Pushing Camera Gear Beyond Its Limits: Shooting at -30° C (-22° F)

Pushing Camera Gear Beyond Its Limits: Shooting at -30° C (-22° F)

There are parameters within which a camera is supposed to work, and one extreme I had not tried with mine was the severe cold. So, I headed to Northern Finland, where I would experience temperatures I had never felt before. Here is what happened to my camera.

Most of us, at one time or another, want to use our cameras in environments that they are not designed for. 15 years ago, I had a camera break after shooting in a sandstorm, and 30 or so years ago my SLR was the only camera to survive a trip to a semi-desert in Namibia. The other 30 people in our party had compacts with motorized zooms and autowinders that all seized with dust,

I read a few articles recently where people’s photographic gear has failed because they have been exposed to conditions where they should have coped. Most manufacturers claim some level of drip and dustproofing, and one recent release says its camera is freezeproof. However, these are usually cheap marketing claims, and not backed up by legal definition, real data, or warranties. It is like when manufacturers write “healthy”, “natural”, or “wholesome” on food packaging; they are meaningless terms. Where there is no legal meaning to terms used in marketing, regard them with skepticism.

I do not doubt that, in time, other brands will start to copy them, but as far as I am aware, and at the time of writing, only OM System offers the IP53 standard for its interchangeable lens camera bodies and lenses. (Please correct me if you know of an ILC from another brand that offers the same.)

When I shot this, the rain was pouring off my camera.

I’ve previously tested my cameras with water, both accidentally and deliberately. The accident was when my tripod fell over in a river. The camera bounced off a rock and landed underwater. I fished it out, cleaned the water off the glass, and carried on shooting. The second occasion was when I was capturing lightning in a torrential downpour.

There’s another extreme that the OM-1 can cope with. It is designed to operate down to -10℃ (14°F). This is much lower than other ILCs.

Check Your Camera's Specs.

Before using your Camera in extreme conditions, it’s worth checking the manufacturer’s specifications. I cannot list them all here, but the Canon R3, the upcoming Sony a9 III, and the Nikon Z7 II all claim 0℃ as their lowest operating temperature. Although, the Lumix GH6 and the Fujifilm GFX100 manage -10℃.

For most situations, those specifications are probably sufficient. However, some people live where temperatures drop below freezing point. I often take photographs at temperatures below freezing, but I wanted to find out how my camera performed in more punishing conditions. That’s one of the reasons I headed up to Oulu in Northern Finland in the middle of winter. When I got there, I ended up testing it at various temperatures, including some far lower than its minimum designed temperature. Did it live up to its promises?

Hints for Photographing in the Extreme Cold

There are things to consider before considering photographing in Arctic temperatures. I grew a beard specifically for the cold weather; chinsulation I call it. Throughout my visit, the moisture from my breath was freezing to it.

When it is that cold, it’s better to breathe through your nose to warm the air before it goes down to your lungs, but you can end up with icicles in your mustache if you have one.

You want several layers of clothing. I had merino wool leggings beneath my microfleece trousers, and insulated skiing salopettes over those. My body was similarly layered but with a down-filled coat on top. On my head, I had an insulated mountain cap pulled over a fleece balaclava.

Wrap up if you are in Helsinki in the winter. A sensible man.

I used thermal mittens over the top of my gloves. At first, that was a little clumsy. It took some practice, but I was soon able to adjust the camera’s settings and shoot while wearing them. It is something I will continue to do at home, as when photographing the sunrise at the beach on cold winter mornings. Previously, I’ve removed my gloves and ended up with painfully icy fingers. On my feet were thermal socks and winter boots.

I'm not recommending any brands here, as there are many good manufacturers. I will say though that you get what you pay for. It’s worth investing in good quality clothing.

When we arrived in Oulu it was -21° C and there was a stiff breeze, so the wind chill factor made it feel far lower. KLM had lost our luggage and so, apart from my down-filled coat, I didn’t have any thermal clothing with me. That was not a great start, but it was interesting to find out what it was like without adequate clothes. It’s not something I would recommend.

Camera Performance Tests

Camera Performance Test #1: -20 C, Windy, Clear Skies

Despite my lack of suitable clothing, I ventured out for a short while because my host was taking us to see an unusual visitor: a Stella’s Eider. At those temperatures, without thermal clothing, 20 minutes was more than enough time to feel pain in one’s extremities. Sadly, the bird was too far away to photograph successfully, but I shot a couple of other images of landscapes. The camera and lens performed admirably, and certainly far better than me.

