Arctic experience in photography

While preparing for the trips to the Arctic Circle I was thinking a great deal about what kind of photo equipment to take with me. On the one hand, I wanted to take as little cameras and lenses as possible because it’s quite difficult to carry several cameras in severe climatic conditions, let alone changing the lenses which is practically impossible. On the other hand, travelling with only one camera, even if it is expeditionary one, is also risky – what if it gets broken or, for instance, all the batteries, including spare ones, go flat?

In the end, mostly by intuition, I chose two cameras: ‘big’ Canon 1D X (lens 24-70 f/2.8L) and ‘small’ Fujifilm X-Pro1 (lens Fujifilm XF 18 mm f/2 R X-Mount). I was tempted to take a film camera as well, just in case, but I decided to confine myself to the excessive reserve of power: I took 2 batteries for the big camera and 5 for the small one. Moreover I had an iPhone but it turned out absolutely useless at 53°C because 100% of battery had drained in 2 minutes.

As it turned out I chose wisely. In this article I’d like to share my experience of photography under the conditions of Russian Far North based on two recent journeys: to Even-Bytantaiskiy Ulus (the Republic of Sakha) and Nenets Autonomous Area. Moreover, if during the first trip most of the time I was in UAZ (Russian SUV) and warm houses, only occasionally going out to the street, the second one I spent riding a snowmobile and rarely stepping inside the tents heated by portable cast-iron stove. This way I had an opportunity to test my choice in two different formats of the journey.

But let’s start from the beginning. Which means… with vodka! Yes, I mean Russian vodka. It will help to comprehend what I’m going to tell you. So first you need to fetch the bottle of vodka from the freezer.

Problem 1. ‘Frozen stuff’

As you surely know, when you bring the bottle into a warm room it will be immediately covered with a thin layer of hoarfrost. This is the main problem that photographer is going to face when taking pictures in the North. Besides, if in case of a freezer we move the object from -18°C to +25°C (43 degrees difference), on the North you will deal with the temperatures from -50°C to +30°C (80 degrees difference).

Warmth is one of the most valuable things for Arctic dwellers, that’s why they heat their houses as much as possible. It may sound odd but the heat is a very common problem for outsiders. I’ve been staying in different hotels in Yakutsk and everywhere it was heated so much that you sleep without a blanket and wake up in sweat (with no possibility to open windows, naturally).

At the same time it’s so cold outside that you can freeze in a matter of minutes. I know a story about musicians of a band touring in Yakutsk who decided to stay on the street with just their shirts on. Just to brag in front of friends later. It took exactly 2 minutes at -60°C before they had to call for an ambulance that diagnosed them with frostbite of fingers and faces of different severity.

Without special warm and breathing clothes and shoes including, among other things, products from deerskin (‘unty’ – high fur boots, ‘torbasa’ – high deerskin boots, ‘kuhlyanka’ – deerskin shirt, ‘malitsa’ – deerskin overcoat) and, apparently, being accustomed it is quite difficult to handle constant 100 degrees temperature drops. Difficult not only for a human body, but for the photo equipment as well.

At the beginning, when we bring warm dry camera from warmth to cold, there’s no problem. But then the camera cools off and when we bring it back to warmth, the abovementioned problem of ‘a bottle of vodka from the freezer’ appears.

It takes long for a camera to thaw out, no less than 30 minutes and sometimes 1 or even 2 hours.

Besides, when the camera thaws out it gets covered with perspiration and even water instead of hoarfrost. Especially when someone cooks a meal or boils water in the room (which happens most of time).

Clearly it is impossible to take pictures during this process. But the most interesting stuff is often happening inside huts and tents! And this is not the end to our problems. Further on, if you go out without letting the camera completely dry out, the water transforms back into ice. Sometimes it can lead to a very fundamental problem, such as, for example, in this case:

A drop of water which I didn’t notice appeared in the notch of the shutter button (that is also an On/Off button). Moisture has evaporated from the camera body but it still remained in the button. When I went out on the street and tried to turn on the camera I couldn’t do it. As a result I had to work without that camera for a while. I managed to start it only after the next thawing out.

Problem 2. ‘Breathing’

Second problem is not as global as the first one but not less important. Especially for those who wear glasses.

As you are aware of, in frosty weather our warm breath immediately condensates as hoarfrost. On the beard, moustache, clothes and everything that is close to our mouth.

Axtually you can face this problem even if you do not wear glasses. More than anything, these ‘big’ expeditionary cameras are exposed to it:

Because they are so big that they completely cover your face (including mouth) when you are taking a picture.

