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My photo gear regularly gets exposed to extreme cold when photographing the northern lights. I have been shooting the beautiful Aurora Borealis in Northern Canada, and the biggest challenges are the effects of cold and frost on equipment.

Here I am sharing my experience with Nikon D800 bodies and Nikkor lenses. They hold up mostly well, and despite issues preventing to keep shooting, have all recovered without significant damage after exposure to extreme cold. I have had no issues with plastic or glass cracking in the cold.

Frost

With cold (remember that the slightest breeze has a significant wind chill effect in sub-zero temperatures), frost rapidly appears on cameras and lenses. Accumulating frost also means more humidity when bringing your camera in. To avoid frost forming on bodies and lenses, I protect them with a camera cover: frost forms on the outside of the cover but not on the camera and lens.

I took these pictures of my frosted equipment with a smartphone in December 2015. Lots of frost but none on the camera protected with the camera parka.

I took these pictures of my frosted equipment with a smartphone in December 2015. Lots of frost but none on the camera protected with the camera parka.

Cold and LCD display

The LCD display is the first thing to go. Around -15/-20°C, images and histograms are slow to display if they display at all. The longer the camera is out and the colder it is, the more issues with LCD displays. Experience and luck are all you have left to adjust SS and ISO settings to the brightness of northern lights without feedback from the LCD. Display gets back to normal the next day at regular temperatures.

Batteries

Cold and wind quickly drain batteries. The decrease in battery life is very linear until about 50-40% charge, then batteries drain quickly. I get around 2h15 of battery life at -20°C, but less than 1 hour at -40°C. Protecting your camera will save battery life, mostly by blocking wind and preventing the camera to get too cold. Keeping you spare batteries warm will get you longer shooting time as well.  Anything I can do to delay changing batteries and freezing my finger tips is a major improvement.

Shutter

Around -30°C and lower, after about 1h, the shutter freezes: it slows down and becomes very noisy. Time to pack your equipment to avoid damages! I have had this happened 4 times before using a camera protective cover. I am not taking chances anymore and now always use a camera parka. I haven’t had issues with the shutter since, even recently after 2.5 hours at -35°C/-31°F (-48°C/-54°F with windchill).

aurora borealis in yellowknife, canada, northwest territories

It took this picture on that very chilly night. I have to say that I gave up after 2.5h… before my equipment…

Next week in Part 2, we will discuss lenses and remote shutter release cable. To be published on Jan 30, 2016.

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