A friend of mine called yesterday, asking if they could bring a camera over for me to look at. It belongs to a family member and they were looking to buy it. They arrived at the studio a half-hour later and pulled a five-year-old bridge camera out of a bag.
I fought the gag reflex.
The camera, once a pristine high-end model of its day was encrusted in dirt, sand, suntan lotion and other unidentifiable goo. There was an audible crunch of sand between gears as the lens swung through its 30X optical range, and the body looked as though it had spent its tenure at the School of Hard Knocks. It still took great pictures, but how long would it continue to perform in its present condition is anyone’s guess. I valued the camera (listing all its faults) at $75. Had it been better cared for, it might have fetched $150.
Deal made, my friend asked if I could clean it up a bit. So with lens wipes, compressed air and a paint brush, I started cleaning years of neglect from the camera.
Within 30 minutes, I had her clean as a whistle on the outside. A few taps on the lens dislodged the few grains of sand, and the lens smoothly traversed from wide angle to telephoto. A bit of work on the flash hot shoe with a pink eraser brought it back to life, and a couple of minutes with car polish helped fill the minute scratches on the back LCD.
A half hour of elbow grease gained my friend doubled her purchase value, and she’s got a great camera.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a camera with the ukus. Many come to me in a sad state of affairs. Some I can resurrect and others are relegated to the electronic recycling pile. While some of the cameras suffered from direct neglect, other maladies are caused by simple lack of knowledge.
For instance, here in Hawai’i, we are graced with 11 of the 13 climate zones in the world. We have deserts (yes, really!), tropical rainforests, craggy mountains and miles of shoreline. In one day, a camera may see sub-zero temperatures (sunrise at Haleakala or visiting the observatories atop Mauna Kea) and hot, moist, salty conditions on a beach. Seeing such temperature and moisture differences in a matter of hours can wreck havoc on camera electronics and lenses.
The key to keeping everything working in adverse conditions is proper care and maintenance. Shooting a sunrise at 10,000-plus feet in freezing conditions is rougher on your body than your camera, but like us, camera batteries don’t like the cold – it’ll zap the power quickly. I always recommend carrying the fully-charged battery in your pocket to keep it warm, then inserting it into the camera when you’re ready to shoot. I also keep a spare in another pocket, keeping it warm and ready to use should the primary battery run out of juice.
When coming down off a mountain or volcano, you also want the camera to acclimatize to the increasing warm and moist air. I had a friend who shot sunrise at Haleakala, then put his camera into a cooler. When he pulled it out of the cooler in Kihei (with a 51-degree change in ambient temperature), the camera lenses and view finder immediately fogged, making the equipment unusable until the glass cleared. Usually, I hang my camera on the passenger head rest for the trip down the volcano, letting it slowly warm up. By the time I reach Kahului, it’s internally (and externally) to ambient temperature.
Near the ocean, salt spray can wreck havoc on camera electronics and mechanics. When at all possible, I try to avoid changing lenses – blowing sand and salt water vapor can dirty a sensor in no time. If I have to swap lenses, I place the camera on my tripod, and then cover the camera in a large plastic garbage bag. Like a “Cone of Silence” to the wind, you can now change your lenses with little worry about stuff getting inside. I also use the bag to keep salt spray off the camera, removing it only when I want to shoot.
When the light is gone, the equipment packed up and I’m back in the studio, my first order of business is to clean all my gear thoroughly. I use a damp terry cloth towel to wipe off the accumulated dust and salt spray, then following up with lens wipes and compressed air to dry.
Storage and transporting your cameras is another consideration to your equipment’s longevity. I store all my gear in an aluminum cabinet with several large desiccant packs on the shelves to absorb any wayward moisture. Getting from shoot to shoot, I’ve found a photo backpack to be indispensible. Many camera bags come with a plethora of hook-and-loop-fastened, padded dividers. After configuring the interior of the bag, I usually have several dividers left over, which I use as extra lens cushioning.
For years, I used a traditional over-the-shoulder, camera bag, but as my equipment list grew, so did my bag, and the subsequent pains in the back and shoulder having to lug 40-some-odd pounds of gear. Converting to a photo backpack has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It even distributes the weight of my gear, plus I can attach my tripod to the back when I need both hands for climbing.
Helping to keep my equipment in top condition, I send everything into the Canon Service Center twice a year. I have the crew clean the sensors, check focusing and metering systems, clean and service lenses and give my gear a clean bill of health. They also “deep clean” the camera, getting anything out of the nooks and crannies I may have missed. The best thing is that I usually get my gear back in a week.
To date, I’ve only had one camera malfunction in my career as a photographer, and it wasn’t caused from dirt or abuse, but a known defect. I’ve probably had some luck on my side, but the way I see it, an ounce of prevention is certainly worth a pound of cure for your camera gear.