Sunday, January 18, 2009

Red Bull Crashed Ice 2009 - Shooting in the cold

I started off planning to blog every event and photoshoot this year as they happened. It was pretty much a new years resolution for me, but I'm already struggling with it. Here goes for a post I started a couple of weeks ago.
Red Bull Crashed Ice is one of the craziest looking events I've ever shot. It's like a skier cross or boarder cross event, except it's on ice skates, on ice, downhill, with turns and jumps and all sorts of other fun stuff. It's the kind of event that Red Bull is famous for and I've shot the one in Quebec City for the past 4 years now. Aside from all the craziness of the event itself it's also a fairly difficult event to shoot. It takes place at night in Quebec City in the winter so right away you can correctly assume that it's dark and it's cold. Red Bull and Gestev (The company that produces the event) do a really good job of lighting the place up so it looks awesome on TV and in photos. But that light still falls way short of what you'd really want if you could choose. Here is a brief description of the Crashed Ice photography issues over the last couple of years.

The first year the track itself was fairly dark, hidden behind the crowds and the boards. I shot with a couple of Quantum Q flashes, placing them on tall light stands and trying to light up the crowd and the action, while still shooting at a high enough ISO to get the ambient lighting on the buildings etc. This worked to a point and I got some great shots, the biggest issues were the crowd (60,000 or so) and the cold. The crowd was a major factor as it was very difficult to move around and leaving a light stand in a location for a short period of time was almost impossible. Without even worrying about it being stolen or tipped over the biggest issue was probably trying to retrieve it whenever I wanted to change locations. Also the first year it was about -20 Celsius, which is cold, not extreme cold, but definitely cold enough to be an issue. I was mostly concerned about batteries but the biggest trouble came with the lcd screens. The Quantum flashes and the Pocket Wizard triggers both use lcd display screens to show you what's going on and after about 2 hours in the cold they started to go out. My flashes and Pocket Wizards still
worked but I had no idea of what the settings were because the displays were completely blank. Lesson number 1 for shooting in the cold, bring pocket warmers and tape for all your gear. Little point and shoot pouches work great for the pocket wizards, you can fit a hand warmer in there with them and they'll go all night with no problems. I didn't have pouches big enough for the Q Flashes so I just taped pocket warmers to them. Not as good a solution, but better than nothing at all. Here are a couple of shots from that year.

The last 3 years they put lights in the boards and increased the amount of light on the buildings so it's been a lot easier to shoot. And this year with the new cameras and the higher ISO's it should have been a really easy event to shoot. No flash, just put the ISO at 1600 or 3200 and shoot away. Last year I shot with a Nikon D2Xs and most of my shots were at ISO 640 or 800 around 1/250 f2.8. Not what you'd call ideal for action. This year I was shooting with a D700 and getting 1/800th at f.4 and 3200 ISO which was awesome, the only problem was the cold. At -37 Celsius Digital Cameras have some serious issues. I kept spare batteries in a pocket with handwarmers and swapped them out occasionally, so that wasn't as much a problem as it could have been, my friend Yorick went through 3 batteries in several hours. The biggest problems had to do with the lubricant in the lenses becoming quite stiff, and the lcd and indicator lights not working properly. The lens problem was mostly an issue with my 70-200 zoom, it was so stiff it felt like was going to tear the lens off the camera when I zoomed. Autofocus was also an issue, I could definitely notice the focusing speed slow right down as the lenses got cold, not good when you're trying to focus track. The LCD screen on the back of the camera started to flicker a lot, and the focus indicator light in the viewfinder quit working all together. This was really a problem in the end when I was trying to prefocus to avoid the really slow autofocus.

I did a fair bit of reading before and after the event and came up with a few recommendations for cold weather (below -20C) shooting.
1. Do not bring your camera or lenses inside if you can avoid it. Besides the usual problem with condensation on and in cold lenses and camera bodies when they're brought into a warm humid environment, lenses supposedly also work better when they're consistently cold. Aside from the lubricant issues, lenses suffer from the glass and metal parts expanding and contracting at different rates when they're brought in and out of the cold. So leaving them in the same temperature to 'acclimatize' before using them is supposedly a good idea.
2. Keep spare batteries in your pocket with handwarmers to keep them warm, then switch them often.
3. As a part of number 1 above, if you do need to bring your cameras inside, take the cards out in the cold and put your bodies and lenses in sealed ziplock bags inside your camera bag and don't open your bag for several hours. Don't open the zipock bags until the bodies and lenses are no longer cold to the touch. (At Crashed Ice this year we saw more than one photographer walk into the media room with a 300 2.8 over their shoulder or attached to a monopod. Once inside the lens would immediately be almost dripping wet, with condensation on both sides all the lens elements. A short time later the photographer would walk back outside into the freezing temps and all that moisture would freeze solid. Hard to shoot with a lens full of ice.)

A few photos from this years event...