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Operating in subzero temperatures - advice

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Hi! I'll be working on a film later this year and it will take place in Scotland where temperatures tend to get very low during the winter months. What's the best advice for operating in snow/cold can you give?


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I did a short film in the middle of the winter, temperature was somewhere between -10 and -20 celsius at least. The camera we used was an Arri 16SR2. The SR2 didn't work outside in the cold so we had to change it to an SR3. The focus of one of our lenses got frozen, and the eypiece of the camera fogged easily because we didn't have a heated eypiece. If I was to film outside in the winter again, I would get a heated eyepiece and test the gear outside (after the camera has cooled for a while) to avoid hassle in case it won't co-operate. If it's snowing very much I'd also take a raincover for the camera.


Batteries could also be a problem so you would have to heat them in your breast pocket or get a big block battery. There could be a chance of film getting stiff in cold conditions so heated magazines could be needed, too.


Condensation however is not so clear to me; I don't know whether gear should be taken inside in sealed plastic bags. Obviously, if one goes from cold exterior to film in warm interior some time should be allowed for any potential fog in viewfinder, lenses etc. to clear up.


What I did to avoid condensation problems was to leave the equipment cases open after taking the equipment inside to ensure no potential fog and moisture would be left inside the lenses and camera etc. However I do not know whether this procedure was proper or not.




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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi Hank.


All of these things are affected by sub-zero temperatures:


Grease gets thicker. It's more of a problem below -20 degrees but expect to notice some differences in your tripod heads and lenses. The newer the gear, the less susceptible it will be to this in general. For prolonged use in very cold conditions, you can have tripods and lenses re-greased with thinner lubricants.


Cables get stiffer. Even good quality leads might turn into coat hangers at -20. There are some specialised cables made for sub-zero use and ironically, the cheaper thinner cables seem to retain more flex.


LCD screens get "laggy". If you have any equipment with traditional LCD displays, you will probably experience motion smearing at -20. The liquid crystals are simply too cold to switch state quickly enough. This is unacceptable of course so you'd need to put the equipment in some form of thermal cover. Portabrace and Camrade both make polar covers for many cameras. They include internal pockets for you to place heat pads inside. This will be one of the best investments to protect your gear.


Batteries won't last as long. Lithium batteries are badly affected by cold, losing as much as 50% of their capacity in sub zero. You can try keeping them stored in an insulated container and perhaps use heat pads. If you have a vehicle on location then you can keep batteries in there to keep them warm (engine running). Once transferred to the camera they will retain most of their capacity and if you're using a polar cover they shouldn't be further affected by the cold.


Going from warm to cold isn't that bad because there's only a limited amount of warm air inside the equipment. When you hit the cold air it should quickly equalise and you shouldn't get any frost. Hopefully the only frost you'll see will have been forming under your nose as you breath warm humid air out over and over again.


However, going from very cold into a warm place is dangerous because all the moisture in the warm air will condense on the cold equipment before it slowly warms up and you'll soon have little rivers and lakes inside your gear. The trick for dealing with this is to have plenty of good quality plastic refuse sacks with you. Before going into the warm, wrap each item really well with a sack, tying it off so that there's no air flow. Take the gear into the warm and only open it when it's warm(ish) to the touch (this can take more than two hours). If you must use the gear in the warm quicker than that then it's tough luck, unless you want a camera with sodden insides. What you could do is have two sets of equipment: one for inside and one for outside but that's expensive of course.


I hope that helps.



Edited by Matt Crowther
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