In light of this recent cold snap (-16 at our house yesterday morning), I thought it might be a good time to start a little series on how to protect your camera from the elements. I've been meaning to do this for a while and now seems like as good a time as any. Every year, I get a handful of e-mails from people wondering how to protect their camera from extreme cold or heat, humidity, dust, snow, and a bunch of other conditions that are hard on cameras. It also seems to be one of the biggest concerns that people have when I teach workshops.
Yes, the world can be hard on cameras. But some of the roughest situations also offer some of the best images. So instead of just leaving your camera tucked away safely at home, there are a few simple things you can do to help it survive the elements. In this installment we'll cover COLD:
- Keep the batteries in your pocket. Cold eats up batteries like an angry little hedgehog eats...um...I have no idea what hedgehogs eat. Hedges, I guess? May be not. I have no idea. Anyway, cold is bad for batteries. In sub-zero temperatures you can pretty much watch the battery meter plummeting to zero. Usually the camera will die just before you get the best shot of the day. If you can keep the batteries in your pocket (preferably an inside coat pocket close to your body) and then put them into the camera right before you start shooting, you can get a lot more life out of them. Some people try to keep the whole camera and lens tucked inside a warm coat, but this can cause condensation on the lens or viewfinder, which can then turn to frost when exposed to the cold again. Not ideal. And even more problematic, if that moisture gets inside the lens and body it can create spots on the sensor. By keeping just the battery warm you avoid this problem. It also helps to have a few batteries to rotate in and out of the camera. If one gets cold enough to die, switch it for a fresh one and warm it up, they'll usually recover some power as they thaw and can be used a little more later on. Especially if I'm shooting with a tripod, I get the entire shot lined up and even focused before I pull the battery out of my pocket and put it in the camera. The warmer it stays, the longer it will last.
- Carry a drybag (or a big zip lock freezer bag). Obviously, a drybag is great for protecting the camera from heavy snow fall or other precipitation in the field. But there's a less obvious function it can serve. It's important to protect a cold camera from condensation when you bring it back into a warm space like your house or car. If you bag and seal it outside in the cold dry air and then leave it in the bag indoors until the camera has warmed up to room temperature you can avoid getting any condensation on the camera. A weather proof cloth camera bag is not enough. You really need a fully waterproof/airtight container for this to work. (A pelican case can work great for this too, but drybags are a much cheaper solution.) Condensation on the outside of a camera or lens is mostly annoying, but relatively easy enough to clean up. Condensation on the inside of a lens or on the camera sensor can cause water spots after it dries. Those spots will then show up in all your other images. This is a real bummer (but fixable, watch for another post about sensor cleaning later in this series).
- Change your strap. If it's cold enough that you're concerned about your camera, it's a safe bet that you're not out there in your cut-off jeans and a sleeveless Mötley Crüe t-shirt. In fact, you're probably wearing something rather bulky and something on your hands (gloves, mittens, old socks with holes cut out for your thumbs, etc.). This can make slinging the strap for your camera over your shoulder a whole lot harder.
Now, let me preface this advice by saying that if you talk to ten different photographers, all ten of them will have a different idea about the ideal camera strap. This is just my preferred method. Try it and see what you think. I like to run two small pieces of cord through the strap mounts on each side of the body and knot them each into a loop. Then I use small clips to connect the shoulder strap to those loops. Now instead of wrestling the strap off of your shoulder and getting hung up on your hood and thrashing around like a drunk monkey trying to punch itself in the back of the head, you can hold the camera, unclip one side of the strap and slide it neatly off your shoulder.
Added bonus: You can also completely remove the strap for long exposure shots where just the slightest breeze can cause the strap to shake the camera and ruin your shot. And finally...
- Don't leave your camera in the car. Cameras can get cold. That's fine, but when they truly freeze you can do some real damage. There's a tiny amount of liquid in the LCD display on the back of a camera (and I believe in some sensors) that can, under very cold conditions, freeze and crack the glass. This is bad. And expensive. I've never heard of it happening while a camera is outside for even a lengthy shoot, but it can happen over a long night in a very cold car. This problem can easily be avoided by not leaving your camera in the car. The same is true at the other end of the spectrum when your car becomes a broiling summer inferno of camera melting rage. Perfect segue. Stay tuned for another post in this series about HOT.