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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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