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Final Cut: Freeze Frames

Preparing to shoot your best video in cold water
By Jill Heinerth

Photo: © SednaEpic.com - Jill Heinerth

Photo: © SednaEpic.com – Jill Heinerth

You’ve dedicated years of training and invested plenty of money on equipment to be ready to visit the wreck of the Forest City in Tobermory or the Rosecastle at Bell Island, Newfoundland. You are sweating profusely on the dock as you ease into your heavy drysuit and thick undergarments, preparing to jump into the Zodiac for a very special dive. It might be creeping over 30°C topside, but you know you have to be prepared for the chilling plunge to 4°C on the bottom. It’s worth it. Now is the moment you can shoot a video to bring home to your friends and family. But, as important as it is to be personally prepared for the cold, you also need to take special precautions for your camera.

Taking a warm camera into freezing waters can result in some unpleasant surprises. Whether you are shooting a GoPro or a professional video camera in a specialized underwater housing, you may experience the much dreaded lens fog. You excitedly compose your subject through the viewfinder, and it starts to glaze over with a white film of moisture. You clear your mask, rub down the viewfinder and finally rotate the dome around so you can peer into the lens. Fog! Again! Plunging deeper through the thermocline the fog gradually takes over the housing, ruining any attempts at getting a clear shot. You might as well look around and enjoy the scenery instead of shooting.

There are a few simple tips that can help prevent fog from forming inside your housing:

Prepare and load your camera in dry and stable atmospheric and temperature conditions, similar to that of your dive if possible. Don’t take a camera from air conditioning to the outside and load it into a housing on a hot day. It will fog the lens and viewfinder. On a recent trip to the Arctic, I loaded and unloaded my camera on deck in the shade. The camera and housing stayed cool and protected inside a Nanuk case while underway.

Try using desiccant inside the housing to absorb moisture. The desiccant can take the form of small paper strips that are pressed into the corners of GoPro housings, or it may be the familiar pouches filled with silica beads. The pouches can be carefully attached with velcro or gaffer tape inside larger housings.

Be prepared to take care of your camera in between dives. It needs to stay out of the direct sun where it can get overheated, ruining your second dive. Travel with a collapsible cooler that can be filled with water or ice or use your Nanuk or Pelican case as protection for the housing. Rinse tanks can be a safe refuge as long as your housing is not banging around with other cameras in a way that could damage the dome port.

In the event that there is no way to dunk your camera in a cooler or tank, then at least wrap it in a wet towel and douse it with cold water once in a while. Keep it out of the sun and try to keep the temperature as cool as possible.

If a boat is stationary, then carefully hang your camera into the water on a gear line off the back of the boat.

Use a vacuum pump to seal your housing. It not only checks the security of your seal but also tends to reduce fogging issues.

If you have a real budget to take care of your housing, you can use nitrogen to fill the housing with really dry gas.

Beyond your camera, you may need to think about preparation for yourself in cold temperatures.  Camera operators are usually the first off the boat and the last to finish a dive. You need to stay warm and be able to operate your controls in heavy gloves and cold temperatures. For many years I used three-finger wet neoprene lobster gloves, but they are sometimes too thick to effectively operate all the controls on my cameras today. Now I use dry gloves mounted on rings on my dry suit. If I know I will be subjected to long, cold submersions, I utilize my Santi heated gloves with a heated vest or full heated suit. With a hip mounted battery pack, I can run a heated undergarment and gloves for two hours. If I use the heater judiciously it lasts even longer. I’ve managed up to five hours in near freezing water and remained relatively comfortable. For me, the kicker is always my hands. They are tightly gripping the housing handles and operating controls. They get really cold without the additional heat.

If you are considering going the cheap route and using disposable chemical heat packs, think again. They may be okay in shallow water, but as the depth increases, so will the partial pressure of oxygen. By the time you reach 130 feet deep, they will burning fast and hot as if they were placed in an equivalent 100% oxygen environment. My colleague once taped these packs to his toes to ward off the cold. The three-hour dive resulted in serious second degree burns and significant blistering, although he did say that it felt good at the time!

Chemical heat packs have one good use though. They can help keep hands and batteries warm in extreme topside conditions. If you choose the rechargeable type of packs made of gel that activates with a small metal disk, then they can be placed in a cooler to keep the camera from freezing hard in really rough conditions on top of the ice. Submerging your camera in a large bucket of water will generally keep it ice free between dives in all but the most extreme conditions.

Cold water diving is extremely rewarding. You’ll likely get to see things underwater that few people have witnessed. You’ll return home with breathtaking images, enthralling your audience with unique and extremely tough to acquire video footage.

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