Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

submit your photo


Hall of Fame
View past winners from this year

Please participate in Meta
and help us grow.

Take the 2-minute tour ×
Photography Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional, enthusiast and amateur photographers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

For anyone who has done any extensive photography in very cold weather (weather below freezing), I'm sure they have encountered "sluggish battery syndrome". This is where the camera battery, when it gets cold enough, runs down quickly and delivers poor or "slow" power to the camera.

I was out in my yard photographing the resident birds when I encountered sluggish battery syndrome on my 7D for the first time. This is a weather sealed camera, so it holds up pretty well. The temperature today is about 24°F (-4°C), and while I was able to photograph the birds for about an hour, after that my camera rapidly went from functioning perfectly well to behaving extremely sluggishly. A couple times the mirror seemed to glitch out mid-exposure, resulting in half-exposed frames, or the camera would simply stop functioning, requiring me to turn it off and back on. When that happened, I came in and warmed everything up, and it all seems to work perfectly fine now.

I'm wondering if there are any tips, tricks, or handy contraptions that can combat this when photographing outdoors. Beyond the run of the mill "Keep an extra warm in your pocket and swap back and forth", which only works for a while before you just don't have enough juice to do any real photography.

share|improve this question
2  
Fashion a personal battery warmer, from a matchbox and some string, that hangs in your armpit. That's nature's pocket. –  ElendilTheTall Oct 6 '12 at 20:12
    
I don't know what you mean by keeping the extra battery in your pocket only works for a while. It always has worked for as long as the batteries would run under desirable temperature conditions minus a small percentage for me. I have lived in northern Minnesota(Jan Avg Low -1.2°F) for many years doing this, winter camping, with no access to any heat beyond my body. –  dpollitt Oct 6 '12 at 21:23
    
I may just be a cold person, I don't know. After an hour of swapping batteries out of my pocket, it didn't improve the sluggishness. –  jrista Oct 6 '12 at 22:51

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The short answer is to ditch the batteries. They're not designed for cold weather.

The longer answer is a three-step process:

First, and most important, check with your camera's manufacturer to make sure the body will continue functioning in the cold if it has a good source of power. You may have to write and ask this specifically, because the published specs will likely assume there's a battery involved.

Second, identify a suitable power adapter for your camera. Canon and Nikon have AC (mains current) and DC (12-volt) adapters for most of their DSLR models. More point-and-shoot cameras are able to be charged or powered via USB, and adapters and cables for that are cheap and plentiful. All of the above make their own heat.

Finally, find a power source. I recommend going with a 12-volt system and adapter because it gives you a ton of options, most of which aren't very expensive:

  • Mains Power. If there's electricity available nearby, an extension cord and a 12-volt power supply will keep you in power indefinitely.

  • Battery Clamps. A cable with battery clamps on one end and a cigarette lighter socket on the other will allow connecting to any 12-volt supply you can reach.

  • Car Jump Start Box. Many of these have a lighter socket that will power your adapter. Better models will have batteries designed to live in the trunk of your car and work in all kinds of weather.

  • Deep-Cycle Marine Battery. If you don't get a hernia carrying it, a full-sized battery will power your camera for a few days and won't even blink at doing it in very cold weather. Smaller deep-cycle batteries for motorcycles, snowmobiles and ATVs will also do the job and won't break the bank. If you go this route, get an Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) battery, as they don't contain liquid electrolyte that can spill if tipped over. Make sure you understand what you're doing and use care working with these batteries. They're capable of delivering a lot of current, and shorts in unprotected circuits can cause fires. One other tip: Igloo makes versions of its flip-lid Playmate cooler that make excellent carrying cases for batteries of all sizes. The insulation is just as good at keeping the contents warm as it is keeping them cold, which will buy you some extra run time. You may have to cut a notch to get the wiring to the outside, and some foam should be added to keep the battery from moving around.

share|improve this answer
1  
+1 for thinking out of the box :-) if batteries give troubles, remove the batteries :-) –  Francesco Oct 7 '12 at 14:22
    
@Francesco: Comes from a lot of time spent powering things in places that don't want to supply power. I'd do the emergency backup generator mod to a Prius if I owned one. :-) –  Blrfl Oct 8 '12 at 14:04

Unfortunately, the fact that batteries perform poorly at low temperatures is a fundamental characteristic of most battery chemistries. As such, the only real solution is to either keep the battery warm, or switch to an exotic battery chemistry (and exotic batteries are not easy to get a hold of).

