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Back Home... On Shooting in Difficult Conditions

Get Zeiss Milvus at B&H Photo.

While I’m about 1/4 Norwegian, that doesn’t mean my hands last for long with sub-zero wind chill, even in gloves . Fortunately, the wind was negligible most days, except at Patriarch Grove in the evening where I thought I might frostbite my nose (wind chill ~10°F). Most days the temperature ranged from 7°F to 14°F during the day, with one cold night in the tent at ~0° F (I’m guessing as low as -5°F). But we stayed toasty warm; see Gear for the Outdoors for a sampling of what I use. It’s all about proper choices for clothing. It got cold enough in the tent that my breath produced ice on my pillow only inches away. Cool stuff—lovin’ it.

Thanksgiving Night Lodging at 10,600' and -2...7°F
f2.2 @ 1/10 sec, ISO 80; 2015-11-26 19:52:19
iPhone 6s Plus + iPhone 6s Plus back camera 4.15mm f/2.2

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All of the cameras I shot suck in one way or another in the severe cold. In general, the buttons are problematic for use with gloves on: why are key buttons so small? For Canon, it’s the on/off switch, difficult to use with gloves. Nikon D810 is the best overall, but the tiny button on the middle of the 4-way controller is tough and the stupid dual-press thing for MLU is a constant source of do-over. For Sony, the tiny 4-way controller is a joke. Because of these usability problems, I was forced to wear medium weight gloves instead of heavier ones, which means my hands often went painfully cold in a few minutes unless shoved into pockets (with gloves on). That is, cold hands a lot of the time. The iPhone 6s Plus fails completely unless it is kept in a warm pocket (it shuts down and refuses to operate; a battery with 100% charge can read 1%, a bug of sorts), so the iPhone was useless every morning until placed near a heater vent in the car.

My Arca Swiss Cube was a headache, nearly locking up its gearing in one direction at times. I don’t know if it’s my unit, or a more general issue. Helpful operational note: do not let wet lips or any part of tongue contact tripod head at 7°F while peering through viewfinder; your mileage may vary. Also, when the Cube turns white with breath-frost, it’s cold out.

Changing Zeiss Milvus lenses with their hand-numbing metal barrels made me wish for plastic or rubber—next time I think I’ll wrap the barrels and hoods in gaffer’s tape. The smooth surface of the Milvus lenses offers no tactile feedback as to where the focusing ring is, particularly with gloves! Zeiss really needs to fix the form over function thing (sleek look vs haptics). Fortunately a large portion of the lens barrels acts as focusing ring, so it was not too much of an issue—just grab somewhere and turn and it works usually. I was glad for the weather sealing.

Accurate manual focus with a DSLR is operationally problematic in cold conditions—perhaps why my climb with the Sony A7R II and Batis 25/2 with autofocus and one Zeiss Batis lens was so successful: press shutter to shoot and that’s all that’s needed. With Canon and Nikon DSLRs, my shooting rate was hugely slowed by using manual focus lenses because of the need for a focusing loupe on the rear LCD; Canon and Nikon in their rigid dinosaur thinking have failed to offer an EVF option, all while a giant sucking sound (or shriek of frustration?) sends customers to Sony. To not have an EVF option on a DSLR is a major drawback; fogging with a loupe in sub-freezing cold is one headache, let alone the awkwardness of manual focus while holding the loupe against the rear LCD with gloves on (attaching is not a viable option). Thus the Sony A7R II with manual focus is far superior to CaNikon: the Sony A7R II C1 button programmed for EVF zoom made focusing quick and easy with the Rokinon manual-focus lenses I was using, even with gloves. That DSLR designs suck for manual focus on high-res digital was a point driven home to me in these difficult conditions.

I've seen this lone horse for about 5 years now, always in this area, and not at all concerned with winter, happily grazing. He/she (unsure) can be approached to about 150 feet and there ends the comfort zone. That this loner survives year after year speaks to a hardy makeup.

