Choosing the right equipment to use in the field is essential. I often get the question about what to use in challenging circumstances. On this page I would like to clarify this a bit more.
I’m a happy Canon user. I never had any (unexpected) problems with my camera’s or lenses, even in temperatures close to -40°C they keep performing “ok”. The reason I’m saying “ok” rather than “perfect” is explained in this paragraph.
First of all, battery life. No matter how good or expensive your batteries are, they will loose performance once the temperatures drop. There’s nothing much one can do, except for keeping them warm when they are not in use. Keep your spare batteries in your inner pockets at all times. If the one in your camera fails, you can switch it with a warm battery and heat up the “empty” battery with body heat to regain some capacity. In the past I’ve used off brand batteries as well. In Belgium they performed equally good, but once the temperatures dropped, they proved to be useless. So stick with the real Canon or Nikon batteries. In extreme situations, quality matters!
I’m sometimes carrying a big amount of spare batteries (10+ including some large ones for the drone), which makes it uncomfortable to keep them all in your inner pockets. Definitely if you are regularly down on the ground to get a low level view, you don’t want them to poke your body all the time. For this, I started using the Celestron heating packs. Essentially, it’s a powerbank that can release it’s energy by producing heat. It’s a battery on it’s own, so it’s also affected by the cold, but I switch it on the moment I go out, so it’s own internal battery does not get the chance to be cold. Then it goes into an insulated small bag together with the spare camera and drone batteries. If it’s -30 outside, the batteries inside this bag wont be +30°C, but somewhere in between, around -5°, depending on how well this whole set is insulated and heat coming from the Celestron is kept inside the bag as efficient as possible. In the most extreme conditions, I put this battery-bag in a spare down jacket I have, inside my MrJanGear bag, and this one goes inside a Pelican case 1630 on the rack of my snowmobile.
Battery failure is one of the things you can try to prevent. Other issues I’ve had to deal with or more difficult/impossible to prevent. Apartures, autofocus, the shutter and mirrorbox, zoomrings or memorycards have never let me down so far due to the cold. LCD performance is an issue I have had in temperatures below -25. The LCD’s of the camera’s start to slow down. This is not the camera it self, only the response time of the screen of you change settings. This happens with all 4 LCD screens in my 1D camera (top LCD, the 2 back LCD’s and the viewfinder LCD somewhat too). I have no solution yet for this issue, and I believe it will just get worse with the mirrorless camera’s who are even more power hungry, and rely even more on the usage of LCD’s.
Basically, everything which has oil inside will also be affected by the cold. As the temperature drops, the oil will get more viscous and gets close to it’s point of solidification. As tripod I’m using a Gitzo tripod and ballhead from RRS. The panning base uses some oil, but even in very low temperatures, I’ve never had problems with either the tripod or head. If you pay attention, you will notice that the panning base is somewhat slower to turn, but it does not affect you in any way. The newer G-lock system of the gitzo tripods need almost no grease so perform far better than older non G-lock mechanism. This is different with my Swarovski binoculars. obviously there’s some oil present as lubricant for the focus mechanism. Just as with all oils, it gets more viscous with lower temperatures. The binoculars are operated with only one or two fingers, often with gloves, so adjusting focus becomes significantly more difficult but far from impossible.
Protecting your camera gear and warming your batteries might seem like priority number one, but if you’re shaking from the cold yourself, your images will be blurry anyway. So self protection! 🙂
Frostbite can leave ugly scars, but with some easy hints you can prevent a lot. You can already find a lot of information everywhere online, but here’s my personal view. The main message for this section is layers! I prefer to wear natural materials such as merino wool and down, but this is a personal preference, there are many different theories. As a first layer on easy exposed skin (hands and face) I like to have some cold cream such as shea butter. Never ever use water based creams, as this greatly increases the chances on frostbite. Go for fat based creams. In cold places such as Canada, Svalbard, Alaska you will easily find this in supermarkets or pharmacies. Cameras are usually made of metal, and it’s quite easy to stick your wet lips or dripping nose to the freezing camera. It’s a lot less likely that this happens if you’re wearing a fat based cream and lip balm!
For hand protection, there’s one brand who’s simply the best: The heat company! I’ve been using these gloves for several years now, and I use them for almost everything! They are a must have for photographers, as it’s the only glove that decently combines warmth and dexterity into one. I still use the old model called “heat smart 3”. My liner gloves are almost worn out now, and with my current model I cant replace just these, but with the new version it’s just a layering system, so once the liners are worn out, you can replace only these.
For shoe’s I’m a happy user of the cheap Meindl Sölden boots, they are light, warm and you can still walk with them. If the temperature drops below -20, I’ll switch to the Baffin Apex. It’s impossible to walk with them, but they are extremely warm.
I’m an Iphone user, and it’s sad to say, but they are useless in extreme cold. I’ve seen Samsung and Huawei’s perform far better, possibly due to the plastic casing the cold gets slower to the battery compared to the conductive metal used in iphones? A pain in the ass if you want to fly a drone in the cold! DJI has however just released a new controller with built in screen that works to -20°C, so that could be an alternative.