Solving the Problems of Photography in Very Cold Temperatures

Tips & Techniques

Cameras usually aren’t specced to shoot in very cold conditions. A small handful have a negative operating temperature (in Celsius at least), like the Nikon Z9 at -10° C / 14° F. Most others are rated for a pretty pedestrian 0° C / 32° F. But if you’re aware of the issues, you can work in temperatures colder than that.

As someone who does a lot of landscape photography in winter, I’ve run into almost every common problem associated with working in the cold. It’s a rewarding time to take photos, and many subjects look amazing in the snow (see my guide to winter photography for more). But it does come with some challenges.

Even if you’re shooting within the manufacturer’s operating temperature limits, some of the problems below can still apply. But especially as the temperature drops below freezing, then drops further into the negatives – Celsius or Fahrenheit – the issues pile up. Here are the problems and solutions you need to be aware of before shooting in the extreme cold.

Table of Contents

1. Camera Operation in Gloves

In many cases, the biggest issue in the cold isn’t that the camera stops working. It’s that it becomes difficult to operate the camera while wearing gloves in the first place!

Some photographers recommend wearing fingerless gloves to help fix the issue – or if not completely fingerless, at least gloves or mittens where the fingertips can be flipped open when necessary. But this solution only works in moderate cold. As the temperatures dip below freezing, fingerless gloves become an increasingly bad idea. After all, it’s our fingertips that are most susceptible to the cold and frostbite in the first place.

My recommendation is to wear the warmest pair of gloves with fingers that still lets you operate the camera reasonably well. (Gloves with a bit of grip on the fingers are a good way to go.) Over top of them, add a pair of flip-top mittens. Keep the mittens flipped closed as much as possible, but when you need to operate the camera, you can open them for a minute without freezing your fingers underneath.

I find this the best compromise between warmth and dexterity. Your fingertips are never actually exposed to the sub-zero air, but you’re still able to adjust your camera pretty well. Finding the optimal gloves may take some trial and error, though. And in particularly cold situations, you may find it helpful to have a heat pack stored inside an accessible pocket so that you can warm up your fingertips quickly if they start to get numb.

Arctic-Terns-over-Icebergs-in-Iceland
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 135mm, ISO 800, 1/400, f/16.0

In terms of the camera itself, one thing that helps is to adjust the button layout to be navigable in the cold. For example, half-pressing the shutter button to autofocus is tricky with gloves on, so now’s a good time to finally start using back button focus instead! Likewise, if your camera has a joystick, use that instead of the direction pad to change your focus point and scroll through your camera menu. Look at your particular camera, and I’m sure you’ll find some ways to improve its operation in the cold. Maybe all you need to do is move some commonly-used features from the menu to a dedicated button.

Lastly, I should note that it’s much easier to drop a camera or lens while you’re wearing gloves. If you can find a pair of gloves or mittens with grip, it helps. So does putting your camera on a tripod before changing lenses rather than trying to do everything handheld.

2. Rapid Battery Loss

Batteries just don’t work very well in the cold. They drain more quickly and sometimes die before they’re even put in the camera.

The fix for this is nothing special: Just bring more batteries, and keep them warm while you’re shooting. Personally, I leave my backup batteries in the pocket of one of my base layer jackets. They stay warmer thanks to my body heat and don’t lose any substantial charge while they’re there.

After you’re done shooting for the day, charge all your batteries overnight, not just the ones you’ve been shooting with. This may require you to buy an extra charger or two, but there are plenty of cheap battery chargers available these days, sometimes with dual slots. (I recommend searching “Dual USB charger for [your camera name]” on Amazon, and I guarantee you’ll find something reasonable.)

In the past on multi-day hikes in the cold, I had good luck with carrying a separate battery pack and recharging my batteries daily from that. I made it through a nine day hike in Iceland with seven batteries that way and actually had a lot of charge to spare by the end. If you keep your batteries warm and topped off, you won’t have issues using them in the cold.

Black and White Winter Photograph
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 200mm, ISO 100, 1/1250, f/8.0

3. Temperature Swings and Condensation

When you quickly move from cold areas to warm ones – like going indoors after taking pictures in sub-zero temperatures – it’s very common for your camera gear to fog up. And if you see condensation on the lens or viewfinder, it’s almost certainly inside the camera as well. This condensation can potentially damage your camera, especially if you subject your gear to it often.

If you notice it happening, quickly remove your camera battery, then memory card, and then lens. Keep all your lens caps and body caps removed, and also leave the battery and memory card doors open. Once the camera and lens reach room temperature, the fog should be gone, and you can close everything and put the camera away.

But the better alternative is to prevent this situation in the first place. Usually, if your bag is just as cold as your camera, all you need to do is zip the camera away in the bag and bring them both inside to warm up slowly. The bag insulates all the equipment inside well enough that condensation is unlikely to form. You can take them out of the bag once everything reaches room temperature.

