Intrepid outdoor photographer Yvette Cardozo provides tips for those readers planning on lugging their cameras into sub-zero Arctic climes this winter
It was supposed to be the world’s best tripod for ultra-cold weather, made of some space-age, super-stable, shatterproof material. I bought the thing from a guy who had a reputation for taking lots of midwinter photos in ridiculous conditions.
The only problem was, it was utterly useless for me. The legs were controlled by rings and, at 30 below, I couldn’t feel the rings, much less turn them. I returned the tripod, eventually getting one with levers that I could trip with my knuckles when necessary — which all goes to prove that what works for me may not work for others.
With that caveat in mind, here are my simple tips for shooting subjects in cold weather. By cold, I mean Arctic temperatures that reach 30, 40, even 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, when the hairs freeze inside your nose, tears freeze on your cheeks and bare skin is at serious risk.
Cold-weather pros sing the praises of all-manual cameras. The best of the oldies is the Nikon FM, but you lose a lot of modern conveniences with this camera. Before I went digital, I would take two or three cameras into the field: a semi-manual (my trusty Nikon FE, which has a needle meter, among other things) and two Canons. The Canons were consumer models (the AE2 and Elan 7) because I like the pop-up flash.
These days, I’m shooting with a Canon EOS Digital Rebel and an EOS 10D. I prefer simple, moderately priced cameras for two reasons: the pop-up flash and the cost. If you’re going to drop a camera off the side of a mountain or trash it while bicycling through a monsoon, it’s better to go cheap.
Yes, the electronic cameras do eat batteries and, yes, the cold kills batteries, but there is a way around this: a battery pack and spares. The battery pack can be worn inside your coat to keep the batteries warm, but that means you have a cord running from you to the camera. I prefer carrying lots of spares. I spent two hours outside at 30 below in Churchill, Manitoba, shooting aurora borealis, and changed batteries only once. Remember, a battery that registers fresh when it’s warm may not be fresh when it’s cold. Be sure to check it again outside.
The manual for my Rebel claims that its operating temperature is 32˚to 104˚ F. In truth, it’s a lot lower. I spent a week at temperatures that hit minus 50˚ F with that poor little camera on a tripod, using my 300mm IS lens and a 1.4x teleconverter. When you include autofocus and an LCD screen, that’s a lot of strain on a battery.
I shot 1,500 images, mostly over three days, and typically got four hours’ use on a single battery. The camera never even hesitated. (My fingers were another matter, but we’ll tackle that later.)
A final matter for cameras is condensation, a serious problem. The hoarfrost that once formed on my tripod in a bear lodge was thick enough to measure (1/8 inch, for the curious). Even if you are camping, the inside of your tent will be warmer than outside. If you are at a lodge, you will be going in and out constantly. Start by loading your film (or your CF card) and fresh batteries before you leave. That way you get the fumbling out of the way when your hands are warm.
Once you are outside, however, do all film, card and battery changing outside. Don’t just “pop in for a second” where it’s warm to do this, or you risk getting moisture inside your camera. When you are done outside, put your camera or even your entire camera bag in a plastic bag (a simple garbage bag will do) and let it warm up indoors before opening it. That way, all the condensation will stay on the outside of the bag.
If you can afford a carbon-fiber tripod, by all means use one. They are light, strong and can be held bare-handed in the cold. Regardless of the material, I prefer tripods with levers on the legs because it takes only one motion to work them. Along the same lines, you want a tripod whose head and other controls are as simple as possible. Tasks become 10 times harder in the cold.
Clothing and accessories
It may sound obvious but, above all, stay warm. That said, what works at 0˚ F doesn’t work in the deep cold. Simple ski clothing is great at 0˚ but, at minus 40˚, I prefer a monster parka with just a few layers beneath. You may prefer many medium-sized layers but, personally, I don’t want to be fiddling with lots of pieces.
Equally important are your hands. I simply cannot work camera equipment with gloves on. Yes, I was virtually bare-handed at minus 40˚ and, yes, it hurt. The partial solution was a pair of huge, super-warm mittens attached to strings looped around my neck. That way, they hung at my waist and I could just plunge my hands into them when needed. Also, I put a few hand- warmers in the mittens, held hand-warmers against my bare palms and wore thin gloveliners to hold them in place.In some cases you can get around all this with a remote for your shutter, but in super-cold environments, those devices fail at an alarming rate.
Sometimes you are glued to one spot, as we were during the winter polar bear shoot. We would find a mother and cub, then stay for four hours waiting for them to do something cute. The veterans came prepared, with camp chairs, insulated pads to keep their feet off the cold ground and covers for the camera when the action stopped.
In cold climates, snow is the common de-nominator, and all that whiteness can be tricky. Snow often fools automatic light meters into thinking there is too much light, so your pictures get underexposed. As a result, the snow looks gray and everything else goes black. That’s why many pros use gray cards to give them an exposure with a medium tone. Clothing and trees also make a good substitute for gray cards.
If you are shooting digitally, pay attention to your histogram. Don’t let a bright LCD fool you into thinking you have a good exposure when everything, in truth, is gray.
Film can get brittle in the deep cold. If you can control the speed of your camera’s rewind, put it on the slowest one. Fast rewinds sometimes can break film and also can leave static electric streaks on your images.
When it comes to slide films, I choose among them like colors on an artist’s palette. Nothing beats Fuji film for fine-grain, but Fuji Velvia (50 and 100) can sometimes make snow greenish. Fuji Provia is faster and has more accurate whites, but can look somewhat dull in cloudy weather. Kodak films have more grain, but the Kodak E100VS (very saturated) film gives a punch to warm colors. Log cabins, fires and the northern lights look luscious.
The northern lights
When shooting the northern lights, be patient after you spot that first dull yellow glow. It will get better. For equipment, you need a camera that can take long exposures; a lens that is both fast (meaning f/3.5 or lower) and wide (28 or 20mm); a tripod; a cable release or remote for tripping the shutter during long exposures; and a small flashlight so that you can see your camera controls in the dark before you trip the shutter.
In the end, photographing auroras is a compromise. Scientists who want detail and motion recommend using very high speeds (ISO 800 or 1600), but fast films do not capture color well and are grainy, and high digital ISOs get noisy. Most photographers would rather have brilliant colors, even if the aurora looks more like a smeared glow. For this, ISO 200 or 400 is perfect.Set your focus on infinity and use your widest lens opening. Put some feature (a tree or mountains) on the horizon for scale. Using ISO 400 film and a lens that opens to f/2.8, expose for 20 seconds. For ISO 200, expose for 40 seconds. Then bracket around these figures, as low as, say, 10 seconds and as high as two minutes.
In my own experience with moderately bright auroras, which have distinct rays and strong colors, ISO 200 with a 28mm f/2.0 lens, exposed for 30 seconds, did best.
When I finally got a chance to shoot auroras with digital, I discovered that my system was incredibly sensitive. What was barely a glow to my eye looked like the sky was on fire in my LCD.
One final tip: in the midst of all this rapturous excitement, do not grab your tripod with a bare hand.