Lone Horse in Snowstorm at 10,500', White Mountains
f6.3 @ 1/50 sec, ISO 100; 2015-11-27 15:58:24
Canon EOS 5DS R + Zeiss Milvus 100mm f/2M ZE

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In the hard cold, every rock wants to slip on every other rock, and snow makes for treacherous footing, even in relatively windswept areas; something as simple as walking around a small tree on a slope can be a 5-minute affair, which limits exploring the creative choices. I fell only once, but with no warning (slipped and bam, down I went). This area is about as easy as it gets, but still slippery in unexpected spots.

Heading for Shelter at Late Dusk, as a Numbing Wind Hastens Return
f2.8 @ 0.6 sec, ISO 100; 2015-11-27 17:00:48
Canon EOS 5DS R + Zeiss Milvus 2/35 ZE

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NFS locked the Grandview and Wyman Canyon and Silver Canyon access gates on Saturday Nov 28, 2015. A special thanks to the ranger who let me shoot all day and lock the gate on my way out. The NFS locks the gates in part because of nitwits who drive sedans up there (seriously), get stuck in places like Wyman Canyon (which requires caution even with A/T tires), and require $1000 tows to get out. A few hapless idiots have had to abandon their cars for the winter. I’ve seen a Prius in Patriarch Grove—and this is a place that has wrecked three all-terrain (A/T) tires in three years—and now one Blizzak too: I myself had a non-repairable tire cut at dusk on the day of closing (yesterday), and had to swap on a new wheel/tire I had brought along just for that risk, with the temperature at 5°F or so. So I guess I can forgive the NFS for locking the gates for the season, even though the road to Patriarch Grove was no issue at all for a suitable vehicle.

Road above Patriarch Grove, in the Gloaming
f2 @ 2.0 sec, ISO 100; 2015-11-27 17:08:53
Canon EOS 5DS R + Zeiss Milvus 2/35 ZE

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Does the bitter cold come through here? The lighting had this cold austerity to it that combined with thI could barely operate the camera with fingers going numb. Working with manual focus lenses on a DSLR is a major hassle in such conditions.

Bristlecone Sculpture, Patriarch Grove, Late Dusk
f2 @ 1/15 sec, ISO 100; 2015-11-27 16:49:14
Canon EOS 5DS R + Zeiss Milvus 2/35 ZE

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I would have spent more days here had I been alone, but I was with my daughter and her boots were too tight with a heavy wool sock—cold feet made it difficult for her. Too bad, since she has a good eye. She was able to shoot quickly and with good variety using an Olympus OMD E-M1 with the Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4. Had I not been testing the Zeiss Milvus lenses, I would have much preferred the Sony A7R II and Zeiss Batis combo—for quick autofocus and handheld image-stabilized operation. Even Zeiss Loxia on the A7R II would have been much quicker and easier than a DSLR with loupe on the rear LCD.

Locked in deep freeze until spring.

Old Bristlecone Log View to Road Above Patriarch Grove, Late Dusk
f9 @ 1/6 sec, ISO 100; 2015-11-27 16:31:09
Canon EOS 5DS R + Zeiss Milvus 2/35 ZE

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The warmth of red and yellow contrasts with the extreme blue light. I tried to stand still for 20 seconds, but was not quite still enough. Yes, that’s the wonderful Zacuto loupe hanging around my neck—the hassle factor for DSLR manual focus.

Time to Set up Camp
f6.3 @ 20.0 sec, ISO 100; 2015-11-27 17:11:19
Canon EOS 5DS R + Zeiss Milvus 2/35 ZE

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White rabbits pop up here and there.

White Night on White Mountain Road
f2.2 @ 1/4 sec, ISO 125; 2015-11-27 17:23:56
iPhone 6s Plus + iPhone 6s Plus back camera 4.15mm f/2.2

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Descending ~1000'in elevation, things warm up nicely to 5°F.

5°F at Dusk, Just Prior to Setting up Camp
f2.2 @ 1/4 sec, ISO 100; 2015-11-27 17:52:10
iPhone 6s Plus + iPhone 6s Plus back camera 4.15mm f/2.2

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