Digital Focus: Cold Weather Photo Survival Guide

Feature: Cold Weather Photo Survival Guide

I recently watched a documentary about a mission to the Antarctic. Faced with temperatures rivaled only on some of the outer planets, the team routinely had equipment failures from the hundred-below-zero temperatures and frigid windstorms. Indeed, the film in their cameras--this trip predated digital photography--became so brittle from the cold that it actually broke, ruining many rolls of pictures.

Thankfully, it's rare that we have to withstand such extremes. But it certainly is wintertime, and cold weather can affect the performance of our digital cameras. It pays to know what to expect.

Batteries and Cold Don't Mix

First and foremost, remember that batteries don't like cold weather one bit. Outdoors in winter, it's not unusual for your digital camera's batteries to give up in less than half the time they ordinarily last in more temperate conditions. It's a good idea to carry a set of spares, especially if you plan to document the construction of an entire snowman.

Here's a tip that has worked on many winter excursions: I keep my spare batteries in an inside pocket, where they can benefit from my body heat. When it's time to swap, I put the "dead" cells in that pocket so they can warm up a bit. If I need to, I can put those batteries back in the camera--they'll often be good for a few more shots after they've warmed up a bit.

Beware of Temperature Changes

When you bring the camera back indoors, odds are good that you'll get some condensation on the lens. Be patient. It's a bad idea to wipe the lens off to take more pictures: You can scratch the lens in the process. Also, if you wipe the lens and the condensation pools up around the edges, it can leak into the inside of the lens assembly. That's a really bad thing. So let the condensation evaporate on its own; it shouldn't take long.

Likewise, don't bring your camera in from the cold for just a few minutes, then rush outdoors with it again. If you do, the condensation won't have a chance to evaporate, but will instead freeze on (and perhaps even inside) the camera, possibly damaging it.

Incidentally, you can minimize condensation by keeping your camera in its case or camera bag when you bring it inside, and giving the camera enough time for the temperatures to equalize before removing it. That will slow down the temperature change enough that condensation never forms.

Snow Can Confuse Your Camera

Finally, winter isn't just cold; in much of the country it's notorious for covering the landscape with a wet, white substance known as snow. And while snow can make for pretty pictures, it also has a reputation for confusing your camera's exposure system. Since snow is so reflective, it can force the camera to underexpose the darker, less reflective subject in your scene. So your pictures often end up too dark or muddy.

The solution? If your camera has a "sand and snow" programmed exposure mode, use it. If not, set its exposure compensation dial to overexpose the picture by about 1 or 1.5 stops. When you get out of the snow, remember to switch your camera's mode so you don't end up overexposing your other pictures.

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