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Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure
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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.

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

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.

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 manufacturer 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 atmosphere 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.

Camera packed in dry bag with absorbent liner - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

Dry bags are very useful when dealing with condensation problems. The only problems 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 of course.

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.

A Dc power coupler for a camera. - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.Battery-Adaptor

Another solution is based around mains adapter units that are available for some cameras.

These often connect through a battery coupler which is like a dummy battery with a lead which connects to the AC/DC power brick.

The AC/DC converter supplies the coupler with DC power so all we need to do is supply DC  power of the correct voltage to run the camera.

This gives us the opportunity to have a power pack inside our clothing where it is warm attached to the camera with an connecting lead.

The easiest solution is to use AA batteries in a simple holder and use the right number of cells to provide the voltage required.

Rechargeable AA Packs set up for powering cameras. - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

Good NiMH batteries like the Eneloop Pro ones shown here (or the equally good but cheaper Ladda 2450 cells sold by IKEA) work down to -20c in theory but need to be charged above 0c.

That certainly works, but depending on the camera there may be a fairly limited voltage range that it will work with. If camera is designed to work with a battery providing 3.6v like my Fuji for example then it may work a volt or two above and maybe a volt below that but not much more.

If you use four standard 1.5v AA cells that should in theory provide 6v but a fresh cell could provide 1.6v pushing your combined pack to 6.4v, almost twice what the camera is designed for.

Looking at the AC/DC converter will give you a clue how far it is safe to push things. If you look at the Fuji DC  Coupler for example you can see it is rated for 5v . Rechargeable AA cells usually provide 1.2 - 1.3v so four of those is closer to the mark but inevitably as the power drops we are going to hit the camera’s lower power rating. The point at which it stops working.

I have used this method and it does work but I don’t think it is the most efficient method.

An Inline voltage converter. - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

What I prefer to do is use a larger pack of batteries providing somewhere in the region of 12v and then use a DC/DC converter to drop the power to the working voltage.

The advantage of that is that most converters are designed  to work with a range of input voltages but provide a fairly stable output voltage.

In the case of the Fuji camera that runs on 5v that was fairly easy. Cars run on 12v and USB connectors provide 5v which means lots of manufacturers make widgets that will do the job.

I found a nice neat unit that is fitted in-line so I just swapped the USB socket lead for a lead that connected to the DC Coupler. Job Done.

My Canon cameras needed a bit more power. 8.6v according to the spec.

I couldn’t find anything ready made so I ordered a “Buck Converter” like the ones you can see here.

Buck Converters. - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

The first one I bought from America, you can see that at the bottom. It cost a fortune and then had crippling import duties and admin charges on top of that which doubled the price.

The unit in the top of the picture was from China. I bought a pack of ten for less than the cost of the American one. They do exactly the same job.

You can see that I’m not an expert with a soldering iron but four connections which are clearly labelled and you are ready to go. I put mine in a plastic project box and added a switch for convenience and that fits into a case which hangs over my shoulder under my parka with a powerful rechargeable Lithium Polymer (LiPo) power pack in it.

12V Power Pack for running a DSLR camera in extreme cold conditions. - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.
The power leads and battery packs I use for the cameras in the Arctic - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

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

I also carry a couple of ten AA battery packs with good quality rechargable NiMH cells giving me some reserve power if I need it but also being split-able for flashlights or other electrical equipment if required.

The lead is robust and long enough to be threaded through my outer clothing to a warm pocket within. Both LiPo and NiMH can provide their power fairly constantly down to -10c and carry on working, less efficiently,  down to -20c so kept inside the clothing there should not be too many problems.

The LiPo power packs and a12v-USB-adaptor. - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

The LiPo packs I use have a proprietary power connector which, though reliable,  is a pain in the butt when it comes to making leads.

Another thing it came with was a car cigarette lighter adaptor which has to be one of the most unreliable ways to connect anything but a cigarette lighter.

I have converted mine by plugging a USB adaptor into it so that I can use the power pack to charge USB devices while off grid.

You will note that I’ve taped it into position to make it a bit more reliable.

As a  tip though, I discovered that the charge socket which is a standard 5.5mm connector can also be used as a power output.

Recently I have invested in a light, folding solar panel for topping up power packs while off grid.

In general  solar panels work well in cold conditions but the low angle and hours of sunlight probably offset any performance gains given by the low  temperatures.

One useful  performance gain offered by such a panel is that LiPo batteries heat up  slightly when being charged, which keeps them in a better condition for  operation.

MSC Expedition Solar Charger . - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.
MSC Expedition Solar Charger . - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

While not offering a complete solution, this panel should help to maintain the smaller camera batteries as well.

For best  performance the batteries will be charged in my baggage or an insulated  pouch via a long lead because batteries charge better when warm.

The panel is  designed so that it can be attached to a pack when travelling or a  shelter / tree when in camp. The trick will be to keep it facing as much towards the sun as possible.

I’ll write more after my next trip when I will be better able to judge the benefits.

I am also experimenting with some charger units that have come onto the market recently for recharging the camera batteries from a USB power source. For the Canon batteries at least that means they step the voltage up from 5V which makes life easier.  Again more on those after the next trip.

Glove and Mitten system - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

A more physical challenge for a photographer in cold conditions 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 and most camera phones will not work with normal gloves on.

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 more serious landscapes and 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.

Some of the photographic kit I carry with me on expeditions. - Ice Raven - Sub Zero Adventure - Copyright Gary Waidson, All rights reserved.

I discuss packing for flights elsewhere but it is worth making the point here that most airlines have limits on the carrying of rechargeable lithium batteries. The packs that I bought were chosen specifically to fall within these limits to make travelling easier. They are not light items to carry but I put them in my hand luggage and, so far, that has never been weighed when boarding a plane. If I get any problems I can decant gear into the coat as mentioned above.


Sub Zero Crew - Bushcraft UK

Unless noted otherwise, all photography, artwork and content on this site is copyrighted. © Gary Waidson 2020 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.