As a photographer, it is vital that you take proper care of your camera kit. We explain how to avoid damage and maintain your equipment to keep it in tip-top condition.
Most modern cameras are very well made and durable enough to stand up to plenty of rigorous use. However, just because they are durable does not mean they are bulletproof. If you want faultless images and kit that holds its value, you need to maintain it well. As soon as factors such as dust, dirt, moisture and shock come into play, the camera is at risk of damage.
For film photography, having kit that is free of dirt and moisture is essential as any marks present on the lens during exposure will consequently appear on the film – and these are permanent. In digital photography these errors can be rectifi ed post-capture using software, but keeping things clean means less time chained to the computer.
Avoiding damage to kit not only ensures that it holds its value, but it also prolongs its life and reduces the risk of costly repair work. If your kit does get dirty, then the problem is more easily rectified if you see to it quickly. For example, moisture on a lens can develop into fungus, and although the first stages of infestation are simple to deal with, leave things too late and you’ll be making a visit to the repair shop.
Just as you would with your car, making regular checks is good practice. There may be nothing wrong, but then there may be an issue that is not immediately obvious without such checks.
In this article we will be looking at the best ways to avoid damage in the first instance, and then how to maintain the camera body and lens should they become dirty, marked or damaged.
Obviously, it is easier to avoid damage than it is to repair it. Unfortunately, some of the most spectacular places to photograph, such as beaches, rivers, streams and mountains, are areas where dust, dirt and water are most prominent. So if you are going to these ‘danger zones’, remember to protect your kit as you scramble over rocks or crouch down on the sand for that amazing photograph. Also, make sure you protect your gear when shooting in adverse weather conditions, such as in extreme cold or rain. Both the camera body and lens are equally important, so take care of each.
Protecting the camera
Dust and moisture get everywhere, so ensure these do not enter the camera by keeping any holes and joins closed. The rubber seals for ports should always be closed when not in use, and check for dust and dirt before connecting any cables. It seems obvious, but don’t force in a card that is resisting. This can damage the pins in the camera and fixing them can cost around £120. Look out for damage to the holes in a CompactFlash (CF) card, which can in turn damage the pins. Loosely carrying cards in a pocket is not a good idea; SD cards can split in half, while fluff can find its way into the holes of a CF card. Instead, store them in the supplied case or in a bag.
Now we come to that heartstopping moment – dropping the camera. This is likely to happen at some point if you are not careful, so keep the camera on a shoulder strap, hip holster or in a bag when not in use. Although it may not feel all that comfortable, reducing the length of the strap means the camera is less likely to swing away from your body and hit a fence you are climbing over, or worse, smack your subject on the head as you reach over to fix his or her hair. A holster is an even better option because the camera does not swing at all.
A few general practices may seem obvious, but are always good to remember. For instance, check periodically that the camera straps are secure, as the fastening can become loose over time. When using a tripod, always test that the tripod screw and plate are securely fixed, and that the lock on the head is tight before letting go of the camera. When putting camera kit away in a bag, always make sure the pockets are zipped up before lugging it onto your shoulders, otherwise you are likely to hear the thud of expensive kit hitting the ground.
Beating the weather
Waterproof covers (also known as camera sleeves) protect the camera and lens barrel from dust and water, so are ideal for rainy weather. Disposable versions are cheapest (from £7.95 for a pack of two), but more expensive and durable versions are available from £17.95. Of course, you can easily make your own using a carrier bag. Pierce a hole in the bottom of the bag through which you can place the front of the lens, and then fix it to the lens barrel using a rubber band. A clear plastic bag will ensure that the camera’s controls remain visible.
Scratches and dirt will affect the clarity and quality of an LCD screen. This is a problem when focusing and viewing exposures, especially in bright daylight. If your camera comes with a plastic LCD cover, make sure you use it. Alternatively, glass protectors are available from £12.50, and often include a viewfinder cover, while a cheaper option is a protective fi lm (£5.95 for two).
How to avoid dust on the sensor
When changing a lens, the inside of the camera – and the sensor in particular – can pick up dirt. The sensor in a compact system camera is particularly exposed. The best way to avoid trouble is to make this change as quickly as possible while protecting the camera from the elements. Face the body downwards when mounting the new optic so that dust does not settle in the cavity behind the lens. The charge in a camera creates static that attracts dust, so turn the camera off during a lens change.
