How to Protect your Camera in Extreme Conditions

A quick glance at the car thermometer lets you know that it is 115 degrees outside. You look to your left and outside the car window, the hot desert air is a swirling mess of blowing dust and sand. You’re in Death Valley and the light is epic. Every fiber of your creative being is yelling at you to get out and start snapping, to get that perfect shot! Hurry up; you have maybe 5 minutes left! But there is another side to you, the side that made you research tirelessly to get the best price on the best gear. Your frugal side is holding your adventurous side back because the weather is downright nasty. Can you keep your gear safe and clean in extreme weather environments, and get your sensible side to let your wild side run free?

There are ways to protect your gear in nearly any scenario, which will make you more comfortable while shooting, and that typically translates to better images. A disclaimer is to always read your manual for basic camera care, such as how to keep it clean and functioning properly. However, for extreme conditions, the following tips may keep you out of trouble.

Hot Weather
You want to keep your gear as cool as possible in this scenario. You can cover your camera with a light hand towel, or work under an umbrella. The goal is to keep it out of direct sunlight if you can. A pair of walking/hiking poles can be used to make a makeshift sun shelter; simply attach a towel or shirt to the poles and position the resulting spot of shade in between your camera and the sun. 

If temperatures are soaring over 100°, you need to occasionally give your gear a break. Get it back into the car where there’s air conditioning. Let it cool down, even if only for five minutes. Its sensor can’t deal with constant extreme temperatures. On that note, don’t leave it in the trunk when it’s that hot out, either. That’s simply asking for trouble.

When dealing with extreme heat, you also run the risk of drying out the seals that keep your gear protected from other elements, such as moisture and dust. If you can’t avoid the heat because you have to get that shot, try to keep the time in the elements to a minimum, and cool the camera down when possible. Do not, however, cool the gear down abruptly. You want to avoid extreme temperature swings, as they can damage computer and mechanical parts inside the body or lens.

Cold Weather
A major problem with cold weather shooting is battery life. You can keep your batteries warm inside an interior jacket pocket, or by wrapping a chemical hand warmer around them and fastening it with a rubber band. Once your battery ‘dies’ from the cold, you can place it back into your pocket, or back into the hand warmer and it will likely come back for at least a few exposures if needed. Don’t let the battery get too warm, or it could cause condensation inside your equipment. If it gets too hot from the handwarmer, let it cool down just a touch before you place it in the camera body. If it’s below zero outside, a few moments of the battery being exposed to the elements alone will ensure it is ready to go safely in your camera.

The biggest issue with cold weather seems to be condensation when you bring the camera back inside to room temperature. The rapid rise in temperature causes things to get foggy. Think about when you go from a cool air conditioned room out into the humid summer air – are your glasses or sunglasses fogged up? It’s the same principle at work – but it’s happening inside your camera body and lenses, which can be quite scary. Most professionals like to seal the camera in a bag with the cold outside air to gradually bring the gear back to room temperature. You can then use a Silica Packet or two inside your camera bag to ensure that any remaining moisture does not become a problem.

Wet Weather
Usually if you are caught out in the elements and it starts to sprinkle, it’s not the end of the world. You throw your jacket over your gear, grab the shot and move to a drier location. However, there are times when you have no choice, and the client needs the shot. In that case, you have to find a workaround. In a pinch, you can always toss the whole setup in a large Ziploc or grocery bag. Then, cut a hole out for the lens and rubber band the bag around the lens to keep the majority of the water out of the actual camera body and lens, minus the front element. This is not necessarily the most effective or fun way to prevent wet weather damage, but it could keep you out of the repair shop. 

After any exposure to high humidity or direct rain/snow, you can always try using a few Silica Gel Desiccant Dehumidifiers in your camera bag. These are the strange packets you find in electronics packaging that keep things from being damaged by moisture. Of course, if you must work in extremely wet conditions, you may want to consider using an underwater housing. This is the most effective way to keep water out of your gear. It is not inexpensive, and usually isn’t necessary for the average photographer, but some pros may require the ability to endure this type of weather to get the perfect shot.

Sand or Dust
First, you’ll likely want to protect the front element of the lens with a UV filter (at a minimum). This will prevent any tiny pockmarks (sandblasting) to the actual lens. A good UV filter can run you as little as $20. While replacing the front element is the cheapest fix for most lenses, why would you run the risk if you can prevent the problems in the first place?

One of the best tips for sandy or dusty conditions is, perhaps surprisingly, to use an underwater housing. This may not be the least expensive fix, but it is certainly one of the best. Since you’re essentially waterproofing your camera equipment, you can be sure that fine grit, dust and sand won’t be able to get to your precious gear, either. It is definitely not as user friendly to use an underwater housing on land but you will have the ability to walk into some pretty gnarly weather and get some shots that few others could ever capture.

You’ll definitely want to do any type of gear change, such as lens swap or a memory card change, in a protected area. You wouldn’t believe the amount of damage a few grains of sand can do the delicate interiors of today’s DSLRs. In general, you want to use ingenuity when it comes to shooting in any type of weather. Hopefully these few simple tips will help you battle the most common issues when it comes to shooting in extremes and you come back with epic shots.

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