12 Pointers That Will Help Your DSLR Live Longer

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It’s that time of year again. Can you feel it? Camera companies have launched shiny new, “must-have” trinkets. Your GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is raging like an inferno at an all-time high. And– of course– nothing celebrates the birth of a savior or the rededication of a holy temple quite like upgrading your camera. It’s a simple, unavoidable fact-of-photography-life. It’s the holiday season and you want a new camera. So do I. It doesn’t matter how pristine or properly functioning my cameras are at the end of the year. Without fail, I always want a new one. Every year. And this is why I’m engaged in my annual Battle of the Voices. I’ve got the devil from one shoulder talking about new cameras in my ear, while the angel from the other shoulder is trying to give him a serious beat-down.

I’m also one of those people who takes really good care of my gear. So, as much as it pains me to admit, unless there is some revolutionary new feature that is going to truly elevate my photography or my business, reason and responsibility will have to win out for yet another year. It’s times like these when I almost regret taking a few simple steps to make the lives of my DSLRs last longer.

Film Cameras Were Workhorses

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This is a Kodak Retina. My grandparents bought it for my father in 1963 when he graduated from dental school. This is the camera he used to teach me about photography when I was a kid in the early ’70s, and I still use it regularly today. This was certainly not the best camera of its day, yet this awesome, 50-year-old camera still works as well as it did the day it came out of the box. It’s tough for any well-used digital camera to make that claim after even five years. So, what can you do to prolong the life of your investment?

Okay…I hear some of you grumbling. I grant you that it may not be a fair comparison. Today’s cameras are basically computers attached to a window on the world, while yesteryear’s film cameras were strictly mechanical, and therefore easier to maintain. Both cameras, however, do fall victim to some of the same problems. Dust, for instance, is a universal issue. The act of advancing film, however, takes any dust on that frame of film with it. In digital cameras, the dust is going to sit there until you do something about it.

Clean Your Lenses

I know– I said this was about taking care of your camera, but we’re going to extend it to things that attach to your camera, which means starting with your lenses. If you don’t properly eliminate the dust and dirt on your glass, you run a pretty high risk of it eventually ending up inside your camera. The fact is that our cameras spend a great deal of time in dusty environments. Regardless of how clean your studio is or how lint-free your camera bags are, those microscopic makers of mayhem are going to settle on your lenses at some point. When using lower-end or budget zoom lenses, the simple act of repeatedly zooming the lens in and out can “inhale” dust particles into the lens, which can then slowly work their way into your camera. While making sure that your actual lens surface is clear of dust helps maintain the quality of your photos, taking a lint-free cloth to the lens barrel once in a while is also a good idea.

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As far as cleaning your glass goes, you have several options. While I occasionally use wet solutions, I try to save them for a last resort, since overuse can damage the protective coating on the glass. The Giottos Rocket Blower is one of the best options available for simply removing minor dust particles, as is the LensPen, or even a microfiber lens cloth like the Spudz from Alpine Innovations. If I do have to resort to wet solutions or wipes for more stubborn problems, LensCleanse from Hoodman USA is a safe, effective, and convenient option.

When using anything that comes in direct contact with the lens, remember to use a small, circular motion, starting in the center of the lens and working your way out to the edge. Apply the least amount of pressure necessary.

Change Your Lenses Properly

There is no sure-fire way to prevent dust from getting inside your camera. The best you can hope for is to minimize it. One of the steps you can take in that direction is to keep your camera pointing downward while you change lenses. While it’s true that dust has a mind of its own, learning to change lenses with the camera opening pointing down at least keeps gravity on your team. Changing lenses like this without really seeing what you’re doing takes practice, but it’s well worth it.

Also keep in mind that the first step whenever you are changing lenses should be turning the camera off. By leaving the camera switched on, you run the very real risk of creating a static charge that actually attracts and pulls dust into your camera. Whatever you do, dust is going to find you. Don’t make it easier. Always turn it off before you take it off.

While we’re on the topic of turning off your camera, this should be the first step whenever you are doing anything involving the camera’s electrical connections. This includes changing batteries, attaching or removing speedlights and radio slaves, or plugging in sync cords.

Have Your Sensor Cleaned Once in a While

Ideally, this heading should have read, “Learn How to Clean Your Sensor.” I confess. I’m still one of those people who’s afraid of cleaning their own sensor. I’m weak– I admit it. I’ve learned several tricks for figuring out if it needs cleaning, which I suppose is a good start, but I just can’t bring myself to stick anything in there that could potentially damage my camera. If someone’s going to mess it up, I’d rather it be someone who can afford to replace it if something goes wrong. I find that a rocket blower usually does a good job for simple, day-to-day stuff, but under no circumstances whatsoever should you EVER even think of using canned air. Both the propellant, and the velocity of the air, can do some pretty serious damage. There are some excellent sensor cleaning kits out there, but if you aren’t comfortable with it, find someone who is.

