# How does altitude affect camera and lenses?

This summer I'll be attempting to get to the top of Kilimanjaro. I'm bringing my Olympus E-30 and a couple of lenses. The instructions I've received mentions that you should check the height range with the manufacturers of any digital equipment you're bringing.

Kilimanjaro is 5895 meters tall (19341 ft).

How, if at all, will the height affect my digital camera?

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With temperatures around 20 F/-7 C at the top, you might want to bring extra batteries too and keep them at body temperature between use to maximize the usage. – Kim Burgaard Aug 27 '12 at 23:55

Nothing will be wrong with your digital camera.

However, do not use a Microdrive or any device which includes ones. Those have a 10,000 ft maximum altitude. Microdrives as Compact Flash are rare these days but they are commonly (but not always) used in video cameras, iPods and media-players.

Once on a press trip with 11 other photographers we reached an altitude of 12,000 feet and every single iPod in the group failed. A number of people were expecting to use those devices to off-load their data. I was surprised to find out I was the only one who know about the altitude problem.

NOTE: It is actually not the altitude that matters but the air-pressure that is necessary to lift the HDD head off the platter. Still, manufacturers quote altitude. Where it matters is on a plane. Commercial aircraft are pressurized around 85kpa (as measured by me) which corresponds to a much lower altitude (roughly around 6000 ft) than their corresponding cruising altitude, so you can use a Microdrive on most such aircrafts.

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I think that it is air density rather than the pressure that's important, but otherwise you are correct. – ysap Jul 2 '11 at 0:49
@ysap: pV=nRT for ideal gas. That means p~n/V and you both are right for such normal circumstances ;) – Leonidas Jul 2 '11 at 4:20
@Leonidas - the key point is "normal circumstances". If temp and pressure drop, you still have same n for your given volume V (i.e, same density), and my intuition is that the drive can still work in these conditions. After all, L=0.5*rhov^2*SCl, and p is not a part of this equation. – ysap Jul 2 '11 at 4:54
@ysap: If pressure drops, you have less n per V, that is the meaning of the reduced equation: T can be safely assumed quasi-constant here, because the operator/material gives out earlier (that is what I meant by 'normal'). In your equation p hides in ρ. – Leonidas Jul 2 '11 at 15:18
@Leonidas - Not quite. If the pressure drops in a closed, constant volume V, then the only other parameter that can change is T. n is actually constant in this situation (no molecules out or in). The Ideal Gas Equation has more degrees of freedom than constraints, so unless you bound some of the variable, you have infinite possibilities to balance a change in one of them. Now, of course for the normal situation, T can be considered fairly constant, hence the relation between p and rho. However, I was pointing out the general case. Given the lift force equation, it is clear what is the ... – ysap Jul 2 '11 at 15:39

The camera will be fine.

It's worth noting that some camera components have trouble at extreme altitudes.

In my case, the place I work flew a Canon 30D on a high-altitude balloon, which makes it up to ~90,000-100,000 feet.
Unfortunately, some idiot forgot to turn the flash off, and the flash self destructed due to lack of cooling (there is little air to dissipate heat through convection at that altitude).
However the camera itself was fine. The flash required a trip to Canon for replacement.

Basically, you camera will even work fine in a vacuum, if you turn the flash off.

It's worth noting that it's probably not a good idea to do sustained burst shooting in a vacuum, since again, there is no air to disipate heat, and it all has to radiate away. The above balloon project had the camera shooting every minute or two.

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Add some radiators next time ;) – Leonidas Jul 2 '11 at 15:21
Ah! Some real-life physics, at last... Getting out of all these pixel mania... Very interesting anecdote. – ysap Jul 2 '11 at 15:49
@Leonidas - I'm not sure where you would put a radiator on a flash. And besides, what would a radiator accomplish? There is effectively no air at the altitude this was working at. At that point, the only heat-transfer mode is through radiation, e.g. thermal photons. The only effective solution is to thermally couple hot things to things with large exposed surface areas to radiate the heat away, and then if it gets struck by the sun, you have a major problem. – Fake Name Jul 3 '11 at 10:48
@Fake Name You'd attach them to the glas-bulb of course. Just kidding ;) What you describe is called radiators (too) - the ISS has some made of aluminium. You could either coat them on the sun-side or keep them in a shadow of something not conductive. – Leonidas Jul 3 '11 at 14:06
@Fake Name - a radiator will accomplish one thing at high altitude: adding thermal capacity to the system. You're right that convection is negligible at >100k ft, but a large heat sink will still help by drawing heat from the device, so that the heating effect isn't localised. Of course, once the whole heat sink has risen to the device temperature, only the added surface area for radiating infra-red will make a difference, but it will buy your device more life before it overcooks. – user17539 Mar 4 '13 at 12:14

I doubt that it will. I use a digital camera at 14,000+ feet fairly routinely (and only use it below 6000 feet or so when I travel). Aircraft have used cameras with little or no modification for quite a while, often at considerably higher altitudes than you're considering. Many are different because they're specialized, (e.g., shooting only in infrared or other narrow range of color), but quite a few use pretty standard parts too (e.g., the 105 Micro Nikkor lens has been used for a fair amount of aerial photography).

The only thing I can think of right off isn't the camera or the altitude themselves, but that at altitude the temperature is generally a lot lower, which can reduce the power you get from your batteries. If it's very cold, you're often better off with at least two batteries, so you can carry one in a pocket (or whatever) where it'll stay warm, and you can swap the two as needed.

Edit: one other thing I should mention: at higher altitudes, you also get quite a bit more UV light, so a good UV filter can be extremely useful, even if you don't normally use one at lower altitude.

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Why the 105 Micro specifically for aerial? Just because its so sharp? – rfusca Jul 1 '11 at 21:00
@rfusca: The sharpness is the reason I've heard, yes. I'd guess the focal length is basically a matter of plane speed vs. frames per second. You want the longest lens you can (to maximize detail) but still get enough coverage to put together a continuous map from the result. – Jerry Coffin Jul 1 '11 at 21:04
Just being curious - what brings you regularly to 14K ft? – ysap Jul 2 '11 at 0:45
@ysap: I live in Colorado and I enjoy hiking. In this case "regularly" doesn't mean 3 times a day or anything like that; one a month (on average) would probably be closer. – Jerry Coffin Jul 2 '11 at 4:17
I find it amusing that a macro lens gets used for arial photography. :-P – Craig Walker Jul 2 '11 at 6:41