One thing I did on the first shoot was to remove and replace the lens outside. Even the driest of houses can have relatively high humidity and, especially with weather-sealed systems like the OM-1’s, moisture trapped inside will condense on the cold surfaces. This happened almost immediately when I stepped outside into those conditions; the cold viewfinder partially fogged up. But removing the lens and placing my ungloved finger on the outside of the viewfinder to warm it up soon drove the moisture off and I had no further issues.

The viewfinder on the camera has a very small surface area and is thin glass. Therefore, it cools down very quickly and any airborne water trapped inside the camera will condense onto it.

During that short time outside, after clearing the viewfinder, I experienced no other problems and the gear continued working admirably. I am happy to report that at around -20℃ the camera lived up to its promises.

I usually advise people to put their cameras in a plastic bag when returning inside. Most cameras are not properly sealed and the warm, damp, indoor air will condense on and in the cold surfaces of the camera. I have never found this necessary with the OM-1 because the weather seals are so good, although I don’t open the camera’s ports or remove the lens until it has properly come up to room temperature.

However, coming from -20℃ outside to +21℃ indoors where our host was cooking dinner, the camera was so cold that the moisture in the air condensed and froze to it, so it was covered in frost.

Luckily our luggage arrived. So, after lunch, my wife and I went for a walk, but better wrapped up this time.

Camera Performance Test #2– Driving and Landscapes -10℃ Windy and Snowing

The following day we went for a drive into the countryside. In Britain, if the temperature drops below zero or there is a sprinkling of snow, things grind to a halt. During winter in Finland, -10℃ is considered warm and it is business as usual. Unsurprisingly, the camera worked exactly as expected.

Camera Performance Test #3 Coping with a Huge Temperature Differential -15℃ Cloudy and Dry

One thing the camera manufacturers don’t mention is the temperature differential between different components. In this case, it was a warm camera body and a cold lens.

On the third day, I met up with fellow OM Ambassador and wildlife photographer Jari Peltomaki. Well-known in Finland and a name familiar to OM System owners, for the last 30 years he has run a wildlife photography company called Finnature. His wife Kaisa is also a fabulous wildlife photographer and OM System Ambassador too.

If you get a chance to visit Finland, going on a photoshoot with Jari is an amazing experience. The detail of the shoot is worth an entire article, which will follow later. But this is solely about how the gear performed.

Inside the heated bird hide I would guess the temperature was around +16℃, while outside it was below -15℃, so that was more than a 30℃ difference. Initially, I had the fleece sleeves of the hide's window mounted over the barrel of the lens – the sleeves prevented the very timid subjects from spotting us. After three or so hours the front element of the lens gathered some frost.

That only happened at the hide and not when I was shooting outside. I suspect that was because with having the camera and lens body in the warm hut, the camera’s internal humidity increased and when that vapor encountered the cold glass, it froze. I should have removed the lens from the body for a while to reduce the internal water vapor.

Bringing the entire lens inside and gently warming it evaporated the ice. After that, we fitted the sleeve to the lens hood and not to the lens barrel. Thus, the front element was warmer and no further condensation or frost formed.

This was the first time I had experienced a lens gathering frost and if I were continuously in these temperatures, I would buy a lens heater.

Camera Performance Tests #4: Photographing Reindeer at -30℃. No Wind or Precipitation.

The third major test was photographing reindeer at the Poro-Panuma reindeer farm about an hour’s drive North-East of Oulu. This was the coldest day of the visit. I tried two lenses on this day. One was an OM System PRO standard lens and it worked perfectly. The only difference I noticed was the zoom and focus rings became slightly stiffer to turn. I was shooting for over an hour and this was at ten degrees below the minimum operating temperature.

I also tried a non-pro lens. Initially, the aperture rings froze open. But, leaving the camera switched on and warming it in my hands, they released and the lens worked normally. This was not a fault with the lens, I was using it well below its operating temperature.

Camera Performance Test #5: Photography in Helsinki  -8℃. Wind and Snow

Walking around Helsinki with the camera in Helsinki, the camera and 12-40 F2.8 PRO lens performed exactly as it usually does.

