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Thread: Canon 5DIII in extreme cold conditions

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    Adrian's Avatar
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    Canon 5DIII in extreme cold conditions

    I thought I would post up some observations of the 5DIII. I bought this camera with a trip to the arctic circle in mind, aiming to photograph the Aurora Borealis (northern lights). We were in northern Finland, well into the arctic region for a six day trip. We were lucky to see amazing light shows on numerous occasions.

    For me this trip was about learning the camera in extreme lighting conditions: landscapes covered in deep snow with bright sunlight, and night skies with no light or other pollution.

    We took a 5DIII (and Three Legged Thing carbon "Eddie" tripod) with L lenses of which the one that actually got used was the F4 24-105. Plus a 40D and a Fuji point and shoot. Used a Lowepro Photo Sport 200AW Backpack, which was fantastic: invaluable in the conditions and very comfortable in use (trekking through deep snow). Used for all cold to hot transitions (didn't bother with plastic bags against condensation) and had no issues at all. Highly recommended.

    Daytime temperatures ranged from -10C to -20C. Night temperatures from about 10pm onwards were rarely above -30C and the coldest night was -37C outside our cabin, so probably around -40 or so in the open. Hardly any wind, so very little extra wind chill.

    The Fuji froze at -25C: the snag with such cameras is the metal screens which protect the lens will freeze very easily, as will the buttons. Despite this the camera coped extremely well with daytime shooting in very bright conditions when you would expect the sun and snow combination to create exposure problems.

    The 40D survived lower temperatures but the enthusiast grade USM zoom was not happy and we had some focus issues occasionally as a result.

    The 5DIII was a revelation. We were out with a group on a frozen lake covered with about 2 feet of snow (skidoo tracks were found for the tripod sessions) and the 5DIII kept on going pretty much whatever happened. At -37C or below out in the open I was taking 15 to 30 second exposures of the northern lights. Battery life was excellent. The cheap Canon remote release worked perfectly. The 3LT tripod was excellent (though the legs froze eventually, so it could not be collapsed). Eventually I began to get a problem with the info button as the info screen would come up when required, but then could not be turned off again. This problem persisted even when I removed the battery and replaced it: so I expect the button was frozen. Camera still worked though.


    Other photographers with us had problems. Canon 650D would not work at -30 or below. New Canon 6D with L lens froze at minus 30 as well (not helped by the owner breathing on it a lot!). Nikon D800 for some reason seemed to be working but just gave smudges of light rather than proper shots. This may well have been operator error. Live view on the Nikon seemed to be useless most of the time at very low temperatures, but again I suspect that this was a photographer with all the gear and no idea.


    We got lots of AB shots but I have learned a lot and would do better next time. Lessons learned:

    1 Buy a faster lens. I wished I had had a better and faster lens with me, especially as we had lots of portrait and animal opportunities where I would have liked to get much shallower DOF. I think I will buy a fast portrait lens: any suggestions?
    2 Avoid groups. People tramp about and the slightest vibration affects your tripod when they come close! And they always come close becuase they want to see what shots you are getting, exs[ecially if their camera has frozen!
    3 Practice in advance with high ISO shots. I ended up pushing ISO much further than I had expected, largely because I wanted less star trails and less vibration risk. This was my first ever experience with photography in almost total darkness and I learnt a lot. Made quite a few mistakes.
    4 Get a low power head torch. Our bright LED torches were far too bright! You need to check your camera settings (especially focus on the lens) but you don't want to wreck your night vision or disturb others.

    I invested in special gloves as it was essential to wear them all the time when using the camera at night.

    In summary, the 5DIII is quite an amazing bit of kit. Very usable in extreme conditions. We used it extensively for video too (including whilst riding skiddoos and dog sledding) and it gives amazing results. My next challenge is learning how to use the autofocus capabilities better.

    Adrian

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    Re: Canon 5DIII in extreme cold conditions

    Sounds interesting. Pith there wasn't a 1DX in the mix.

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    Adrian's Avatar
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    Re: Canon 5DIII in extreme cold conditions

    Yes - there was no true "pro" gear among the people we met. It is perfectly possible to get very good aurora pictures with very modest equipment, including P&S. It's all about exposure times v ISO and how stable we can keep the camera. Anything over 20 seconds gives quite a bot of star trail blurring whatever you do. Some of the noise reduction technology built into the 5DIII is interesting to play with. Draw back is you need another black exposure that takes just as log as the original.

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    William W's Avatar
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    Re: Canon 5DIII in extreme cold conditions

    Thank you.
    Interesting observations: noted and filed.
    I've had no problems with my 5D & 5DMkII, but not as cold - around -16C ~ -20C and they were HH and not used for long exposures.

    WW

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    Moderator GrumpyDiver's Avatar
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    Re: Canon 5DIII in extreme cold conditions

    You don't list issues with condensation when you brought your cold equipment indoors or humidity from indoors causing issues when you hit the outdoors. Were these non-issues or did you take special steps to avoid these problems? These are both issues I have run into but I rarely get into shooting when temperatures are below -25C.

