Tis the Season to Shoot in Cold Weather

Ira Block and Naomi Uemura at the North Pole

I’m planning a shoot up in the Arctic pretty soon and thinking this would be a good time to review shooting in the cold.
Winter is a terrific time to take photos but if you’re not properly dressed for cold weather, you’re focus will be on staying warm rather than on waiting for the right moment, or light to make your picture. As this is not a ‘fashion’ blog, I will assume you know how to dress for the cold but I will mention one clothing issue – gloves. Hands get cold very quickly and it’s impossible to operate your camera with thick gloves. I usually wear three pairs of gloves: a thin first layer, a medium, second layer, and then a big pair of mittens on a string running through my coat. When I’m walking around, all gloves are on and my hands are warm. But when I’m ready to shoot, I shake off the loose fitting pair of mittens on the string and work with the two pairs of lighter gloves. I do know however that even if you’re properly dressed; if your cameras and lenses cannot function you won’t be coming back with any images.
My second photo shoot for the National Geographic Magazine began when Bob Gilka, the director of photography, called me into his office and asked me to get ready to head north. My assignment was to document the famous Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura’s attempt to reach the North Pole by dog sledge. At this point in my career, the coldest weather I had experienced was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison; and it was cold. So cold in fact that I didn’t bother going to classes because I wouldn’t venture outside.
My expedition to the North Pole was pre digital –that means film, mechanical cameras and non- auto focus lenses. None of these relied on batteries, the weakest link in cold weather. Today, since our digital cameras and auto focus lenses are battery dependent, it’s important to keep these batteries warm. Some photographers prefer to keep their camera and lenses under their parkas to keep them warm. The problem with this method however, is that you can miss a great photo while you are fumbling around under your parka to find your camera. My technique is to keep a few extra camera batteries close to my body, under my coat where they can absorb my body heat. When the battery in my shooting camera starts to die, I just plug in a warm battery and put the cold battery under my coat where it warms up and regains some of its power. By rotating batteries in this manner I can shoot outside for many hours. Another way to save battery power is to turn off your lens stabilizer; it really consumes a lot of power and drains batteries quickly in cold weather.
When you finally decide to head indoors, you may experience a new problem – condensation, which will cause your lens to fog up. If you and your camera have been outside in weather below 20 degrees Fahrenheit for awhile, the camera and lens will get ‘wet’ when you come inside to warm, humid air. One way around this is to wrap your camera and lens in an airtight plastic bag so the condensation forms on your bag, not on your camera. As I usually have two bodies and three or four lenses with me, I don’t want to spend the time wrapping each camera and lens individually. I’ve found that I can just put my entire camera pack in a large trash bag, squeeze out the air and put a twist tie on the end to achieve that same effect. When I come inside, I leave the bag in a cool spot in the house, usually on the floor (as heat rises), which works very well. It may take as long as four hours for your equipment to acclimate to the warmer air so you’re not going to be able to shoot something inside right away. Therefore if you need to work both inside and outside, use two sets of cameras. Just make sure the outside set of cameras is kept in a safe place, like the trunk of your car.
The same problem will occur if you’re travelling with your gear in a warm car in an extremely cold climate. To avoid the lens fogging sand condensation problem, do not put your equipment in front of a vent blowing hot air. Leave it on the floor of the back seat or in the trunk.
When I went to the North Pole I used an old mechanical Nikon camera and I kept my hand held lightmeter inside my jacket. My biggest problems were film cracking and lenses freezing. To protect my film I kept it warm inside my jacket, and loaded it into the camera very slowly. This technique eliminated static electricity on the emulsion and prevented the cold, brittle film from splitting apart. The old lenses had metal, focusing mechanisms that were lubricated with an oil to keep them turning smoothly. Unfortunately, when it was very cold this oil would begin to thicken and would make focusing very difficult. I tried replacing the oil with a much lighter grade, however, I was shooting in minus forty degrees temperatures and my lenses still froze up. When I relayed my problem to the guys in the National Geographic photo equipment department they were able to score some synthetic oil from NASA, who had solved similar lubricating problems in the sub zero temperatures of outer space.
Fortunately, the modern autofocus lenses do not have the lubrication issues, which leaves us only to deal with battery function and condensation when going from cold to warm. Shooting in cold weather can be both challenging and fun. But remember, condensation will occur on the LCD monitor and viewfinder if you exhale with your camera pressed against your face. So hold your breath, focus and take great pictures.



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