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If you are going to try this yourself, let me make a few suggestions. The first is that you invest in a good kit, like the SensorKlear Loupe Kit from LensPen. It includes a light-up magnifier for identifying the problem, and everything else you need to correct it. Once you have your kit, though, make sure to read this excellent post on Digital Photography School for a step-by-step walk-through on the ins and outs of cleaning your own sensor.

Onto Every Camera Some Rain May Fall

And it’s really not that big a deal. Some of the best photos you are ever going to take will happen under less-than-clear skies. I’m not saying you take your camera out in a raging thunderstorm unprotected, but don’t be afraid to take your camera out in a light rain. The weather sealing on today’s higher end cameras (actually, just about anything above a consumer model) is going to protect you. Just make sure to avoid prolonged exposure, and thoroughly dry your camera with a soft towel or cloth immediately upon getting your camera out of the rain. If you’ve been shooting at the beach, be sure to wipe the camera and lens barrel down with a damp cloth before drying it in order to block any sort of salty residue.

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This football action photo was taken during a freak storm that took everyone by surprise. I had no protection for my camera with me, but I knew I couldn’t pass up getting these images. I repeatedly alternated five minutes in the rain, followed by five minutes under the bleachers– five minutes in, five minutes out– for the duration of the storm. Both lens and body still function perfectly.

Avoid Extreme Temperature Fluctuations

Leaving your camera in a hot car in the middle of the summer is never a good idea. Besides the obvious risk of theft, when you think of the health dangers posed to people by prolonged heat exposure in confined spaces, it’s not a far stretch to imagine what all that heat and humidity is doing to the delicate electronic components inside your camera.

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The bigger concern, however, comes with cameras going back and forth between warm and cold environments. Taking a camera from a warm house out for a hike in the snow isn’t much of an issue. The big concern, actually, is when you get back home and bring your cold hunk of metal into your toasty warm house. If you aren’t careful, condensation will begin forming almost immediately, both on the inside and outside of your camera. You don’t need me to tell you that water inside your camera can damage electrical components, but I will anyway– Water inside your camera can damage electrical components. Save yourself this expensive headache by leaving your camera in the bag when you get back inside. By leaving the camera inside your bag for about thirty minutes to acclimate to the indoor temperature, you can avoid the condensation issue completely.

Be Good to Your Batteries

Battery memory used to be a much bigger concern than it is today, but it’s still worth keeping in mind. By never letting your batteries completely run down, it is possible to “trick” them into discharging faster than they should. This can be difficult, particularly for event photographers, who want to make sure they are walking into every job with fully-charged batteries, but letting your batteries completely run down every once in a while is actually a good thing.

Get a Check-Up Every Few Years

Even if everything seems to be working well, it’s a good idea to take your camera in every couple of years for a check-up. Local camera shops either do this on-site or know where to send you for quality work. If not, there’s always the manufacturer– especially for those professional photographers who are members of Nikon or Canon’s professional services programs. Among the items checked are the camera’s auto-focus, as well as meter calibration. Prices on this vary, but it’s money well-spent for the peace of mind that everything is still working as it should be.

A Few Odds and Ends

If you live or work in a particularly humid climate, an added layer of protection is using silica gel packets in your camera bag and where you store the camera to prevent fungus from growing inside your lenses.

The question of whether to use a clear UV filter to protect the front element of your lenses is a hotly debated topic. Some photographers swear by them and others swear AT them. Some avoid the issue by always using a lens hood.  Decide for yourself, but consider which you would prefer to replace if necessary– a $20 filter, or a $1,500 lens.

I know photographers who take out all their gear and give it a good cleaning before going out on a shoot. Personally, I think it makes more sense to clean it after the shoot, making sure no dirt lingers where it shouldn’t while you’re waiting to use your camera again.

Use a card reader to transferring images from your camera to your computer. Besides gaining faster file transfer speeds, you avoid the risk of the USB socket discharging while the camera is connected. You really shouldn’t connect your camera directly to an electrical source unless it is absolutely necessary.

Conclusion

Our cameras play such an important role in both our personal and professional lives. They were made to be used and enjoyed– not kept in a sterile, hepa-filtered environment and handled only with kid gloves. Get it out there. Get it a little wet. Get it a little dirty. Chase the shot that’s been living inside your head and find a way to get it inside your camera. It was built to last, and it will, as long as you take a few simple steps to protect it…and what you attach to it.

Photos by Orin Zebest, Eric Schmuttenmaer.

