March to the North Pole

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As documentary gigs go, this one was a head scratcher. Follow an arctic expedition of injured Canadian veterans as they trek seven days in the high arctic. Oh, and you will be trekking with them and a tent will be your hotel room. No second chances and no resupply; if something breaks you better be able to fix it with Gorilla Tape.

A great deal of my gigs are physically and/or environmentally challenging. At times it seems like 1/2 my job is how to take cameras in places that always seem to exceed the manufacture’s “recommended” conditions.

But, this one was unique. A world of snow and ice, power consumption headaches and plan B’s were constantly in my mind during the 2 months leading to the trip.

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My first concern was to find a camera that was robust, have fantastic dynamic range, a solid fat codec and ergonomic. High frame rates would be nice… Did I say ergonomic? Very early in the process I decided on the Sony F5 with an OLED viewfinder.

But all the dynamic range and good ergonomics are useless when you have a -30°C / -22°F block of ice for a camera that sucks the life out of your cold compromised lithium-ion batteries. There are things I have done in past arctic shoots to keep batteries warm, (including leaving the camera on in standby) but I always had the comfort of a warm room at the end of the day to recharge the batteries. This time around those techniques were just not feasible because of the expedition nature of this shoot.

photo-3-838x1024@2xCustom polar bag made by 1st AC / camera protection specialist Lori Longstaff

In my research on battery technology I stumbled on a web page showing Sony’s Olivine lithium iron phosphate batteries. Most of the info was about the simultaneous, one hour charging of the 2 x 75WH batteries and the increase in charging cycles and high temp performance. But, there was one reference to performing better in the cold. I immediately called Sony and found that the published low temperature range was -20°C. Sign me up for two… No, make that four.

Though I was a bit too preoccupied to do any true tests while in the field, these batteries definitely outperformed any lithium-ion battery that I have used in past arctic shoots. Though the temps were at times -20 to -30°C, I was only down 25%+/- in runtime. I never was wanting for power and there were times when I was charging frost-covered batteries (due to being in the tent) with no problems. As a comparison, we had some mapping equipment that used large standard li-on batteries that just refused to take any charge and we had to put that piece of kit away for the duration.

I also developed a solar heater for the camera. By using a photovoltaic solar panel and DC heating strips inside the camera’s polar bag I managed to keep the camera warm during the hours sitting in the back of my pulk. The bag / solar heater worked so well it was warm when I put my hands inside to operate the camera.

When I left for this trip, my biggest hope was that I over-prepared. With the help of people at Vistek, Sony Canada, Sim Digital and 1st AC Lori Longstaff’s custom polar bag, I am glad to say that I survived documenting the largest polar expedition ever done.

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