How to Protecting Your Camera Gear From the Elements

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.

Salt
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.

Sand
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.

Heat
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
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.