Solving the Problems of Photography within Very Cold Temperatures

Cameras generally aren’t specced to take in very cold conditions. A small handful have a negative operating temperature (in Celsius at least), like the Nikon Z9 at -10° C and 14° F. Most other medication is rated for a pretty pedestrian 0° C / 32° F. But if you’re aware of the issues, you can work in temps colder than that.

As someone who does a lot of landscape photography within winter, I’ve run into almost every common problem associated with working in the cold. It’s a rewarding time to take photos, and many subjects look amazing in the snow (see the guide to winter season photography designed for more). But it does come with some challenges.

Even if you’re shooting inside the manufacturer’s operating temperature restricts, some of the problems below could apply. But especially as the temperature drops below cold, then drops further into the negatives – Celsius or   Fahrenheit – the issues stack up. Here are the problems and solutions you need to be aware of before capturing in the extreme cold.

Table of Contents

1 . Camera Operation in Gloves

In many cases, the biggest issue in the cold isn’t which the camera stops working. It is that it becomes difficult to run the camera while wearing gloves in the first place!

A few photographers recommend wearing fingerless gloves to help fix the problem – or if not totally fingerless, at least gloves or mittens where the fingertips could be flipped open when required. But this solution just works in moderate cool. As the temperatures dip below freezing, fingerless gloves turn out to be an increasingly bad idea. After all, it’s our fingertips that are most susceptible to the cool and frostbite in the first place.

My recommendation is to wear the warmest set of gloves with fingers that still lets you operate the camera reasonably well. (Gloves with a bit of grip around the fingers are a good way to look. ) Over top of these, add a pair of flip-top mittens. Keep the mittens flipped shut as much as possible, but when you need to operate the camera, you can open up them for a minute with out freezing your fingers underneath.

I find this the best compromise in between warmth and dexterity. Your fingertips are never actually exposed to the sub-zero air, but you’re still able to modify your camera pretty well. Seeking the optimal gloves may take some trial and error, though. And in especially cold situations, you may find this helpful to have a heat pack stored inside an accessible wallet so that you can warm up your convenience quickly if they start to get numb.

Arctic-Terns-over-Icebergs-in-Iceland
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 135mm, ISO 800, 1/400, f/16. 0

In terms of the camera alone, one thing that helps is to change the button layout to be navigable in the cold. For instance , half-pressing the shutter key to autofocus is challenging with gloves on, therefore now’s a good time to finally start using back button focus instead! Likewise, if your camera has a joystick, use that instead of the direction pad to improve your focus point plus scroll through your camera menus. Look at your particular camera, plus I’m sure you’ll come across some ways to improve its operation in the cold. Maybe all you need to do is proceed some commonly-used features from the menu to a dedicated key.

Lastly, I ought to note that it’s much easier to fall a camera or lens while you’re wearing mitts. If you can find a pair of safety gloves or mittens with grip, it helps. So does placing your camera on a tripod before changing lenses in the place of trying to do everything handheld.

– Rapid Battery Loss

Batteries just don’t work very well in the cold. They drain faster and sometimes die before they’re even put in the camera.

The fix for this is nothing special: Just bring more batteries, and keep them warm while you’re shooting. Personally, I leave my backup batteries in the pocket of one of my base layer jackets. They stay warmer thanks to my human body heat and don’t lose any substantial charge while they’re there.

After you’re done shooting for the day, charge  all your batteries overnight, not just those you’ve been shooting with. This may require you to buy an additional charger or two, but there are plenty of cheap battery chargers available these days, sometimes with dual slots. (I recommend searching “Dual USB charger for [your camera name]” on Amazon , and I guarantee you’ll find something reasonable. )

In the past on multi-day hikes in the cold, I had all the best with carrying a separate battery power and recharging my batteries daily from that. I made it through a nine day hike in Iceland with seven batteries that way and in actual fact had a lot of charge to spare by the end. If you keep your batteries warm and topped off, you won’t have issues using them in the cold.

Black and White Winter Photograph
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 200mm, ISO 100, 1/1250, f/8. 0

3. Temperature Swings and Condensation

When you quickly move from cold areas to warm ones – like going indoors after taking pictures in sub-zero temperatures – it’s very common for your camera gear to fog up. And if you see condensation on the lens or viewfinder, it’s almost certainly within the camera as well. This condensation can potentially damage your camera, especially if you subject your gear to it frequently.

If you view it happening, quickly remove your camera battery, then memory card, and then lens. Keep your entire lens caps and human body caps removed, and also leave the battery and memory doors open. Once the camera and lens reach room temperature, the fog must be gone, and you can close every thing and put the camera away.

However the better alternative is to prevent this situation in the first place. Usually, if your bag is just as cold as your camera, all you have to do is zip the camera away in the bag and bring them both inside to warm up slowly. The bag insulates all the equipment inside sufficiently that condensation is unlikely to form. You can take them out of the bag once everything reaches room temperature.

However , in especially cold conditions (or a particularly warm/humid indoor area), you may need to go with an even more extreme solution. Put your camera, lenses, and all other sensitive electronics in to plastic freezer bags prior to going inside. Open the bags once the gear warms around room temperature. This prevents condensation every time. That said, the idea of bringing a bunch of plastic bags into the field is a bit much for me. The backpack method is good enough that I don’t tend to utilize the freezer bag method today.

