Copyright 2011 Fritz Hoffmann
Sirius sled-dogs are not designed for your living room. Unbelievable but true, they like it cold. We humans are better designed for a warmer climate. So how did I photograph in the sled-dogs’ living room?
My assignment for NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine to photograph the Danish military sled-dog patrol known as Sirius ( The Cold Patrol, January 2012 ) came together on short notice. I had to hustle to meet a military cargo flight at Aalborg, Denmark that would take me to Station Nord located in the far northeast corner of Greenland in February. Temperatures were dropping to -50 or lower with wind. Minus 30 was the norm!
My previous experience photographing in cold weather was in northeastern China, near the border with Russian Siberia and on China’s border with North Korea for the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC story, Manchurian Mandate 2005. I had a warm car to duck into there. The main problem with that was camera sweat. I made sure to place my cameras inside my coat before I left the cold. And fortunately the cameras I used were Leica rangefinders. They hide well inside clothing. Unfortunately I was shooting film. It was cold enough that the color transparency film would shatter inside the camera if I wasn’t VERY careful winding it. And my clothing was nothing special, just whatever I could pull together from markets around Shanghai. But then I wasn’t planning on camping in that weather. Out with Sirius it was -35 inside the tent at night. Thankfully Sirius provided me with a thick Nomex fireproof outer sleeping bag and an inner sleeping bag. I added to that a sleeping bag liner. I also wore my Smart Wool long underwear and Patagonia fiberfill sweater and pants plus hat, gloves and socks. I was still cold. And my cameras tucked inside there with me were too.
Research is so important on a story. My editor Sadie Quarrier had done a lot of the story research before I came into the project. Most of the research I did for this story was all about working in the cold. How to stay warm and how to keep cameras working. My thanks to several photographers I asked these questions to. Their advice was very helpful. Now that I have some qualified cold weather photography experience myself, I’ll pass that on to you here.
I used the Canon 5D Mark ll and brought along the more robust 1DS Mark3 as back up. Although Canon says the 5D is only rated to +32F ( that is correct. ONLY +32F ), the 5D worked without real failure. I did not make much use of the 1D because I was shooting often from a snowmobile while chasing sled-dogs and the smaller 5D was handier in that situation. I also rigged a boom off the snowmobile so I could dangle the camera in front of the dogs and therefore I chose the lighter 5D.
At around -25, functions of both cameras became sluggish. That was mostly the auto focus and the LCD screen. I am told that the LCD contains water and so then obviously that becomes affected. It freezes! At -35 to -40 both cameras stopped working. Granted the cameras had been in the cold by then for about 30 hours and through the night it was -35 inside the tent. It was difficult enough to keep myself warm let alone the cameras. Leading up to that complete failure the 1D was not exposing properly. This malfunction did not appear to be a battery failure because I knew that the batteries were fully charged and I was keeping them inside my clothing. Later when I returned indoors and the camera warmed up the battery was showing full charge.
Another big problem I had was with my nose sticking to the glass monitor on the back of the camera. My face was completely covered but my nose would become exposed while shooting from the snowmobile while it bounced along. Maybe a stick-on silicon cover might be useful in that case. Something similar to the protective coverings that can be applied to cell phones, but thicker. Moleskin on my nose would also have been effective.
The Sirius sled-dog patrols all carry cameras on their long patrols, which are as long as three months. What they do is keep the camera outside at all times and pop the battery in only when they want to use it. Outside in this case means in a box on the sled. Not in and out of the tent. They said that the cameras they have used, mostly Canon Rebels, have not been affected by the cold and the batteries will last a long time if kept in a pocket. Three months is a long time! Granted they are only using the camera in select situations for a few frames here and there, not continuous use. At Station Nord, a small base in the farthest north location on Greenland, 570 miles from the North Pole, the station personnel hang their cameras on a hook outside when they enter buildings so as to avoid having them sweat with condensation. I used the same method when there. Kept one camera outside and one inside.
