This article is taken from my upcoming book “Camera confidential: An insiders guide to working as a Cameraman and Visual Journalist.” If you are interested then please register for my mailing list
Personally I’ve been lucky enough to avoid too many cold weather assignments, I much prefer risking heat stroke to frost bite. Filming in the ice and snow and in sub zero temperatures is a complicated business and is physically incredibly tough. Modern tape free cameras perform much better in extreme cold than the older generation of cameras but they are unfortunately far from hassle free.
As with all shoots the more you prep the more successful it will be. Before you deploy to the arctic or wherever you will be going, make sure you have invested in the correct clothing. You need a base layer preferably made of merino-wool (thought there are cheaper alternatives, just be sure to avoid cotton which absorbs moisture and stays wet). A mid layer consisting of fleece top and leg-ins can be vital as is an outer layer such as an arctic parker and padded insulated trousers. Most important of all is to keep your head covered, you can lose up to forty-five percent of your body heat from an unprotected head and neck – get yourself a good hat, scarf and possibly even a balaclava. Normal gloves wont cut the mustard so get yourself some proper arctic mittens with a thin pair of gloves to wear underneath and some chemical hand warmers which you can put inside the mittens when required. Get a pair of boots that are rated 10 degrees lower than the temperature your expecting, all it takes a freak arctic wind and you’ll be wishing you had.
BBC Camerawoman Julie Ritson used to be based in Moscow and is at home shooting in knee deep snow. She has this comprehensive list of tips and advice for filming in the extreme cold:
– Firstly make sure all your batteries are in good condition and fully charged because the cold weather makes them drain quick. Keep the spares inside your coat in the warmest place you can find.
– Make sure you have the biggest media card or tape in the camera that you can, so as to avoid having to change them in gloves and risk losing or damaging them.
– be aware of wind chill temperatures. The thermometer might say minus 10 but in reality that could become minus 20-25 if there are strong winds or gales.
– Once temperatures fall below minus 10 use an Insulated Camera Jacket like the Portabrace Polar Bear. The new ones have internal pockets to put hand warmers in which you should also do but be careful, the chemical hand warmers get very hot, try to wrap them in a lens cloth or something similar.
– Once the camera has a jacket on, handling it and getting to the controls is much harder. To make things a bit easier play with your assignable switches and see which ones you can access easier for recording etc.
– If your camera has a “cache” function then use it (Cache is when the camera is always recording, in other words even if you hit record a second or two late you wont miss the shot). This gives you time to get your hands into the polar bear jacket and onto the record button, just in case something happens and your not already recording. I tend to leave the camera either on my shoulder or the tripod, never on the ground except for the occasional arty shot, therefore those 8-10 secs of footage you gain with the cache on will usually be fairly steady and usable.
– If you start to see blue fringing in the corners of the viewfinder, the camera is getting very cold and might get damaged. Try to heat the camera up a little if you can until the blue disappears. I have had several experiences in minus 30-40 when I had blue fringing appear. One time it damaged/cracked the internal optics but amazingly the camera kept going. Another time the blue disappeared once I got into a slightly warmer environment and the camera survived. I think the main factor was length of time at extreme temperatures…..the shorter the better.
– Try not to put your eye up against the viewfinder too much because heat from your skin and condensation from your breath will quickly fog it up. Alternatively try holding your breath as you look through viewfinder.
– Be careful of skin on metal, it can stick. I have heard a trick whereby photographers place stick on tape over metal parts that may come into contact with their faces.
– Keep a lens cloth or chamois leather with you in an easy to access place, if it starts to snow you need to be able to wipe the lens quickly. A paintbrush can also be useful for dusting the snow off the camera body and lens.
– NEVER bring your camera into a heated room or warmer environment after filming below zero. When storing your camera overnight, put the whole camera into a strong black bin bag, seal it with a rubber band and then leave it in an area of your accommodation that is on or around zero celsius….generally the boot room is quite good. This should stop any condensation forming inside the camera which will be very difficult to get rid of.