  • Lee

    One of the latest and exciting shooting techniques is time lapse photography. Some techniques require just a few images (shutter actuations) others hundreds or thousands. My own opinion would be to avoid the longest time lapse processing and save the many shutter actuations required to do so. Most dslr manufactures claim a shutter life of 100,000 to 200,000 on the high end dslr’s. I’ve seen articles requiring 1000 or more shots to be processed into a video format that can run for several minutes. My question is why do this when there are inexpensive video cameras available to do this costing much less than any dslr. So calculate how many shutter actuations you’re requiring and look at the percentage of shutter life and see if it’s really worth it to make a few time lapse videos. One analogy I like is to compare dslr time lapse photography to is delivering pizza with a Rolls Royce and why would anyone do that.

    • Mattfrench

      Your comment really makes sense !!!

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      That’s a great tip, Lee. Thanks for contributing.

    • AK707

      Having shot a timelapse, it is a matter of shooting what you are comfortable with and quality. The reason time-lapses look so good (well, for people that actually shoot good ones) is because you are shooting each frame much greater than a standard 1920×1080 video frame (which means you can also edit in pans). A video camera is not really optimized for stills (less functionality, less dynamic range, less quality, less megapixels), and they don’t always have the same functionality as a dslr for timelapse (Nikon has built in intervelometer for example). In order to shoot the absolute best timelapse, a DSLR is really the only way to go. But yes, you must consider how many shots you are shooting as it is VERY easy to go overboard, but there really isn’t a solution to this. The quality of the video shot in a DSLR timelapse is easily equal to the quality of the most high end video cameras ($20,000+ range), so it actually is quite a good deal.

      • Mike

        A mirrorless camera with electronic shutter is the way to go for timelapse if you don’t want to wear out those moving parts in a DSLR

      • Lee

        Yes I agree to a point. 4K video is on the horizon but in todays market I wonder how many folks have ever seen it. I really don’t know how popular it is in theaters at this point in time. Commercial television content of 4K UHD is in its infancy and just getting started along with computer monitors.
        From Wikipedia
        “4K Ultra HD
        4K UHD is a resolution of 3840 pixels × 2160 lines (8.3 megapixels, aspect ratio 16:9) and is one of the two resolutions of ultra high definition television targeted towards consumer television, the other being 8K UHD which is 7680 pixels × 4320 lines (33.2 megapixels). 4K UHD has twice the horizontal and vertical resolution of the 1080p HDTV format, with four times as many pixels overall.[1][5]“.

        • Panagiotis Smirniotis.

          You need to realize that sometimes (basically all-the-times for a professional) a camera body is a disposable piece of equipment. Lenses on the other side are parts of the equipment that last for years, or even decades. For some people 2-3 big time lapses or even just one might worth 2-3 or more times the value of a professional DSLR body.
          As someone said above, shutter might die in 10 clicks, it might die in 1000000 (million) clicks or more.
          Tomorrow I am setting up my 550D (T2i) for a 6-months time lapse in a construction site (a bridge). I don’t know if it’s gonna last to finish the job or I’ll need to replace it sometime within this period. It already has more than 400.000 actuations on the shutter (haven’t been used in a timelapse before, those are just normal photography clicks). Shutter is one of the things I am concerned but not my bigget worry about the whole system. It allready has 400.000 and it’s not even “pro graded” DSLR. My good old 550D is going to raise me 20 to 30 times it’s value as a used camera. So why to worry about it?
          I disagree with the article….those machines are workhorses. I am still working with my 5D mark II, it has already 550.000 clicks and I use it non-stop (average 4000-5000 clicks per week). Sometimes I have in my bag a mark III just-in-case, but lately I keep forgeting to put it in the bag.

          Have faith on those beasts….

    • Gestern

      I agree with you – doing timelapse through hundreds and thousands of shutter movements is a waste of the “iron”, never the less there are ways to do timelapse with DSLRs without such, the answer is: Magic Lantern, for Canon cameras. Basically it makes a video with an extremely low frame rate.

    • http://www.observingtime.com/ agour

      Shutters can die after 10 photos, or 1,000,000. You can’t really predict it

  • catlett

    The myth of letting your batteries run all the way down has been incorrect for several years now. Most actual experts will tell you not to do that with Lithium Ion which is what most of the batteries are made of these days.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Thanks, Catlett. They don’t say you shouldn’t– only that it’s not as important as it used to be.

    • Sheldon

      As with a lot of things, it’s all a bit more complicated than that:
      - The lifetime of the battery is affected if it is regularly fully-discharged, hence the recommendation that it’s best to keep topping the battery up
      - The caveat is that it should still be fully discharge every couple of dozen uses, to correct any drifting of the control circuitry (they’re rarely ‘just batteries’ anymore)
      - if it’s going to be left unused for a long length of time then leave it in a partially charged state (this is why when new Li-ion based devices are delivered, you can have a quick play straight out of the box) and somewhere cool.

  • The Unheard Voice

    I remember never worrying about my camera getting a little wet or dirty or warm when I shot Pentax. Love the upgrade in my new Nikon, but wish it came with the same rugged sealing as the K100D.