Cold Weather Photography Tips. How to Defrost and Save a Frozen Camera

Cold Weather Photography

Nikon 55mm E non-AI, FotoPro C5i Tripod
1/10 sec @ f/16 & ISO 100
SLR Lounge Preset SystemTokina 11-16mm f/2.8, FotoPro C5C Tripod
1/60 sec @ f/10 & ISO 100
SLR Lounge Preset SystemUh oh, Matt froze all the cameras.  This could be bad!Hi there folks!  This will mark the beginning of another new series, and be forewarned, it will be a series that may make you a little squeamish if you are used to taking extremely good care of your camera gear.In this first video tutorial, we’re going to talk about what to do when you get frost on your camera when you shoot at night in extremely cold weather.  Please forgive the quality of video; we had to film on a cell phone because all of our video-capable cameras were frosted over (I’m glaring at YOU, Nikon Df!!!!).

Cleaning Frost Off Your Digital Camera

First things first, don’t panic!  Frost is actually far less dangerous to a camera (in the short term at least) compared to, say, a splash from a wave at the beach. Your “frozen” camera will be just fine, IF you clean it off and dry it out properly.

Disclaimer:
No, your camera is NOT guaranteed to survive this type of abuse, especially if it doesn’t have weather sealing. Extreme weather, especially moisture, can “brick” your camera beyond repair, even if it is a pro camera.  This tutorial is meant to be an emergency guide for those who find themselves in this situation. (We got caught off-guard by the frosty humidity of the American Southwest, since we were so used to the ultra-dry desert climates like Death Valley…)

It is also a good example of the reason why, as an astro-landscape timelapse photographer, I personally prefer to have at least one super-cheap camera and lens setup with me on any adventure.  I wouldn’t do half the things I do out in the wilderness, if all I had were $2,000 lenses and $5,000-$8,000 camera bodies. But when an entire kit can be replaced for a few hundred bucks, it’s a risk I’m more willing to take to get a shot!

With this in mind, let’s proceed…

Exhibit A: The Nikon D5200 and Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8 DX fisheye, entirely encased in frost. Before you do anything else, make sure to take out your camera’s battery.  Throughout the whole cleaning process, keep cameras in the shade so that morning sunlight doesn’t thaw them faster than you can dab away any melting ice.

Step 1: With fleece or similar gloves, gently brush off as much frost as possible.

Step 2: Take a lens brush and get more detailed with all the nooks and crannies, again be as gentle as possible. If you need to poke at any port or crevice directly, tip the camera upside down so you’re not just jamming bits of ice down inside the camera.

Step 3: As the camera starts to warm up, any time you see frost turning into moisture, be ready with a paper towel or cloth.

Step 5: Glass warms much slower than plastic, so don’t rush your lens’ front element.  Aim it down, let it thaw on its own, and be ready with a lens cloth.

Step 6: Give your “dry” camera as much time as you possibly can before putting a battery in and turning it on.  If you’re very concerned and your camera is un-sealed, some folks leave at-risk cameras in a sealed ziplock bag with a desiccant (anti-moisture thingy) for many hours or a whole day.  However, if you’re in the field and you like to live life on the edge, just give it an hour or so in the sun and go for it.  Good luck!

Nikon 55mm f/1.2 E, FotoPro C5i Tripod
1/50 sec @ f/11 & ISO 100
SLR Lounge Preset System

General Cold Weather Photography Tips

Even if you’re not reckless enough to leave your camera outside overnight in freezing temperatures, here are a few of the most common tips regarding cold weather photography that you should remember any time you’re shooting in moderately bad weather:

Warm  Equipment Gradually

Warm up your camera and lens as gradually as you can, when you go from a freezing cold outside to a warm indoors. Rapid warming in even slightly humid climates will cause your cold gear to fog over, inside and out, and while this may not kill your camera’s internal electronics immediately, it can have long-term lifespan effects especially if done repeatedly.

Heck, when humidity is really bad, you even need to be careful when leaving a cool, air-conditioned indoors to a hot, steamy outdoors! This can definitely be an issue in the American South; I’ve had lenses fog over for 10-20 minutes on a hot summer day in Florida!

Cover Up Your Gear

Frost (and dew) likes to collect on the outside surface of things, so if you need to leave something outside for an extended period, at least cover it up.

Keep Your Batteries Warm

Lithium-ion batteries hate freezing temperatures, especially aging ones that you’ve had for a few years.  Keeping your spare batteries in your pocket will help them, well, remember that they’re fully charged instead of pretending to be dead after just three clicks.  In fact, even if your battery tries to die on you, putting it back in your pocket and warming it up can bring it back to life sometimes!

Don’t Be Over-Protective

Believe it or not, but for the humidity reason I first mentioned, you can do more damage than good if you do something over-protective such as hiding your camera under your warm jacket while hiking, then taking it out to shoot, and then hiding it under your jacket again. The most I would recommend doing is hiding your camera under an outer protective shell layer, and putting your batteries in your pocket.  Actually, if your camera and lens are weather-sealed, I wouldn’t even do that.  The more your gear stays at the same temperature, the better!

An Once Of Prevention…

As we already mentioned, this could have all been avoided, or at least dramatically reduced, by carefully covering up as much of the camera as possible.  The only reason this happened was that we had been previously so accustomed to traveling in extremely dry climates, (such as Death Valley) where this isn’t a problem.  Lesson learned, however- when there is snow on the ground and humidity in the air, watch out!

Some people use ziplock bags with holes cut in them, but I prefer to use those generic rain covers that you can buy for small camera bags. Or, if you’re like me and you’ve owned more than one camera bag in the past, you probably have one or two rain covers laying around!

Carefully gaffer-tape your protective cover around the hood of your lens, and use a UV filter, and you should be good to go.  Just be careful not to bump your lens’ focus ring or anything else, when you’re creating a timelapse or a single long exposure!

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