Dramatic weather makes for dramatic photos, but you need to protect your camera for the conditions
By Jon Sienkiewicz
Raindrops on roses—no problem. But rain, snow or condensation on camera equipment can mean disaster. Likewise, low temperatures can impede battery performance, and very low temperatures can impair human performance as well. High temps are hazardous, too—direct sunlight can make black lenses excessively warm and prevent proper operation. It’s safer to stay indoors when the climate becomes extreme.
But that would be boring, wouldn’t it? Instead, keep things covered up and protected. Let’s start with cold weather protection, since two-thirds of our nation is plagued with freezing temperatures every winter.
Three things must be protected from extreme cold: any moving or flexible part of the camera, the camera batteries and your fingers.
To keep your hands warm, find a balance between flexibility and comfort by wearing thin silk gloves inside heavier leather or fabric gloves. If you must remove the outer protection to adjust your equipment, you’ll still be protected—at least for a short time—from frostbite. Or line your pockets with the Japanese photographers’ secret, hokaron, a disposable bag-like hand warmer that produces heat through a chemical phase change. Break the seal, mix it up and it stays warm for up to 10 hours. This product is available in the U.S. at many sporting goods and ski shops under a variety of brand names.
The molecular activity of the energy-producing chemistry inside batteries slows down as temperatures fall. Keep an extra battery in an inside pocket, or better yet, use an external pack if your camera maker offers such an accessory. Make sure you carry the external pack in an inside pocket.
The camera itself presents a more difficult challenge. In most cases, cameras don’t actually "freeze up" except at the lowest temperatures. But that’s not where the danger lies. The real threat is condensation. Condensation occurs when water vapor changes from a gas to a liquid. Moisture quickly collects on glass or metal surfaces that are cooled to a low temperature and then transported into a warm, humid environment—the way your sunglasses fog up when you go inside a warm building on a cold day. If your camera does get extremely cold, don’t attempt to warm it up quickly. Instead, move it into an area that has low humidity and only slightly warmer temperatures. One such place is the trunk of a car that’s parked inside an unheated garage. Also, remember to protect the front element of all of your lenses from condensation by using a UV or skylight filter.
If condensation disaster strikes, try removing the battery and memory card and gently warming the camera with a blower-type hair dryer set on low. This is a delicate procedure, so proceed at your own risk! Silica gel, a desiccant that can be purchased at large hardware stores and online, absorbs moisture. Seal the dampened equipment in a one-gallon plastic bag that contains a large dish filled with silica gel and leave it for 24 to 72 hours. Don't allow the chemical to touch the camera or dust may infiltrate through a seam. Silica gel is sometimes available in vented canisters or permeable bags that make it easy to use without directly exposing the chemical.
At the opposite end of the spectrum lies danger from heat. This is easy to avoid in most cases by simply keeping the camera out of direct sunlight. If ambient temperature in the shade is still too hot for your gear, it’s probably too hot for you, too. On the other hand, it’s virtually impossible to protect your equipment from the ravages of humidity unless you keep it sealed within an airtight case. Humidity will haunt your gadget bag, too, especially if it’s the canvas type. It doesn’t hurt to give your empty bag a once-over with the hair dryer after a hike through rainforest-like conditions.
Snowflakes and rain, particularly wind-driven rain, can damage a camera faster than you can say "weather forecast." On those occasions when you know beforehand that you’ll be facing risky or inclement weather, a rigid underwater housing is the most reliable solution—it’s also the most expensive, and they’re generally incompatible with D-SLR cameras and long lenses. Flexible housings and rain covers—specially made waterproof camera bonnets—are the perfect alternative.
Most serious gadget bags and photo backpacks come with form-fitting rain covers of their own. If yours didn’t, buy one. Without a rain cover, your gadget bag or pack can’t provide full protection from the elements. Because precipitation isn’t always predictable, it’s smart to carry extra emergency protection with you at all times. Mine is in the form of two 13-gallon plastic garbage bags. They’re stuffed in the end pockets of my gadget bag and perform the dual function of emergency shelter for my equipment when it’s raining and additional padding when it’s not.