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Cold Weather Photography

A topic that comes up often on Trailspace is photography - what camera to get, posting pictures, photos with trip reports, photo contest, member albums, and so on. I am putting this in Backcountry, since Trailspace does not have an "Outdoor Photography" forum, and since it deals directly with backcountry winter photography (or maybe Climbing photography), but not about gear choice per se.

A commercial photo dealer, Ritz, which sends out huge amounts of emails once you get on their list, has started including "how to" articles. Now that winter is upon us, they posted an article on cold weather photography. Now, although I have bought some things from Ritz (mail order, internet, and hundreds of affiliated stores), this is by no means an endorsement. I prefer to deal with my local specialty photography shop, Keeble and Shuchat, just as I prefer to deal with my two remaining mountaineering shops.

Just a couple comments on the article and my personal cold weather "tips" -

Overall, the article has some good points to make. Things have changed drastically in the realm of photography, with film virtually disappearing (although digital cameras still have a way to go before matching the best quality film photographs, if you compare like formats - FX format to 35mm film, medium format digital to medium format film, etc). Certain of the precautions with film do not apply to digital cameras - the old bugaboo of static discharge streaks in subzero dry conditions, for one. However, condensation is a very strong consideration for digital electronics.

If you take a warm camera into cold conditions, condensation is not a problem. But bringing a cold camera back into a warm environment (even into your tent, sometimes) can get condensation inside the camera on the electronics. I find that putting the camera in a ziploc bag while still outdoors in the cold, then letting it warm slowly helps - the condensation forms on the outside of the bag rather than on the camera. Also, I generally put the now-cooled camera into a ziploc bag before stuffing it back into my parka to allow it to warm a bit - which prevents my sweat from condensing on or inside the camera.

What about shooting in wet-snow conditions? There are waterproof enclosures, such as GoPro supplies with their cameras, and plastic waterproof bags with a hard plastic viewing window, as well as "raincoats" for your camera (I have an Aquatech that I mostly use in rain situations, but have used in wet snow conditions). If you are using the hard plastic box type or soft plastic bag type enclosures where the camera is sealed against the outside world, be sure to allow plenty of warmup time before opening the enclosure in a warm, possibly more humid environment.

Batteries do lose power when cold, including lithium batteries. Lithiums do retain more of their power at colder temperatures than any other variety (including NiCd rechargeables). So keep spares inside your parka and inside ziploc bags. Something to note is that often a battery will appear to die because of the cold, only to revive when heated by carrying it inside your parka for an hour or so.

Note - some cameras and other electronic devices that use AA and AAA batteries do not work with Lithium AA and AAA batteries, due to the fact that the new Li have an initial voltage of about 1.8V, vs alkalines at 1.6V and NiCd rechargeables at 1.5 V. Barb's Canon A-series has overvoltage protection that shuts the camera down when it detects a higher voltage than about 1.65V, as do a couple of my GPSRs and some other electronic widgets we have.

But what about the need to change batteries or memory cards? If you have kept your spare batteries and memory cards inside your parka so they stay warm, you have no problem. You can change the batteries and memory cards, even though the camera may have become chilled. Put the used ones in a ziploc bag before moving them inside your parka. As noted above, the chilled batteries will sometimes recover a little as they warm up.

Then again, you can avoid changing memory cards by getting larger memory sizes. It takes a large number of photos to fill a 32GB card, even when shooting RAW 14-bit color depth images as I usually do (more than 1100 pictures). And you can now get SD and CF cards up to 128G (remember, SD cards come in SD, SDHC high capacity, and SDXC extreme capacity, so make sure your camera can use the higher capacity cards before buying them).

The most basic tip is, of course, keep yourself warm and dry. That includes your fingers and toes. Learn to use your camera WITH your gloves on.


Thanks, OGBO, for the article reference & tips.  

Specifically for these conditions the 35mm Film camera has the advantage. The optical viewfinder of an SLR is needed here because in cold temps, the LCD becomes sluggish and dull. In really brutal conditions, the autofocus motors in the lens can sometimes get grindy and sluggish too. You can always flip to manual focus and safely get a nice shot. In bright snowfields, you NEED a polarizing filter ; something that most compact cameras cannot accomodate.Further, a neutral density filter of ND2 is useful if you are shooting with a fast bright lens. 

Check out the Nikon FM10 (still made!) or Nikon FM3. This model has a built in exposure meter to help you set the dials. The batteries in this thing will last forever and this camera will work in just aweful conditions. You can buy it new with a zoom lense. I'd recommend getting a 24mm/f2.8 lens and a filter too.

 -- Jim

GREAT INFO GUYS! While purchaseing the gear I intend to take to Everest, the expert at Glazer's in Seattle gave me a tip I think worth thinking aobut. I was going to get 32 gig cards. He suggested no more than 16 because chance of damage or loss means greater loss on a bigger card. So I split my cards up. Just something to think about. I would hate to come back with everything on one card, having had no back up, and lose it all. That being said. I also intend to have back up capabilities. I would suggest that as well, on longer trips.

Ritz is a great store! Endorse away.


I worked my way thru photography school as one of their commisioned Certified Photographic Counselors. 

Anybody wanna buy a Beseler 23CII enlarger cheap?

