Photography Issues

=== by Bob Sutherland ===

This webpage contains a description of some of the problems I encountered while trying to take photographs in a cold climate region of our planet.


I did not always own a camera. I was heavily in debt during the early years of my teaching career so consequently I did not even consider participating in an expensive hobby such as photography. Many of the teachers I met in isolated northern communities did not own a camera.

My first purchase was a camcorder. Using the camcorder I discovered how difficult it can be to get people to cooperate as I was filming. I had more success shooting landscape scenery.

When people walked into a room and saw some of the scenes I had just shot being played back on a television screen they sometimes filled the air with enthusiastic compliments. But people's attention spans are short. I could not find anyone willing to sit still and watch a silent, motionless movie of northern Canadian landscapes for more than a few minutes. I even tried adding music, subtitles and a few animated cartoon characters during the editing process to break up the monotony. Still I could not compete with the action packed shows and commercials my captive audience would prefer to be watching on that television screen instead of my movies.

A few year later I became interested in buying and using a film camera to take photographs. While travelling across the country I visited the best camera stores I could find in some of the largest cities. Many of the stores I picked specialized in selling and renting camera equipment to professional photographers. I did not expect that I would be able to afford their prices but I wanted to talk to knowledgeable sales staff. I was determined to find out just what was available before buying my first film camera. My expectation at the time was that buying a good quality camera would be a once in a lifetime experience.

What I learned was that none of the stores had a camera designed for shooting photographs in a cold climate. When listing the operational temperature range in user manuals and brochures the manufacturers often recommended their cameras not be used in temperatures below five degrees Celsius. Only a few manufacturers were willing to take a risk and suggest zero degrees Celsius as the coldest temperature their cameras might be able to operate in.

The sales staff in the photography stores tried to come to my rescue by offering a few suggestions for cold weather photography. One idea was to try using a manual camera rather than one that relied on electronics. The disadvantage being that without working electronics in the cold I would not have a light meter. Each time I took a photograph I would therefore have to try guessing what settings should be used for the shutter speed and lens aperture opening.

A second idea the sales staff came up with was to try taking an older camera apart to change the lubricating oil in the hope that might improve the camera's performance in cold weather.

Well over the years I have now owned a few 35 mm film cameras. I only bought one new film camera and the rest were second hand used cameras. Most of them could be operated manually. I never experienced any problems with the built in light meters. I never changed the lubricating oil in a camera. It was the chemicals and dyes on the photography film and the moving parts of the camera shutter mechanism that I found to be the frequent points of failure when trying to take photographs in a cold climate.

When exposed to cold temperatures the shutter mechanism of my 35 mm film cameras would freeze and jam. I lost a lot of film that was destroyed by cold temperatures while attempting to take photographs outside. I also lost a lot of film that was damaged probably by cold temperatures while being mailed out to big city photography laboratories for development. I suspect that the mail bags were left outside exposing the film canisters I had mailed to frigid cold temperatures while waiting to be loaded onto airplanes or trucks. As a result most of my surviving photographs were taken in the fall or spring. I was often far enough up north that there could be snow on the ground at any time of the year.

Whenever my camera's shutter mechanism froze and jammed I would hear or feel the first click as I pushed the shutter button down but the second click that I was expecting to immediately follow the first one failed to happen. The shutter curtain, whether made of cloth or metal, is a moving part that should open for a split second to let light into the camera to expose the film. The shutter curtain should then immediately close again producing the second click. What was happening was the shutter curtain was freezing and jamming part way through its sliding motion. Usually a few frames of film would be overexposed by all the light streaming into the camera as the shutter curtain froze and became stuck mid motion in an open position. The only thing that I could do whenever this happened was to put the lens cover on, pack up my camera in its case and take it home. After the camera sat in its case on the kitchen table for a while I would hear the second click as the shutter curtain finally unthawed and suddenly closed.

When my film froze the colour dyes were damaged so there usually was no image found when the photography lab technicians tried to develop and print my pictures. Occasionally only the right side of the picture frame was damaged leaving behind a gradient as the picture darkens and disappears into blackness. Sometimes the red colour survived but the other colours were damaged or missing. In a few cases have I successfully managed to rescue a shot by scanning it into a computer and then using photo editing software to convert the surviving red colour image into a black and white photograph.

By now my photographs may be historical documents. I am aware that some of the schools I taught in have been replaced by new buildings. The people in my photos will be much older now. But in many ways I suspect that the northern isolated communities and landscapes probably still look very much like they did when I photographed them.