Minimalist mountain with smooth texture
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 200mm, ISO 100, 1/15, f/8. 0

4. Fog from Breathing Out

I always enjoy watching my breath fog up in the cold. Maybe because it lets me pretend I’m braving the sun and rain more than I really am. But a drawback is that the ice crystals from your foggy breath can land on your camera and lens, potentially causing some dilemmas.

The more prevalent issue is that the icy fog starts accumulating on your rear LCD or viewfinder glass, making it harder to see your composition. That’s easy to fix when it becomes a problem by simply wiping them away.

The more subtle and concerning problem is when the fog lands on the front of your lens. In many cases, this can happen without you realizing it, unless you check the front of your lens more than most of us. But when the fog starts appearing on your LCD or viewfinder, you can often bet that a bit is landing on your lens, too. That’s what happened here:

This strange effect is because fog from my breath accumulated on the front of the lens.

I took the photo above on one of the clearest nights I’ve ever seen, with no clouds or fog in the air at all. The picture looks how it does because ice crystals from my breath had gradually accumulated on the front of my lens. I didn’t realize this for the longest time – only once it got as bad as you see in the image above. The earlier photos I took that night also have hints of unwanted fog in them.

The perfect solution is here is to be aware of how much condensation is landing on your camera and to periodically inspect your lens. Otherwise, you may not realize until you’re back at your computer that all your photos accidentally have an Orton Effect filter.

5. Ice Collecting on the Camera

Sometimes, the foundation of ice collecting on your lens or camera isn’t your breath but instead the outside world. If you’re taking photos in freezing rain or windy, icy conditions, it’s crucial that you check your lens – and lens hoods especially – for accumulating ice.

I ran into this problem once at Rocky Mountain National Park on a cold winter morning. It was so windy that eventually my tripod blew over and cracked the top of my Nikon D800e (though the camera kept working just fine otherwise). But before any of that happened, the wind blew so much ice onto my lens that it formed a ring around the front element:

Ice around from element of lens in cold weather

The Nikon 14-24mm f/2. 8 I was using that day isn’t entirely an internal zoom. As you zoom out, the front element moves more and more forward within the built-in lens hood. However in this case, the ice ring blocked the front element from moving out, sticking me with the 18mm focal length and longer! It wasn’t a problem in this case, with 14mm being a bit too wide for the scene anyway, but it was an important lesson.

I can easily imagine similar situations where freezing rain clogs up a camera button, tripod legs, polarizing filter, or any other section of your gear. The more aware you are of what’s happening, the more likely it is that one can stop it before you lose a critical function of the camera.

Final Result of Rocky Mountain Photo
NIKON D800E + 14-24mm f/2. 8 @ 18mm, ISO 100, 1/60, f/13. 0

6. Slowdown or Failure of Moving Parts

The final issue I’d like to note is that cold temperatures slow everything down, including moving parts of the camera. Your shutter curtains may get a bit stuck, reducing your maximum FPS or leading to slightly inconsistent exposures at faster shutter speeds. Your tripod’s leg locks may require more force than usual. Or, in the worst cases, something might break completely.

The worst case I saw is when my friend’s Nikon D810 mirror simply stopped employed in sub-zero temperatures. I don’t know exactly what broke, but he had to send it to Nikon for a pricey repair afterward. Anything below about  -18° Celsius or 0° Fahrenheit is cold enough that a lot of mechanical systems just don’t quite work right.

Still, you can shoot in those conditions with some precautions. One helpful tip is by using as few moving parts as possible. This means changing your camera from mechanical to electronic shutter (AKA silent shooting mode) if you shoot mirrorless, or doing something similar with a DSLR in live view if yours has the option. Opt for bringing a backup camera as temperatures get lower and lower.

Thankfully, my friend whose D810 broke had a backup Micro Four Thirds camera that kept chugging away in the cold. But it goes to show that the operating temperatures of these cameras aren’t just there for show. You are risking your gear to some degree when you shoot much colder than recommended.

Nine Berries
NIKON D7000 + 105mm f/2. 8 @ 105mm, ISO 100, 1 . 3 seconds, f/5. 6

Conclusion

If you’re planning a photoshoot in the cold any time soon, the tips in this article should give you a good place to start. The biggest key is just to generally be aware of what’s happening, because there are probably many other items that can go wrong that I haven’t specifically covered yet. Review your photos much more often than usual, and take a few backup shots of each important composition to maximise your odds.

Finally, I hope it goes without saying, but the top priority in extreme conditions like this is keeping yourself safe. Everything seems to go wrong twice more frequently when it’s so cold out. Your satellite phone’s battery dies, your car skids off the road, your water supply freezes, and so on. Only worry about how your camera functions in the cold after you’ve made sure that  you’ll function fine!

Once you’ve done that, go out and enjoy it. The cold keeps a lot of photographers away from some places even though they’re at their most beautiful. Make the most of the lighter crowds and more atmospheric conditions to take some amazing photos.

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