Five Tips for Using Your Camera in Cold Weather

Cold weather photography complicates your creative process. But you can take better photos this winter. Follow these five tips for using your camera and photography gear in the cold.

Cold weather is upon us, and the snowflakes are coming down. Winter will be with us for a few more months (in the northern hemisphere at least). And the cold weather can cause all sorts problems with electronics. So what should you be aware of when using your camera gear in the cold?

Batteries

NiMH and Lithium Ion batteries are the most commonly used battery types for digital cameras. And like all batteries, they generate electrical current through a chemical reaction. When cold, the battery’s chemical reaction takes place slower or at reduced efficiency.

So this means that in order to draw the same amount of power in cold weather, more chemical reactions need to take place, and the battery will lose its charge much faster.

To get around this, try to keep your camera and batteries warm. If you have a smaller point-and-shoot camera, keep the camera in an inner jacket pocket. If you have a larger DSLR, keeping it in your bag will offer some protection from the cold.

Also make sure you have your batteries fully charged before you go out on a cold day. If you plan on doing a lot of shooting, have an extra battery handy. Remember to keep any extra batteries inside your jacket or pocket, to keep them warm.

Operating Temperature Range

Electronic devices (including digital cameras) have an “approved” range of operating temperatures. This just means that the camera manufacturer has tested and certified the camera to function normally at those temperatures.

Smaller point-and-shoot cameras with pop-out lenses may be more susceptible to mechanical errors in cold weather. Any exposed, moving parts can freeze up. Like extending lenses or automatic sliding lens covers.

As a general rule, DSLR cameras will be more durable. DSLR operating temperature range should not be a major consideration unless you plan on shooting in extremely cold weather. (I’ve used my Nikon cameras in temperatures well below 0F)

Your camera may well function outside of the recommended operating range. Check your manual just in case. And just like your batteries, try to keep your camera warm and protected when you’re not shooting.

Condensation

Condensation is when a gas or vapor turns to a liquid state. When a surface is colder than the surrounding air, water vapor can condense out of the air onto the surface. Condensation becomes a concern for cold weather photography because water vapor condensation can form on lenses, LCD screens, sensors and other internal components.

When you have your camera out to shoot in cold weather, the glass, plastic and electronics will cool off quickly. Walking back into a warm house or placing the camera into a warm jacket or pack can cause unwanted condensation because the camera will be much colder than the new environment.

The amount of condensation will depend on the dew point and relative humidity.

Here in Colorado, where the air is almost always dry, this isn’t much of a concern. But if you live in a more humid climate you definitely should keep this in mind. Use a lint-free, cotton cloth to wipe away condensation from lenses and LCD screens, and make sure your camera is powered off if you see heavy condensation on the lens or on components.

Gloves

One thing you’ll want when shooting in cold weather is a good pair of gloves. Unfortunately, a pair of heavy gloves will not let you operate the small buttons and controls on your camera.

To keep your hands warm while using your camera, try wearing a lightweight glove liner inside a pair of heavier mittens or winter gloves. You can slip your hands out of the heavy winter gloves to use the camera controls and take your shots, and then put them back inside the heavier pair to stay warm.

You can also try some fingerless gloves or mittens, but most likely these will defeat the purpose of keeping your hands warm. If your camera has a touch screen, your only option may be to take off your winter gloves during operation.

Exposure

Winter photography probably means one thing. There is going to be snow in your pictures. Lots of snow. And snow plus sunlight equals bright images.

How can you compensate for the extremely bright areas of snow and ice without losing detail in the dark areas of your photo?

Many cameras will have built-in scene modes to address this very scenario. On your camera dial, look for “snow” or “beach” scene modes. These modes tell your camera to expect a very bright picture and to compensate accordingly.

Alternatively, you can adjust the aperture and shutter speed values (for DSLRs and some point-and-shoot cameras). For a very bright landscape, f13 or f16 is a good place or start. Check your camera’s light meter to make sure the exposure is not overblown.

Another solution for overly bright scenes is to use a filter to darken the image. An ND, or neutral density, filter will darken the photo equally across the entire spectrum. A polarizing filter will remove the scattered light from a scene, effectively darkening the image and increasing the intensity of colors.

Conclusion

Cold weather photography complicates your creative process. And you’ll have to take a few additional things into account when using your gear. Condensation, camera operating temperature ranges, the effects of cold air, etc, can all impact your photography. But follow these tips, and you’ll be on the way to better photos this winter.

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