A Li-Ion in Winter
Here are a few tips about outdoor photography in winter. Mostly, I’ll describe how to get maximum life from your batteries in low temperatures. That means two things about the scope of this article:
- This article won’t get into other aspects of outdoor photography, at least not very much.
- The information in this article applies to other battery-powered devices besides just cameras. (There’s even a section about your car!)
As I set about researching this article, I discovered something interesting: Nothing! I can’t find anything on the Web that supports the tips I’m about to give you, and I’ve never read about it in print sources. I can’t believe I’m the only one who knows this, and it is certainly no breakthrough scientific discovery. And I can’t believe I’m the only one who has ever attempted to use a digital camera in sub-zero temperatures, but maybe we are so small a market that nobody has bothered to publish this information. Frankly, I’d consider it unlikely that this has never been published before, but I can’t find it.
So, here you go. You might have to consider this something of a “myth,” but you can easily confirm it on your own.
Here’s the thing. Electric batteries are a lot like old, cranky hikers. They get slower and crankier when it’s cold.
It doesn’t matter what kind of batteries you have, whether primary or rechargeable, carbon or alkaline, nickel-metal hydride or lithium-ion, lead-acid automotive batteries, or, I dare say, any battery that’s ever been invented or likely to be invented any time soon. They all operate much better at temperatures closer to normal human body temperature than to the temperature of ice.
Okay, maybe there’s some exotic battery that nobody outside the secret laboratory has ever heard of, but any battery you’re likely to find on the consumer market likes warm temperatures. And maybe batteries of one type operate best at 84.37 degrees Fahrenheit while batteries of another type prefer 88.64 degrees, but the point remains that batteries work better near body temperature.
You can observe this very easily. If you keep your camera (or other battery-powered device) outside in very cold temperatures, you’ll see that the batteries are depleted very quickly. Place the camera inside your jacket for a few minutes, and the batteries indicate a much higher charge.
Any battery produces electric power by chemical reactions, and any chemical reaction occurs more efficiently at higher temperatures, up to a limiting temperature where complex chemicals begin to break down. These limiting temperatures are way above your body temperature, so don’t worry about it. Just don’t drop your batteries into a fire and expect them to work better.
So what can you do about it? Two things, one simple and one with ramifications.
First, carry your extra batteries in an inner pocket. (You do dress in layers when you go outdoors in winter weather, don’t you? Good!) The nearer to your skin, the better. I typically carry my extra batteries in my shirt pocket, with at least one sweater and one jacket outside of that. Don’t carry your batteries in an outer pocket or a backpack. If that’s your plan, save the weight and just don’t bring any extra batteries. They wouldn’t work anyway.
Second, keep your camera as warm as possible while you’re not actually using it. This, as I alluded above, has ramifications. The problem is that if you keep your camera at your body temperature, condensation will form on the lenses when you take it out and start using it.
So, while your extra batteries benefit from being kept at body temperature, the camera itself has problems with that. Here are a couple of techniques that I use to reach a balance between these two requirements.
- Keep your camera at an intermediate temperature and, if possible, keep the battery warmer than the lens. I keep my camera in an inside pocket of my outermost jacket, and I keep it lens-side-up. Typically, my outermost jacket is unzipped, so the top of that inner pocket is only marginally warmer than ambient temperature. The battery-end of my camera is buried deep inside a sort-of warm pocket, while the lens is just outside of the frigid White Mountain wilderness.
- Change out the batteries throughout the day, cycling them between the camera and your inner pocket. When the battery in my camera indicates that it’s “dead,” I install the extra battery and put the “dead” one in my shirt pocket. Then, when that second battery is “dead,” I switch back to the original battery, which is now warmed up and, magically, no longer “dead.”
One final note: When you get back home, do not place a cold battery on its charger. Let the batteries warm up to room temperature for a few hours before charging them. The sudden change of temperature from freezing to charging, and the sudden flow of electrical current through a cold battery, will almost certainly cause permanent damage.
While the tips in this article are specifically about digital cameras, much of this information also applies to film cameras. Almost any film camera manufactured in the last half-century has electronic exposure controls and an electrical actuator for the shutter. Many also have an electric film-advance motor. The batteries that operate these features will also benefit from being kept warm.