For clothing I used the following (note that I was trying to purchase for my very average size at the end of the winter season and could not find much of what I was searching for). I used Smart Wool and Ice Breaker wool base layers, then a wool vest and layers of poly pro and then, in most situations the Canada Goose Expedition Parka as my exterior coat. Sirius patrols carry one of these coats on the sled with them. They only take what they need on these expeditions and the coat is only used at camp. One person takes care of chores inside the tent; setting up camp, cooking, melting snow for drinking water. The other person cares for the outside chores; feeding and hugging the dogs and providing any medical care for them, piling snow for drinking water. The outside man wears the coat. ) The pilots I was flying with in Greenland were from Iceland. They used these Expedition parkas too. I didn’t think much of the fur lined hood, with inner wire frame for easy shaping, until I was headed into the wind. Closed in around the face, the fur creates a micro climate to keep you warm and you can still see through the fur. And real fur is more effective here than fake fur. The Expedition has four nice sized exterior pockets. The Velcro closures on those pockets could be more substantial. The parka was pretty bulky and I did not use it in all situations especially when I was active and wanting to avoid sweat. Those times I covered mid layers with a Bergen wool snow boarding hoodie wool and nano-puff jacket covered by a wind shell and that was fine as long as I kept moving. For the pants I had some primaloft pants and a wind shell, but on the snowmobile I even added an insulated freezer suit ( reminded me of my time in Dutch Harbor ) borrowed from Station Nord. I didn’t think I would need it but after a day out riding on the snowmobile I was glad to have included the freezer suit.
I used the Sorrel “Work” boot. Rated to -75 but my toes felt the chill anyway. These boots do not come with the wool felt insert booties. I could not find my size in those boots. I would advise them. Also, the work boot is meant to be laced up but it is better to keep the boot loose and the others are designed that way, loose ( the cold will get through to any spot that constricts the clothing insulation). My socks were Smart Wool and the guys on patrol noted that they considered them to be the best. I used a liner inside a thick sock.
The gloves I had were the Hestra 3-finger Heli-mitt designed with the forefinger free. This was a terrific piece of equipment. I highly recommend it. Even though it appears to be large and bulky, I was able to activate the shutter and other camera controls with the free forefinger. Only once did I use hand warmers and I did not add a glove liner. The sizing chart on the Hestra website is pretty accurate. You don’t want the mitts to be too tight.
My goggles were Oakley Crowbar. Make sure to get the correct tint of the goggle lens as different tints are designed for different light. I was told the amber is the best all around night and day tint. At photographer Maria Stenzel’s suggestion, I bought a viewfinder eye cup. I was glad to have it to use in combination with the goggles. Obviously the goggles limit your view and that eye cup pressed against the goggles helped steady the camera when moving over bumpy fields of hard snow on the snowmobile.
Sleeping bags used were provided by the patrol team. Those consisted of three layers, the outside being a sturdy insulated Nomex fire proof bag, obviously not something you’d carry on your back. Thanks to the dogs for pulling the extra weight. They use those because the patrols heat the inside of their tents, until lights out, with two MSR burners.
Members of the patrol recommended the brands Craft and Devold for the clothing base layer and WarmPeace as the mid layer. I checked these out when in Denmark and found them to be very well made and well designed but I only found the product in synthetic material, which I do not care for. Some like synthetic. I prefer wool. I grew up in the wet Pacific Northwest, and wool keeps you warm when wet and hides body odor. Helpful when you have been wearing the same clothes for weeks. I even had wool boxers. Smart Wool makes a really comfortable pair. You might want to put them on your gift list this season. WarmPeace makes a balaclava that seemed to be the best design and I borrowed one of those from Nord. It was much better than what I had brought with me because the opening for the eyes is narrower and better suited for covering the face in extreme cold. The balaclava that I brought along was prone to expose the skin around the goggles when using the camera. Imagine the effect of that when riding on a snowmobile for a day in -35. I had a Smart Wool neck gaiter with me. It kept the neck warm but was not tall enough to cover the chin when I wanted extra coverage there. Warmpeace makes a very good neck gaiter that the sled teams use.
The sled teams noted that when their hands get cold they swing the arm around in circles up and down to get the blood to the fingers. They said 30 circles was the minimum required to be effective. When the toes are cold, swing the leg fore and aft while stubbing the toe on the ground.
I brought some hand warmer packets along and found that they were great in the boots or gloves. They also helped keep batteries warm in pockets.
I’d like to give a special note of thanks to the Sirius teams for their assistance, especially Team Four, Rasmus, Jesper and their sled-dogs. Thanks for looking after me and for putting up with me and my camera. And to the crew at Station Nord where the key to surviving the cold is a well stocked supply of hot licorice. Thank you Soren, Jesper, Michael, Ravn and especially snowmobile driver and expert welder, Troels. It’s pure aggravation driving a photographer chasing sled-dogs. Left a little, too much, right, right, right, too close, slow down, speed up, watch the bumps. Thank you guys! And the expert crew of Norlandair. A little crazy on the outside. Waiting out days of bad weather, Astvaldur, with his Homer Simpson t-shirt, punched the big screen while in a virtual boxing match with mechanic Jon. These guys are expert pilots. I don’t know how they found Nord flying VFR in white out conditions. Thank you all! I hope you like our story.