Using Cameras in Tropical & Cold Environments
Wildlife photographers often find themselves in a variety of different environments throughout their career. Problems can occur when you take this to the extremes. Whether it be a tropical rainforest or a chilly tundra, each situation requires different methods to cope with the conditions.
Photographing in Tropical Environments
Tropical environments are hot and humid, and this can be a nightmare for cameras. These two factors can even cause fungal matter to grow inside it and on the sensor, effectively destroying its ability to capture any images. Luckily, there are precautions which can be taken to stop these problems.
Moving from air-conditioned areas to the outside can be majorly problematic. The cool indoor air lowers the temperature of your camera considerably. As soon as you step outside into the warm and humid air, the water vapour condenses and can get inside the innards of the camera. To prevent this from happening, you can seal your camera in a water-tight bag before leaving the indoors, and then allow it to warm up to the outside temperature safely. Usually this will take 30-40 minutes.
Film crews will often build warming cabinets in their rainforest base camps to bake their equipment overnight. The heat produced from a heat lamp will kill any harmful fungal matter that has wormed its way into any cameras. Unfortunately this is often impractical for a solo photographer who’s moving around the forest. If you are in a humid environment for a long time, it can be worth to leave your equipment out in the sun to kill harmful organisms. (You need to allow it to get heated – but not too hot that it is damaging!).
Personally I have never adopted the sun-baked camera method, as instead I have used silica gel packs. This is a useful, and probably safer, method. Putting your camera in a dry-lock bag that is full of silica gel, whenever you are not using it, can be very effective. The gel absorbs moisture in the air and will help protect your equipment. Buying reusable gel is essential, allowing you to “cook” the beads dry again. Many are self-indicating and will change colour when they are used up.
Don’t switch lenses outside unless absolutely necessary. Opening the caps exposes the inner workings of the camera more than is necessary, and increases the risk of damage. So, switch lenses whilst in dry air and leave everything set up already. But don’t panic if you must, as I have switched lenses in humid air before. The trick is to just do it as quickly as possible, pointing your camera body down towards the ground (gravity is in your favour for dust and other particles).
Keep lens cloths each in individually sealed bags. The moisture in the air will make lens cloths damp very quickly, especially if you are continually opening and closing one bag. Individually sealing each cloth means that you have a supply of dry lens cloths, helping to prevent you from smearing unwanted moisture on the lens.
Photographing in Cold Environments
I don’t find photographing in extreme cold to be that problematic in comparison to tropical environments, but there are still some handy hints to help you work as smoothly as possible.
Don’t breathe on your lens when the temperature is below freezing. It may sound obvious, but I have mistakenly done this without thinking a few times – and I am sure many other photographers have too, whether they like to admit it or not! A slight mark on the glass is normally removed with a little breath and wiping with a lens cloth. However, in extreme conditions your breath will instantly freeze on the cold glass. It is then extremely difficult to clear. If this happens, the best method is to return to a car or shelter and warm it up again. If this is not possible, hide underneath a lot of clothing with your camera and let your body heat warm it up. Dabbing the glass with tissue paper will absorb the droplets of water that should now be sitting on the lens.
Be careful when returning to warm areas. It’s pretty much the exact opposite to working in tropical environments. Moving from a cold outside temperature to a car or building can result in water condensing on the lens. The problem is less severe, as the air won’t be as humid as in a rainforest, but it still pays to be cautious with your equipment.
Ensure that your equipment can operate at low temperatures. You may find yourself standing in -30 degrees Celsius or less, and whilst we can just about operate your camera may not. Check your manual and take a look at your cameras operational temperatures. It could be an expensive trip if you find your equipment broken on the first outing.
Keep batteries warm. It is surprising how much power batteries can lose in the cold, so it is important to keep them warm. A pocket close to your body underneath layers of clothing is enough to keep them working properly. You should also take plenty of spares, as once they are in the camera they will probably run down more quickly than usual.