Camera Gear and Polar Regions – So what’s the deal? We’ve all heard horror stories of people’s gear getting ruined. It does happen, no doubt about it. But there’s a few precautions you can take to give your gear the best chance of survival and more important allow you to keep shooting for the duration of your Photography Expedition.
Photography Expeditions to Polar regions offer a number of hazards to your gear that one needs to be wary of. Namely water, salt and low temperatures.
Water ingress is the primary cause of camera failure in any photography expedition. Be it being caught in a rain shower, getting dumped on by a freak wave, water spray from the bow of a zodiac cutting through the waves or the good old “I just plain dropped my camera in the drink”. Water and electronics just do not mix. So what can you do?
Buy professional grade gear
My first recommendation is to buy professional grade gear. Canon 1 Series camera bodies and the majority of the L Series lenses are extremely well weather sealed. How well weather sealed? Good enough to shoot in the rain without fear for you gear, to shoot where there is spray and even for a complete immersion (but always best to be avoided). That’s the ideal scenario. But we also need to be realistic. Many people out there, myself included, shoot with non-1 Series bodies (I shoot a 1D Mark IV and a 5D Mark III). So what can the non 1 Series/L series shooters do?
First and foremost keep your camera gear out of the weather, spray etc until you want to shoot.
Get a good camera bag
A good camera bag is essential. One with a wet weather cover is even better. This will keep all your gear dry until you’re ready to shoot.
Get a dry bag
Getting your camera out of your camera bag exposes all your camera gear to the elements. To avoid doing this, a good dry bag to put your camera in whilst you’re scooting around in a Zodiac or stuck in a midday shower will keep your gear nice and dry. They’re easy to open and close as well aseasy to get gear in and out of. They come in a variety of sizes and most as good for an immersion to a few metres. They come in a variety of sizes so you can get one to fit just a single camera/lens combo or large enough to fit your whole camera bag.
Keep your gear sheltered
If you want to keep your camera out ready for that right moment. Keep it between your legs if sitting down and leave forwards. Another options is to keep it under the cover of your outer goretex layer until you need to bring your camera up to shoot.
There are a number of ‘camera covers’ out there that essentially put a thin plastic bag over your camera to keep water out. These do work to some extent but aren’t the best to shoot with.
Choose the right non-Professional grade gear
Be selective with your lens choices if you’re not buying Professional Grade gear. Lenses that have a fixed physical length and don’t have rotating front elements are best. Basically the least amount of external joints/expansion points on the lens the better the chance one has of keeping water (and dust) out of a lens. Once water is in your lens, the chance of mould growing inside on lens on the elements is pretty high let alone the most obvious effect of impairing lens functions.
Camera bodies that aren’t as well weather sealed as professional grade bodies tend to have issues at first with the top LCD panel and the buttons on top of the camera, basically rain and water spray normally comes from above and lands on the top of your camera. So when selecting a camera, the one with the most buttons dials and wheels on top of the camera may be the camera most susceptible to water. The next place of water ingress is the rear of the camera. When you’re camera is hanging over your shoulder or around your neck, the buttons on the back of the body are exposed to the elements.
The other main place where water ingress is an issue is around the battery and card slot covers. Compare the sealing of the various camera models you’re considering for purchase and see which is better sealed.
A Vertical Battery Grip allow you to put an extra battery in your camera which is great for cold weather, but before you make the commitment to buy one, check out the sealing mechanism on a Vertical Grip versus the standard battery door cover on the camera body. On a Canon 5D Mark III the battery door cover (which is removed when using a battery grip), has a seemingly much more comprehensive seal including a foam seal and a more plastic circumference ridge than the Canon factory Vertical Grip. Also of note in recent cameras it is the more aesthetically pleasing design of Vertical Grips that mould to the shape of the camera body which sees the battery grips having curved edges which means water running down the side of your camera body will naturally pool in between the Vertical Grip and the camera body. Far from ideal in wet weather.
Regardless of whether you’re using Professional Grade gear or not, always clean your camera and dry it thoroughly.
Temperature won’t necessarily ruin your camera, but it can have a big effect on its operation. Most electrical equipment will has a operating temperature range defined in its specifications. Normally electrical equipment is rated with an operating temperature range say from 32 – 113 °F ( 0 – 45 °C), which is the operating temperature range from my Canon 1Ds Mark IV (out of interest the Canon 5D Mark III tops out with a maximum temp of 104 °F or 40°C). Using the camera outside of these temperature ranges there’s no guarantee it working, or more importantly of avoiding damage to your equipment.
The biggest impact of temperature on your camera gear is battery life. Canon for instance states you will get 100 less frames out of a battery at 32 °F (0 °C) versus a test temperature of 77 °F (25 °C) . From experience, I’d say I’d get 15% less frames from a battery if not even worse performance. Using Image Stabilization will further reduce battery life significantly at the best of times. The lower the temperatures goes, the quicker your batteries will go flat.
