I’m standing on a beach in Baja. A pair of dolphins is circling around a school of fish, about 20 yards off the beach. As the early morning sun glints off their dorsal fins, I raise my camera and try to zoom in close. The zoom makes a painful grinding sound. The shutter button is stuck because sand is encrusted into the housing. The dolphins circle once more and swim off and the shot vanishes with them. Welcome to cameras in the outdoors, where the elements are the enemy.
Salt, sand, water, humidity, and temperature are the banes of camera gear, from cells phones to the most expensive digital SLRs. Even supposedly rugged point and shoots have exposed parts that are vulnerable. You spent your hard-earned money on this gear so that you could shoot in the rugged outdoors, so exposure to the elements is part of the plan. Here’s how to keep your camera gear working even in the grittiest conditions.
Durability and Weather Sealing
Weather sealing matters. At the low end of any line of cameras, the camera bodies aren’t well-sealed and can’t handle much moisture. At the upper end, they can tolerate a drip here or a drizzle there. Many companies make waterproof point-and-shoot-cameras; these can endure a lot of water, but that doesn’t mean they’re impervious to things like sand and salt. Make sure that you are aware of where your camera falls in this range of durability.
Storage and Transport
When your camera is packed away, there is only one bombproof way to protect it: a hard case with an O‑ring. These rigid boxes can be hard to pack, but they’re really the only option if you’re looking to keep your camera gear working through water and the bumps that come from travel and airline baggage handling. As a far second, you can use a sealable dry bag. Most “waterproof” dry bags aren’t really waterproof: they are really splash-proof, not dunk-proof. Because they’re soft-sided, they don’t provide the same impact protection as a hard case. Even if you have a waterproof point and shoot, put it in something to protect the lens and knobs from scratches and dings. In a pinch, a fleece hat works well—and then you have an extra hat on hand!
Rain and water
It’s a no-brainer: water and electronics don’t mix well. The first rule of shooting in the rain is to keep non-waterproof cameras dry as much as you can. Obviously, that doesn’t help when you’re shooting, and you probably won’t have an assistant to hold an umbrella for you. A good camera kit should include absorbent pack towels in various sizes. Towels are more versatile and often cheaper than specialized rain shields. If you’re shooting in the rain, you can drape a larger towel over the top of the camera body and the lens. A smaller towel or two can go into your camera case to wipe any moisture off your hands and the camera as you put it away.
When serious splashing or dunking is probable, like in rafting, kayaking, splashing around in a pool with kids, you have a couple of options. If you expect lots of water and want nice photos, you can put your camera gear in a waterproof housing used by divers. This works great, but is bulky and expensive. If you expect lots of water and don’t need nice photos, a small waterproof camera that fits in your pocket is the best bet.
If you’re near the beach, salt from the air can get into your camera even if it doesn’t actually get wet. Why is salt problematic? Salt is hydrophilic, which means it draws water to it. If you leave salt on your camera when you pack it away at the beach, the camera will be collecting all the moisture in your bag while you drive home. Wipe salt off your camera with a small amount of fresh water on a cloth before you pack it away. If you’re on a long coastal trip, do this every day. And if you’re not going to use your camera for a while, limit the exposure by keeping it in its case.
Obviously, keep your gear out of the sand as much as possible. Even so, sooner or later, sand will get into everything. All you can do is delay it and minimize it. Put your dry box on a rock above the beach, in your tent, or in a nylon gear bag. Use a damp cloth to wipe sand off camera gear and O‑ring seals. Rinse tripod joints, filter threads on polarizers, and ball heads in fresh water as often as you can. Most importantly, use a blower brush to blow the sand off the lens before you clean it—that way you don’t rub the sand grains across the glass. You can’t win the war against sand, but you can win the battle.
As much as you can, keep cameras out of the sun. Over time, UV rays degrade the seals on cameras and dry boxes and weaken the fabric of dry bags.
Cold isn’t a problem for cameras unless it’s so cold that batteries don’t function. In super-cold environments, keep a spare battery warm in an inside pocket of your jacket. When you take your equipment from a warm place out into cold, make sure everything is dry. When you step out into the cold, moisture will freeze and expand. A bit of water on a tripod ball head will freeze, immobilizing the head and potentially messing with the mechanism. The same goes for water on the lens, and the only solution is to return inside so that the ice can melt.
Moving from cold to warm is tougher. Gear wants to fog up, and that moisture will find its way into small spaces. Before you go inside — whether into a heated cabin, a car, or a tent – put the lens cap on, and put your camera inside something small so that the amount of condensation is limited. You can wrap the camera in a towel and put it inside a dry bag or sealable plastic bag, sometimes with desiccant packs. If you don’t have the time or ability for that, it’s as simple as shoving your camera under your jacket and zipping it up before you step inside. The greater the temperature differential, the more condensation will develop, the more potential damage to your camera.
After Your Trip
Never just put your gear back in the closet. When you get home, open everything up and clean your gear thoroughly. Dump out sand and dirt that accumulated in the bottom of your dry box or case. Dry everything out, wipe it down, and make sure everything’s in working order for the next shoot.