The best idea I can think of is to fashion an external battery pack, and wear the external battery pack inside your clothes.
Realistically, there is no real need for the battery to be inside the camera. It shouldn't be too hard to buy an external power adapter, and hack a battery onto it.

share|improve this answer

When I'm out in the cold, I bring several batteries. One's in the camera (of course), and the rest are somewhere warm (inside my coat; near my body). I swap the batteries fairly frequently - probably on the order of once every hour or two, and I've been perfectly happy with the results. I'm using a Canon 40D, and I've used this technique at temperatures well below freezing.

I'm honestly not sure what "slow" power looks like, electrically. I've absolutely experienced more rapid battery drain than normal in cold weather; as others have mentioned, this is a common issue with all types of batteries. I've never seen the shutter stick as a result, however. I'm surprised you'd see an issue like this at only 24 degrees F, in fact. I know that if it gets really cold, the LCD will start to become sluggish -- presumably because it does, in fact, rely on a form of liquid for its operation.

Is it possible you're experiencing a problem not related to power delivery?

share|improve this answer
    
I'm certain its related to power delivery. Shutter speed and mirror slap become audibly slower as the battery gets colder. Thats why I put "slow" in quotes, as its not necessarily the power flow itself that is slow, but more likely the amount of power necessary to actually flip the mirror and actuate the shutter takes longer to accumulate when the battery gets very cold. I too have used a 450D at -12°F, however I did not need a high frame rate. When you are trying to photograph birds at 8fps, the effects of cold on a bettery seem to become evident FAR earlier than when, say, photographing... –  jrista Oct 7 '12 at 20:32
    
...a night sky or winter landscape. The fact that warming the camera up for only 10-15 minutes at a time completely resolved the problem, only to have it return when the camera returned to its previous outdoor temperature each time, certainly seems to point to temperature as the root of the problem. –  jrista Oct 7 '12 at 20:35

In general, there are two problems with low temperatures:

  • The battery capacity is severely reduced; the lower the temperature the less usable capacity.
  • Lubricant or bearings used for the moving parts of the camera may stiffen, so it takes more power to move the shutter and mirror, possibly more than the battery can deliver.

Lubricants in cold weather:

Depending on the characteristics of the lubricant itself, it may even start to take on certain properties of a solid and essentially "freeze" (for lack of a better description) with catastrophic results. Most base oils and grease are able to withstand moderate temperature dips to zero degrees Celsius and many to -10 degrees Celsius without much decrease in performance. At the level of -20 degrees Celsius and beyond, however, certain lubricants become unsuitable.

If camera lubricants or bearings is the issue, you'd need to warm the whole camera. I wonder if that's the problem in your case - I've never had the issue with half-exposed frames for instance, I'm just seeing the battery charge indicator drop almost picture by picture, and the camera turning ifself off when the charge becomes low enough. (But I've never tried high fps in cold weather either.)
Sorry, but I don't know any good solutions for dealing with that. Apart from what you are already doing - bring the camera indoors and thaw it out.

The battery capacity can normally be dealt with by warming the battery. I've found swapping batteries fairly effective: Keep a spare battery in an inner pocket so it's kept warm by body heat (shirt breast pockets are good; outer pockets are almost as cold as the external temperature, and won't help much), and swap them when needed.
With swapping, I'd expect perhaps 50-60% capacity loss, so two batteries would last a bit shorter than what one battery does in room temperature.
Without swapping, I'm seeing something like a 90-95% capacity loss already at -5°C to -10°C (23°F to 14°F), so I can only get off a handful of shots before running out of battery.

Alternatively, use an external battery pack. Here's a DIY hack where somebody soldered on a high-capacity LiPo (Lithium Polymer) battery and made their Canon 60D operate for hours of time lapse in -16°C (3°F).
The disadvantage is that you need to be somewhat familiar with electricity and electronics to go the DIY route; getting the voltage or polarity wrong could easily kill the camera.

There are a few off-the-shelf external battery packs. I have no experience with any of these, but ideally I'd pick one with high capacity and a long cable, so I could keep the battery inside my jacket.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.