In Conclusion

It’s worth noting the minimum operating temperature of your camera. The internal seals will harden in the cold and lubricants will thicken. In the coldest conditions, I was very gently using the zoom and manual focus rings, and the tests were at my own risk. I’m relieved to say my OM-1 behaved admirably, especially when partnered with professional-grade lenses.

Although I tested my camera at these temperatures, I can’t speak for your gear. So, it is worth checking the minimum working temperature of the model you use before trying to use it in the severe cold; I have met someone whose lens autofocus broke when shooting in the Antarctic and it wasn't covered by the warranty. The operating temperature information is often hidden away very low down the list of the camera specifications on the cameras’ webpage. I am not endorsing or recommending you use your camera beyond those temperatures. Severe cold will thicken lubricants, putting strain on the moving parts. It will also harden seals and cause water to condense within the lens and camera body.

Nevertheless, I did see other photographers with different brands of cameras when the temperature was well below freezing. So, although their cameras were officially rated to work down to around 0℃, using them below that temperature for short periods was a risk they were happy to take.

It will be interesting to hear what your camera is officially capable of and see some shots you’ve taken in low temperatures in the comments. I’m hoping my next trip will be to the Sahara so I can test the maximum temperature and the dust-proofing.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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Leica has IP54 on SL2 and Q2/Q3. Everyone else too scared to test their products. Sony lol

Thanks, that's useful.

Years ago there was this video by digitalRev where Kai tortured a canon 7D , it just kept on working. I don’t shoot in very harsh conditions as we don’t have them in the Netherlands. Got my camera covered in salt spray quite often and use it in the rain a lot, they never missed a beat ( Canon 60d, 6D and R). I just watched Thomas Heaton shooting in Mongolia in winter with his Nikon Z8 and he didn’t have any problems. The only YouTube photographer I know of who has reliability problems is Gavin Hardcastle with his Sony, although Mads Peter Iversen also shoots Sony and I never here him complaining. I think OM and Olympus are brave to give a workable temperature of well below zero, I guess all the other brands work just as well but the companies are afraid of claims when they do fail at freezing temperatures.

The choice of build materials can affect the minimum working temperature. The choice of things like lubricants and seals makes a difference. I am sure a lot of cameras will work beyond their maximum and minimum temperatures, but being aware that they exist and taking note of that is worth considering. Thanks for the great comment.

It varies from camera to camera and, as you tested, with other factors beyond temperature. Years ago, I was near Fairbanks, shooting the aurora in -20 degrees Fehrenheit temperatures, near the top of a very windy mountain with a Nikon D3000. No problems! On another day or with another camera of the same model, it might not have worked.

Yes, thanks. I hope this showed that it is possible to push a camera to extremes beyond its operating temperature, and good to know that D3000 did. As you say, the other conditions affect it too, including the humidity levels inside the camera. Thank you for the good comment.

Excellent article you wrote. I live in Finland and have had no problems shooting with my Nikon FG or Fujifilm X-Pro3 below -20℃. However, DJI Osmo Pocket 3 stopped working at -10℃. A text appeared on the screen telling me it was too cold to ensure the functions of the battery.
The air is arid at extremely low temperatures and rarely causes technical disturbances. Such weather conditions are only troublesome for the photographer :-)

Thanks Carl, it was problematic for me until my thermal sturned up!

I am a wimp, but this is an excellent article on cold weather use of a camera. I have gone out of the house to catch after snow shots of the yard and house below 0. But the information regarding moisture and lubricants is very helpful and greatly appreciated as I doubt my camera is rated below freezing, R7.
I would hate to ruin it and the motors etc. so thanks and will be more careful in the future with your information in mind.

There were other photographers shooting with Canons and Nikons when I went to see the Stella's Eider and it was -20C. I didn't get to speak to them about performance though because that was before my thermals have arrived. I do know someone who's R5 died in extreme cold, but whether that was because of the cold or it was going to fail anyway, I don't know.

I've used a Sony A7S, A7R, A7 III and A7R V on a regular basis for winter astrophotography. All of them worked well for extended periods at or below -20°C. The only problem was battery life; however, plugging them into a USB power supply resolved the problem.

Yes, I nearly took a power pack with me to do just that, but settled with the multiple cameras' batteries I have. I was expecting them to run down quickly, but I was shooting for hours as usual and didn't notice any appreciable difference. I think battery technology has moved on incredibly over the last few years. Having that facility of powering the camera from an external source is definitely a boon. Thanks for the comment.


