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.
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.
Custom 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.