In addition, the film itself operates more efficiently at warmer temperatures. In extremely cold conditions, the photochemical reactions by which film records an image may not happen quickly enough, and your pictures will be underexposed. And you won’t even know it until you develop them. The temperatures at which this becomes noticeable are truly extreme, typically well below zero Fahrenheit, but the phenomenon does exist.
So, your film camera will benefit from being kept warm just as a digital camera will.
But it also has the same drawback of condensation on the lens.
A trick I used to use in extreme cold was to keep the lenses in my camera bag at ambient temperature and the camera body in a jacket pocket. It slowed me down a bit, requiring me to mount a lens before taking a picture, but it was better than enduring the elements only to come home with a roll of underexposed pictures. Also, condensation could form on the viewfinder lens and mirror, but this condensation was not in the path between the objective lens and the film, so it did not affect the pictures.
Other Electronic Widgets
What other gadgets do you use outdoors in winter conditions? Regardless, if it has a battery, the battery will work better if you keep it warm.
And condensation might not be a problem! A little bit of condensation may form on the circuitry itself, but this is less of a problem than you might think. Most consumer electronic devices have a coating on their circuits to protect them from atmospheric moisture and oxygen, so they can handle a little bit of condensation. When you remove your gadget from that warm pocket and hold it in the icy air to use it for a minute or two, only a few tiny drops of condensation will form. Then, when you put it back in its toasty pocket, the condensation will mostly evaporate again.
GPS receiver? Keep it warm, but high enough that it can get a good signal from the satellites. Your body can obscure the satellite signal, especially when the forest canopy has already weakened the signal. You might try keeping the receiver on a shoulder-strap that will hold it on your back or shoulder, clear of your backpack, under your jacket.
Walkie-talkie? It should ride well in a pocket of your inner jacket that will keep it warm and ready to use.
Wireless phone? (Why are you bringing it into the wilderness?) I prefer to leave mine in my car when I’m hiking. Then I put it in a shirt pocket to warm up when I start to drive home. By the time I’m back in civilization and cell-phone coverage, it’s ready to receive that message of worry from my wife. If you do carry it on a hike, keep it in an inner pocket. (And if you’re worried about getting rat-cancer from the radio energy, keep it in a pocket that’s at least an inch away from your skin but still close enough to stay reasonably warm.)
Starting your Car in the Cold
Here’s a bonus tip about cold batteries. You may have heard this before and dismissed it as preposterous, but it’s perfectly true.
It only works if your car battery is rather old and weak. If this trick helps you to get your car going on a cold morning, replace that battery as soon as you can.
But if you’ve been putting off buying a new battery and now you’re running late for work and the car won’t start, here’s a way to save the day: Turn your headlights on before you start the car.
It sounds counterintuitive, but it actually works. What happens is that the electric current that flows through the battery actually warms the battery itself. Once warmed up, the battery produces current more efficiently than when it’s cold.
You have to apply this trick very carefully. The idea is to use some of the battery’s energy to warm the battery, but not to deplete the stored charge in the process. When you crank the starter that one last time, you want the battery to be warm and to have enough charge to start the cold engine.
So, if the first attempt results in a slow cranking, give it up quickly. Turn the headlights on for a while – a minute or so should do it – then turn the lights off and try the starter again.
Notice that I said “headlights.” The parking lights don’t draw enough current to warm the battery up significantly on a very cold day.
So, you may ask, why doesn’t the starter draw enough current to warm up the battery? In fact, it does, but at the same time, it is drawing so much charge from the battery that it can deplete the charge before the battery becomes efficient enough to start the engine.
Use the headlights.
If you try this for two or three cycles and the engine still doesn’t start, give it up and break out the jumper cables. (You do have jumper cables handy, don’t you?)
If you’ve had to use this trick even once, get a new battery. Today!
You can see samples of my digital photographs taken in frigid conditions, often well below zero Fahrenheit, at [http://www.HikingWithChuck.com/DownloadsPicsWinter.htm]. I wonder how many of these pictures I might have missed if I had let my batteries go dead!