Sub zero photography

working

Warren and I wrapped up and working in well below -20°c

Some research into photography/video in Antarctic conditions.

In practice – my own findings

We went to The Ice in late October which is early in ‘the season’. At that time of year the sun is up 24hrs a day but gets very low in the sky between 12 and 2am. Really quite nice light. It did mean it was still quite cold. Most days were about -20°c  without windchill (which could easily push it down to -35°c). In short … bloody cold.

Obviously this meant wear sensible clothes. As your mother would tell you “wear a jacket”. AntarcticaNZ go a bit further and issued us with some amazing kit!. I was never really cold with the very notable exception of my nose and fingers. In order to use the cameras I often had to compromise what gloves I wore. When possible I opted for a pair of polyprop liners and some medium weight outers but even then holding the cameras was painful after 30 minutes or so. On rare occasions I took my outer gloves off to do fiddly things which I usually regretted doing almost instantly. AntarcticaNZ gave me some chemical glove warmers which helped especially to get the feeling back when you stopped shooting.

Anything metal becomes a nightmare to hold for even a short time. I wrapped as much of the metal surfaces of cameras and tripods with thin closed cell foam and insulation taped which definitely helped.

tapedup_bmpcc

My Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera – wrapped in insulation tape and closed cell foam in an effort to avoid me touching metal as much as possible.

Another hassle with wearing thick gloves was that it became hard to feel my way around a lens so I would occasionally turn the focus when I wanted to zoom etc. I put a cable tie and insulation tape around focus ring to make it easier to feel and it worked a treat (see red tape on lens in the photo above).

The next biggest issue was glasses and goggles fogging. You have to wear a neck warmer or something over your mouth and nose which meant that my sunglasses tended to fog (and then freeze). Goggles where better but harder to look into the viewfinders. I do recommend the neoprene face masks with vents for nose and mouth. As expected the bright conditions made it very hard to look at the screen on the back of the camera unless it had a viewfinder on it. I found the Zacuto Z-Finders worked perfectly – no fogging.

Condensation was really only an issue when things got steamy – in Hagglund vehicles with lots of body heat or in cooking tents etc. See the tips below which helped to a degree.

On the whole batteries were not as big a drama as I was expecting. They definitely didn’t last as long as usual but the onboard batteries in the Nikons were ok. I used an external pack for the D800 for a while but the cable froze solid and snapped! The one battery type that really didn’t work well was the GoPro batteries which lasted as little as 15 minutes at -20°c. Underwater where it was only -3c they were better. The Nation Geographic crew had larger external batteries (I think they wee third party) which seemed to last better.

The cameras themselves were little troopers! Big ups to Nikon and Black Magic! All the cameras just kept on functioning without too much drama. After long periods the screens would slowly crap out. LCD’s would fade and become sluggish, the rear monitors would have pixels crap out and develop alarming lines down them (BMPCC) but they came right in the warm and the cameras kept taking pictures.

The absolute hero was my little Nikon CoolpixA – small enough to always be there, I could put it on my pocket to keep warm and even when frozen solid it kept going even though it was covered in frost and the screen went blue!

I am yet to get to the bottom of an autofocus issue with the D800 – it may be an issue with one lens. Other than that it was fine.

I used ND filters most of the time to control the 24hr sunlight. An absolute must!

All the lenses where fine most of the time. The only real issue was when my Sigma 24-105mm F4 DG OS HSM lens focus froze solid (both manual and auto-focus) after about 2 1/2hours at -20°c … but by then my fingers were so cold I didn’t care!

Microphones all worked fine – the big shotgun mic with a blimp was essential to work in the wind. As expected the audio recording on the BMPCC was … well it was totally shit … reference only. The Zoom H6 was outstanding!

gear

All the equipment ready for packing – click here for a full list of the gear we took

That’s about it as a debrief – below is some of my background reading

Pre-trip research

In the majority of cases camera manufacturers guarantee full functionality of a camera when used in temperatures between 0 to +40 degrees C. There are many challenges in shooting in sub-zero conditions but the two biggest challenges are battery life and condensation.

In summary: In cold climates, if you have been out in the cold for some time, put your camera and lenses in re-sealable plastic bags. When you enter a warm area the condensation will form on the outside of the bag, not on your equipment. Once the equipment has acclimatised you can removed that from the bags and pack them away.

Keep batteries warm inside your clothes and have plenty of spares.

You might find the following tips helpful if you are working in sub-zero temperature conditions.

