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Bruce's Photo Blog
Bruce Foreman | January 2013

Using Your Camera In Cold Weather

Seems to be that time of year again. Perhaps the first thing you notice is that you're not getting the battery life you are used to. Well, the fact is batteries do not like the cold...Not one little bit. So it's normal for them to fail to give the same performance at lower temperatures than we're used to in warmer weather.

Today's digital cameras will usually work fine in colder temperatures as long as it doesn't get too cold. LCD displays can get sluggish and if cold enough can freeze and become useless until thawed out. This usually happens more in the Arctic/Antarctic regions and in the mountains in some of the worlds colder areas. While that's not a concern for us here, folks planning a cold weather climb or travelling to the colder regions are usually advised to have a camera with some kind of optical viewfinder window so they can at least see what they are trying to compose for.

But for us in more moderate cold weather the main concern is batteries. If your digital camera takes AA cells you have some choices. Alkalines will give you the shortest battery life and even more so in the cold. Rechargeable NiMH (Nickle Metal Hydride) will give better service, with Li-Ion (Lithium Ion) giving the best. It's fairly easy and economical to carry spares that you can keep in a pocket inside your jacket and close to the body. So when performance weakens you can change to some spares and put the ones you've been using in that pocket to warm up. You'll usually get more service out of them when they've warmed up again.

Most of the more advanced cameras tend to come with a Li-Ion rechargeable battery and charger and it's often advisable to buy at least one spare even for warm weather use just to cover trips and extended shooting sessions. If you use your camera for video as well as stills, you'll find video will “eat up” a charge quite a bit faster than still photos do. With my main focus being “motion picture” (video) I feel I need to go out on a shoot with 2 extra batteries in addition to the one in the camera, plus I'll also take a charger with me.

Genuine or 3rd party batteries? I had fair luck with Opteka brand batteries for the Canon Rebels, but with the 7D and 60D you really couldn't trust 3rd party batteries. For one thing they lacked the “smart chip” that allowed them to communicate with the camera and you had no way of knowing how much longer you could “push” it while recording video. When it went to full discharge it did so without warning and under some circumstances you could risk a “scrambled” media card. If you were in the middle of a firmware update and a battery went dead you could wind up with a “bricked” camera.

With my current Panasonic GH2's and Olympus Pen I tried to save some money by ordering Wasabi brand batteries. Of the two I got for the Olympus one totally failed on the fourth useage cycle, never again to take a charge. A few weeks later the other one swelled up in the camera and it took me a couple of hours to pry it out. I immediately ordered a Genuine Olympus battery from B&H for use as a spare.

Before this happened I also ordered a pair of Wasabi batteries for the GH2 and while those didn't fail as spectacularly as the ones for the Olympus, it wasn't long before I noticed I was only getting about half the “run time” as I did with Genuine Lumix batteries.

So I sure don't advise “saving” funds by taking a chance on 3rd party batteries. The swollen battery in the Olympus Pen was close enough for me.

Some other considerations in cold weather photography pertain to camera body temperature and moisture. It's a good idea to put your camera in a bag and close it up before coming in from the cold. It's an even better idea to seal it up in a ziplock bag with most of the air pressed out before putting it in the camera bag and closing that. That way you can allow the camera to come to the warmer room temperature gradually without condensation forming on the camera.

Moisture can be “death” to digital cameras, if much condensation forms on one or if you get one a bit wet TURN IT OFF IMMEDIATELY. Do not try to turn it back on and use it, remove the battery and try to let it dry out for several days before putting the battery back in. Some folks have successfully dried a camera out by putting it tegether with some uncooked rice in a Tupperware or Ziplock bowl with tight fitting lid for several days.

It's also a very good idea to carry a couple of 1 gallon ziplock bags (the type with the sliding lock) in your camera bag in case you're caught out in some rain that just blew up, one for your camera and one for a lens or two. Another idea with merit would be to order an inexpensive underwater housing, DicaPak has several models and B&H carries them.

Just a few ideas.


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