Many interchangeable-lens cameras offer a sensor-cleaning function. This works by vibrating the sensor to dislodge any settled dust and dirt, and can be activated manually via the camera menu, or in some models on start-up and/or shut-down. Barry Edmonds of Fixation says that a dirty sensor is the most common reason for a camera to be taken to the repair shop. If you clean the sensor yourself, it is unwise to do so when out in the field, so do it before you embark on your photo shoot. First check for dust and dirt on the sensor – it will be most noticeable by photographing a solid background like a piece of white paper, or if you are out and about, the sky. Using a wider aperture will soften the edges of the dirt and make it less obvious. However, if you intend to shoot landscapes with a more narrow aperture of, say, f/11 or smaller, then it is doubly important to check the sensor prior to setting out.
Protecting the lens
Lenses are perhaps at their most vulnerable to damage when they are being taken off or mounted on a camera body. For instance, when swapping lenses, there is always the possibility that one could be dropped and broken. Dirt and dust ingress is also more likely, so to guard against this make sure the lens body cap and lens cap are close to hand so they can be fixed in place quickly.
Avoid touching the lens element directly as skin contact will leave oily fingermarks on the glass. Attaching the lens cap when the camera is not in use is obviously good practice, so be sure to keep it to hand. There are devices available that fix the cap to the lens itself (from £1.99), while some shoulder straps offer handy compartments in which to store one.
The front element
A lens hood will reduce the amount of dust and water landing on the front element, but only a protective fi lter will completely stop this from happening.
The lens quality should be matched by the quality of filter, so it is worth buying a premium filter if the lens is good. Alternatively, to ensure the best image quality, remove the filter when the camera is ready for an exposure and replace it again between shots. Most importantly, a filter will take the brunt of any impact should the camera be dropped, and it is much cheaper to replace than a lens. Another option is a rubber lens guard (from £21.95), which slots over the outside of the lens and absorbs the knocks.
Add plastic bags to your camera bag in case any kit needs storing away from the elements or to use as a makeshift rain sleeve.
Dust in lenses
If dust does get inside the lens, don’t be too concerned. Dust particles get everywhere and trombone or extending zoom lenses are particularly susceptible because they suck in air and dust during the zoom motion. The best way to check for dust is by removing the lens from the camera, opening the aperture and shining a torch up through the rear element. A large amount of dust can reduce image contrast and introduce flare. Extremely large bits that are millimetres in size, such as loose particles that have broken off due to an impact or from general wear and tear, will show up in an image. In this case, it is best to take the lens to a repair shop.
A key part of kit care is storing it correctly, but even when it is tucked safely away, camera equipment can be at risk from dust, dirt and moisture. Always use a good camera bag and lens pouches. Most have individual compartments to provide a snug fit and padding to prevent any damage from impact and knocks. However, over time the bag itself will pick up dirt, so periodically give it a good clean. First, remove the inserts and check the corners and crevices for any lost small accessories, then use a vacuum cleaner to remove dirt, followed by tape to pry away any stubborn bits of fl uff.
Virtually all bags come with at least one silica gel pack. These are designed to soak up any moisture and keep the inside dry. A silica gel pack can only absorb so much moisture, though, so look out for types that change colour to indicate whether they are wet or dry. Packs can easily be dried on a radiator.
The best way to stop moisture forming in the camera and lenses is to keep them at a constant temperature. Avoid sudden changes between hot and cold environments, and prolonged exposure to light or cold. When returning from a cold winter’s shoot, stagger the change of temperature. For instance, initially keep your camera in a colder room in the house before sitting by a cosy fire looking over the day’s images. When the camera is not in use, place it in a bag or container, but make sure your kit is dry before storing it away.
A common issue for film SLRs is that the foam in the joins and back door can deteriorate over time, leading to light spills. If it has been a while since the camera has been used, a visual inspection is sufficient to see if a replacement is needed.
Moisture and fungus
There are times when it is not possible to keep camera gear free of moisture, and certain types of damage can be dealt with yourself. In extreme cases, though, where the moisture has led to the growth of mould or fungus (or where obstructive particles are inside the lens), it may be necessary to take the camera apart to clean the affected area. However, this is a highly skilled job that most of us should leave to a professional – in unskilled hands it is more than likely that the lens will end up in a worse state than before. A basic lens service costs from £80, but can be considerably more depending on the damage, so think about whether the value of the lens makes a repair cost-effective.