How to Take Care of Your Camera in Cold Weather

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How to Take Care of Your Camera in Cold Weather

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Mid-day, mid-winter, Alaska light. It just doesn't get any better.

Where I live, it gets cold. Not your “Brrr, I need to put on a sweater” kind of cold, but genuine, bone-chilling, spit-freezes-before-it hits-the-ground, kind of cold. Here in Fairbanks, Alaska, winter temperatures regularly drop far into the negatives, and yearly we suffer through snaps that send the mercury plummeting to -40F (-40C).

You’d think that in such conditions I wouldn’t want to step outside, let alone take photos, but you’d be wrong. Winter light, what few hours there is of it, is absolutely beautiful. That sweet, crisp glow can pull me from the deepest funk, and lure me out with a camera in hand. During many long winter nights, the aurora borealis dances overhead, and that too can draw me from my cozy cabin, into the snowy forest to make images. On the days I made the two images below, it was seriously cold, but that light, yep, that light will get me outside.

Low winter sun, and frosted birches near Fairbanks, Alaska. AK-FAI-Winter-sun-112172-17

To venture out in those temperatures, you’ve got to be prepared. You need the right clothes to stay warm, and you’ve got to make sure your camera equipment is ready too.

Forget about fashion

To shot the aurora during mid-winter in Alaska you need to dress warm!

To shot the aurora during mid-winter in Alaska, you need to dress warm!

You’ve got to dress right. It doesn’t matter what the light is doing, if you get frost-bite on your fingers, and can’t operate the camera. When dressed in my winter-photo clothing, I feel a bit like an onion, wrapped in layer upon layer. From inside to outside my system goes like this: long underwear, fleece or wool sweater and pants, down or synthetic vest, 800 fill down jacket with hood, windproof Thinsulate pants, two pairs of thick wool socks topped by expedition quality winter boots, a musher’s style hat complete with ear flaps, a balaclava or face mask, and thin nimble gloves with a pair of expedition overmitts dangling from wrist straps. Last, I’ll often throw a couple of chemical hand-warmers into my jacket pockets. When temperatures drop to -40F, it’s best not to mess around.

Two of my clients on an aurora photography tour, dressed for the weather.

Two of my clients on an aurora photography tour, properly dressed for the weather.

The author's well-worn NEOS overboots.

The author’s well-worn NEOS insulated overboots.

Stay Charged

The fluctuations of electricity mean that a cold battery cannot kick out the same amount of electricity as a warm battery. This means that on a brutally cold day, your camera or flash batteries will last only a small fraction of the time they normally would at room temperature. It’s a problem easily solved by carrying a spare battery or two.

A backup battery will let you swap out the cold, dead one in your camera, but there is a hitch: the spares should not be kept in your camera bag, but in an inside jacket pocket. That way they are warm when they go into the camera. When the dead battery warms back up in your pocket (with the help of the aforementioned chemical hand warmers) it will be ready to use for a while again. I find I can shoot at extremely cold temperatures for the better part of day by cycling two batteries back and forth from my pocket to my camera. Though this will vary a lot, depending on how power-hungry your camera is.

AK-FAI-Aurora-111154-35.jpg

Avoiding Bad Breath

The cold comes with other risks, one in particular, can ruin your day of photography, and that is – watch your breath. I mean it. A mistimed, warm, humid, breath will condense on your lens, resulting in a layer of milky frost on the glass. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on your lenses, no amount of sharpness will make up for that kind of damage. Wiping at it, usually just smudges it more, and defrosting it inside (see below), can take hours. Watch where you breathe, if you turn your camera around to check lens settings, don’t exhale. I also usually wear a neck gaiter or balaclava that I pull up over my mouth and nose. So with your mouth covered, your breath is directed up, where it frosts on your eyelashes instead of your camera.

This is what happens if you accidentally breathe on your lens during a cold weather shoot.

This is what happens if you accidentally breathe on your lens during a cold weather shoot.

Lens Caps Exist for a Reason

Breath is the usual culprit of fogged lenses, but when shooting at night, there is always the chance that natural frost will form. To avoid this, use your lens cap when you aren’t shooting. If you are walking from one location to another, taking a break, or searching for a new composition, put the cap back on your lens. When I’m out shooting the aurora at night, my cap is on my lens, even if I’m just walking a short distance to a new shooting location.

AK-Interior-Whites-103193-8

Back Indoors

Last, and perhaps most importantly, is the return indoors. You know how on a hot day, your cold beer glass gathers condensation? Ever watched how those drips can form and run down the bottle, pooling in a messy ring on the hard-wood table? Imagine that happening to your camera gear. It can, and it will. When you step back indoors to take a break, warm up, or finish up for the day, place your camera and lenses into an airtight bag.

A properly bagged and sealed camera, ready to be taken back indoors after a cold outdoor shoot.

A properly bagged and sealed camera, ready to be taken back indoors after a cold outdoor shoot.

