Let me first begin by saying that you should always consult your camera's manual and find out what the model's operating temperature range is. In general, most digital SLRs (and even many point and shoot cams) have operating temperatures listed between 0C (32F) and +40C (104F). Be warned that if your camera is still under warranty and damage is caused by taking it outside, the warranty may be voided.
What could go wrong?
Speaking of damage, what could happen? First of all, it's fairly common to hear about batteries loosing their power quite quickly, and having been in situations where I had my camera exposed to cool air for lengthy periods of time, they do die noticeably faster. Even if you keep a warm extras in your pocket, they're still going to be placed in a cold machine and the juice will run out sooner than in warm temperatures.
Now if all you use on your camera is the optical viewfinder, then this problem may not affect you much, but LCD screens tend to hate cold temperatures. If it's very cold outside, let's say -20C (-4F), then the LCD might not even function at all or will take a long time to display anything; even if it does manage to show an image, the colors on the screen will likely be off.
Most seriously though, the fine mechanical components of the camera could be impacted like the mechanism that flips the mirror up and the operates the shutter curtains. In very cold temperatures, these precision metal and plastic parts will contract ever so slightly, which could make them malfunction; in other words, they could jam. Although this type of damage might occur more rarely than the other forms mentioned above, I doubt most photographers want to see a broken or dislodged shutter curtain or experience unusual problems later on.
So far I've discussed what happens to a camera when it's in a cold environment, but the device can also be damaged by condensation, which occurs when the equipment is moved suddenly into a warm place. It goes without saying, but moisture and electronics are usually a bad combination and condensate can build up not only on the outside of the camera body and the exposed element of a lens, but also on the internal components and glass, respectively. To reduce the effects of condensation there are a few things that can be done and I'll sum them up briefly as the Buzzle article, listed in the Web Resources section, already does good work of explaining this in more detail.
- If you took a camera bag out with you, put the camera and lenses into it before entering the warm environment. Then leave your equipment in there until they warm up to whatever the inside temperature is. If you want to see your photos immediately after, then remove the memory card before entering the warm and happy place.
- If you didn't take a camera bag outside, then at the least ensure the lens cap is on the lens, or if you prefer removing the lens from the body, then replace all caps; that is the front and rear lens caps and the cap to seal up the hole in the camera body. This prevents the warmer air from blasting onto the cameras cold surfaces and suddenly forming condensate.
- If you plan to go into the cold again with your camera, wait until it warms up and dries completely before doing so, because if any moisture did end up forming on the equipment it could freeze and potentially wreak havoc with your precious camera.
And like I said, check out the Buzzle article as it has some other useful suggestions.
So no shooting in cold weather?
I would say no to this question and although I haven't shot in cold conditions that often (mainly because I don't like being in the cold that much), there are a few things I've done to help keep my camera in good working condition. And as I usually say, if you choose to shoot in such conditions, it's your choice and responsibility, so you're doing so at your own risk; you can choose to follow my ways or not.
To begin with, I usually wear a large coat which not only keeps me nice and protected from the elements, but allows me to stuff the camera inside of it; if a long lens is attached, I usually point it downward... and yes, it does look a little odd with the camera bulging the jacket out, but I've never cared about style that much. This keeps the entire device much warmer than if I let it hang off my neck outside the jacket. When placing the camera in my coat, I ensure to have the lens hood or lens cap on so the glass doesn't get scratched. If I come across something I want to shoot, I first examine the scene to determine what I want, then I quickly whip out the camera, take the shots, and then put it back in my coat. To help speed up this process further, I adjust the settings to what I feel works well for the conditions (i.e. camera mode, ISO, etc.) before venturing out, and I keep a jacket pocket open so I can dump and the retrieve the lens cap with ease. Without rushing, I would say it takes me about 20-30 seconds to do this, and speaking for myself, I have thankfully not encountered any issues with condensation or my camera's operation. Lastly, using this method I've also noticed that the batteries live about as long as in "normal" conditions.
Cold weather will likely never stop me from taking photos, as there are a lot of wonderful and amazing things to capture, and below I've included some shots I've taken in below freezing temperatures. So if you're out there in the cold snapping away, I wish you warm thoughts and great moments. L8r!
The image above is more impressive viewed at full size; click the pic to see it in Flickr.