Protecting Your Camera Gear After Shooting in the Cold

Protecting Your Camera Gear After Shooting in the Cold

Baby it’s cold outside, just look at that ice beard! Only in Northern Michigan would you find someone actually surfing in this kind of cold. But, that’s what a Marquette local, Daniel Schetter or “Surfer Dan,” does. On Christmas day, Photographer Devon Hains ventured out into the cold to photograph Schetter out on Lake Superior. If you’re thinking at all about venturing out in the cold after the next fluffy snowfall to take some shots (and you should), you need to take the appropriate actions to protect your gear. In this article, I’ll share a tip on how not to completely ruin your gear after shooting in the cold.

One of the great things about modern photography technology is that it will function just fine even in very cold temperatures. For example, Nikon’s new D850 is rated to be used in 32 degrees Fahrenheit with no change in functionality. So is the consumer-grade D3300. Even when left outside overnight in the freezing cold, our modern cameras these days are capable of surviving. Check out this video of some cameras that were completely frozen get thawed out and return back to normal functionality (disclaimer, I don’t recommend trying this). Even though our gear can be used in the cold, the number one thing to be careful of is after you’re done shooting. Bringing your gear inside to warmer temperatures can cause condensation, and that can be a very, very bad thing for your camera bodies and lenses.

Surfer Dan poses with epic ice beard after surfing on Lake Superior Christmas Day

In a nutshell, condensation is what happens when warm gas comes in contact with a cooler surface. So it’s a pretty good bet if you take a camera outside in cold weather and then bring it inside, condensation will develop on the outside of your precious gear, and even more scary, potentially on the inside of your camera as well. That moisture has the potential to cause a whole slew of problems including frying internal electronics, cause fungus to develop in between the elements of your lens, and so on. So yeah, it’s kind of a big deal to make sure you don’t allow condensation to develop in the first place.

After shooting for even a short amount of time outside, the best way to protect against condensation is to put your gear into a large plastic ziplock bag. Toss a couple desiccants (those little packages of silica that you often get in shoe boxes) in and seal the bag. The air (and moisture) as it comes in contact with the camera may still condensate, but it will do so on the outside of the bag, and not on your camera. Allow the gear ample time to come up to room temperature. Bonus points if you leave your zip-locked items in a camera case as it will slow the rate of which your gear warms up, adding another layer of protection against condensation. Once the gear is up to room temperature you’re good to go.

Images used with permission from Devon Hains.

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Good advice, but I think you mean desiccants.

Tommy Feisel's picture

Yep, you're correct!

Tommy Feisel's picture

Fixed, thanks for catching that Ryan!

Alex Cooke's picture

I think I just need to move somewhere warm.

16mm Camera's picture

I thought this video was pretty informative as well.

It's a good topic, especially this winter.

Mark Holtze's picture

I had no idea this video even reached anybody. Haha, glad you liked it! I was reading the article because I had just done a video on it. How did you find it if you don’t mind me asking?

Ps: great article OP ;). Great Lakes surfing is a thing...did it for two years but had to retire because it’s brutal lol. Pretty niche but very loyal and dedicated community.

16mm Camera's picture

I subscribed awhile ago based on your vintage lens/8mm film stuff. Love that you young guys are still appreciating the older formats. Keep it up.

Mark Holtze's picture

Appreciate the support! Ps: I’m not THAT young ;). Back OT, sorry to go off topic Tommy.

Great stuff here. Fstoppers GO!

"Toss a couple desiccants (those little packages of silica that you often get in shoe boxes) in and seal the bag."

Good advice, but if you are going to use a desiccant you need an indicating type. Simply recommending the little packets you find in shoe boxes is only going to get you useless already saturated silica gel since it doesn't take long for them to become saturated. In fact, it's very quick.

I make my own silica gel packets from bulk silica gel I buy from Great prices and all types. I use the less toxic orange indicating type in the below link and place the silica gel into little cotton pouches I make out of old white T-shirt's. I can then simply hold up the silica gel to light to determine it's level of saturation.

You can also inexpensively and safely store your gear with such packets by using them in clear air tight plastic storage containers. In such airtight containers the silica gel will absorb as much moisture as you want, depending on how much you place inside the container, and the humidity level will then be constant indefinitely so long as the airtight seal is not broken. How do you get the humidity you want? Just toss in an inexpensive humidity gauge. Around 30% is a good level. With the humidity gauge, in this storage scenario, you could then use the cheaper non-indicating type.

The orange indicating silica gel can also be reused a number of times while retaining the indicating benefit by gently drying it out in an oven set on warm. The non-indicating type can be dried out over and over again, but of course there is no visible way to know if it is saturated.

The site also sells packets for those that don't want to be bothered making their own.

In the image below on the left is how it looks when it gets fairly saturated. When it is fully saturated it all turns into a very dark blue/green, as some of the beads already are. On the right is a dry batch that I have restored.

Mark Holtze's picture

This is fantastic ! Thanks so much for the link Bob! I’ve got a shoot way up north coming up and need to pull all the stops to protect the gear! Hope you get a small commission XD

Glad I could help. If you have any other questions, let me know. I have plenty of experience working with silica gel. It's amazing stuff. Far more amazing and useful than people realize.

As for a "small commission, no I just like helping obviously good businesses, and that serve unusual niches. The last thing society needs is for Amazon to control everything. It's bad enough as it is already.

Edit: To expand on what I touched on, I would stick to the orange version. As pretty as the blue one looks, it has colbalt chloride, a carcinogen. The orange type works great!

Other uses include keeping ammunition, film, photos, clothing and anything else dry that can be damaged by moisture and mold. Just remember that to work properly, and indefinitely, the items need to be in airtight enclosures, otherwise your protected items are simply competing with ambient air and in no time the silica gel will become saturated, quickly rendering your items unprotected.

I forgot to mention something very important, for routine and long term storage of items highly susceptible to acidic offgassing, such as film, that can come from a plastic storage container, choose airtight *glass* containers or airtight acid free plastic containers. Airtight glass food containers are much easier to find now since the trend now is to get away from plastic and the many concerns they bring up, beyond the one I mentioned.

Tommy Feisel's picture

Bob, fantastic!

Mark Harris's picture

A quick-and-dirty solution that I use when running in and out of the cold in Sweden is to just take off my jacket and wrap it around the camera so that it warms up more slowly indoors.

16mm Camera's picture

Heheh, I use an extra scarf and wrap the camera like a pair of boxing gloves hehe. I just keep the gear in the bag when I come inside for hours let it slowly aclimatize.

Yep, that works too, for simply cold and *dry* conditions. Just putting the camera back into a well insulated bag also works for those conditions. That said, silica gel in plastic bags is highly recommended for wet and humid conditions. Fungus starts to grow anywhere in the mid 50 to 60% humidity range. There are environments that go for a long time never dropping below that, even deserts at certain times of the year, and of course wet all year round, like the tropics.

Photographers concerned with properly storing their gear will store them as cheaply as I described in my first post or much more expensively, and I believe less effectively, in a dedicated dry cabinet/storage container. The reason why I view them to be less effective is that they are typically dependent on power. I believe they are a hugely unnecessary expense. There are a lot of good *clear* airtight storage containers, in all shapes and sizes, that are designed for food that are perfect for dry camera gear storage. Add in the proper amount of indicating silica gel, a humidity gauge, and you're done, very inexpensively.

Mark Holtze's picture

Brilliant! Thanks again Bob!