Subzero Storytelling: Staying Safe in Harsh Climates

Storytelling often brings production teams to exciting places, but many of them can be extremely dangerous if not planned for correctly.

We shot our most recent production for The Weather Channel out on Mount Hood, Oregon's highest peak. With rapid weather changes and frequent avalanches, this dormant volcano can be a dangerous place for unprepared visitors.  

Our production team encountered subzero temperatures and some weather-related gear challenges while out on the shoot. Blue Chalk development producer Catherine Yrisarri takes a moment to share some important pointers for handling gear and keeping the crew safe in harsh conditions.

What are important features to look for when scouting out locations in cold climates?  

The most important thing is to be prepared. Whether heading out into the Arctic or a backcountry ski shoot on Mount Hood, I’ve found that having the right equipment to keep your team and your gear warm is essential. Honestly, you can’t have enough hand warmers and thermal layers when dealing with subzero temperatures. Hands, feet and batteries are usually the first to freeze so be mindful of keeping these warm.

Also, it’s important to plan for safety. As we learned from our search and rescue guides, check the weather and conditions before you head out and make sure you have a game plan for the conditions.

Luckily our subject,  Dr. Christopher Van Tilburg,  was familiar with the territory and knew about avalanche safety in the area. The risk of avalanches varies anywhere you shoot and can be extremely dangerous if you’re not well acquainted with the snowpack and lack training. We skied in the trees, which lowers the risk considerably, and wore avalanche transceivers. We also hired a great DP, Rex Lint, who has filmed skiing across the world and knows how to handle harsh conditions.

I’ve read that one of the main problems in cold weather is loss of battery power. How can you plan for this?

Loss of battery life is one of the biggest challenges in cold weather. We shot on the Red for this particular shoot. At first the batteries operated normally and retained their energy. After a couple of hours exposed to subzero temperatures, however, they lasted only a minute or two.  

Catherine Yrisarri, Rex Lint, and Crag Rat member Dr. Christopher Van Tilburg (left to right) ski through subzero conditions on Mount Hood. Photo by Rob Finch.

We switched from the Red lithium batteries to a converter using Anton Bauer lithium batteries, which resolved the power issue. Though it can be cumbersome, keeping your fully-charged batteries close to your body heat can really extend their life.

Tripods and grip gear can stiffen up in the cold. What are some tips and solutions to loosening the joints?  

Our tripod did lock up because water got into the joints and froze. We hacked the head with a screw driver to get the plate to release, which is not an ideal solution.  

This could have been avoided by keeping the tripod dry and checking it before going indoors and then out again. If your tripod is operating before you take a break and head inside to get warm, it’s better to keep it out in the cold then thaw the snow and let it refreeze in the joints.  

Trekking in the snow with tripods, cameras and canisters of soup cannot be easy. What is a good strategy for getting everything from point A to point B?

This all depends on the terrain. For this past shoot, several of us used Dynafit bindings, skins (an adhesive layer on the bottom of the ski that allows you to trek up), and backcountry skis to get up the hill and back down.

Shooting on Mount Hood.

Shooting with the Red on Mount Hood. Photo by Rob Finch.

This is a great solution if you are trekking up steep hills and then skiing down because it gives you the flexibility to move over varied terrain and stay above the snowpack. 

Often times cold climates are made up of environments of a lot of white—snow and ice. How do you avoid over-exposing your work?

Filters are key. We used a variable ND filter to help with the contrast of the snow and sky. Sometimes your camera is going to overcompensate for the ultra-white backdrop and create a darker image. Be mindful of this and err on overexposing the image a little. Some cold-weather DPs suggest overexposing by two stops, but be mindful of checking your exposures and screening your video when you get indoors.

Mount Hood, Oregon

Different digital cameras react differently to white landscapes. Test your camera before going out for a winter shoot. Photo of Mount Hood by Jamie Francis for Blue Chalk. 

If you’ve never shot in an ultra-white backdrop, test your camera the day before the shoot as different digital cameras and their light meters react differently to white conditions.

Are there other important tips people shooting in subzero temperatures should know before heading out?

Bring a lens brush to dust off snow from your lens. There’s a knee-jerk reaction to want to put the lens up to your mouth and warm it to get the snow and ice off, but this immediately fogs the lens and freezes the condensation. Your lens is then out of commission.  

Your warm breath, funny enough, can be one of the biggest land mines for shooting in cold temperatures. Keep your breath away from the monitor, lens and eyepiece because it will collect moisture and then freeze immediately.

Layer your hands. Bring glove liners that allow you to operate the camera easily, then layer them with a thick mitten or glove containing hand-warmers so you can immediately warm the tips after they are exposed to the elements. I love Hestra gloves because they are built for freezing temperatures and have elastic cuffs that let your bigger mittens hang while you use your hands (covered in liners) to do camera work.

Finally, remember to bring an insulated camera cover to help keep your camera body warm and protect it from snow.

If condensation does occur inside the camera or lens, what is the first thing someone should do?

Make sure all the equipment is dry. It’s the transition back into warm environments that’s the biggest challenge. Many people suggest placing your equipment in a plastic bag once inside so it can gradually warm up.

Ultimately, you have to fully commit to thawing your gear if you go inside. Your lenses will fog as they thaw, then you can wipe off the water and head back out. Don’t go back out with a foggy lens if you plan on using it. Either stash it or wait until the lens is fully defrosted.

Watch Where Forecasts Save Lives and see the accompanying photos now! 

Learn more about the gear Catherine recommends on the Subzero Storytelling Pinterest board.

Cover photo: Rex Lint and Catherine Yrisarri shooting on Mount Hood. Photo by Jaime Francis for Blue Chalk.