The Complete Wedding Training System is Finally Here!

Your content will be up shortly. Please allow up to 5 seconds
Shooting Tips

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

By Matthew Saville on January 27th 2015

Cold Weather Photography

27-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weatherNikon Df, Nikon 55mm E non-AI, FotoPro C5i Tripod
1/10 sec @ f/16 & ISO 100
SLR Lounge Preset System

28-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weatherNikon D5300, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, FotoPro C5C Tripod
1/60 sec @ f/10 & ISO 100
SLR Lounge Preset System

25-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weather…Uh 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…

01-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weather

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.

02-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weather

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

03-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weather

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.

04-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weather

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.

06-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weather

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.

05-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weather

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!

19-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weatherNikon Df, 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!

14-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weather 16-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weather 12-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weather

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!

More Bad Weather Camera Tips Coming Soon!

In the next episode of this mini-series, we’ll talk about wet weather photography; shooting in the rain or on the beach near waves.  Stay tuned, and be safe out there!

24-digital-camera-frost-snow-bad-weather

Happy clicking,
=Matt=

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

Q&A Discussions

Please or register to post a comment.

  1. Graham Curran

    Great practical tips. Thanks.

    | |
  2. Anshul Sukhwal

    Great tips, Matt. I will try to make use of your experience when I see my camera encountering such extreme weather conditions.

    Thanks
    Anshul Sukhwal
    As usual a great article, Neil. Liked your insights about the importance of social ROI. Yes, everyone (or most of us) uses social networks these days and spend a large chunk of our time on it and we must come up with some strategy to use this time effectively.

    As of now, I am a one-man company and would want to make use of available tools for saving my time for the ROI analysis.

    Thanks a ton, once again. :-)
    Anshul Sukhwal
    Wedding Photographer in India

    | |
  3. Albert Evangelista

    Matt, you’re a lot braver than I am with your equipment when outside in the elements… :p

    | |
  4. robert garfinkle

    I don’t find it an issue letting my camera / lens acclimate to extremes. The problem is me, I don’t adjust well at all…

    That’s why I got a “wireless remote!” – a remote shutter release. After the camera / lens have adjusted to the climate; I walk out, frame the shot, then walk back inside where it’s nice and warm and click away remotely… :)

    | |
    • Matthew Saville

      I have radio a wireless remote as well, and I’ve tested it to work perfectly at up to ~100 yards away, but a wired remote is always preferable for timelapses when you’re leaving your camera out somewhere…

      | |
  5. Claus Ardal

    Hi I recently had the same problem here in Denmark when I tried to make a timelapse of the stars.
    I got a lot of frost on the camera and on the lens. As you mention it is quite easy to avoid the frost on the camera and part of the lens. But do anyone have any tips on how to avoid it on the lens front element?

    At the bottom of this blog post (Sorry it is in Danish) you can see the first and the last picture the camera took.
    http://clausardal.com/kender-du-det-med-at-alt-gar-galt/

    | |
    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Claus,

      Some people take a hand warmer or two and rubber-band them around the lens hood, so they’re as close as possible to the front element. I’d be careful though because those things can get really hot, I’d wrap them in a couple layers of cloth or something before doing that.

      Other than that, there’s not much you can do to keep frost from hitting your front element, if it’s truly freezing and rather humid..

      Good luck!
      =Matt=

      | |
    • Claus Ardal

      Thanks for the tip Matthew :)

      | |
  6. Basit Zargar

    Awesome

    | |
  7. Lex Arias

    Great tips…

    | |
  8. David Hall

    Great job cleaning all those camera up. That was a bit scary to watch though.

    | |
  9. robert garfinkle

    Don’t go! It’s rough out there! – Thornton Melon, 1986

    It’s not worth it, there are polar bears, they eat cameras and photographers…

    | |
  10. Brandon Dewey

    I also used a hand warmer, rubber band to my lens to help keep it warm.

    | |
  11. Michael Burnham

    A timely article given the blizzard that hammered the North-East. Good advice and great shots of frozen cameras too!

    | |
  12. Aaron Cheney

    Haha! This is so awesome! Great recovery and beautiful images!

    | |
  13. Greg Silver

    WOW – I’ve been in some cold weather situations but none like that where the camera is all frosted up.

    | |