few months ago for AAI's newsletter. I figured I should probably put it on my own blog also.


As a guide who always carries a camera, I am often asked about cameras on climbing trips and whether it is a good idea. My answer to that is always YES! Bring along your camera! The results are often amazing.


Four climbers and a crow fighting heavy winds below the summit of Mt. Baker. I almost
left my camera in the tent the day I shot this and ducked back in and got it at the last minute.

There is a wealth of information on outdoor camera use already available on the internet, but much of it does not apply to taking cameras up mountains where conditions are considerably more severe than what the internet articles are presuming. The information in this article is my personal opinion. It's a description of what has worked for me over the last twenty years of shooting outdoor photographs, including six climbing trips to Alaska in which I have never had a camera failure.


Point and Shoot vs SLR

A point and shoot camera is lightweight and easy to carry and cheaper; a single lense reflex (SLR) is bulky and heavy and expensive. Most people I know use point and shoot cameras, and for most people they are the best option. I carry a Nikon SLR with a multi purpose zoom lens (and sometimes a tripod), because it allows me more freedom to shoot the exact photo I want. The debate here goes on forever all across cyberspace. For more information on this subject, you can just Google it.

Denali as seen from the flight into base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier.



How to Carry Your Camera

Carrying is easy with a point and shoot type camera, because it fits nicely in a pocket; however, I recommend a small camera case that fits on the shoulder strap of a backpack. This keeps the camera close by for quick use and outside clothing so there are no potential moisture issues.

For a large SLR I sometimes will keep the camera in my pack to protect it, but most of the time my camera hangs on the hip belt of my backpack. This allows me to get to the camera quickly, but can be a bit annoying when I am on more technical terrain. Another option that I have seen with SLR cameras is to hang it between the shoulder straps so it is right in front of you. From a comfort perspective this is not my favorite option, but you should try several different things to see what works best for you.


Cold Weather Camera Use

One of the most common myths I hear about camera use in the mountains is that the new digital cameras don't work in the cold. I have never seen a camera that does not work in the cold. The working temperature range for most electronics is well below the temperatures you are likely to encounter in the mountains. So your camera will still work. There are however some parts of your camera that could be less likely to work in very cold weather, so if you are going to Denali, keep reading; if not, you can skip to the next section.

Very cold temperatures do effect some non essential parts of a camera directly and other parts indirectly. One example is the LCD screen on the back of a camera. These can freeze at low temperatures, or just not work quite right, so you can't depend on that. Get yourself a camera with a view finder so you can see what you are shooting photos of. In VERY cold and dry conditions, even an eyepiece viewfinder can be a problem. On one trip I did to the Alaska Range, every time I held my camera up to my eye, my viewfinder fogged from the moisture near my body. These were the coldest temperatures I have ever encountered, and it is not likely that you will see these types of conditions. To put it simply, your camera is actually better suited to working in the cold than it is in extreme heat. On hot sunny days, don't leave your camera in the car. The batteries are another story that we will discuss next.


This photo shot from the summit of Mt. Crosson was shot in temperatures close to -40 degrees.


The problems most people encounter with their camera in cold weather are only indirectly related to the cold weather and can be avoided by a few simple rules. This brings us to the second most common myth of cameras in the cold. I often hear people say they keep their camera in their jacket so it stays warm. This works great with water bottles, but is not a good thing to do with a camera. Picture a man with glasses walking into a warm room after having been outside in cold weather. Glasses fog, and so will a camera the second you put it back in your warm jacket. As long as it is dry outside, keep it outside. Cold is not your cameras enemy, changes in temperature are. This moisture problem applies to the inside of your tent as well. Tents can be very moist. I keep my camera in my backpack out of the tent at night and hanging on the outside of my backpack when I am moving during the day.


Batteries

Your camera won't have any problems in the cold, but your batteries might. Batteries do not loose their power in cold weather; they are just not able to give quite as much of it up. So as soon as a battery is warmed up, it is good again. Older metal hydride and nickel cadmium batteries are not very good in cold weather. Battery technology is advancing very fast, and this has been a great thing for digital cameras. Most new camera batteries are Lithium ion. They are expensive, but they work well in the cold. If you camera uses over-the-counter AA or AAA, buy the more expensive lithium ion batteries. They will last twice as long and save you money in the long run.

If you don't want your camera to die on summit day, spend some time learning how long your batteries last. I know that given normal temperatures I can shoot all the photos I want with my Nikon SLR and spend a lot of time reviewing them and not run out of battery power for any trip three weeks or less. I carry two extra batteries just in case on Denali, and almost never carry an extra for any other trip. I have never run out of batteries with this system, but cameras vary. You should know about how many photos your camera can shoot on one battery and then subtract 30% to know what you might get in cold weather.



Tree in the snow on Mt. Baker, Washington.

Moisture

The only time I leave my camera at home is in very rainy weather, for example, the Cascades in early spring. Moisture probably won't completely kill your camera, but it might. Keep your camera in a plastic bag if it is raining. Skip the photo sessions, since they probably won't be great photos anyway. I always try to think about where the most moisture is and keep my camera somewhere else. I keep my camera in the tent when I am in wet climates and outside the tent when I am in Alaska.  Remember,  snow is not the same as rain.  It is a lot easier to keep a camera dry in the snow than the rain.  If your camera ever does get wet, immediately take the battery out and do not use it for the rest of the trip. Attempt to dry it out as soon as possible by leaving it in the sun or some other warm (not hot) area. I have heard of some people putting their electronics in an oven to dry them out, but I don't suggest you try this. I just had an amusing email from a fellow guide asking for everyone's phone numbers after cooking his phone in the oven and losing all the data. Heat is one of the primary enemies of electronics.


Camera Use

The most important thing about having a camera in the mountains is using it. The best thing about shooting digital photos is that it does not cost you any more to shoot more photos. You won't automatically get better photos because you shoot more on a given trip, but if you consistently take a good quantity, two things will happen. You'll accelerate your learning of what works and what doesn't work in creating quality images, and if it becomes automatic to be taking photos throughout the day or throughout a climb, you are unlikely to miss great photographic opportunities - many of which are only there briefly. Shoot away!

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