So what can you do to combat that problem?
More Batteries (and Chargers)
First and foremost, carry more batteries. How many? How long is a piece of string? Have you got big glass? Do you like chimping? Do you shoot a thousand frames per day? Do you like to shoot video? How long are you going to be out in these temperatures? 15 mins? 3 hours?
I prefer to have enough batteries for at least 2 days shooting if I’m working from a base like a ship. Why?
Because after I get back after a day of shooting I put my spent batteries on the chargers and reload my camera with fresh batteries. I like to keep charged batteries ready to go and more importantly I want fresh fully charged batteries in my camera whenever I can. Quite often in the middle of the night or the wee hours of the morning someone will knock on your cabin door and say “Pod of Whales”, “Awesome `berg!” or “We’ve got amazing light”. Having to prepare gear takes time and when exhausted it takes twice and long. So having your camera prepared ready to go with clean cards, full batteries and a lens affixed can make the difference between getting on deck and getting that shot or not getting up there in time or having a battery go flat or card full message.
So having more batteries and keeping them charged means more chargers. If you’ve got a 1 Series camera the charger already takes two batteries and you’re set. If you’re shooting a 5D Mark III as a second body with its single battery charger you’ll want a second charger, you don’t want to have wake in the middle of the night to swap batteries on a charger. As with all my trip packing recommendations I highly recommend you pack a power board. Just with a 1 Series charger and two Canon LP-E6 battery chargers I’ve taken up 3 power sockets. Add in a laptop power supply, USB power pack etc etc etc and it goes pretty quick.
Keep them warm
Depending on the time of year you head to our extreme Northern or Southern regions will dictate how low the temperatures you can expect, -22 °F (-30°C) is not unheard of. Wind chill can turn a seemingly toasty 32°F day into a day where you’re sure you can feel the freezing cold temperature of your Really Right Stuff L Bracket giving you freezer burn through your gloves.
If you’re going to be out in the weather in Winter its going to be way way below freezing so during the colder months its best to keep your spare batteries close to your body inside your Goretex to allow your body heat to keep batteries warm ready for a battery change when the battery in your camera runs out.
Keep gear dry
Another downside of extremely low temperatures is that water spray that gets on your gear can freeze. So its always good to keep a good cloth handy to wipe your gear down. Water freezing on your gear is far from ideal.
Most important of all with regards to temperature, looking at average daily temperatures for the area you are visiting will give you a rough idea of the temperatures you will encounter. These temperatures won’t take in account wind chill factor which will considerable lower temperatures. Cruising through ice chunks in a zodiac and along the base of glaciers will also see you experience much lower temperatures.
Inevitably when travelling in the Polar regions you’ll be travelling via ship which means travelling the high seas. Salt water is even worse than fresh water for your gear. Salt sea spray will get on your gear. Guaranteed. Whether its when you’re standing on the bow of the ship as it crashes through swell or you’re sitting a Zodiac buzzing along to your next location or just heading back to the ship at the end of an outing, you will encounter salt.
Why is salt bad? Salt’s chemical make up means it reacts with, and alters the composition of so many different elements. Salt itself, also conducts charge. So apart from potentially causing corrosion inside your camera it may also cause electrical shorts.
Salt is coarse, so when it dries on your tripod, in the fibre of your clothes and anything else it gets into is starts to create friction. This will eventually see wear and tear on everything its left on. So take your tripod for a shower and give it a good wash out and ensure you give your goretex and other gear a good clean to get rid of any residual salt.
Wipe your gear down
Salt water will inevitably get on your gear, but the key is, as per with what I describe above with water, is to keep salt water off your gear as much as possible, and for any salt water that does get on your gear ensure you clean it off with a cloth as soon as you can. Salt water that dries on your gear will leave fine salt grains that will get into every crevice on your camera just like fine dust does. A cloth dampened with fresh water can be used to clear salt off your gear when you get back to your base of operation.
What about humidity I hear you say? Relatively speaking the humidity in Polar regions is actually quite low. Why is that?
Humidity is made up of a number of gases (nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide) and water vapour. Water vapour comes about from evaporation and plant respiration. Two things there’s not a lot of in the Polar regions of our wonderful planet due to their climates. The Polar regions, especially in Winter can be as dry as the Sahara desert due to zero evaporation. That said, the further you are away from the two Poles the humidity does increase so it always pays to take care, but relatively speaking, humidity really isn’t an issue.
So when preparing for a Photography Expedition to a Polar Region, have a look at your gear and see where the weak points are and see what you can apply from the above that will ensure your camera gear doesn’t just make it home, but keeps you shooting for the duration of your photograph expedition.