I will go you one better, Ed. I have a full darkroom, including a 23CII, several lenses, trays, filters (for color printing), Beseler timer, 35mm film developing tanks (with extra reels), enlarger magnifier, tongs, drying racks, etc etc etc. My neighborhood photo shop, which has both an amateur and professional division and does buy and sell used stuff, wants nothing to do with chemical darkrooms. And even if I still did my own chemical darkroom work, the People's Republic of Palo Alto requires proper disposal of hazardous chemicals like photo chemicals, including the wash water (Kodak had to move their major northern California processing facility out of Palo Alto because they could not meet the required standards about 20 years ago). I can't even donate the gear to the local school system.

I've got the same stuff, (including tanks that will handle developing up to 11 x 14 sheet film) and the equipment for color developing and printing.

Nikkor lenses for 35mm and 6 X 7 cm

All in my attick, and I haven't looked at it since 1988.

It's a shame no-one wants this equipment.

I know next to nothing about photography but this doesn't stop me from taking a slew of pics of middling quality.  I like the idea of documenting my trips as a sort of "record".  Creating a trail journal with pics helps to make my trips more interesting and gives me something more to do on long winter nights in a tent.  Here are some basic things learned:

**  I remember a story of some mt climber, maybe it was Viesturs, who brought a fancy camera to the top of some summit and it quit functioning, but his $5 throw-away film camera worked perfectly.  All manual and no need for flash. 

**  On long trips I take six total batts for my Panasonic Lumix LX3 and they keep me in power with no attempts to conserve.  Also a spare memory card just in case. 

**  Sometimes you can take close up photos of topo maps at home and blow them up on the trail and study on the screen.

**  My camera eats up batteries even when off---something to do with battery contacts touching camera contacts---and so when not in long use, like overnight, I always remove the battery.

**  I try to remember to carefully clean the camera lense before a trip and with careful use it doesn't have to be done in the field, tho I suppose I could carry a little lense cloth.  Q-tips don't work too well.

**  In wet conditions I put my camera in a little stuff sac and stow it in a ziploc and bury it inside my pack and say goodbye---no wet camera for me.

Trail journals are a great idea. The one thing I've been lax about has been the journaling part. I definitely need to get into the habit of maintaining a journal when traveling, especially in the back country!

I do, however, know a thing or  two about photography. ;)

One advantage to using a mechanical camera is not having to worry about batteries. My light meter does use batteries, but so far it's been an average of around 4 years for each set of batteries. I think it's on its third set of batteries now. (Sekonic light meters are built to last.)

Even my digital cameras have been better than I'd expected on battery power. During my Kilimanjaro climb, I brought 3 fully charged batteries, and didn't even drain one. Of course, in the Serengeti I was hooting a lot more, so I nearly drained all three of them; I had to be more selective when we got to the Ngorongoro Crater because of it, but I still got a lot of photographs that, looking at them now almost a year later, I am very happy with.

The condensation tips you mentioned are good tips. In tents I didn't worry about it much, because whenever I entered the tent I was its only source of heat, so condensation on the camera wasn't an issue. When going in and out of heated buildings however, I have experienced what you describe, so I pay more attention to condensation in those cases. Had I been hot-tenting, I would have done something like what you did, probably with a lightweight dry sack or something similar.

While hiking, I kept my Sony Nex-5 handy, except during the Saddle crossing, because of the sleet and rain. During that stage I kept it under my jacket while I hiked, both to keep it dry and also in the hopes that we'd get a break in the weather that I could use for more photography. No such luck though, so I don't have many photos of that part of the trip.

I do try to remember to keep a lens cleaning cloth handy, but even if it's not immediately handy I always have one in the pouch that my large-format lenses sit in. When hiking in dusty conditions, I keep the lens cap on the lens, and I try to keep it dry. It still gets pretty dirty now and though, so I do clean it periodically - usually at night before going to bed, so that I don't have to remember to clean it in the morning. :)

Tamerlin, Welcome to Trailspace. Please post some of your photos here on Trailspace, along with some commentary on your trips.

My finger froze and I could not press the button.

Ok, that's a joke line, but, it did happen and then as we approached the coast I could not turn the autopilot off.

Bill S said:

Tamerlin, Welcome to Trailspace. Please post some of your photos here on Trailspace, along with some commentary on your trips.

 Thanks. I'll do that. I've been doing a lot of editing, but I'll post some soon!

Tamerlin: How do you like the Nex-5? Do you miss having an eye-lvel viewfinder in bright light, or is there now some add-on for that like for the Olympus PENs? I took a long hard look at the "mirrorless SLRs" when I was shopping for a new camera last year, but decided I still wanted to keep it light and compact and so went for a Canon G12. It does have a rangefinder-type viewfinder but it's actually pretty useless, so I've ended up framing photos using the screen even in bright light.

For the most part,I like the Nex-5. I do miss the viewfinder often when using it, but not as much as I expected to. What bugs me more than the lack of a viewfinder is the crappy interface, something that Sony has improved quite a bit with the 2nd iteration. I'm planning to move up to a Nex-7 when budget allows, both for the improved interface and for the video capability, since the first Nex cameras don't have manual exposure control for video.

One thing that I do like about the Nex is the image quality. The sensor in that family is very good, and the lenses exceeded my expectations as well. You can see some examples of what I've photographed with the Nex-5 in my blog at

The screens on the Nex series are really good, so they help to make up for the lack of a viewfinder, but they're still hard to use when it's really bright... But it ended up working very nicely in the Serengeti.

July 3, 2022
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