From Nikon:

Battery usage

One of the main issues that occur under sub-zero conditions is that battery life is greatly reduced. The cold conditions affect the electrochemical processes within the battery as the temperature drops. The chemical reaction within the battery which produces the power slows down and results in the battery being exhausted much quicker than if it was warm. Under sub-zero conditions keeping one or two batteries in an inside pocket of your coat etc so that the battery is warmed by your body heat and swapped regularly with the battery in the camera will assist in keeping the temperature of the battery in the camera up to a good working condition.

Condensation

When moving cold cameras and lenses into warm conditions, it is important to be aware of the adverse effects of condensation. Condensation is caused when there is a rapid change in temperature and water can form on surfaces that are significantly colder / warmer than the air around it. The adverse effects of condensation can result in airborne water becoming deposited on the internal surfaces of the camera and may affect performance, particularly optical components and sensitive micro-electronics. There are two methods we would recommend to avoid this. Let the camera and lenses acclimate gradually to the warm temperature by storing the camera in a bag or case and make it easier for the camera to dry.

  1. If you have been outside in the cold for a period of time your camera bag will also be cold. Pack your camera equipment in your bag before you go indoors. The cold outside air is dry and the bag is cooled gradually, so any moisture transfers away from it. Allow the bag to stand undisturbed and allow the equipment to warm up slowly.
  2. If for some reason you take the camera directly into the warm indoors air, remove the lens cap and see what happens with the lens / viewfinder eyepiece. Condensation will form on the glass and there will probably also be condensation inside the camera as well. Detach the lens from the camera body and let it rest without the lens caps. Let the camera rest without body caps and remove the memory card and battery with the memory card door and battery door open. Allow the camera to acclimate like this until it reaches room temperature and the risk of condensation is gone. Avoid having the camera lie open in this way in a dusty environment, be sure to choose a place where the risk of dust getting inside of the camera body is minimised.

Read more from Nikon

From Anthony Powell

New Zealand photographer Anthony Powell is wintering over at Scott Base this season. He has extensive experience shooting on The Ice and shares some great insights regularly

Some particularly pertinent posts from Anthony:

Facebook post re cameras in -40:

After 5 hours straight of being out in -42 ambient the other night here at Scott Base Antarctica, it was interesting to see how the various brands of camera gear I was using handled the cold.
The Panasonic GH4s lasted about 25 mins on their internal batteries, but kept firing away with an external power supply no problem. Same for the Panasonic Tx110. Great performance overall.
The Sony A7s lasted about 5 minutes on the internal battery, but was fine with an external power supply. However the main viewscreen was prone to shutting down.
The Canon 5D2 which I have used at -50 in the past only lasted about 15 minutes this time on the internal batteries. It is usually fairly reliable in the cold so long as you are not taking more than one photo every few seconds, as the lubricants on the shutter can start to become sticky.
The worst performer was the newest camera I have, the Sony A7r2. Batteries only last about 5 minutes, after that the camera itself kept resetting every time I tried to take a photo, asking to re-enter the date and region of the camera, even with a fresh warm battery. Nice pictures, but terrible cold performance.
The Atomos Shogun was pretty much DOA after about 15 minutes, even with a good external power supply. It also has a tendency to become non-responsive to a touch stylus, forcing you to take gloves off to operate the touch screen with your fingers. Not something you want to do very often.
The Pix-E5 kept on going just fine, and having the option of pressing physical tactile buttons is a massive bonus in the cold. Also the screen remained responsive in the cold, even after a few hours. A lot of older gear with LCD screens, the image on the screen will freeze in place when the liquid inside them freezes.

Anthony Powell's photo.

Facebook post re external power:
Anthony Powell Peter Schneider I will use a 12v battery with a step-down buck converter circuit. Batteries typically lose about 1 volt in the cold, and the camera will then treat it as being flat. By using a higher voltage battery with a step-down voltage converter it means I can supply a constant voltage at whatever level is needed by the camera regardless of what the main battery is doing, so long as it is higher that the output setting of the converter. You can pick up voltage converter circuit boards on eBay for a couple of dollars each.

Anthony Powell shared Antarctica: A Year On Ice‘s photo.
June 2 at 3:50pm Another one bites the dust.
Antarctica: A Year On Ice's photo.

Antarctica: A Year On IceLike Page

June 2 at 12:02pm The problem with shooting a lot of time-lapse on DSLRs is eventually the camera shutter will wear out. Usually a lot faster in the extreme cold too. I usually kill one or two cameras each year.
Anthony Powell added a new photo to album: Camera Projects.
May 21 Been really impressed with how well the new Panasonic TZ110 has been working here in Antarctica, even at -40deg. Battery life is reduced a bit in the extreme cold but not as bad as most cameras. Sensitive enough to get good clean aurora photos from too. Generally just leave in in my jacket pocket all the time now in case I need something at short notice.
Anthony Powell's photo.