How To Keep Your Flash Warm

The old saying  “Be careful of what you wish for, it might come true” has become the reality of my life this month.

I’ve been moaning and groaning to anyone who would listen about how the mild weather in Eastern Ontario was delaying the start of my latest project The Outdoor Rink. I’ve gone to shoot photos of people shovelling rinks only to find them draining water off the ice. Or I found the rinks closed entirely. The opening of the local community rinks in Ottawa, that usually happens in late December, was delayed by several weeks into January. Volunteers, who spend their winters cleaning and flooding rinks across the city, grappled with the unpredictable temperatures and watched the weather forecasts anxiously.

Finally, in true Canadian fashion, the cold weather hit with a vengeance. We now have bitterly cold days, sun glinting off the ice, wind chills in the double digits – perfect skating weather. I got what I wished for!  But my camera equipment is not so happy.

One night with the temperature hovering around -21 C I went out to shoot some photos at a nearby skating oval to capture images of local speed skater Brielle Durham as she whizzed past me. The weak rink lighting wasn’t helping. So I was using my new flash a Godox TT350. But I found out that the flash doesn’t like the cold. It works but takes several minutes to recharge for the next shot. Brielle had skated by twice before I could use it again and then while I waited for her to skate past a third time the flash unit turned off completely. I changed the batteries ( duh!) but it didn’t make much difference at that temperature. I left after an hour with frostbitten fingers and one blurry shot.

Very discouraging. I thought about just putting the speed skating idea aside and moving on. But then I remembered a camera man I worked with in Alberta when I was a CBC TV reporter in Western Canada in the late 1990’s. He did a lot of live sports photography and like many camera people had to improvise to solve problems in the field.  At one point he used chewing gum to fix a broken microphone cable and save a crucial interview when no other solution would work in a remote, cold location. 

So I came up with an idea to keep the flash unit warm – try the hand warmers that skiers and skaters use to keep their hands and feet from freezing. They are small rectangular envelopes with a chemical that gets hot when you unwrap them and expose them to the air. 

So I headed to the rink supplied with a bag of hand warmers and a roll of Gaffer tape. I opened them up and taped them along the sides of the flash where the battery contacts are located, carefully avoiding the screen and other working parts of the flash.

The warm and happy flash on my camera.

Magic! It works really well. The flash is warm and happy, recharges in seconds and stays on even in -20. The warmth lasts for about 30 minutes. I now have photos I can use. I’ve included some photos of my solution and the photographic results below. Thanks to speed skater Brielle Durham from Orleans for her patience with my many photos!

So now, feeling pretty happy with myself, I am making another wish.

That deep, cold winter will last and Ottawa’s skating rinks will stay open until the beginning of March…

Getting to Base Ice

Al Arsenault shovelling show at Centrepointe Park rink.

I’ve discovered that looking after outdoor skating rinks is not just a pastime – it’s an art form. And I’ve just met a master. 

Al Arsenault has been flooding and looking after his neighbourhood outdoor rink at Lakeview Park in Ottawa’s west end for 31 years. But we first meet at the nearby Centrepoint Park where he’s been called in to try to tackle some problems brought on by unseasonably mild weather this winter. Today his  experience and skill are needed to fix a rink volunteer’s worst nightmare. It’s so mild that all the water that was supposed to flood and freeze inside the rink has run off under the boards into a nearby parking lot. Grass pokes up through holes in the ice.

“This weather is terrible,” says Al as he shovels snow. “Usually we get the rinks up and running between Christmas and New Year.” But it’s the first week of January and many of the city’s 270 outdoor rinks are still closed. “This year is very unusual. You need cold and snow, but if I had a choice, I’d pick the cold.” 

So Al and other volunteers are deep into rink triage. They are hauling snow on sleds from the nearby park and shovelling it into the troublesome corners of the rink. Then they carefully wet the snow to create an ice barrier to stop leaking. It’s my first lesson in the art of the outdoor rink – a fine balance of cold and snow. 

Just to get started you need 10 centimetres of snow and three days and nights of clear cold of anywhere from -10 to -20 Celsius. Then the hard work starts. That snow has to be packed and then carefully saturated with water and allowed to freeze at least 8 to 10 times to create a solid foundation. The Base Ice is crucial for all outdoor rinks. It can take up 70 hours of work before the first skater glides onto the ice. All across the city rink volunteers are out almost every night to protect the ice and all that hard work.

