What happens to a Canon C100 and Atomos recorder at -40C?

A while ago, I did a project testing automotive batteries that got myself, the crew and our equipment into some pretty icy conditions. The Automotive Centre of Excellence (ACE) is the first climatic testing and research centre of its kind in Canada, and in many respects the world, and the ‘Canadian Tire’ Corporation uses it to test their automotive batteries.

The team at ACE was pretty confident the batteries would pass their tests since they’ve done this in the past but they’ve never tested camera equipment in this extreme cold. So, the big elephant in the room was if the camera was going to operate at -40C? (Interestingly, -40C is -40F converted)

Unfortunately, we couldn’t test the equipment in the chamber prior to the shoot so all bets were off. Everyone was aligned with making the best educated guess and prepared for the worst; a cancelled shoot would no longer  surprise anyone. Managing expectations is key.

I was using the Canon C100 Mark 2 with Canon L series zooms. I kept the batteries warm and charged in the control room but I brought the lenses and camera into the cold chamber so they could gradually climatize with the dropping temperature. At around -20C the lenses seemed to be operating fine but the camera began showing the first signs of disruption. It was still passing a video signal to both the pull out LCD and viewfinder but the record button was the first thing to freeze up and stop working. We were only half way to our goal of -40C and the record button had packed it in.

Fortunately, I was recording simultaneously to an external Atomos Ninja Star recorder, and surprisingly it was still working and recording flawlessly to CFast cards. As the temperature continued to plummet to -30C (without windchill) it became brutally and noticeably colder for all of us. We could only last about 10 minutes before we had to return to the control room to warm up. At this point, the camera record button was completely inoperable and now the lenses were showing signs of freeze up too! The zoom and focus rings were stiffening enough to the point where I was struggling to rotate them. I should mention we made every effort to tape and elastic band chemical warming packs to the camera and lenses, but not surprising, the glue on the tape was freezing solid and the rubber bands just snapped from brittleness. Amazingly, the little Ninja Star was still recording sat -30C so we kept shooting. Perhaps the cold was counteracting the heat build up of this little unit?

When the temperature finally hit -40 C things got worse. The camera and lenses were frozen solid. The C100 was still passing a video signal through the HDMI port but the crazy cold kicked on some ‘warning’ fan that started to make a lot of loud noise, like a dying animal or something. It was not a good sound and I thought the camera was going to completely fail imminently. To focus, I had to physically move the camera to the distance set on the focus ring to get a sharp shot. I think we were stuck on 8′ at T4. The Ninja Star was STILL working, however we did experience a couple of drop outs on two of the files. We had surpassed the limit. We could only get about 5 minutes max before we as humans had to return to the control room to warm up.

At the end of the day, the Atomos Ninja Star was the real star of the show and pretty much rescued our shoot. It worked perfectly up to about -35C which is pretty good for an Aussie company that sees nothing but extreme heat.

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