Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Partner site of Ravenlore Bushcraft and Wilderness Skills and Waylandscape. Arctic Exploration, Travel and Photography.
Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Partner site of Ravenlore Bushcraft and Wilderness Skills and Waylandscape. Arctic Exploration, Travel and Photography.
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Ice Raven is a partner site of Ravenlore Bushcraft and Wilderness Skills Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure

Special Challenges of Arctic Photography.

If you check the specifications of almost all digital cameras you will find an operating temperature range that suggest than sub zero photography is not a good idea.

A quick trawl of the internet would seem to confirm this view with often conflicting information and horror stories of expensive gear  reduced to junk by the conditions.

I’m not going to tell you that these issues are unimportant. There is a real risk of damaging your photographic equipment if you do not treat it with respect and care but as with many things, the specifications are only a part of the story.

The first challenge is power. Batteries of any kind do not perform at their best when cold. Some are worse than others but this is a universal problem for photographers.

The next challenge is the effect of the cold on the camera itself. Most worrying are the stories of LCD displays freezing and being permanently damaged. Information on this matter seems scarce and confused but is discouraging.

Arctic Trip 2012  - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

The most helpful information I could find suggested that a standard TFT display like those found in most cameras, had an operating range between -10c and +70c (14f to 158f)and could be stored safely between -30/-20c and +80c. (-22f/-4f and 176f) Presumably the 10c difference in the minimum storage temperature is down to variations in manufacture which there is no way to ascertain which might apply so it’s best to assume that -20c (-4f) is the lowest practical limit before you might expect damage to your camera screen.

Another less publicised effect of the cold is that the lubricants used in delicate mechanisms can thicken or even solidify. Again, my research on this matter has been inconclusive and often conflicting so far.  Manufacturers are often  quite unhelpful frankly and unprepared to state exactly what the real limitations of their equipment are.

All it all, it seems that the best course of action is to prevent the camera and it’s batteries from getting too cold.

The most usual solution that is suggested is to keep your camera inside your clothing and the batteries warm in our pockets so they can be swapped with the cooler ones in the camera. this approach works well but there is a risk that a cold camera, brought into the warm, moist atmospere of our clothing will attract condensation which can be very damaging to any electrical device. Indeed this is also a major consideration when bringing your photographic equipment from the cold to any warm environment.

Fuji X10 and Dry Bags - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

Dry bags are very useful when dealing with condensation problems. The only probelms I have experienced with dry bags is that the air trapped inside them in a warm space can contain some moisture which causes a small amount of condensation on the inside of the bag when moving to cold conditions.

To alleviate this problem I line my bags with a secondary bag made from the highly absorbent micro fibre material that is used to make travel towels for backpackers. As a bonus, this also provides some measure of extra padding and protection from the physical rigours of travel and packing.

My routine then is to store the camera in this combination of bags and try to keep it away from the worst of the cold. A compact camera can be kept inside your clothing for much of the time but a large one presents more problems.

I usually keep mine wrapped in as much spare clothing as I have available in my luggage and keep it in a sheltered place when not in use.

Another useful item to carry with you is some small form of hand warmer. I often use the small disposable type that I can tape around the battery compartment of the camera when it is in use and this is packed in the dry bags, covering the camera display for good measure. A handy trick to keep your camera a bit warmer when packed away is to to put a spare water bottle full of hot water into your baggage as well. This will help to prevent the temperature dropping to dangerous levels and also leave you some liquid water ready for the next round of snowball soup.

When using the camera I keep a couple of batteries in my trouser pocket and swap them whenever the camera power indicator drops a bar or so. Being cold will not discharge the battery it just makes it harder to draw the power so I keep a store of charged batteries in my baggage that can replace my working set when they are exhausted.

So far, I have not found an effective, practical method of charging these batteries in the field so I use whatever opportunity I get to use mains power, a generator or a vehicle for the job.

An experiment I am trying at the moment is a remote power pack with a much larger capacity that can be kept inside my clothing and power the camera via a cable.     

Fuji X10 and Battery Packs - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

I have built it around the power coupler made by Fuji which normally connects the mains adapter. This requires 5v through a round in line socket.

By cutting the end from a USB lead and adding the correct plug, it allows me to use one of many Lithium Ion power packs that deliver that voltage through a USB socket.

So far it is working well and the capacity of the pack far out weighs the additional bulk in your pocket.

The lead is robust and long enough to be threaded through my outer clothing to a warm pocket within.

I also have a smaller solar rechargable pack which might be useful in a last pinch.

A more physical challenge for a photographer in the Arctic is the simple logistics of using a camera with gloves on and this will be largely dependent on the camera itself. Few cameras can be properly handled with mittens on. A few more with thick gloves but many can be used with thin gloves to some extent. Fiddly little buttons and menus will always be a challenge though.

Gloves and Mitts - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

I use a thin pair of fleece gloves that can be worn inside my mitten system and stay on when my mitts come off. This gives me the dexterity I need to use the camera and also prevents cold injury caused by contact with metal equipment in such a cold environment. You can see the type on the right of the picture above.

Of course, camera equipment is an extra burden to carry on expedition and how much you are prepared to carry will be a measure of how you are travelling and how much your photography means to you. For me it is often a major reason for me to be in the wilderness in the first place so I usually pack at least two cameras, sometimes three.

A compact camera with a small sensor cannot compete with a larger sensor. Usually that will mean a larger camera. The main disadvantage of smaller sensors is increased digital “noise” in low light. In most work this is not a huge problem but photographing something like the Northern Lights is a challenge for any camera, let alone a compact.

I tend to use a good quality compact for most of my day to day shots, saving my DSLR with it’s large sensor for specific low light work. Such low light photography usually requires a tripod and although I have looked at many clever gadgets promising to replace one, I have yet to see one capable of supporting anything heavier than a shirt pocket compact. This is an annoying gap in the market that I cannot believe is beyond the skill of a good engineer.

I have a medium weight tripod (Manfrotto 190) that I usually take with me or if I can rely upon a few stout branches being available I lash up a wooden tripod and tie on a bracket with a decent ball and socket head on it. Not as flexible but much lighter to pack.

Weight restrictions on flights are a pain when it comes to carrying your gear. I am always reluctant to throw any of my kit, apart from the tripod, into checked baggage as it is almost guaranteed rough handling on the way. I usually chuck all the compact, heavy stuff into the pockets of the coat I am travelling in, because it is never weighed, while the rest of the cameras and lenses go into my hand luggage


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Unless noted otherwise, all photography, artwork and content on this site is copyrighted. © Gary Waidson 2014 All rights reserved.

The Ice Raven Project promotes sustainable and low impact bushcraft and wilderness skills in Arctic and winter conditions. This includes the use of  tents, tarps  and snow shelters where possible. Fires are only used where safe and where use and collection of firewood will not damage the natural environment. We often travel to locations by public transport and then use snowshoes, sleds, toboggans and pulks to transport our equipment into the wilderness.

Ice Raven is a partner site of Ravenlore Bushcraft and Wilderness Skills