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How to protect your camera from the cold

October 11, 2017

If you want to shoot outdoors, it a safe bet you’re going to have to deal with some adverse conditions – it’s not all bluebird sun rises and magic golden light.

Shooting in the mountains during the winter can really push gear to the limits of durability, and dealing with 100kph winds and blowing snow and ice is just another day at the office. When you’ve got thousands of dollars of camera gear in adverse conditions, keeping your camera safe and dry can be a losing battle.

Let’s also not forget that along with your gear, you’re out there as well and it’s equally as important to keep yourself warm and dry.

Protecting your camera from the cold

In the field

Most high-end camera gear is weather sealed, but to what level is debatable, and no camera company will actually come out and say what its weather certification is. Hence the necessity of rain covers.

A friend of mine, Rachel Bock uses her hair as a gauge as to when it’s time to wrap up your gear. Basically, if there is enough precipitation to make your hair wet, it’s time to take some precautions to keep moisture off your camera.

I always keep a set of Vortex Media Pro Storm Jacket Covers  in my bag, they are essentially a tube of ripstop nylon you put your camera inside, pretty basic. They do have their limits, which I unfortunately discovered at a cyclocross race in Brisbane, if you’re headed out in truly gnarly weather you’re best to reach for something like Think Tanks Hydrophobia covers.

Something else to note, many weather sealed lenses require a filter to be truly sealed because the front element moves when you zoom.

If it is snowing or raining, I like to keep a small camp towel similar to this in my bag to quickly wipe any precipitation off my gear before it goes back in the bag. I have a cheapo I bought from a local camp store, but look for one of the super absorbent microfiber towels that are made for backpacking, they are lightweight and pack down to nothing. Once you have wiped your gear down make sure to store this towel in one of the exterior pockets in your backpack if you store it in the main compartment you’re just introducing moisture and humidity into the camera compartment.

On that same note, always always always zip up your camera bag when you’re shooting in the snow. Whether it be snow falling from the sky or spray from a riders skis, the inside of your bag is a magnet for snow.

Silica saves cameras

You know those annoying little gel silica packets that come in just about everything, from clothing to camera boxes? These are filled with gel silica crystals, which are super absorbent and designed to prevent moisture from getting into things when they are shipped.

I never throw these out and always chuck a few in my backpack because they do a great job of absorbing moisture and humidity from the inside of your bag. The padded inserts on the inside of your camera pack soak up moisture like a sponge, even if it’s only a few snowflakes or a bit of rain. Having a few of these silica packets in your bag will help to reduce this.

You can also buy these online, and even get reusable tins full of the stuff.

What if your camera gets too wet?

There are few things as disheartening as when your camera gets a bit too waterlogged and you see the ‘please remove battery’ notification on the screen. While cameras these days are tough, they’re not waterproof.

Unfortunately, I had this happen to me in the rain, although I was able to save my camera with a plastic box and a bag of crystal kitty litter.

On the recommendation of my good friend Dan Carr, I filled the box part of the way up with kitty litter, sealed all the openings with duct tape and left it to sit for a few days. Crystal kitty litter is in fact made from gel silica, and draws moisture of an environment really well. After a few days my in the box, my camera came back to life, no camera insurance claim needed!

Cold kills batteries

It’s no secret that cold kills batteries, in fact, whenever I go out skiing my iPhone battery reads 1% all day. While the batteries for larger DSLR seem to fair pretty well, smaller cameras and other electronics can really suffer.

Cold temps don’t hurt batteries in the long term, but they do reduce their capacity while you’re out in the cold, and there are times when keeping batteries warm can be the difference between getting the shot and having a non-functioning camera.

The best solution to this problem I have found is to use hand warmers and a rubber band. Oxygen-activated hand warmers are readily available, cost almost nothing, and are doubly useful if your hands get cold.

It’s also beneficial to keep batteries in an inside pocket next to your body, to help keep them warm. Having said that, don’t store them against your body as when you inevitably sweat some of that moisture will end up on the batter which is not ideal.

When you get home

When you’re shooting in cold environments, condensation is your biggest enemy. You’ve probably noticed when you go skiing and head into a lodge on a particularly cold and miserable day, your goggles fog up immediately. This is because of the rapid change in temperature and humidity.

The same thing happens to your camera, and to minimize the risk to your gear it’s important to make these temperature changes as gradual as possible. It’s also super important to make sure that your gear is fully dried out, otherwise, mildew will form on the inside of the lens.

The best way to combat condensation is to put your gear in zip lock bags before you come inside. Provided the bag is sealed, the condensation will form on the outside of the bag, not on your camera, and help it slowly transition to room temperature.

While quite a lot of pro-level gear won’t fit in a freezer bad they do make comically large ziplocks which I have used in the past, though they aren’t particularly easy to find.

The methods I’ve found to be the best are to a) leave my gear in the bag for a couple hours to let it gradually come up to room temperature, or b) lay it all out on a towel.

It’s important to note for the first method, only do this if you’ve been out shooting on a bluebird day, the last thing you want is wet gear sitting inside a wet bag.

Also, don’t forget to take your memory cards out before you go inside! I usually throw them into a pocket when I get back to the car.

If you have been out shooting in the snow, lay a towel out on the table, pull all your gear out, and take the lens caps off and let them warm up. For your body, pull the body cap off the put it faces down on the towel, that way nothing can get at the sensor.

Cold and extreme weather shopping list

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