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The Film Photographer Who Came In From the Cold

It's winter in the Northern hemisphere. Though it's only been winter for about week – at least if you go by the Old Farmer's Almanac, which I'm certain we all still read religiously – it's been cold for a while. For film photographers, summer is a happy season with enough light, with gorgeous colors, and little worry about malfunctioning equipment. If you're not hanging out in the wettest of jungles or the hottest of deserts, anyway. The cold is less kind to our equipment and our medium. Cameras are susceptible to malfunction, film becomes brittle.Not to worry, though. Follow me into the arctic vortex for seven things you can do to keep shooting happily away in freezing temperatures (Some of these also apply to digital cameras, but the list deals with shooting film specifically).

1. Batteries Die - Bring Extra Batteries

Sure, when you're shooting digitally, you bring extra batteries. Modern cameras eat through batteries, especially if they have huge screens and all kinds of wireless connectivity. Mirrorless cameras are especially at fault here. But film cameras? Isn't it enough to put the batteries in once and then to forget about them for a year or so, perhaps longer? Most old film cameras sip electricity very carefully. They don't need to be fed constantly.

Well, unless it's cold outside. Then even a 1970s or 1980s camera that doesn't have automatic film wind and pretty much only uses batteries for the metering system and the shutter release will suck through batteries in minutes or hours instead of weeks or months.

Winter at the Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C. Expired Fuji Superia 200 film in a Minolta X-700.

Some camera models (like the 1980s Minolta 7000) provided little battery boxes that would attach to the camera with a cable. You could keep the battery compartment in a pocket, perhaps with a pocket warmer. Since electronics don't mind the cold all that much, but the batteries that power them do, this works pretty well. The downside (apart from finding such obscure equipment for your camera today) is that you'll be tethered to your camera with a cable. So if this isn't practical, but your batteries keep dying on you, you may want to consider something else:

2. Use a Mechanical Camera

A fully mechanical SLR, an old TLR, or a rangefinder eliminates that most common failure point discussed above: if it's not battery powered, draining batteries won't ruin your shot. You may have to use a separate light meter for some of these cameras or go by the Sunny 16 rule, but light meters are quickly stuffed away into a warm pocket after you've taken a reading. They don't need to be out in the cold for every minute you're shooting.

New England Fall Chill. Agfa Precisa CT 100, Minolta X-700.

3. Have Your Camera Winterized

This one is really only for the most die-hard of winter photographers, or for those who have to tackle the coldest of the cold climes frequently. Film cameras have many moving parts, and the oils and lubricants used to keep them moving have different properties in different temperatures. Typically, they freeze up as temperatures drop significantly below freezing. Because of this, professionals used to take cameras to camera repair stores and service centers to have them "winterized," that is, to have the lubricants removed or replaced with others that were better suited for cold weather.

Lubricants have become better over the decades, so this isn't quite as necessary anymore. Still, if you can find a qualified camera repair shop, and you find yourself out amongst the polar bears frequently, it's something you can do to keep things working smoothly.

4. Change Film Carefully, Wind On Slowly

Film itself becomes brittle at very low temperatures. This is one reason why you shouldn't load it immediately after taking it out of the freezer. But when you're actually shooting in the cold, you don't have much choice if you want to take more pictures than you have pre-loaded into either your camera or into exchangeable magazines.

Mechanical Camera. Photo by NordWood Themes.

Changing film in the cold can be surprisingly hard. If you don't want to use this as a challenge to take fewer pictures, you should practice changing film while wearing your gloves while still inside. Then, you can do it quicker and with less likely damage to the film.

Also make sure to wind on carefully if you have a manual-wind camera, or set the auto wind to a low setting if you have a more modern SLR, and if this is possible. That way, you won't rip apart a roll of film that's gotten a bit too cold while it's in your camera.

5. Bag 'em - Freezer Bags Keep Moisture Out

Once you're ready to come in from the cold, you should reach into your photo bag or pocket and pull out one or more freezer bags. These are readily available in various sizes. Your most important bag is one that fits your camera and the largest lens you'll typically be using out in the cold. Before you step back into the warmth, put your camera in the bag and zip it up. You have to do this while you're still outside. Once you're back inside, it's no use. 

The reason to do this is because when moving from cold to warm, moisture clings to your equipment. Moisture can corrode your camera. If there are electronics in your gear, it can mess with those. By putting your camera into a sealable plastic bag before entering a place that's significantly warmer than where you were shooting, condensation will occur on the outside of your bag, not on your equipment.

6. Keep Warm

It's one thing for your camera to get cold. You're likely not immune to below-zero temperatures either. Obviously, you should not expose yourself to freezing temperatures without protection.

Your perfect system here will depend on exactly how cold it is. Gloves are usually a must. If it's not too cold, fingerless gloves will do nicely. They let you operate your camera with little issue. If it's a bit chillier, finger gloves offer almost the same operability. Mittens are warmest, for sure, but they're not always your most practical option. If it's really cold outside, you can consider wearing thinner gloves under mittens and take off one or both mittens when shooting, then put them back on when you're taking a break or walking to a location.

