My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

I may be on to something!

Sorry if WordPress sent you an earlier Email notification of this post, I hit enter when I shouldn’t have.

Anyway, I have been engaged in the dangerous (for me) practice of thinking, specifically about why so many of my photos on my recent trip to Muskegon to attempt to photograph golden eagles turned out so badly. That led to the whiny post where I speculated about why that happened.

One day, I’ll get reasonably good photos, then the very next day, get photos that are worthless, and I have been trying to figure out why that is. I may be on to something, and it may be something rather simple that I completely overlooked.

It is winter here in West Michigan where I live, and it’s cold outside. I had dismissed the cold as being a factor, as I often get great photos in the winter. It isn’t the cold per se, it is the change in temperature that I am subjecting my camera and lens to that may be causing my problems. Why do I say that?

I was thinking back to my trip last year to photograph the snowy owl, a day when it was extremely cold and windy. Other than the snowy owl shots I got, and the eagle photo from the whiny post…

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagle in flight

…most of the photos I took that day came out poor as well. Thinking about that trip, it was when I learned about “drive by birding”, driving slowly until you spot a bird, and then photographing birds through the windows of your vehicle.

Of course I didn’t want to freeze to death while I was birding, so I had the heat on in my vehicle. I would stop, roll down the window I needed to take the photograph through, stick my camera out the window, into the cold, and snap a few photos, then, bring the camera back into the nice warm car.

The exceptions to that were when I shot the owl, and the eagle photo above.

The owl was perched out in the open, with a crowd of onlookers and photographers around it. I parked and joined the crowd, and spent 10 to 15 minutes talking with others in the crowd before I took my turn to step up and photograph the owl.

For the eagle photo, I spotted a large number of eagles and other birds in the area, many of them in flight, so I exited my vehicle in order to get some action shots. I was outside of my vehicle for some time before I shot the eagle photo. My earlier shots while I was there didn’t turn out nearly as well.

OK, so this last weekend I didn’t shoot through the windows of my vehicle as often, most of the time I got out of my car for the photos, but I was never outside for more than a few minutes for any of the photos.

For the snow buntings, I parked and started walking towards where I saw them, and I thought that I was really lucky in that one flock flew over to very near me, maybe it wasn’t so lucky after all. While it wasn’t as cold this year, I was still bringing my camera from the nice warm car out into the colder air outside.

It was much the same for the northern shoveler photos. I spotted them, parked, and snuck up on them on foot, but it was only 50 feet or less, and again, I was bringing my camera out of a warm car into the relative cold outside. And, neither time was I outside long enough for all the parts of my camera and lens to get to the outside air temperature.

But, I have the same problem of inconsistent photo quality while I do my daily walk, I’m not getting in and out of a warm vehicle. Well, it’s winter here, and on most days there has been either snow, rain, or drizzle falling, so I keep my camera tucked inside my parka as I walk. I spot something to photograph, pull the camera out of the snug warm comfort inside my parka, shoot the photos, then return the camera to the warmth inside of the parka again.

If it is sunny outside, a very rare thing, I don’t worry about the camera getting cold, so I carry it outside of my parka.

That brings me to today. It was sunny but cold outside as I set off for my walk. I considered tucking the camera in my parka, but it decided against it. As I walked along, I was running down a checklist of sorts of all the things that could be causing my problem of inconsistent photo quality.

Sunshine? No, I do get most of my best shots on sunny days, but it was sunny last year for the snowy owl trip, and this year for the golden eagle trip, so sunshine can’t be the answer.


Cold? I don’t think so, I get many great photos in cold weather.


But wait, those great photos come when I’ve been outside for a while, long enough for my camera to have gotten to the same temperature as the air is.


Maybe it is condensation on the lens from the change in temperature, possibility here.

Then, I remembered this photo I took a few days ago.



That was a slug of ice that was pushed up out of an open metal fencepost as water trapped in the fencepost froze.


Maybe the change in temperature that I am subjecting my camera to as it goes from warm to cold and back again is causing different parts of the camera and lens to expand and contract a different rates with the temperature change, causing distortion?


Wouldn’t I see that in the viewfinder as I was composing the shots, or if the problem was condensation on the lens, wouldn’t I see that?


A couple of weeks ago, I stopped off at the local camera store that I shop at to look over some of the options as far as updating my equipment. The salesman got out a Canon 60D and got it ready for me to play with. As soon as I brought it up to my eye and looked through the viewfinder, I said “Wow, I can see! This is huge compared to my camera”

The salesman replied, “Yeah, if I remember correctly, looking through the viewfinder of your D50 is like looking through a tunnel”.

“It sure is compared to this!”


I think I’m getting somewhere, I’d better shoot a couple of shots today as a test of sorts.

Red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker in flight

Red-bellied woodpecker in flight

Not bad, not too shabby at all! They may not be sharp as a tack, but they’ve been cropped considerably, and none of the photos I took on Saturday were of a good enough quality to crop at all.

OK, it’s cold, check. It’s sunny, check. The camera has been exposed to the cold long enough so that it is the same temperature as the air, check. I get good photos, check, and possible checkmate!

