Saturday, July 26, 2008

Digital Cameras in Cold Weather

Dog Sled
-40F in the Canadian Arctic

People are often emailing me asking about how digital cameras perform in severe cold weather so I figured I would make a blog entry on it. There are a few problems and quirks that pop up but nothing insurmountable.

  1. The first thing you will notice is that your battery life goes way down. With cheap aftermarket batteries, this can happen even in 40 degree weather. When I went up Mt Kilimanjaro to do a shoot for a travel outfitter, I had to bring 5 batteries for my Canon DSLR with me (since obviously there's no place to charge batteries on the 7 day hike). With Canon factory NP-E3 batteries running ~$130 a piece, I couldn't afford to buy many of those. I ended up buying several aftermarkets batteries, 2 from Eforcity, 1 Black Diamond, 1 Delkin, and 1 Canon OEM to supplement my worn out NP-E3 that came with my camera. The ones from Eforcity were the cheapest at less than $20 and one of them lasted all but 5 minutes out of the box. That left me with 5 batteries to take to Africa, luckily it was just enough. One the way up, I noticed when the temp dropped below 50F, the battery strength would drop way down on the aftermarket batteries. Some died altogether. Luckily I remembered I had the same problem in the Canadian Arctic and used the aftermarket batteries first at the lower altitudes and saved the Canon OEMs for the summit. The good news is the batteries come back to life when they are warmed up. Some people keep them in a pocket with hand warmers, I find keeping it in an inside chest pocket works fine. Some photographers will keep the batteries in the pocket until needed - which is fine when you can get by with thinner gloves but if you are in the arctic and it's -40, you typically are wearing gloves that are too thick to easily swap batteries in and out. Some hardcore cold weather shooters keep the batteries on their bodies and run a wire to the camera. Some Canons come with dummy batteries for studio shooting which can easily be rigged to do this.
  2. You will also notice the LCD displays are slow to respond. At -40, the back screen on my 1Ds MkII can take a second or two to display the new photo when I am flipping through the shots. It actually looks quite funny, as if it were stuck in slow motion. The top deck LCD will do the same.
  3. Some people think that for very cold temperatures, cameras need to be sent the manufacterer for "winterization" and recalibration. This is more old thinking than anything, left over from the days were cameras were heavily dependant on springs and and old lubricants. There’s no need to go through such drastic measures with modern SLRs. When I worked on developing camera systems at NASA, all we did to modify the F4/5 (aside from building a thermal blanket for it) for the rigors of space was have Nikon change out the lube and that was more to prevent sublimation/evaporation in the “vacuum” of space than for the temperature extremes. No springs broke, no recalibration of shutters were needed. Many photographers use digital SLRs today in arctic conditions as they came out of the box without problems.
So there you have it. More than anything watch your batteries and you should be OK.