I am up in Minnesota this week and next for a bit of winter photography. I find a lot of photographers put their cameras into winter hibernation mode when it gets cold and snowy, yet cameras are designed to handle the cold. If you dress properly, you can get some unique photos that others will never get, plus gain an experience with nature that is important because nature doesn't quit just because there is snow and cold.
The challenge is in the batteries.
Actually, I was here first for my wife's family and some events, but from Saturday into next week, I will be shooting in one of my favorite winter locations, the North Shore of Lake Superior. To do a little check out of my gear and clothing, I did go out shooting on Wednesday morning for a little while when the temp was about 10 degrees F. I found a few things to check, including being careful to cover my lower legs (my Sorel boots chafed my skin).
I expected batteries might be an issue, but I didn't think they would be too bad since I did not plan on being outside a long time. Batteries have always been a challenge for winter photography. Cold saps battery power. I remember 30 years ago photographing at - 20 degrees F along the shore of Lake Superior and having to keep switching batteries in my Canon AE-1 -- a battery in the camera getting cold while one warmed in the pocket. The camera was designed to work fine at such temperatures, but the batteries began to fail when their core reached 32 degrees above zero.
I kind of expected batteries to be better now. After all, I was using a camera that totally depended on batteries even for the "viewfinder" (my NEX cameras have no optical viewfinder), the batteries were small, and yet they always lasted a long time in the field.
I tend to keep a camera on the tripod in winter work because it is easier to handle that way in the cold (quick tip: carbon fiber tripods don't sap finger warmth, even with gloves, as much as metal tripods). So I was surprised to find that after barely an hour in the cold, the battery level display said there was zero power left. This battery had been just fully charged, so I started at 100%. I realized I had two problems with my gear and batteries. First, the cameras were small and had no mass to hold any residual heat. Second, the batteries were also small and lost heat quickly.
So I had to take the battery out and put it into a pocket. That is not always so easy when you are not prepared to do that and you have heavy clothing on. I thought about trying to warm in in the palm of my hand under my gloves (another quick tip: gloves sold by hunting stores work really well because hunters need warmth and flexibility for their fingers, as well as finger tip surfaces that grip -- I won't use gloves that expose finger tips because they are way too cold for me under any conditions). That was not a good idea!
After a while in my pocket, the battery did warm up and the camera instantly went back to a normal battery level. So this little test drive into the cold was extremely valuable. I learned I needed to keep a second battery in my pocket kept warm. I learned I needed a way to access the warm battery easily. I did find the cameras worked fine in the cold when the batteries were fully functional. And unrelated to the batteries, I learned I needed a warmer hat! We lose a lot of heat from our heads when it is cold, and when your head is cold, your extremities get cold, too.
I am going to look for some chemical hand warmers. I looked to see if I could attach one to the side of my camera by the batteries, but that looks to be pretty difficult. What I am going to do is keep one in my outer jacket pocket with a battery. That should keep the battery warm, yet keep the battery much more accessible for changing with the cold battery. It is very hard to access a warm inner pocket near your body when you are bundled for the cold, plus it often requires "breaking into" the warmth around your body, so a warm outer pocket would be nice.