However, in particularly cold conditions (or a particularly warm/humid indoor area), you may need to go with an even more extreme solution. Put your camera, lenses, and all other sensitive electronics into plastic freezer bags before going inside. Open the bags once the gear warms up to room temperature. This prevents condensation every time. That said, the idea of bringing a bunch of plastic bags into the field is a bit much for me. The backpack method is good enough that I don’t tend to use the freezer bag method these days.

Minimalist mountain with smooth texture
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 200mm, ISO 100, 1/15, f/8.0

4. Fog from Breathing Out

I always enjoy watching my breath fog up in the cold. Maybe because it lets me pretend I’m braving the elements more than I really am. But a drawback is that the ice crystals from your foggy breath can land on your camera and lens, potentially causing some problems.

The more common issue is that the icy fog starts accumulating on your rear LCD or viewfinder glass, making it harder to see your composition. That’s easy to fix when it becomes a problem simply by wiping them away.

The more subtle and concerning problem is when the fog lands on the front of your lens. In many cases, this can happen without you realizing it, unless you check the front of your lens more than most of us. But when the fog starts appearing on your LCD or viewfinder, you can usually bet that a bit is landing on your lens, too. That’s what happened here:

This strange effect is because fog from my breath accumulated on the front of the lens.

I took the photo above on one of the clearest nights I’ve ever seen, with no clouds or fog in the air at all. The picture looks how it does because ice crystals from my breath had gradually accumulated on the front of my lens. I didn’t realize this for the longest time – only once it got as bad as you see in the image above. The earlier photos I took that night also have hints of unwanted fog in them.

The solution here is to be aware of how much condensation is landing on your camera and to periodically inspect your lens. Otherwise, you may not realize until you’re back at your computer that all your photos accidentally have an Orton Effect filter.

5. Ice Collecting on the Camera

Sometimes, the source of ice collecting on your lens or camera isn’t your breath but instead the outside world. If you’re taking pictures in freezing rain or windy, icy conditions, it’s crucial that you check your lens – and lens hoods especially – for accumulating ice.

I ran into this problem once at Rocky Mountain National Park on a cold winter morning. It was so windy that eventually my tripod blew over and cracked the top of my Nikon D800e (though the camera kept working just fine otherwise). But before any of that happened, the wind blew so much ice onto my lens that it formed a ring around the front element:

Ice around from element of lens in cold weather

The Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 I was using that day isn’t entirely an internal zoom. As you zoom out, the front element moves more and more forward within the built-in lens hood. But in this case, the ice ring blocked the front element from moving out, sticking me with the 18mm focal length and longer! It wasn’t a problem in this case, with 14mm being a bit too wide for the scene anyway, but it was an important lesson.

I can easily imagine similar situations where freezing rain clogs up a camera button, tripod legs, polarizing filter, or any other part of your gear. The more aware you are of what’s happening, the more likely it is that you can stop it before you lose a critical function of the camera.

Final Result of Rocky Mountain Photo
NIKON D800E + 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 18mm, ISO 100, 1/60, f/13.0

6. Slowdown or Failure of Moving Parts

The final issue I’d like to note is that cold temperatures slow everything down, including moving parts of the camera. Your shutter curtains may get a bit stuck, reducing your maximum FPS or leading to slightly inconsistent exposures at faster shutter speeds. Your tripod’s leg locks may require more force than usual. Or, in the worst cases, something might break completely.

The worst case I saw is when my friend’s Nikon D810 mirror simply stopped working in sub-zero temperatures. I don’t know exactly what broke, but he had to send it to Nikon for an expensive repair afterward. Anything below about -18° Celsius or 0° Fahrenheit is cold enough that a lot of mechanical systems just don’t quite work right.

Still, you can shoot in those conditions with some precautions. One helpful tip is to use as few moving parts as possible. This means changing your camera from mechanical to electronic shutter (AKA silent shooting mode) if you shoot mirrorless, or doing something similar with a DSLR in live view if yours has the option. You should also consider bringing a backup camera as temperatures get lower and lower.

Thankfully, my friend whose D810 broke had a backup Micro Four Thirds camera that kept chugging away in the cold. But it goes to show that the operating temperatures of these cameras aren’t just there for show. You are risking your gear to some degree when you shoot much colder than recommended.

Nine Berries
NIKON D7000 + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 100, 1.3 seconds, f/5.6

Conclusion

If you’re planning a photoshoot in the cold any time soon, the tips in this article should give you a good place to start. The biggest key is just to always be aware of what’s happening, because there are probably many other things that can go wrong that I haven’t specifically covered yet. Review your photos a bit more often than usual, and take a few backup shots of each important composition to maximize your odds.

Finally, I hope it goes without saying, but the top priority in extreme conditions like this is keeping yourself safe. Everything seems to go wrong twice as often when it’s so cold out. Your satellite phone’s battery dies, your car skids off the road, your water supply freezes, and so on. Only worry about how your camera functions in the cold after you’ve made sure that you’ll function fine!

Once you’ve done that, go out and enjoy it. The cold keeps a lot of photographers away from some places even when they’re at their most beautiful. Make the most of the lighter crowds and more atmospheric conditions to take some amazing photos.

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