Surviving Photographing in Extremely Cold Conditions

Greenland, a land of such incredible beauty, that words and pictures just can’t do it justice, but also a place with some pretty savage temperatures. Now us photographers are a strange bunch, whereas your average walker keeps on walking and generating heat, prior to ending up in a nice warm pub before dark, we tend walk to a location then hang around waiting for the light and getting cold again.

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We’ve just returned from a winter trip to Greenland, where we encountered temperatures as low as minus 35C and it’s been interesting to see what works and what doesn’t work clothing wise and it also threw up some interesting camera equipment issues. The average temperature in West Greenland in February is normally around minus 15C, but Greenland was in the middle of a cold snap during our visit, so cold in fact that the sea froze in Disko Bay where we were staying.

The frozen sea ice in Ilulissat harbour

Clothing

We all know about wearing layers, but it was interesting to see just how much (little?) was necessary to keep us warm in temperatures down to minus 35C. Fortunately we went well prepared and suffered very little, despite several 90 minute sessions being stood on location shooting sunsets. My standard kit whilst moving about consisted of a Merino wool base layer, a thin fleece mid layer all covered with lined trousers for my legs (Or salopettes if you have them). Add a fleece jumper and a lined jacket (Or better still a down jacket) to my upper body and I was generally pretty snug. For evenings spent shooting the sunset, I substituted the jacket for a lined one piece suit (that I’d purchased in Norway a few years ago) and that kept me warm even on an evening at minus 30C plus severe wind chill.

Keeping the core body warm is very important, but its extremities like feet, hands and face that tend to suffer most. We had Merino blend inner and outer socks and fur lined boots and these worked well, but feet did eventually get cold after an hour or so standing around on location. As for the hands, it’s important to keep them covered at all times, but still be able to operate the buttons on the camera. We normally wear thin silk glove liners as a base layer, but for these temperatures we took a thicker base layer and covered them with windproof flip top mittens. These allow you to expose the fingers and operate the camera, then quickly recover to keep in the heat. In my opinion, mittens keep your hands much warmer than gloves with fingers, so it’s surprising that there are currently so few on the market.

Boots with retractable studs

Feet are usually the first item to feel the cold, so warm boots are a must, but we’ve found in snowy, icy places like Norway, it tends to be a bit of a “splatfest” as we’ve always had falls even when using grips like “Yaktracks”. For this trip, we tried something new in the form of boots with retractable studs and found them brilliant. The studs are built into a reversible insert in the boot sole, so you can easily retract the studs when not needed. However, we even found that the studs work well on frozen rock.

Another area that lets in the cold is the neck and face, so we normally wear a “Buff” neck warmer and this has the advantage of being able to cover the lower face if required, particularly when it’s windy. Once again, we went for a thicker version for Greenland, rather than the thinner example we use in the UK and this proved very adequate. Though on the very cold days the Buff directed my breath into my sunglasses and they both froze up.

Even the thickest woolly hat proved to be inadequate in these conditions. Whilst the weather was generally pretty still, on the odd occasion when it was windy we needed a lined windproof hat which covered the ears.

One product we were advised to take was “Hot Hands” and these proved to an absolute boon. Slipping them into your gloves warm cold hands nicely and they stay warm for a remarkable length of time.

Camera Gear

During our time in Greenland, temperatures were often below minus 20C and it’s at these temperatures that camera gear really starts to wilt. Battery life can be an issue, though we didn’t find it to be a particular problem so long as we didn’t use “live view” too much. Mirrorless cameras are going to suffer far more with battery life than DSLR’s and one camera only lasted 14 frames in these conditions. We only took one spare battery each and managed, but I would strongly recommend you take more.

It seems obvious with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time it never occurred to me that leaving your camera set up on the tripod was the equivalent of leaving your hands un-gloved, so make a point of returning your camera to the warmth of its bag, or inside your jacket as much as possible. I tended to leave my camera set on the tripod whilst waiting for a sunset and paid the price, as my camera froze up on a couple of occasions. Fortunately, it did come back to life once it had thawed out back in our accommodation. Interestingly, placing a “Hot Hands” inside a sock and pulling that over your lens proved very effective at keeping the camera warm.

I was a little surprised to find that tripod leg locks hardened so much in these temperatures, my tripod was reluctant to lock and my Arca Swiss ball head declined to work at all at temperatures below minus 12C.

We were advised to take a spare camera body and this was advice we chose to ignore. We got away with it, but one of our party had a camera die altogether with the cold and it’s easy to drop a camera with cold hands, so it was sound advice after all.

Conclusion

Whilst all this may sound melodramatic, we loved Greenland and being well equipped meant we didn’t suffer much at all. The arctic in winter is stunningly beautiful, so don’t be put off by the cold and go for it! But do remember to keep your camera inside its bag or inside your jacket as much as possible.

 

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