So, this is what I think has been happening.

Everything expands with warmth, and contracts with cold, except for water. That’s where the photo of the slug of ice comes into play, it reminded me how much different materials expand and contract when temperatures change. (Water is the only substance known to man that expands as it goes from the liquid to solid state.) But the principle is the same in other materials, when you change the temperature of any material, it expands or contracts depending on if the temperature is going up or down. That includes the glass, plastic, and metal that a camera and lens are made of, especially the lens.

Lenses are built to extremely precise measurements, and it doesn’t take very much to throw a lens out of “whack”.

When I stick my warm camera out of my car window, or pull it out of my parka, the most exposed parts of the camera and lens immediately begin to contract as they meet the cold air, while the innermost workings are still warm, and haven’t begun to contract yet. I’m almost positive that is causing some distortion, especially in the lens.

Add a little possible condensation on the front of the lens, and I get a bad photo.

I don’t see the distortion or condensation when looking through the viewfinder, because the image I see through it is so tiny that neither the distortion or any condensation are bad enough to show up in that small of an image, but when the photo is blown up on the computer screen, it’s readily apparent.

I had another somewhat related thought as well. When I roll down the window of my car, there’s warm air from inside meeting the cold air outside, and that creates an atmospheric disturbance, much like the heat waves you can see during the summer. That’s not good when you’re shooting photographs, but I don’t think that’s the only problem, just a small part of the problem. I think the major problem is the distortion caused by the rapid cooling, and contracting, of the outermost parts of my lens as it hits cold air.

I’ll have to play around some more to be sure if I have found the answer, but I think that I’m on the right track to solving the problem.

I couldn’t find any other birds willing to pose for test shots today, so here’s a couple of ice photos.







Those don’t look that impressive at the size they are in this post, they look better if you click them for a larger view. But even if you don’t, trust me, they are far better than any of the photos I took on the eagle trip!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


10 responses

  1. When I got my new camera I was wondering if the cold would affect it so I read several articles about that. I remember reading that keeping your camera inside your coat was one of the worst things you could do, but I can’t remember why. Apparently condensation is a real problem so a lot of people put their camera in a zip loc bag with one of those packets that remove moisture from the air. When I come inside on a real cold day I immediately put my camera in an insulated lunch cooler so it will warm up gradually and I haven’t had any problems with condensation or anything else. What I get occasionally is a kind of dark ring around the outside of the photo after it’s been taken and I’m still trying to figure that one out because it happens in any temperature.

    January 16, 2013 at 6:29 am

    • Thanks Allen. I can’t help you with the dark ring, sorry. I really like the insulated cooler idea for letting the camera warm up slowly!

      I had given how I carry my camera some thought before, but I can see how inside my coat would be the worst place for it. I had heard of using a zip loc bag and desiccant, but wasn’t keen on that idea. It seems to me that keeping a camera in an artificially dry climate would make it more prone to condensation when you do expose it to the outside air when taking photos.

      One thing that people overlook, those little bags of desiccant are soon saturated with moisture and have to be dried back out by heating to around 250 degrees F for several hours, or they are completely worthless. I used to work with the stuff, drying plastics for injection molding. It really isn’t very healthy for people to come in contact with, especially the dust, which you can’t see.

      I’m not sure what the answer is yet, I want to protect the camera from moisture falling from the sky, but I would like the camera to acclimate to the ambient temperature and humidity that I am going to encounter when using it. It is the change in ambient conditions that is the problem, which is why keeping it in my coat is so bad.

      January 16, 2013 at 10:32 am

  2. Northern Narratives

    I think you are defintely on to something here.

    January 16, 2013 at 10:33 am

    • Thank you, now if I can only come up with some answers on how to carry my camera so that it doesn’t happen, yet the camera is protected from the precipitation.

      January 16, 2013 at 10:46 am

  3. Ah ha, so it was the weather! lol But you do bring up a lot of interesting points Jerry.

    January 16, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    • Thanks! I took some more test shots today, and I am more firmly convinced that it is the changes in temperature that has been the major problem.

      January 17, 2013 at 2:11 am

  4. Very interesting. As someone who walks in the cold and snow to take photos, I will keep everything in mind! Thanks for the insight!

    January 16, 2013 at 10:49 pm

    • Thanks Sheila! After sore test shots today, I think that it is the temperature change causing my problems. Once the camera is cold, it works fine. Now I have to figure out a way to keep it out of the snow and rain.

      January 17, 2013 at 2:14 am

  5. That definitely could be part of it – On outings on cold days I put my camera in the car the night before so long as it doesn’t drop to freezing. Otherwise, try having your car a little cooler so the camera can acclimate. I’ve also learned, the further the bird is, the more post processing crop is needed = seriously degraded image. Closer gets better shots. Bet you can’t wait to get your hands on a new camera!

    January 18, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    • Thanks! I’m not sure that I would want to leave my camera in my car in my neighborhood that I live in. I don’t even like leaving my car outside in this neighborhood! I do try to get as close to birds as I can, but, many species aren’t like the chickadees that will land on my lens hood if I let them.

      January 19, 2013 at 1:35 am