Problem 3. ‘Batteries’

As you certainly know, the battery capacity significantly drops at low temperatures. If under normal conditions I can make 1700 shots with one charge of the battery of Canon 1D X, at -30° this number drops two times, to 800. And at -50°C it’s down by 2/3, approximately to 500. These numbers, of course, depend on the lenses you use and your shooting style (how often you use AF).

On the one hand, it may seem that 500 frames is quite a lot. But firstly, when you get to some exotic place the volume of material dramatically increases (personally I’ve been shooting 1000-1500 frames per day on average). Secondly, you can spend few days in tundra without a possibility to charge your cameras. That’s why you should have at least 2 batteries, better 3 or even 4.

Battery capacity of the ‘small’ camera is not as high to start with, so we need to take with us even more of them. I took 5 pieces to both trips and I’ve never had use of more than 3. Why? Find the answer below, in the description of the complex solution that I found.

Solution

After taking into consideration all the above-mentioned problems and trying different cameras under different conditions I found the following, in my opinion, rather practical solution. Moreover, watching other photographers in their trips to the Far North I understood that many of them came up with the same solution. The idea actually is quite simple and boils down to the following.

1) ‘Big’ expeditionary camera with powerful battery is used only outside. All the time it’s hanging over your outerwear (for this purpose shoulder strap is most handy). When you come into a house you leave it in the outer entrance hall or close to the entrance of the tent where the temperature is below zero so that it would not get covered with hoarfrost or condensation and we would not have problems when we take it back into the cold. Besides, it’s a good idea to take out the battery and put it in the pocket so that it warms up and recover some lost capacity.

2) ‘Small’ camera is always kept in one’s bosom (under outerwear) and used only to take indoors pictures. You leave the big camera in the outer entrance hall, take off your clothes, take out your small warm camera and immediately start to film with no need to wait until it thaws out. Before you go back outside you hide it back under your outerwear.

The only thing is that for this purpose your outerwear should be quite loose (not tight). Well, at low temperatures there’s basically no other type of clothes to wear.

LENSES

Based on the idea that the small camera should be used indoors it’s a fair assumption to use a wide-angle lens with it. Besides, the camera should use as little space as possible so as not to add unnecessary discomfort while carrying it under outerwear.

Accordingly, for the big camera it makes sense to use something more or less universal, for example, a lens with focal length 24-70, 24-105 etc. However it depends on your style of photography, for this purpose I successfully used wide-angle 35mm.

My final choice, thus, was the following:

Canon 1D X with the lens 24-70 f/2.8L – ‘big outdoor’ camera.
Fujifilm X-Pro1 with the lens Fujifilm XF 18 mm f/2 R X-Mount – ‘small indoor’ camera.

Besides, it’s important to understand that in Arctic conditions it’s complicated to use the second reflex camera as a small one, as many professional photographers usually do. For this purposes the best choice is a digital compact camera, and this choice should be made consciously. I’ve been drawn towards compact cameras for a long time and it feels nice to finally appreciate it: it’s not only convenient but also very useful. And my favorite Fuji has shown its best qualities here!

As for the the breathing problem, it can be solved and I’d rather say should be solved by wearing a mask.

I say “it should” because in the North the mask is extremely helpful even without any camera at all. Frankly speaking, it makes the problem of wearing glasses even worse, but in such a situation one should either learn how to breathe out in some special way or use contact lenses.

Summing up with the topic of frozen cameras I will show how your camera can look like after a 2-hours ride on a snowmobile:

The image is dramatic, but there’s nothing to be really worried about, this snow can be easily cleaned simply by shaking it and wiping by a glove.

***

And finally I’m going to show you some pictures that I took with the above listed method during my recent journey to Yakutia. Below each photo I specified what camera it was taken with. Some of them were taken outdoors with a small camera and indoors with a big one. It may seem to contradict with what I’ve just told, but actually it doesn’t, because I was experimenting a lot before I came up with a specific solution.


Canon 1D X


Canon 1D X


Fujifilm X-Pro1


Canon 1D X


Fujifilm X-Pro1


Fujifilm X-Pro1


Canon 1D X


Fujifilm X-Pro1


Fujifilm X-Pro1


Fujifilm X-Pro1


Fujifilm X-Pro1


Canon 1D X


Canon 1D X


Canon 1D X


Canon 1D X


Canon 1D X


Fujifilm X-Pro1


Canon 1D X


Canon 1D X


Canon 1D X


Fujifilm X-Pro1

I’d be happy if you could also share your experience of photographing in the Far North. Thanks!

Pavel Kosenko