Home Video Hints: Let it Snow, Let it Snow!

"The weather outside is frightful," as the song has it; but are you tucked up by the fire in your bunny slippers with a mug of hot sassafras tea? Naaah! You’re out in the rain, sleet and snow, blazing away at snowboarders, snowperson builders, Christmas shoppers and anyone else as disdainful of foul weather as you are. And right there sharing these punishing conditions is that delicate, complex, expensive machine – your camcorder. So let’s take a quick look at some winter-weather techniques you need to keep yourself and your gear safe and functioning properly.

Protecting Your Camcorder

First, you need to safeguard your precious camcorder; and how far you go to do this depends on the severity of the moisture that threatens it. Snow flurries are one thing; while the wind and rain of Hurricane Nigel is quite another.

At the very least, protect the front of your lens with a clear filter, assuming you have threads to receive it. If not, keep your built-in lens cover shut until you’re actually ready to shoot. If the filter gets wet, clean it gently with lens tissue (not facial tissue or your gloved finger) and don’t remove the filter from the lens, lest the glass behind it get wet too. For the same reason, try not to swap filters while shooting. If you know you’ll be in ultra-bright snowscapes, be sure to install your neutral-density filter before you go outside.

The next step up is to cover the whole camcorder. For quick and dirty work, shroud it in a plastic bag (like a semi-clear wastebasket liner) with a hole cut for the lens. (Even "clear" plastic sandwich bags will degrade your image if they cover the lens, though the resulting fog-filter effect might look interesting.) With a big bag, you can reach up inside it to work the controls. With a smaller sack, you can operate most buttons through the thin plastic.

Commercial versions are also available, some designed to cover your hand and others made for working through the plastic. These products protect the entire camcorder because they’re fitted with clear glass windows that you position in front of the lens. Rain capes from a company called ewa-marine (www.ewa-marine.de) are just one example.

The down side of these systems is that the glass can be hard to maintain directly in front of the lens and when you add a layer of cold-stiffened plastic to the gloves you’re wearing, operating the controls is no cinch. If you do a lot of cold weather shooting, an underwater camera housing may be worth the investment. The camera locks behind the glass window and the external controls are big and easy to work. Some models suitable for shallow-depth (less than 10m) shooting can be had in the $200-plus range, but true underwater housing, such as those from Ikelite, can exceed the cost of your camcorder.

Finally, here’s a word about excess moisture. Camcorders have built-in moisture sensors, and if their mechanisms get too wet, they refuse to function, for their protection and yours. When the dew indicator appears in your viewfinder and your camcorder plays possum, there’s nothing you can do but to allow everything to dry out before resuming shooting.

Wrangling Your Tripod

Of course, the simplest camcorder protection is an umbrella – yes, a humble bumbershoot – in this case the lightweight type with a clamp for attachment to beach chairs. In snow or moderate rain, it may be all you need. (Hint: keep a micro-fiber cleaning cloth in a pocket to blot any moisture that reaches your camera body.)

What does the brolly clamp to? Your trusty tripod. Many catalog and photo specialty stores offer lateral arms that screw into a tripod’s socket and provide their own socket for the camera. The protruding arm is intended to carry a light or microphone, but it will accept the light weight of a clamp-on umbrella. I’ve used this improvised protection with great results. By the way, a tripod socket takes a 1/4-inch by 20 bolt. If you understand that piece of hardware store arcana, you’re probably handy enough to build your own umbrella support.

A tripod’s OK on a rainy street, but on the ski slopes, it has a dismaying tendency to sink into the snow until your camera is six inches above the surface. To fix this problem, make some tripod snowshoes. Cut three 12-inch circles – or squares, which are easier – out of quarter-inch plywood; drill small holes in their centers, and weatherproof them with urethane finish. To prepare your tripod, retract the rubber feet to reveal the pins intended for use on grass or ice. Set up the rig; place the pins in the snowshoe holes, and mush!

Plastic and metal tripod parts have different coefficients of expansion (in plain English, they shrink in the cold at different rates). Since that tends to make the legs bind up, be sure they’re lightly lubricated before using the tripod in frosty conditions.

Cherishing Batteries (and Talent, Too)

In addition to their other irritating quirks, camcorder batteries operate less efficiently as they grow colder. For this reason, plan on having much shorter battery life when shooting in your winter wonderland.

To compensate, have more batteries ready to go. I always operate with two spares, and that seems to be enough for winter and summer alike. Next, make sure all your batteries are fully charged before your chilly outdoor shooting session.

Instead of carrying a battery in your camcorder, keep your power packs in inside pockets (my down jacket has inner pockets between the down layer and me). That way, they’ll stay warm until needed. When you’re ready to shoot, take out a battery and install it. After shooting, replace the unit in its warm cubby. Sometimes (though not always) a rewarmed battery may deliver a few extra minutes shooting time if you reinstall it later.

Too bad the people you shoot won’t fit in those same pockets, because they behave just like batteries: out in frigid conditions, they have a far shorter useful life. This isn’t a problem when documenting family fun or suicidal snowboarders; but if you’re creating setups and staging action for a movie, the talent has to wait around a lot. If a house or ski lodge isn’t close by, at least keep a heated car for your "actors." They’ll be so grateful, they may even return for a second day’s shooting. By the way, an unswitched cigarette lighter plug in the car will let you run a battery charger without appreciable drain on the car battery.

Common Sense Safety

Don’t ever shoot while skiing or snowboarding. If you watch the viewfinder instead of that tree, you’ll do a George of the Jungle and then roll yourself into a giant snowball with the camcorder rusting inside. You can, however shoot tape as a passenger on a sled or toboggan; and another great place for moving shots is on a lift.

You can shoot while you’re moving with a flat-format camcorder (like many Sharp models), by setting the lens to wide angle, hanging the unit on your chest aimed forward, turning it on and leaving it for the duration of the run. The framing won’t be Hollywood-class, but the wide-angle lens will catch the essentials and deliver an exhilarating view of the action (especially the header you took halfway down).

Coming in From the Cold

You’re shooting your family as they untie the tree from the top of the SUV and carry it inside while you follow behind. But instead of the festive interior of your home, the resulting tape shows the inside of the Toledo Athletic Club steam room. What happened here?

In a word, condensation. When you moved from cold air to warm, your lens frosted over like a beer glass pulled from a freezer. When this happens, there’s nothing to do but wait a few minutes for the camcorder to warm to room temperature, before resuming the shoot. If you have a clear filter installed (as you should), remove it from the lens until all surfaces are clear again. Don’t get impatient and wipe everything off. Naturally evaporating moisture will probably leave the glass clean and ready for shooting.

But what about that cool shot of your family bringing in the tree? The trick is to use the magic of editing. Stay outside until everyone else has entered the house and closed the door. Then move inside, warm up the camcorder and get a reverse-angle repeat shot of just the last person entering and shutting the door. If you match the door closing action in the edit, the continuity will be perfect.

As you can see, bad-weather shooting is mainly common sense. Just remember these few hints and your winter footage will be jolly.

Good (brrrr!) shooting!

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