How to ... protect photography equipment in cold weather

  • Article by: BILL MARCHEL SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: January 9, 2014 - 2:29 PM
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Cameras aren’t the only thing to protect from the cold. By using a blind, such as the one pictured above, photographers can avoid undue stress on the animals as they preserve energy.

Photo: Bill Marchel • Special to the Star Tribune,

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There’s no denying the cold we’ve experienced lately, but that’s no reason for photographers to stay indoors. Winter landscapes covered in snow and frost beckon those with discerning eyes. What’s more, wildlife is often more concentrated around available food sources during the winter, and the creatures are often less wary.

When I first began my career as a wildlife photographer, my cameras were powered by tiny button batteries. I spent more than a few frigid afternoons sitting in a blind, just waiting for wildlife to materialize. By the time a critter finally appeared, Old Man Winter had drained the life from those small batteries.

Thankfully, today’s cameras are powered by batteries with much higher capacity, and they are far less prone to failure in cold conditions. Lithium batteries are especially impervious to the cold. Check your owners manual to see if lithium batteries work in your camera.

Even with lithium batteries, it’s always best to carry spares during winter photo excursions. Pack extras for every piece of shooting equipment. Tuck them in a pocket close to your body to keep them warm.

Perhaps most concerning to cold-weather photographers is condensation. Condensation is formed not when a camera and lens are taken from a warm home or vehicle into the cold, but when cold equipment is brought back into a warm environment. Condensation can form on interior parts as well as the exterior of cameras and lenses, but you can prevent this by allowing your photography equipment to warm very gradually.

Here’s how I avoid condensation: I wrap my equipment in a plastic bag and then squeeze out as much air as possible. I do this while I’m still outdoors, and I often add some silica gel packets to further absorb moisture. Then I insulate the equipment with an old sleeping bag. If I’m at home, I’ll then bring the package into the garage (where the thermostat is set to 50 degrees) and leave it there for an hour or so. When I finally bring the equipment into the house, I allow the bundle to warm to room temperature before unwrapping.

I can’t tell you how many great winter wildlife images I’ve missed because I breathed on the viewfinder, fogging it to the point it was impossible to see my subject. It’s natural for me to go from looking through the viewfinder to raising my head over the top of the camera and lens for a view of my subject. At that point my mouth is directly in front of the viewfinder, and, of course, one exhale and the viewfinder is fogged. I carry a lens cleaning cloth for wiping the viewfinder, but it is often too late; my subjects don’t wait around.

Another consideration: In extreme cold, the LCD screen on most digital cameras doesn’t refresh as quickly as it does in mild weather. That’s generally not a problem as long as your camera continues to work.

Instead of packing away your camera gear until spring, embrace the cold and the fantastic photo opportunities winter has to offer.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

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