The thing that I love about this article has nothing to do with camera specs or brands or any of that gear-related stuff. I am just so happy for you that you got to go shoot critters in winter in truly cold climates! What a wonderful adventure it must have been!

Did this trip "hook" you, so that you are now obsessed with these areas and the species that live there? Are you already planning and hoping to go back to arctic or near-arctic destinations again in the near future? If so, what species are on your "bucket list"?

I would love to know more about your experiences on this trip, but apart from the gear used. I would love to know what you loved and what fascinated you and what you want to return to shoot again and what other areas and species you hope to shoot in these far northern habitats.

I'm a big fan of Finland, I've been numerous times and got married there. It was great to go in the cold of winter and experience temperatures lower than I had before. It's where my wife's family is from, but although I like any extreme of temperature, she's very much a hot-weather person. I have some other excursions planned though.

As for a bucket list, I read a brilliant comment in a book the other day. When people write a list of 100 things to do before they die, why is calling out for help not on there? It made me laugh.

The eagles were a highlight, but also the reindeer herder's place, and the forests. The lack of clutter in the snow definitely inspired me too.

I joined a photo tour in NPs near Roveniemi in January 2022 with temps down to -35C. My R5 and RF lens performed normally but I spent much of the time in a warming hut with a mug of hot chocolate.

Good to hear. Did you visit Santa while you were there?

I just finished shooting the start of the 2024 Yukon Quest sled dog race. It was -47F with heavy ice fog and my Z8 with the 180-600 performed great. Better than the photographer!!

I really enjoyed being in those temperatures, far more than the windy, chilly, sogginess at the moment where I live.Your picture of the sled dogs is spot on. My little sister and husband run the only husky training school in the UK and she won the World Sleddog Championship in 2019.

Yeah I have also photographed sled dog races, albeit nothing as iconic as the Yukon Quest.

While I have never shot in conditions as cold as you have, but have never had any issues in sub-freezing temps.

My Canon bodies and lenses are only officially rated to have an "operating temperature" of down to 0 degrees Celsius, but I have never had any trouble at all with them and I regularly shoot at temps between -20 Celsius and -10 Celsius.

The ultra-conservative "operating temperature" ratings are only issued to shield Canon from a possible uptick in warranty expenses. It behooves for-profit corporations to commit to very little so that they can protect their bottom line. In this instance, "under promise, over-deliver" works pretty well for both the manufacturer and the consumer.

I shoot mostly Nikon and have had only one problem with the climate one time . A pouring torrential thunderstorm hit while I was filming with several Nikons . All of the cameras 3 were filming internally. A d7000 , d810 and a d500. The rain was so hard it turned everything into creeks a flowing . The d810 was the most visible and most expensive. After it had been running a bit and hot my partner a very long time photographer ran into the driving rain and threw his raincoat over the camera . The other two cameras were left go with nothing over them . When the rain was gone I went out and shut off my cameras. The two uncovered were fine as I expected. The one covered was all fogged up inside. As I expected also . You cannot cover up a hot wet camera that’s running in very hot humid conditions. I had to send the camera into Nikon for a new LCD and thorough cleaning.
I kept using the other two cameras the next several days and still own the d500 she’s running strong .
I’ve shot that old d7000 in blizzards where it was constantly caked in heavy snow and had it and all the Nikons in -10 to -15 degree weather in Illinois.
I fell into a Colorado stream with my Sony a7siii . I dried it out for a week or so . When I turned it on all was good ……. For a minute then the rear LCD went out . I’m sending her into Sony soon .
Now my Nikon Z9 hasn’t been pushed the the extremes “yet” but will be . I just hope Nikon keeps their products well weather sealed .
And as a side note . I shoot festivals and all my weather sealed lenses in the hot humid and rainy conditions have fogged up. Except my Sigma Art glass . The older ones were not weather sealed and never attempted to fog. None of my Sigma weather sealed glass has either but they’ve been subjected to less extremes . My Nikon Tamron and Sony glass has fogged in these conditions and have to be set out in warm dry but not direct sunlight areas to un fog . The Tamron fogged easily and often .

Thanks Troy. Interesting reply.

The Nikon Z8 and Z9 are rated at -10 deg C.

Cool! (Pun intended.)