Greenland, a land of such incredible beauty that words and pictures just can’t do it justice, but also a place with some pretty savage temperatures. Whereas the average walker keeps on walking and generating heat, photographers tend to walk to a location and then hang around waiting for the light.
We have just returned from a winter trip to Greenland, where we encountered temperatures as low as minus 35C and it’s been interesting to see what works and what doesn’t work – clothing wise – as well as some interesting camera equipment issues. The average temperature in West Greenland in February is normally around minus 15C, but Greenland was in the middle of a cold snap during our visit, so cold in fact that the sea completely froze over in Disko Bay where we were staying.
We all know about wearing layers, but it was interesting to see just how little was necessary to keep us warm in temperatures down to minus 35C. Fortunately, we went well prepared and suffered very little, despite several 90 minute sessions standing on location photographing sunsets. My standard kit whilst moving about consisted of a Merino wool base layer, a thin fleece mid layer, a fleece jumper and a lined down jacket. For evenings spent shooting the sunset I substituted the jacket for a lined one piece suit that I had purchased in Norway a few years ago, and that kept me warm even on an evening at minus 30C with severe wind chill.
Keeping the core body warm is very important, but its extremities like feet, hands and face that tend to suffer most. We had Merino blend inner and outer socks and fur lined boots, which worked well, but feet did eventually get cold after an hour or so standing around on location. As for the hands, it is important to keep them covered at all times, but still be able to operate the buttons on the camera. We normally wear thin silk glove liners as a base layer, but for these temperatures we took a thicker base layer and covered them with windproof flip top mittens. These allow you to briefly expose the fingers and operate the camera, then quickly re-cover to keep in the heat. In my opinion, mittens keep your hands much warmer than gloves with fingers, so it’s surprising that there are currently so few on the market.
Feet are usually the first to feel the cold, so warm boots are a must. For this trip, we tried something new in the form of boots with retractable studs and found them brilliant. The studs are built into a reversible insert in the boot sole, so you can easily retract the studs when not needed. However, we even found that the studs work well on frozen rock.
Another area that lets in the cold is the neck and face. Many people wear a ‘Buff’ neck warmer as this has the advantage of being able to cover the lower face if required, particularly when it’s windy. We opted for a thicker version of those for Greenland, rather than the thinner ones we use in the UK, and this proved very adequate. I must mention that on the very cold days the buff directed my breath into my sunglasses and they both froze up, restricting vision very badly.
Even the thickest woolly hat proved to be inadequate in these conditions. Whilst the weather was generally pretty still, on the odd occasion when it was windy we needed a lined windproof hat which covered the ears.
One product we were advised to take with us was ‘Hot Hands’, which proved to an absolute boon. Slipping them into your gloves, they keep your hands nicely warm, and they stay warm for a remarkable length of time.
During our time in Greenland, temperatures were often below minus 20C and it is at these temperatures that camera gear really starts to wilt. Battery life can be an issue, though we didn’t find it to be a particular problem so long as we didn’t use ‘Live View’ too much. Mirrorless cameras are going to suffer far more with battery life than DSLR’s – one camera only lasted 14 frames in these conditions. We only took one spare battery each and managed it, but I would strongly recommend you take more.
It seems obvious with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time it never occurred to me that leaving your camera set up on the tripod was the equivalent of leaving your hands un-gloved, so make a point of returning your camera to the warmth of its bag, or inside your jacket as much as possible. I tended to leave my camera set on the tripod whilst waiting for a sunset and paid the price, as my camera froze up on a couple of occasions. Fortunately, it did come back to life once it had thawed out back in our accommodation. Interestingly, placing a ‘Hot Hands’ inside a sock and pulling that over your lens proved very effective at keeping the camera warm.
I was a little surprised to find that tripod leg locks hardened so much in these temperatures, my tripod was reluctant to lock and my ball head declined to work at all at temperatures below minus 12C.
We were advised to take a spare camera body and this was advice we chose to ignore. We got away with it, but one of our party had a camera which died altogether, so it was sound advice after all.
Whilst all this may sound melodramatic, we loved Greenland and being well equipped, meant we didn’t suffer much. The arctic in winter is stunningly beautiful, so don’t be put off by the cold and go for it! But do remember to keep your camera inside its bag or inside your jacket as much as possible.