9 Tips for Shooting in the Cold

Photographer Alexander Efremov, who has worked in the Arctic, shares his experience of shooting in low temperatures without damaging a camera, the pictures, or one’s own health.


9 Tips for Shooting in the Cold

Photographer Alexander Efremov, who has worked in the Arctic, shares his experience of shooting in low temperatures without damaging a camera, the pictures, or one’s own health.

Shooting in the cold calls for a certain amount of knowledge – neglecting a few rules, a photographer risks the loss of pictures, and places gear in jeopardy. Bird in Flight asked an experienced photographer accustomed to working in difficult outdoor conditions to share his knowledge on how to prevent cold weather problems.

Alexander Efremov, 57 years old

From Moscow (Russia), lives in Haifa (Israel). Member of Russian Union of Art Photographers, the European Association of Professional Photographers and Commercial Photographers’ Guild. Worked from 2008 to 2011 as editor-in-chief of PHOTOtravel magazine. Author of twelve books, including ‘Photography in Extreme Conditions‘ (2012). Lecturer, workshop and seminar coach.

Use trekking gloves

If you are not skiing yet moving in soft snow, your motions tend to slow down. That’s why you need to put on many more clothes than normal for going out. Especially if it’s windy. In the North there is the ‘One meter – One degree’ rule. What does it mean? Well, our perception of the cold enhances depending on the wind speed. So –10° feels like –15;° with a 5 m/s wind. The face needs to be protected: a balaclava is good for it. It is difficult to manipulate the camera in thick woollen mittens – thin trekking gloves are a much better idea.

Turn off additional functions

The battery discharges very fast in the cold. It’s good to have an external power supply for the camera and keep the battery warm in your inner pocket just in case. If the absence thereof you need at least two fully charged batteries. Keep one warm on your body while using the other.

To make the battery last longer, turn off all the additional functions: e.g. image stabiliser and LCD. Try to avoid frequent turn ON/OFFs: the moment it turns on, a camera performs a self-adjustment that also eats up the energy.

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Try to hold your breath while shooting

The battery is the only part of your camera that should be kept warm: but not the camera itself. Never try to put it inside your coat. It is warm and humid there – like in a room with turned-on heating. So when you take the camera out next time, it will get all frozen over in a matter of seconds. Of course it depends on the outside temperature and humidity (because droplets of condensed moisture can appear on the camera surface even in above zero temperatures, for example, right after a heavy rain or during evening temperature drop-down). Of course you will be able to dry it off later, but you shouldn’t use the camera before that’s done. Even the plastic lens of the viewfinder can easily be damaged while scratching the ice off, to say nothing of the camera body and the changeable filter. As an option you can use a protective camera skin but the latter should be tested first as to its frost-resistance. In freezing temperatures plastic might crack even after minor manipulations. So here’s an easy home test: put the camera skin into the freezer. If it gets stiff after a few hours, better not use it. Junk happens.

As you are shooting outside, warm air from your nose and mouth gets into the viewfinder, where it condenses and freezes, totally closing the viewfinder, so you will have to guess what you are shooting. To avoid this, try to hold your breath while taking pictures.

Don’t try to blow the snow off the camera

If you can avoid breathing onto the mirror and the back lens of the camera, it is possible to change the optics in the cold without any risk. In a snowstorm, however, a lens change should be performed in a sheltered place, to keep the snow out of the camera body. Similarly, a bag can be used. If there’s no bag, bring two or three cameras with different focal length.

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Never try to blow the snow off the camera with your mouth. The air that you exhale is humid. A zeeion blower will efficiently remove the snow. If you don’t have a special protective hood, use a plastic bag with a hole for the lens. The bag can easily be fixed onto the lens with a plastic band. Before putting the camera back into the case, carefully blow all the snow off. When back at home, don’t forget to take all the gear out and check it carefully.

Protect your camera from humidity

Many years ago my colleague and I went to shoot beyond the Polar Circle. It was a commercial assignment for a gas company. The weather was very clear, with temperature -25-30˚C, and a 7-8 m/s wind. We were walking in a low-set snow blizzard: the snow was not in flakes, it had the texture of minute dust.

We were both using medium-format Mamia RB67 cameras. We can usually do with two or three rolls of film. Each of us took five, just in case. The first film got stuck while loading. My colleague had the same trouble. We tried replacing the film rolls, but 5 out of 10 got jammed.

Back at the hotel, we discovered that the snow dust had got into the roll while loading. Melting down, it got the backing paper of the leader (the initial non-working part of the film — Editor’s note) wet, so the film started folding onto itself inside the roll. Luckily, we then had to redo only a few shots

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Choose a frost-resistant memory card

In freezing temperatures the recording process of a memory card can slow down or stop. That’s why it is advisable to use memory cards intended for use in cold weather, e.g. SanDisk Extreme that is guaranteed to work in –25°.

Warm the camera up gradually

Before entering a building or a car, remember to put the camera back into its case. When getting into a car, don’t take the camera with you, it’s better to put it into the boot. That way it will warm up gradually. When inside a building, avoid opening the camera case immediately: wait at least for two hours to avoid condensing moisture hazard. In the Arctic we lived in a house that was heated to +22°, with the outside temperature –25. The house entrance was through three antechambers – we left our camera cases in the first one for one hour. The temperature there was around zero. After that we brought the camera bags into the heated room and opened them circa one hour later.

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Hire an experienced guide

Remember: all the survival tips are written with the dead men’s hands. I mean, of course, those who perished in extreme conditions. Any theory courses on survival techniques are to be questioned because they are often given by non-professionals. Whenever you set out in a new place, take a guide who is well familiar with the terrain. Whenever in doubt – better stop and turn around. Don’t push into the unknown.

In faraway settlements in the Arctic they often put empty fuel barrels by the side of the road to mark it for travelers, leaving 5 meters in between. Once, as we were returning to the base, a blizzard started. Everything around was white. The visibility was so poor we could hardly see the next barrel.

Include gear expenses into shooting costs

To the client, shoots made in extremely rough and cold conditions look the same as ones made in warm weather. But the photographer needs good quality, i.e., expensive clothes and shoes. Also, consider expenses for heating the car and the tent in wild nature.

Translation by Varvara Lozenko.

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