Ziplocks are good, but I favor light-weight roll-top dry bags like those used by boaters to keep their gear dry. These are tough, reusable, and work like a charm. Once sealed up tight in a ziplock or dry bag, condensation can’t form on your gear. Just let your camera warm up to room temperature before you pull it out.

AK-NoatakPreserve-KellyRiver-1083-491

The cold scares a lot of photographers, and make no mistake, a frigid, mid-winter Alaskan night is nothing to mess around with. But with a few precautions – warm clothes, spare batteries, avoiding frost, and protecting against condensation – you can take advantage of the stellar beauty of crisp, clear, days and nights like this one.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and wilderness guide based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in more than 50 publications around the globe. Find out more about his photography,  tours and workshops, and read his science and nature blog.

  • hazitroll

    Great article, thanks!

  • Great list! I live in northern Minnesota and am often out on wilderness lakes at night photographing the Aurora. I would add these two safety tips: 1) always carry an extra set of car keys in your parka … getting locked out of your car in remote locations when the temperature is -20F is life threatening. 2) even though Lake ice is normally 3 to 5 feet thick in the dead of winter, natural springs can change that equation quickly … I carry ice fisherman picks which would allow me to get out of the lkke from an unexpected swim.

  • Linda Bon

    I have heard the trick about using the zip lock bag before, but was told to do it also before going outside……..put camera in a bag and set it outside to allow it to acclimate before removing from bag. Reverse when going back in.

  • Dennis Barbara Jump

    David, this is great, Thank You! I live in Pennsylvania but I am familiar with your local..I hope you don’t mind that I shared your article on my Facebook page

  • Andres Leon

    Very nice and useful article. Thank you for sharing. I think the idea of using a sealed bag to protect your camera should be clarified a little. You are supposed to put the camera inside the bag and close it when you’re out in the cold. When you go inside you need to bring the the camera inside the sealed bag and let it acclimate to the temperature and humidity inside the bag. This usually takes about half hour. Then you take it out.

  • bskier7

    Great article. Can you add anything about those “operating temperatures” that are listed in the specs of our gear? Most apparently do not list temperatures below freezing. Obviously they work outside of the ranges documented but are there any actual concerns?

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks for the comment. And very good question about the operating temperatures. I’m afraid to say, I don’t know how the manufacturers come up with those numbers, but in no way is any decent camera limited to that range. I’ve been shooting with a Canon 5Diii for the past three years in temps as low as -40. I’ve never had a problem. The same camera has made three trips to South America where I’ve used in temps up to 100F and high humidity. Again, no problems. Just watch the condensation build up in these extremes and you should be good go.

  • David W. Shaw

    Indeed, thanks for reiterating that point. Glad you liked the piece.

  • David W. Shaw

    Of course not! The more shares the better. Thanks.

  • David W. Shaw

    Condensation only forms when something cold contacts, warm, humid air, so I can’t think of any reason you’d need to bag it before going outside into COLD temperatures. That said, the reverse can happen if it is summer and your camera is being taken from an air conditioned room out into a humid day. I’ve experienced that many times in the tropics, and indeed you do need to bag the camera. General rule: In winter bag it when coming back inside from the cold, in summer bag it before you go out if it’s hot and humid. Thanks for the comment!

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks for reading!

  • David W. Shaw

    Very good safety tips! Though I’ve never locked my keys in my car on a cold winter shoot, I do store a spare in a magnetic hide-a-key just in case… And if you are shooting on a frozen lake, such precautions are worth taking. Thanks for noting them!

  • Christine

    At last! An article on cold weather photography from someone who lives in a seriously cold place! Bravo! I live in Manitoba, Canada, where 40 below is not uncommon either. I use a mirrorless camera (Fujifilm X-T1), which is rated to minus 10 Celsius and weather-sealed – obviously, we are way past that on a crisp winter day here, but no problems so far. I’ve also used my Nikon 7100 with no problems, although it is not rated as low as the Fuji but it is weather-sealed. But I’ve heard stories about the mirror seizing up in such frigid temps, so I usually stick to mirrorless. I’d be interested to know if this has actually happened to anyone. Also, I’m going to try the dry bag thing – I imagine it works better than the zip-locks. I’d never thought of that! Thanks for an informative article. 🙂

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks for the comment Christine! We cold dwellers need to stick together. I have several friends who have moved to mirrorless up here and really like it, the drawback is that they drain batteries much more quickly than a standard SLR, and some digital viewfinders don’t do well in the dark. That said, my next camera will likely be a mirrorless Sony, so I’ll be finding out how they work soon enough!

  • Christine

    I keep hearing about how mirrorless batteries drain out quickly, but I have to say, I’ve not had the problem. I do turn off the camera between groups of shots (& put on the lens cap as you suggest!). And since I grew up in the film era when you had 36 or 20 opportunities to get something, I’m selective about what I shoot. So maybe that makes a substantial difference in battery life? I always carry a spare but don’t usually use it. And that’s an all day trip.

