Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Using Your Camera in Extreme Cold and Wet Weather.

This is an article I wrote a couple of years ago but still get a lot of questions about.  I have updated with some recent information.


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. 

Inside and ice cave in the Erebus Glacier, Antarctica.  
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 and in arctic areas 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 and time in Antarctica 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.  One camera I highly recommend is the Cannon G12 or its latest version.  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.

Shooting Weddell seals on a bad weather day in Antarctica.  

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 or Antarctica, keep reading; if not, you can skip to the next section.


An exceptionally difficult day of work on the Antarctic sea ice.  


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.
Please do not steal this image!  If you want a copy you can buy it by clicking on it. 
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.  I have seen lots of battery failures on small point and shoot cameras.  I feel like more of these camera have problems than don't so be very careful which camera you buy.  If you can find one that uses AA batteries that is the best option.  Either way you will need to bring lots of extras on a long trip.  

Moisture


The only time I would think about leaving my camera at home is in very rainy weather, for example, the Cascades in early spring. Even then I usually bring it along anyway.  Moisture probably won't completely kill your camera, but it might. Keep your camera in a plastic bag if it is raining. Skip the long 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 will remove the camera from the plastic bag quickly shoot and then return it to the bag.  Sometimes I open the bag poke the lens out and leave the rest of the camera in the bag while a shoot a couple of photos.  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. Get a bag of rice wrap the camera in cheese cloth and bury it in rice for a week.  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.


A south polar skua in very wet snow.

I just returned from a trip to Antarctica where temperatures were the coldest I have ever encountered.  I spent some time shooting in volcanic vents which are warm and very moist.  This creates some of the most difficult conditions for shooting that exist.  In order for the camera not to fog the second it is taken into the cave it must be the same temperature as the cave.  The temperatures outside the cave were -20 and inside they were often above freezing (thats over a 50 degree change).  I entered the cave with the camera sealed inside a ziplock bag and placed the camera on the floor (the warmest part of the cave).  After finishing all my other work I then pulled the camera out to shoot photos which was sometime as much as an hour after entering the cave.  This is the only way to shoot in this type of environment.





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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