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How To...Take Photographs in the Cold

How-toJames HipkissComment

The Arctic Ocean environment puts huge pressure on a photographer. From a psychological, physiological and equipment point of view the Arctic Ocean environment is, I believe, one of the most difficult environments to take photographs on earth.

Having been exposed to both Polar regions and desert, jungle, alpine, Antarctic and Himalayan environments (I have not been to 8000metres) it is safe to say that sustained cold is the great inhibitor of photography. The information here is based on my 65, 76, 87 day expedition experiences on the surface of the Arctic Ocean (The coldest temperatures found inbetween February and March where the ambient temperature can get a bit lower than minus 50 degrees Celcius) The degree of difficulty to take photographs in a sustained cold weather environment should not be underestimated. For the first 20 - 30 days, on a North Polar expedition sustained low temperatures, and humidity are the most uncomfortable and also the best to take photographs as the ice is crisp, the air is clear and the sun is low in the sky. This phase is short lived though as the colours and textures disappear along with the frosted up faces. Camera and equipment I use a Nikon D3x as my main camera, a Leica MP with a 24mm (f1.4) ( mechanical film camera ) and compact camera that takes AA lithium batteries which is a Panasonic Lumix. I have a 24mm (f2.8) which lives on the camera, a 17 - 35mm (f2.8) and an 85mm (f1.4) lens for my Nikon D3x. I keep a Nikon D2xs as a back up camera.

Cold temperatures do not kill batteries but using batteries when they're cold does make them very inefficient. A fully charged lithium battery will not loose its charge (power) when left in the cold even at minus 40 Celcius, even AA Lithium batteries will sometimes work for a very short while. But batteries like to be warm when they are working, but not too hot as they become inefficient at high temperatures too. So if you use batteries when they're cold they will not last very long. How to care for your camera in cold conditions I use the same equipment for capturing images wherever I am but on the Arctic Ocean I always take a Leica MP this is a mechanical camera that doesn't need any batteries and is the epitome of precision engineering. It always works and is easy to focus. At low temperatures (below minus 35 Celsius) lots of materials begin to shrink, and non low-temperature plastics become brittle. Autofocus lenses become almost impossible to focus and often the mirror in SLR cameras will lift up but will not go down when the camera body shrinks due to the cold.

At the end of a cold Polar day on the Arctic Ocean I will have to sleep with my Leica next to my body to warm the film up in order that at breakfast time I can rewind the film without snapping it. Always a good idea not to shoot the last couple of frames as this tightens the film tight which can cause the sprockets on the cogs that wind the film in and out of the spool to tear the film. If this happens you can take the film out of camera at night in your sleeping bag and manually wind the film back into the spool. With regard to the wind and ever present cold I adopt the Inuit method of a very warm (large) mitt and a very thin polartec liner glove. In order to take a picture I take off the big mitts and do all the usual stuff - focusing. light readings , setting the camera etc with just a pair of thin gloves on.

I keep the camera on my chest in a bag I made specially for the job. Its oversized so I can get the camera in and out of the bag quickly. I keep the battery for the camera in one of two pockets on my thigh. I have a pocket on the front of my leg and one in the bag - depending on which way the wind is blowing (to avoid wind chill on the battery). I use the heat from my thigh to keep the battery warm. The battery has to stay in a mini dry bag to avoid the perspiration from getting onto the battery contacts. When its properly cold - below minus forty or thereabouts I put the camera inside my jacket in a dry bag to keep it working. I also have a compact camera right inside my jacket inside a mini Pelicase hanging around my neck to grab quick snaps and low res video as I move along. If I am shooting in the tent at night I use a stove to warm the camera and lens up to get rid of the condensation before shooting. If I bring a camera into a tent at night it stays in the tent inside my sleeping bag (inside a dry bag) if I decide not to to shoot in the tent at night, then all my kit - except 2 batteries - the one I am using and a spare come into the tent at night and sleep with me in my inner most zip pocket on my thermal top.

On a long expedition every few days, I bring my kit into the tent and put all my lenses and camera bodies inside a few dry bags and scatter them around the inside of my sleeping bag with a load of silica gel to suck out any moisture inside the camera and lenses. Its not cold that kills cameras its moisture trapped inside them that freezes and cameras don't like that. If I do find moisture inside a lens during the day, the lens goes into a dry bag with silica gel and spends the day next to my skin using body heat to warm up the lens and allowing the silica gel to do its job. Its a good idea at night to have a hot water bottle inside your sleeping bag.

The best one is 1 litre Nalgene bottle filled with boiling water and put it down by my feet to dry my socks and keep my feet warm and in the morning you already have 1 litre of water to go into the pot for a morning cuppa, saving time and fuel. An added bonus While the stove is on in the morning its a good time if you have them to get your hand warmers out. If you warm these (disposable handwarmers) up properly over the stove they will stay properly warm until about 5pm. Cold fingers means you wont be taking any photographs..and with no fingers left life is no fun at all.

Written by Martin Hartley, one of the world's most respected polar photographers. www.martinhartley.com