Shooting in Freezing Temperatures: A Filmmaker’s Guide to Surviving Sub-Zero

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Jeremy Osbern Sub-Zero Frozen Trees
I’ve shot in a lot of weather extremes. I’ve been in deserts and inland plains where crew members passed out from the heat. I’ve packed ice packs on cameras when shooting on days when the thermostat hit 49 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit), sandwiched between two 18K HMIs that made it even hotter. I’ve even shot outdoors on days so hot I drank water by the case. But what about the other extreme? What can filmmakers to do to prepare when they’re going into sub-zero temperatures? Here are some of my experiences.

0 Degrees Celsius (32 F)

I’ve done a lot of projects at or around this temperature. At this point, you’re obviously dressed for the cold. Coat. Gloves. A hat. What do you need to know about the equipment? Most batteries will start to run down a little faster at freezing temperatures. If you’re shooting with a digital camera and using an LCD screen, the liquid part of the LCD starts to slow down. This means your image can appear stuttered and using it for movement and focus will start to get tricky.

The good news is those hand warmers you can buy at most stores during the winter are great for warming up camera equipment as well. I shot in the middle of Oklahoma during an ice storm, and we were able to keep the LCD screen working properly by cycling out an endless supply of hand warmers strapped anywhere we could fit one.

Other things to keep in mind:

– Most cameras are made of metal or have metal accessories. Make sure to use gloves when touching the metal parts, and if your skin gets wet and you touch a metal support rod, you could stick to it like Harry’s tongue to the ski lift in Dumb and Dumber.

– If you move quickly from a very cold environment to a hot one (like the snowy front yard to the  house’s living room), the equipment will usually build up condensation from the humidity. This means that your lenses will usually end up with a layer of dew on them as soon as you pull off the lens cap. It will slowly evaporate, but if you’re going to shoot outdoors and then move inside, move your lenses in first to let them acclimate to the new temperature. Open the lens case and let them hit the air as quickly as possible.

-18 Degrees Celsius (0 F)

Now we’re really getting cold. I did a two month feature in Nebraska during the middle of winter and we were oftentimes shooting during snowstorms with temperatures at this point or below.

When dealing with snow, sometimes the heat from lights or electric cables can melt snow in areas to the point that they leave random puddles around your outdoor set. Always make sure your electric distro and lights are safe in wet conditions, and sometimes you can forget that a blizzard is still a wet condition.

Batteries are dying faster now. Whatever amount of batteries you thought you needed per day… double it.

The above advice still holds true, but another thing to keep in mind is it’s now so cold that if you’re shooting on film stock (we were on this movie) the film can start to freeze and become brittle. The last thing you want is to be loading your camera and have the celluloid snap in half as you slide it into place. Try to load indoors if possible. If not, go slow! Media for digital cameras should still be okay at this point.

Gaffer Michael Stoecker and Director of Photography Jeremy Osbern
-40 Degrees Celsius (-40 F)

A few years back I shot a special for The History Channel on all things cold. For one segment, I shot inside an ice cream factory that was kept at a temperature of -40 degrees, because in longer storm storage the ice cream would start to melt at just freezing temperatures.

The entire factory was automated by robots, because the facility was too cold for humans to realistically work in for more than a couple minutes at a time.

For this shoot, I dressed in three layers of long underwear followed by three layers of pants and sweatshirts and then two big coats. I had a hoodie, a hat, a scarf, and three sets of gloves, and it was still cold.

What did I learn when shooting at -40 degrees? All of the above still holds true, but now the media can be tricky too. I researched it ahead of time and we didn’t have any problems, but some of the highest-end media is only rated down to -32 C (-25 F).

Another issue can be lenses. Sometimes tiny bits of moisture can be trapped inside your lenses and you don’t know it’s there until there is a very quick transition in going from warm to -40 degrees. This project was shot with a Fuji zoom and this particular lens had multiple elements in which moisture could become trapped. I would go in, shoot a portion and then towards the end, the inside of the lens would start to frost up. Never had this happen at any other temperatures, but once you hit negative forty, weird things start to pop up. With modern lenses the lubricant isn’t really a problem, but if you’re shooting with older lenses that are heavily lubricated, you might need to send them in to a tech to be “winterized” so that the lubricant used can withstand the extreme cold. If you have a question, call your lens technician and ask about it.

Also, you’re now burning through your batteries like crazy. One solution that can help slightly is to wear the old-style battery belt that film cameras used for handheld shots (as opposed to the big brick batteries). A lot of these can be retrofitted or adapted to work with modern cameras. You can strap on a battery belt under all of your warm clothes. Throw some hand warmers all around it and feed the cable out from under your coat.

At this point, you can probably not have enough batteries, hand warmers (which need to be buried under clothing or they won’t be useful), and lens options (in case a lens has some unforeseen issues).

Now you should be set to brave the cold! What’s the coldest place you’ve ever worked? What did you do to prepare? I’d love to hear your stories as well.

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About Author

Jeremy Osbern is a cinematographer, writer, and director. His work has been viewed by over a hundred million people, and you can join them over at his website.

1 Comment

  1. Went to Russia once. That was cold, just had my personal camera at the time but some of these were for sure issues I dealt with.

    Cheers!

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