  • Jordan Qato

    Interesting stuff and fabulous pictures, David! I’m curious though- do you shove your camera back into your jacket between shots or do you just leave it outside at a constant, though brutal, temperature for extended periods during these shoots?

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks for compliment Jordan, glad you like the photos. Regarding the tucking the camera into your jacket- definitely don’t do it. That cold to warm, even in your jacket, can have the same condensation effect that you find when bringing the gear back indoors. It’ll fog your lens up and ruin a good session. So yeah, much better to just leave it outside in the cold.

  • M.h. O’Dell

    Fabulous pictures!!!! We don’t get nearly so cold in Missouri ( only -5F this winter) but the condensation issue is almost always a problem in the winter here too. I may be guilty of overkill, but I put my camera and any lenses I’m using in zip lock bags and then inside my zipped up camera bag before coming back inside to the warmth. I don’t remove the camera from the bag for about an hour, so that it has time to readjust to the indoor temps. Also, if possible and time allows, I use the same process when going from warm to cold, just so my camera has time to adjust to temperature extremes. Your article is very good.

  • David W. Shaw

    Sure doesn’t hurt to put the camera in the bag as well in its case, but be careful that the camera case isn’t working as cooler so it’s still cold when you pull it out. As far as I know there is no harm in the camera warming or cooling quickly (not that I’m suggesting putting it in the oven). Thanks for the comment, and glad you liked the piece.

  • David W. Shaw

    Sure doesn’t hurt to put the camera in the bag as well in its case, but be careful that the camera case isn’t working as cooler so it’s still cold when you pull it out. As far as I know there is no harm in the camera warming or cooling quickly (not that I’m suggesting putting it in the oven). Thanks for the comment, and glad you liked the piece.

  • David Schmidt

    Having just gotten back from a Fairbanks Alaska trip a couple weeks ago I can attest that the author’s advice is spot-on. I was out for four nights in a row photographing Aurora activity, thankfully no -40 conditions but it did hit about -15 a couple of the nights. I used the sealed plastic bag method when bringing my camera back into a warmer environment, it worked great. Regarding mirror-less cameras and battery life, I have a Sony A6000, and although I always had two extra batteries (in my pocket) I never had to switch them out while shooting at night, including one night where I shot 700 pics over a 50 minute period for a time lapse. One other thing that worked great for cold weather shooting was using Sony’s remote camera control app, which allowed for far easier control of camera settings and initiating shots than doing it directly on the camera. Plus you can instantly review each picture using your smartphone display. Lastly, if you haven’t been to Alaska in the winter, do it. As the author mentioned, great light for the few hours it is out, and photographing Auroras is a lot of fun.

  • David W. Shaw

    We have gotten away with an incredibly mild winter this year. You timed your trip well! And thanks for the information on your mirrorless, my next body is likely to be a Sony, so it’s good to know you’ve had success with your battery life in the cold. Did you get some good aurora opportunities during your visit?

  • David Schmidt

    We were only there for 5 nights. The first night was cloudy, but after that it was clear skies, and I photographed Aurora’s those next 4 nights. The first night was from Cleary Summit and then another spot just on the side of Highway 6 north of Fairbanks. The next three nights we were at Chena Hot Springs. The first night we took the snowcats to the top of Charlie Dome. This was the best night, with the Aurora’s being very active and out from 9PM until we finally got back and went to bed at around 2:30AM. The next two nights they were out, although for not as long (and on the third night not appearing until 1:30AM) and not quite as spectacular. For these last two nights there was a pretty good spot along side the ride about 5 miles from the resort, allowing me to get away from all the artificial light. Got a lot of great shots, and learned a lot in the process. I’m definitely going back sometime in the future.

    Just one last thing on battery life, the longest I ran my camera continuously at night was probably somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours. After that the battery was getting low, but I never changed it during that time period.

    If you get a Sony make sure you try out the remote App. On several nights I would set up my tripod, then jump back in my running (and warm) car to make multiple pictures at different exposures, and being able to see the results of each on my smart phone display was a huge plus (much better than from the back of the camera).

    One last question for you that I thought of later, what do you use for gloves that still allows you to manipulate your camera? I used a pair of SmartWool gloves, which was as thick as I could use and still be able to control my camera and smart phone. These barely kept my hands warm enough (hands in pockets whenever possible), but at times the tips of my fingers did get a little cold.

  • David W. Shaw

    Good to know about the remote. Staying warm in my car would be a nice change from my normal aurora routine! As for gloves, I generally wear some mid-weight gloves with which I can operate most of the controls on my Canon 5Diii. When I can’t do what I need, I temporarily take them off. Most of the time I trigger my camera with a remote in my pocket, that keeps my fingers warm enough.

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