Later that week I head to Al’s neighbourhood rink at Lakeview Park to take photos for my project The Outdoor Rink. It seems he was destined to take care of this rink tucked away among the trees when he bought his house in 1989. 

“The house we bought backed onto Lakeview Park and it turns out the operator for that particular rink…was the owner of the house I bought. So not only did I buy his house I inherited his rink.”

That inheritance has been well cared for. The ice is like porcelain. Hard and smooth and translucent. It’s the Sistine Chapel of rinks – and I’m only half kidding. Al and a student volunteer start their routine. Scraping the ice, sweeping and shovelling the snow off the edges and spraying a fine layer of water. Again it’s a fine art. Too much water creates weak ice, oddly enough. A fine water layer creates the strongest ice, says Al, who believes the attention to detail is crucial when cleaning and flooding make it smoother and safer for hockey players and skaters.

“It’s the difference between nice ice and excellent ice.” Now, all we need is more snow and some serious winter cold.

  • A man in a yellow coat sprays water in the corner of a rink.
  • A man with a bright orange hat drags a sled of of snow across a skating rink.

One bite at a time

Windsor Park Rink with and without snow.

My family often repeats this joke:

Question: “ How do you eat an elephant?” 

Answer: “One bite at a time.”

It always gets a collective groan but we use it to encourage the family member who is facing a big job – and is worried about it.

Right now I’m thinking about it as I start work on my new project The Outdoor Rink. I am photographing some of the 270 outdoor community rinks in Ottawa this winter. Of course I can’t possibly get to all of them in one winter. So instead, I’ve decided to take the eating-an-elephant-approach. 

I am helped by a handy list of rinks supplied by Paul Dupuis, the helpful Recreation Supervisor at the City of Ottawa. It’s a useful guide to a cross section of volunteer rinks in various neighbourhood parks – from Stittsville in Ottawa’s far west to Orleans in the east with many in between. In total I will be visiting, and trying to capture the essence of, about 30 rinks this winter. That’s still a big bite especially in a winter that so far hasn’t really shown up.

So, because I always like to over prepare, I spent the month of October and half of November scoping out my winter challenge. I visited all the parks to take photos of each location where the rinks will be set up. It’s a way to get a sense of the logistics that I will be dealing with like: how far is the walk to the park from the road? Are there trees or houses in the way of a good shot and are there hills around? Hills give you a natural vantage point. Setting up ladders in the winter is not fun so I’m a big fan of hills. 

At the end of it I realized that preparation only goes so far. Look at the two photos below of the Windsor Park Rink with and without snow.

Same place – very different vibe! Snow at night not only adds an additional challenge, but a different visual language. It creates a new place.

So while I have an idea of the location, I have no idea of what the rinks will be like in winter and what I’m facing until I get there. Please pass the elephant. 

The Outdoor Rink Project

Toronto hockey players, 2019 by Margo McDiarmid

December 2020

One of my favourite places in the winter is our local community ice rink late at night. 

I walk by the Windsor Park Rink in Ottawa every night in the winter with my dog and have always been struck by the warm halo of light filled with hockey players or families surrounded by the cold darkness lurking just outside the rink walls. It’s a scene that plays out across the country in the winter.

It inspired me to document community rinks in Ottawa. This project will capture why each rink is unique and why the volunteers work late into the night to maintain them, many of whom have donated their energy and time for decades. I also hope to take photos of people of all ages using the rinks this winter.

Ottawa has nearly 270 outdoor rinks – the most in the country. They are an invaluable part of winter activities, offering a safe community space for residents to cope with the cold and dark. They are also a collaborative effort between volunteers and the city. 

I will be visiting a sample of those neighbourhood rinks in the Ottawa area. I have already scouted out about 30, using a handy list helpfully supplied by Paul Dupuis, who is the guy in charge of rinks as part of his job as the Recreation Supervisor at the City of Ottawa. I want to include rinks that have a combination of beautiful or unique location and a sense of neighbourhood.

I think rinks will also play a crucial role in how people how people are coping with the pandemic this winter. I expect that just like parks, the neighbourhood rink will be the place where people have a chance to safely get outside and be together have some fun in this winter of continuing restrictions and COVID-19 warnings.