Gear Guy

What camera will work best at high altitude?

I know you get lots of questions about the best outdoor cameras, but can you recommend a camera that operates well at high altitudes (above 20,000 feet) and in extremely cold weather (around minus 50). I have heard that autofocus doesn't work above a certain elevation. I'm looking for a compact or SLR that is lightweight, resilient, with easily accessible batteries (for efficiency when changing them in the cold), and which will capture the highest-quality images at the top of the outdoor world. Sarah East Lansing, Michigan

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I’m afraid there isn’t a camera that can do all the stuff you want. Cold is murder on cameras—it freezes lubricants in lenses and moving parts, it kills batteries (a particular problem today given the reliance on electronics), and dries air and leads to static that can damage film. But obviously, people get pictures from the top of Everest, Denali, and even the moon. How? Mainly, by doing all they can to keep the camera warm, and by adhering to a few basic rules.

Keeping the camera warmer than the outside temperature isn’t as hard as it sounds. When it’s very cold, it’s also often clear and sunny (night’s another story, of course). So keeping the unit in a camera case inside a backpack, which the sun will warm a little, can make a big difference. It’s also extremely helpful to zip the camera inside your Gore-Tex parka or down suit. Most lenses for 35mm SLR cameras have a manual override, so if for some reason the autofocus gets sticky, you can still focus the old-fashioned way.

Pay particular attention to the batteries; carry lots of them, and rotate them regularly, keeping the spares in a pocket. Batteries don’t die quicker in the cold, but if they do get cold, the electrons inside literally slow to the point where they can’t “escape” from the battery.

Generally, I think the better cold-weather cameras have fewer electronic parts. Cameras that are mostly manual, such as an older Canon F1 or Nikon F2, would work well, and can be “winterized” by a good photo technician (a process that involves removing some lubricants and swapping out others so they can’t freeze and gum things up). They also have the advantage of allowing manual rewind, useful because cold film can be extremely brittle and prone to static if rewound or advanced too quickly. Point-and-shoots, while compact, aren’t so good because most rely so heavily on automatic rewind and the like.

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