Shooting Video In Extreme Cold Weather

Cold weather videography can be challenging and is plagued with danger for the production gear. Driving rain and snow can ruin unprotected gear, while extreme cold can shorten battery life and threaten a range of devices in the production chain. Here are some ways to be prepared for winter weather shoots. 

For those who live in or travel to extremely cold weather climates, being prepared to shoot under harsh conditions is essential. It starts before the shoot with protection for both the crew and the gear. Being prepared is paramount.

For the production crew, wear insulated, weather-proof boots and gloves, especially the kind with roll-back fingertip covers that allow easy operation of the camera and accessories without having to remove the full glove. A good jacket for extreme winter weather is also essential. For traveling crews, having the right clothing for both cold and warm climates is essential. For those who don’t have that clothing, they learn quickly.

Some cameras are weather-proofed, but many are not. It’s the same for lenses. There are few hard standards for what weather-proofed or water resistance means for video gear. It is best to assume with all cameras and electronics that moisture can hurt them.

Photo of Synthetic Cinema International working in Iceland.

Photo of Synthetic Cinema International working in Iceland.

Have good rain covers, an underwater housing or polar jackets for both the camera and lens.  Also, remember in very cold, sub-zero weather, plastic parts can freeze and easily snap off. Handle plastic camera doors and controls gently in cold weather. Moving parts — like the focus ring — can get jammed with dust or sand particles. Moisture in the battery compartment can corrode the electrical contacts.

Cables, when extremely cold, can become brittle and easily break. Insulation can snap off a cable. If snow gets into the cable connector, it can compress into ice and prevent a good connection. Special cold-weather cables are available that won’t become brittle and snap. Also, LCDs may lose contrast in extreme cold and the display screen information can change color when touched. In extreme cold, LCD panels can freeze and crack.

It is best practice to place the cold camera and lenses inside large, sealed Ziploc plastic bags before bringing them into a heated environment. Place some desiccant in the bag to help prevent condensation from forming inside.

Before shooting in extreme conditions, know the temperature operating range of the camera before the shoot and act accordingly to keep it in operating range. The same is true for other gear, including audio equipment and lighting. Certain microphones and LED lights are built for rugged conditions, and some is not. The tougher equipment normally costs more.

Batteries are always problematic in cold weather, since they discharge faster. Keep them as warm and moisture free as possible during the shoot. Always carry at least one spare battery in a pocket for smaller cameras. For larger batteries, insulated containers are useful. When the battery being used runs out, switch to the warmer spare. Then warm up the spent battery again. When it’s re-warmed, it will usually have additional life.

This battery exchange routine will ensure that the user can quickly switch to fresh, warm batteries and continue shooting. Also, if the camera has a grip which holds a long life battery, it can be a useful accessory to have.

Photo by Flavio Gasperini.

Photo by Flavio Gasperini.

As for the lens, have a blower and chamois lens cleaners to keep the glass dust free and dry. Moisture can freeze onto the glass surface of a lens. Avoid lens changes as much as possible in the field. This can allow moisture and dust particles to get inside the camera body, causing rust.

Use a dehumidifying lens cap to keep the lens from fogging in excess humidity. These caps hold a replaceable silica gel and protect lenses from moisture that can lead to fungus or mold.

Carbon fiber tripods handle better in cold weather than aluminum ones. Carbon fiber is stronger, more weather resistant, can take more of a beating and is easier to manipulate with bare hands, as aluminum gets much colder. Carbon fiber also resists corrosion much better than aluminum.

If you have to use an aluminum tripod, wear gloves when touching it. Also consider leg wraps, which are made from soft neoprene and wrap around the upper part of the tripod's legs for protection. These create a thermal barrier to keep the tripod manageable and provide protection from bumps and scratches.

Use premium memory cards when working in extreme conditions. Some top-of-the-line SD cards, for example, are billed as ultra-rugged, withstanding salt or fresh water and temperatures from -13 degrees to +185 degrees F (-25C to 85C). However, treat all cards with care, since not all of them are the same.

Many memory cards can be damaged from immersion in water, exposure to dust and debris, being dropped from a height or from electrical surges. Dust and sand particles can jam the inside of memory card slots. After a shoot in extreme cold, it is best to remove the card before putting the camera with silica gel in a Ziploc bag. As with all other gear, don’t trust the marketing hype about how your memory can handle anything. It CAN fail.

A lot about working in extreme cold climates is common sense. Don’t take yourself or your gear to the limits. Work sensibly, being aware when you reach the limits of the gear’s tolerance. Being prepared may save the shoot and a lot of expenses later. 

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