After the Shoot 101

I was in the Galapagos Islands teaching a photo workshop when I started to write this, and a common question I get on those more exotic tours is “how do I keep my camera gear maintained?” We were just down in the sand shooting animals at ground level, so many of the students bodies and lenses (and mine, of course), now have some sand on them.

But it can be worse than that. Maybe a wave splashed sea spray on the front of your lens; maybe you had to set you camera down for a moment on the dirt or sand; perhaps there was a light rain that got the outer portions of the camera and lens wet; or maybe a bird pooped above you and your camera gear was the unfortunate target. The list of possible bad things that can happen goes on quite extensively with such trips. 

So what do you do the minute you see you have something on your gear that shouldn’t be there? And what do you do when you get back to the boat, tent, hotel, home, or wherever you’re headquartered that day?

First off, we have the old adage: don’t put a horse away wet. If your camera has things on it that shouldn’t be there, don’t pack it into your bag to deal with another day. The more you deal with problems like this when they occur, the more likely they won’t be a big deal. Moreover, you don't want to risk moving the problem to the bag, where it will eventually transfer to other gear.

Let’s look at the big four I often encounter:

  • Water
  • Sand
  • Mud
  • Sea or other Spray

Water is a disaster if you don’t immediately deal with it. Electronics corrode and become unreliable or even unusable when exposed to water. Many of the higher end cameras you probably own have a number of gaskets and other design features that attempt to keep casual wetness out. But that protection is not perfect. Unless you have something that has a real IP7 rating in regards to water ingress, you must assume that water will eventually work its way inside. Even with IP7 the camera/lens can’t be submerged more than 3 feet (1m).

Simple answer: use a waterproof cover for the camera, or bring a small absorbent towel with you (REI and other outdoor stores sell a range of small, light, packable towels that can sop up a lot of water). Keep water off, and get water off your gear as soon as is possible, simple as that.

You don't need a fancy, expensive water cover for your gear. You can improvise using a trash bag and some rubber bands, if necessary. This site's exclusive advertiser, B&H, sells rain covers for as little as US$3.50 each. [advertiser link]

I can personally recommend both the LensCoat and ThinkTank Photo rain covers, which are a bit more expensive. Every outdoor photographer should have a set of these (they come in multiple sizes) and carry them.

The camera and lens skins, such as the EasyCover skins, protect well against bumps and bruises, but I’ve found that they just become places for sand and mud to lodge (between the skin and the camera/lens body). So while you think you’re protecting your camera, you may be protecting the crud right up against the body.

Sometimes the worst happens. The formula for a camera—or any other electronics equipment—that is exposed to water, particularly immersion, is this:

  1. Remove all batteries immediately. Unfortunately, most Nikon bodies have an internal battery for the clock that is unremovable. Still, remove all power that you can as fast as you can, as powered circuits exposed to water will turn bad, bad, bad, and do so fast, fast, fast.
  2. Open all doors and make sure any accumulation of water that reveals is removed. Wipe down all surfaces you can (okay, not the mirror on a DSLR). On many cameras, the critical door is the card slot door, as the card slot mechanism is generally soldered to the main digital board (not usually true of the other connectors). That means that water at the slot can transfer right into the electronics if you're not careful.
  3. Put a desiccant into a zipper lock bag, put the water-exposed product into the bag, remove as much air as possible. Put the bag in a dry, warm place. Hope for the best. If you don't have a desiccant handy—you can buy reusable desiccant packs at places like B&H [advertiser link]—the next best thing is to fill the bag with rice, which will absorb moisture. 

I’ve seen other advice over the years, but the above seems to be the best practice. Depending upon how long your camera or lens was exposed, and how much water got into contact with electronics, you may or may not experience a good result from the above. 

Next, we have sand (and mud). Sand is a tricky little beast, as it’s like large dust, but it can scratch things. Mud can dry into a very fine dust. So unless your camera or lens has an IP6 rating for solids, you have to assume that sand or dried mud will work its way into the camera. So what are we going to do about that?

My teaching assistant Tony Medici and I both carry large, uncoated artist brushes with us when we travel. We use those brushes to get things like sand not only off the surface of the cameras and lenses, but also out of all the cracks and crevices of our gear. This works great for dry sand and dried mud (dirt). In general, you should always do this before changing lenses: brush away all surface dirt, dust, sand.

Wet sand may not be easily brushed off. For wet sand, mud, and anything else that’s stuck to the surface of the camera, you will probably need a microfiber cloth, and you may also need a mild surface cleaning solution. Don’t apply the cleaning solution to the surface of the lens or camera: apply it instead to the microfiber cloth. Rub gently, as you don’t want to grind anything abrasive into the surface of the camera or lens. Usually a slightly wet microfiber cloth will do the job, but sometimes you’ll need that cleaning solution. 

But remember, we don’t want moisture getting inside the camera. Thus, if you had to use a wet cleaning, sometimes you also put the camera/lens into an air-proof container with as much air removed as possible, and with desiccant. Moisture—even just high humidity—working its way inside the camera is just something we want to avoid.

Finally, we have sea spray. This almost assuredly requires a wet cleaning to remove. As with wet sand and mud, this usually means wetting a microfiber cloth and gently rubbing the offending spray off.

Two things I don’t clean in the field: the main mirror and the viewfinder eyepieces. Both scratch really easily, and the former may cost you big time if you goof it up. I’m also very careful with the Rear LCD, as well. Sometimes I won’t clean it until I’m home and have all my best tools available. You can protect that Rear LCD with a thin glass or plastic protector. If you use one of those protectors, use a damp microfiber cloth to clean it.

If any of the above frightens you, then you need to make sure that you get your gear to a pro as soon as possible after a trip.

Here’s what you should be carrying when you travel as a minimum cleaning kit:

  • Pack towel
  • Large microfiber cloth
  • Mild cleaning solution that won’t damage rubber, metals, plastics, or other substances used on the exterior of your camera
  • Large, uncoated artists’ brush
  • LensPen and/or lens cleaning solution and lens cleaning cloth
  • Sensor cleaning kit (see my current cleaning advice for sensors)
  • Large zipper-lock bags
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