Best to Stay Bundled Up. Photo by David Marcu

The other tips here should sound familiar to anyone who ever went out into the cold as a kid with a scolding parent watching: wear a warm jacket. Wear a hat. Wear long underwear if you have to. You don't need me to tell you this. You know this. Keep warm.

7. Don't Use Your Main Camera

This one is a bit out of left field. Let me explain. A camera you don't take into the cold won't be ruined by the cold, even if you don't always follow best practices, such as bagging your camera before moving back inside. If you have one or several main film cameras that are too valuable to risk in arctically cold conditions, consider picking up a spare, or several. Most camera makers have made pro and budget models for the same mount for decades. Often you can find a spare body in a thrift store, at a camera swap, or in an online auction for considerably less than $50, or if you go for the less desirable models, even less than $20.

This is clearly a more practical option when you're closer to home, and perhaps best for personal projects. But film cameras aren't like digital cameras, where differences in sensor size, resolution, or low light capability matter. Load the same film into a brand new Nikon F6, an old but robust F3, or a cheap plasticy N60 with the same lens and shoot at the same settings, and you will end up with the exact same exposure. Make sure the camera you will be using has all the features you need for a particular shoot, such as high-speed flash sync, autofocus, or the like, and consider leaving your more expensive gear.

Whether you follow these tips, throw caution to the wind instead, or have other pointers and ideas how to keep yourself and your equipment functioning when winter has come, don't let the cold stop you from taking pictures on film.

Photo credits: Jakob Owens (Nikon camera in the snow) / NordWood Themes (Zenit camera) /  David Marcu (photographer on frozen lake)

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3 Comments
Spy Black's picture

Interesting. This made me think of my old film days, and I'd like to give some perspective on these points from those film days of mine:

#1 Strangely the tiny batteries in the Nikon FTN and F2SB I primarily shot with never failed in the coldest of weather. I always had metering available. Additional 35mm cameras I worked with in the cold, Olympus OM-1, Ricoh TLS, and Pentax Spotmatic F also had no problems metering.

#2 My two main Nikon cameras I listed above were already there, as well as the OM-1, TLS, Spotmatic F, Mamiya C33, Fuji GS645 and Kowa Super66, et al that I shot with. Never saw the attraction in electronically controlled film cameras, although my friend had a Pentax Electro Spotmatic II that worked just fine in the winter.

#3 Never ever needed to do that with any film camera. Ever. Just pick up and go. Except for the cheapest cameras, they were ready for anything. Of course, if you're in extreme conditions it may be necessary, but the pro cameras of the day were all ready for it out of the box.

#4 I never used motor drives (at least, not outdoors in cold weather), and never had film snap manually winding. Or loading. I supposed it happened enough tho. If you have a more recent film camera with a built-in drive, I'm curious how many of them gave you a rewind speed option?

#5 Never bothered with that, just threw 'em in my pocket or camera bag. No problems. :-)

#6 One time I went to shoot some kids playing hockey on a local lake, at a similar angle to your shot shown, no less. It was around 15°F or so. Had thermals underneath my pants. Went to step on the lake and the ice broke right beneath me, my right leg went in about 2 feet of water. Whatever splashed on the cameras immediately froze, I just picked it off. My foot and leg were drenched. Strangely as I was walking towards shelter, the outside pants froze as did my shoe, and created a windbreaker, the water on the thermals and socks were warmed by my body. Within 10 minutes I wasn't remotely cold, even with a howling wind on me. Totally weird.

#7 That one is kinda weird. If you're using a camera the likes of a Nikon F or F2, or Canon F1, or Olympus OM-1, I don't think you really need to worry. They were all designed to work in pretty much any environment. I know they're all old now, but as long as they're properly serviced, they're quite bulletproof. Literally. I don't think you really should need to worry too much. You can also still get a Nikon FM2 (and even an F6, if you're adventurous enough) brand new if you're a bit skeptical of older gear. In all honesty I don't think you need to worry tho.

It's strange that we never gave such things too much thought back in the film days, unless you were gonna go to some extreme conditions. Not that they were completely ignored, but simply that in day-today operations we just never ran into any massive complications, unless you fell into a lake in 15°F weather. :-) Perhaps film has changed enough to be a bit more fragile? I would find that hard to believe. Not that I think these points you've made are bad points to consider of course, but simply that these thoughts ran through my mind as I read your article.

Below is yours truly, around 1977, chillin', so to speak, surveying what is now a separate reality. :-)

Torsten Kathke's picture

Wow, thank you for all your many thoughts and comments!

Scott Hays's picture

I do remember and still do just change out my current batteries to fresh batteries just to make sure they are going to be fresh, but hold onto the other batteries as spares. When I move from spot to spot, if it is going to be a walk or I'm not sure how long it will be until I am going to shoot again, I'll open my outer layer and stuff my camera inside my jacket, but leave it open just a bit so the temp change isn't so extreme.

But there are some good points made here. There isn't any reason to take any chances when you don't have to. Back in the day I did have film snap on me a couple of times. I think it was more due to the camera than the film, and it does suck... A long walk back to the vehicle makes for an even more crappy day if you have to unload it there. There are always ways to unload in the field though.

Oh, the life of a film photography, but it is so worth it.