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Tuesday, 04 January 2011 19:34

Winter Shooting

Written by  Carl Mrozek
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CamCol_PortabraceCBA-NX5_kThe winter chill is in the air and snow is on the pumpkin. For me, that means one thing: It’s time to prep my camera to shoot outdoors in snow, sleet, freezing rain and cold, wicked winds. For more than a decade I’ve been a stringer for the Weather Channel, particularly during the wintry months. My peak season is late fall/early winter  because that’s when the notorious “lake effect” snowfalls happen as frigid subarctic weather blows across comparatively warm Lake Erie. This causes condensation which results in snow that can be so wet and heavy, it can make life difficult for you and your camera.

To capture the drama and spectacle of snowstorms in all their fury, you have to plunge into them and shoot in conditions hostile to video cameras. And while cameras don’t like extreme cold, the toughest challenge is actually the moisture inherent in snow, especially when it melts on contact with the camera, lens and viewfinder.

For a few years I protected my cameras from snow primarily with rain jackets, both full body and shorties. I preferred shorties as most of them cover the camera’s top and sides and they’re open at the bottom for quick access to all side panels, making it much easier to perform camera functions. Good shorties have an elastic band along the bottom edge to snug it to the camera body well enough to keep the snow off. They’re also made of a water-resistant, synthetic material that may be sealed on the inside surface to keep moisture from penetrating to the camera body. The sleeves, which slip over the viewfinder and shotgun mic, also have elastic bands for snugging along with larger openings with Velcro closures for the lens and handle. All in all, rain jackets provide remarkable protection (except in really heavy or windblown snow) inexpensively, and they can be removed, stored or utilized very quickly.

For 99-percent weather protection, I stepped up to a more comprehensive and costly “body armor” for cameras. For the Sony DSR-570, I chose the custom-fit, all-weather BodyArmor suit by PortaBrace. While it costs considerably more than a shorty, BodyArmor also provides better protection from snow, sleet and rain as well as knocks and abrasions. Made of a durable synthetic, denim-like material, it wraps most of the camera body in blue, with a clear-vinyl panel covering side control panels. This flap is secured with Velcro so key functions like audio levels, gain and time code remain visible and quickly accessible. A top flap protects the VTR control panel and seals out moisture with a thick strip of Velcro.CamCol_portabrace_CBA-HM700a

Since the BodyArmor suit doesn’t cover the camera lens, as the dimensions and ergonomics of lenses vary, PortaBrace includes a shorty attachment to protect the lens and entire upper half of the camcorder from the elements. This creates double coverage for a moisture-sensitive camera as it keeps the lens mostly dry. However, this solution still left the front of the lens vulnerable to blowing snow, which can quickly pile up inside a lens shade and ruin your shot.

To minimize this problem, I attached a thick square of waterproof material to the upper barrel of the lens so that it just overhangs on top, and I secured it with twin rubber bands. It’s ideal to have it hang over and protrude just beyond the outer edge of the lens shade, as this thin flap deflects blowing snow amazingly well –– and it’s thin enough not to intrude into the field of view in wide-angle mode. This “top lens flap” has spared me the considerable time wasted by brushing snow off the lens. To remove any stray flakes that do slip in, I use a clean 1-inch paintbrush to whisk them out as gently as possible.

To protect a Canon XH A1, I adapted a simpler camera cover by KATA. Even though the jacket’s clear panels didn’t align perfectly with the camera panels, there was enough overlap. Also, the location of key function switches along the XH A1’s bottom and rear outer edges along with the KATA jacket’s simplicity made the switches accessible just by slipping my fingers through the jacket’s adjacent slits and holes. While not 100-percent waterproof, this camera jacket worked well enough (really wet snow or cold rain merely dampened the jacket’s outer skin).

I also recently tried a new shorty by Camera Duck with the same Canon XH A1. Designed like a cylinder for maximum flexibility with medium-sized camcorders with elongated form factors, the jacket is open on both ends but with a drawstring for tight cinching around the lens barrel on one end or around the viewfinder or back end of the camcorder –– and you can operate the record button through the jacket’s thin fabric. There’s a Velcro strip along the entire bottom (with snaps at both ends to avoid accidental openings) and inside pockets on both sides for pocket warmers. The pocket is made with diaphanous mosquito-net-like fabric so all the heat from a pocket warmer goes to the camcorder rather than dissipating into the fabric. This American-made product is as ingenious as it is simple, and it’s designed to work with a wide range of camcorders, particularly those with the XH A1’s elongated form.

Lastly, fogging can be a chronic issue when working around precipitation, both hot and cold. To minimize fogging, I coat outer elements with variety of things, ranging from lens cleaners to defoggers for eyeglasses. To date, the most effective anti-fogger has been a solution by Parker Coatings, which is dispensed from a small squeeze bottle and often retards fogging for hours at a time.

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