    Same question on battery life. Again, I find that I have to keep a couple of batteries in a warm place and swap them out as they cool down. I've also heard of people running into issues with their LCD displays (but haven't experienced that one myself).

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    William W's Avatar
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    Re: Canon 5DIII in extreme cold conditions

    Quote Originally Posted by Adrian View Post
    . . . Anything over 20 seconds gives quite a [bit] of star trail blurring whatever you do. . .
    That’s an interesting comment which jumped out at me.

    This is not a field of my practical expertise, but as I was taught and as I recall: even that high up (i.e. high latitude), it's not a definitive Shutter Speed: but the resultant of “star trails being seen” is still dependent upon:

    Major Factors:
    • The Focal Length of the Lens used
    • The Camera's Format
    • Whether a tracking mount is used.



    ALSO – minor factors:
    • Amount of Enlargement of the final image
    • Viewing Distance


    ***

    Assuming you did not have a tracking mount:

    Using the 600 Rule of Thumb
    A 24mm lens on a 5D, we come up with about 25 seconds as the longest Shutter Speed allowable.

    But this is a rule of thumb and “worst case” scenario calculated if the Camera were stable on the earth between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer.

    As I understand it - if the Camera is at the Arctic Circle, the Northern Stars' declination could vary +90° to +24°.

    If you set the camera in LANDSCAPE Orientation any “Star Trail” will be worst (more likely seen), at the bottom of the frame.

    Computing the star’s declination into the equation (and the Camera positioned stable at the Arctic Circle) and using a 24mm lens on a 5D – at +24° dec. you should be safe with about 40s shutter speed, for a star at the bottom of the frame.

    For a star with a declination of +90° - you’d get away with about 90s Shutter Speed, for a star at the bottom of the frame.

    So to be “safe”, using a 24mm lens and a 5D camera positioned at the Arctic Circle, I would expect you could use shutter speeds of between 35s ~ 40s all the time and for all (star) shooting scenarios.

    ***

    Obviously, if you were using the 24 to 105 zoom lens zoomed in, even a little bit, then the whole equation changes.

    For example at FL = 40mm – your slowest shutter speed is indeed about 20 seconds to be safe for all scenarios.

    Comments / more Information, anyone?

    WW

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    Adrian's Avatar
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    Re: Canon 5DIII in extreme cold conditions

    Hi Manfred

    I had no condensation issues at all. However, I was careful to put the camera back in the rucksack and zip it up before coming back indoors, and then leave the camera in there for a few hours or until I went out again. Most people who had condensation issues either didn't do this, or breathed a lot on their gear in use. The result of the latter is that breath freezes on the eyepiece, rear screen and switchgear. A vapour mask helps (I am a motorcyclist so I am used to this). I did carry a plastic bag with me, but found it was not necessary to use it as the Lowepro backpack was well enough sealed. There were times when the camera had been out on the tripod for a couple of hours, when it was so cold it was uncomfortable to handle without gloves.

    One thing that was surprising is I had been warned that batteries would expire rapidly. This was not my experience. One battery in the 5DIII would easily last for a nights shooting (typically out for three hours) and I could use it all day when out on the snowmobile etc. I carried three batteries in an insulated pouch with a chemical warmer, but this was unnecessary in practice.

    I would add that auto picture review was limited to 2 seconds, I was mainly using manual focus at night, and I didn't use live view much. The camera was powering down after 1 minute of non-use. On the other hand I was doing 40 or 50 20-30 second exposures each night, each one often doubled up for noise reduction. During the day I did quite a bit of exposure bracketing as with my limited experience in snow getting the correct exposure in sunlit snow is unpredictable.

    I find it hard to comment on the LCD display issues. In my case the LCD did get locked "on" but I suspect that was a frozen info control button rather than LCD low temperature issues. My thinking is that any moisture at these kind of extreme temperatures is bad and the photographer should take good steps to avoid moisture if we want to keep shooting. In my view there is no doubt that properly weather sealed kit has a huge advantage in this environment.

    Adrian

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    Moderator GrumpyDiver's Avatar
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    Re: Canon 5DIII in extreme cold conditions

    Thanks Adrian - I suspect that your long exposures actually helped with the battery life. The battery will warm up as current is being drawn, and the long exposures will do that. Same comment on using the LCD, it is another power draw point.

    LCD performance is usually temperature sensitive as well, but again it is physically located right behind the sensor, so I wonder if that worked out to be beneficial as well. Long exposures = warm sensor = higher noise levels, so perhaps this is an unexpected benefit. I'll have to check things out (if I remember) next winter; the temperatures here are well up from those frosty January and February nights (but they are predicting 15cm / 6inches of snow overnight), so I'm not looking forward to my drive to work tomorrow morning...

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    Re: Canon 5DIII in extreme cold conditions

    Quote Originally Posted by Adrian View Post
    Some of the noise reduction technology built into the 5DIII is interesting to play with. Draw back is you need another black exposure that takes just as log as the original.
    Usually folks would turn noise reduction off - shoot a burst of shots at high ISO - and then stack them (with alignment if necessary) to average out the noise.

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