caring for your gear in extreme environments
A painter is much more than his or her paint brush or canvas, but without these tools a painter can not share the beautiful art in their head with others around them. A photographer without their camera is much the same. I may have the most beautiful image in my mind or even in front of my eyes, but without at least a simple camera I are unable to share that image with others.
The photography world is constantly trying to sell you more gadgets, like you must have the latest and greatest piece of kit that will allow you to shoot like a pro without even thinking. The list of needed items never ends.
This is not an article about buying more gear. This is about protecting and caring for what you own so that these tools will be reliable when you need them. Good photography gear should be able to continue operating well with normal wear and tear, but caring for it will make sure that it does not fail you when you need it most.
On one of my trips I found myself on the edge of the Ethiopian desert near the Somali border. This place was incredibly dry, windy, dusty, and, in a nutshell, not conducive to the longevity of my camera gear. I knew I would have to treat my gear carefully so that it would not fail me. Here are a few tips I have from Ethiopia:
Don’t leave your expensive gear in a hot vehicle! In the desert, the inside of a vehicle will reach temperatures that are absolutely ungodly. Once my friend accidentally left his eye glasses on the dash of our vehicle while we jumped out for a short visit. When we returned to the vehicle, his glasses looked like a piece of modern art. The bends and curves were now amazingly beautiful... but they would never fit on his face again. Even pro cameras will have lens shades, buttons, casings, and other pieces made of high grade plastic, which are all susceptible to high heat. Don’t leave your expensive gear in a hot vehicle!
Keep your tripod out of the sand. Your tripod is an important and excellent piece of kit especially when you are doing video work. If you have a good tripod it should hold up pretty well in harsh environments, but this does not mean you don’t have to care for it. The tripod I had with me was a Miller ds-10, carbon fiber sticks and an excellent fluid head with movement like smooth butter. I found that the legs would start to stick as the drifting sand made its way in between the leg sections, so I made sure always to stand it up on the sand or gravel instead of laying it down. Standing up meant a lot less sand would make its way into the joints and collars, meaning that the legs would operate much more smoothly.
Trekking through the high Alps of Austria and Switzerland during the summer, you are going to find a very different set of issues to deal with. You definitely won’t be worrying about the heat, although you should bring along your sunscreen. (The sun at high elevation will burn you just like the sun in the desert will, you just won’t feel the burn until later.) Often when in the Alps I have dealt with rain showers that would either slow me down or put a stop to any film or photo work I was doing. Here are a few things I learned working in this environment:
Know the level of weather sealing that your camera and support gear have before attempting to use them in inclement weather. Research the limits of what you are using and stay within those. I have often shot with my cameras (5dmk2, Sony a7rii) in light rain and have never had an issue. Remember that the lens has to be rated for this as well as the body.
Just because the camera says it is “weather resistant” does not make it waterproof. If you want to shoot underwater, buy a gopro or an underwater housing for your camera. Invest in a rain cover for your camera. These can be super cheap but will keep the rain off. Here is one option that won’t cost you too much. Of course, you can get a much more professional cover, but this is a great idea to have in your bag. Remember that this will not make your camera invincible. (A small compact umbrella is also a great thing to have along for this reason.)
Traveling through the high mountains along the old Silk Road of central asia was a dream job. It was also a test of my gear and my level of preparation; this was the first time I traveled to a location so remote with my Sony Alpha cameras.
Here are a few things that I had to keep in mind on this trip and one mistake that I kept kicking myself for.
Did you know that cold batteries will not perform as well as warm ones? It’s true, the amount of use you can get from a fully charged cold battery is quite a bit less than a fully charged warm one. So, when working in a cold environment, it is very common to keep your next battery inside of your inner jacket. This keeps it warm and ready for use.
Regarding keeping batteries charged, I decided to bring along a solar charging solution from Goal Zero. This little solar panel and battery bank was awesome for helping me stay topped up. Often when we were driving I would plug one camera into the cigarette lighter and be charging another from the solar panel sitting on the dashboard soaking up the sun, so I never ran out of juice. (You didn’t know you can charge you battery in your Sony Alpha camera right from the micro USB port? Yeah, pretty awesome! In video mode you could even plug it into the battery bank and charge it while you shoot.)
Bring your sensor cleaner! If nothing else bring your pocket air blaster. When changing lenses, always dust the sensor with the blower. This keeps any dust that has somehow made its way into the sensor from adhering and making it more difficult to remove. If you know how to clean your sensor with swabs, bring them along as well. Here are the ones I have been using. I noticed a dust spot on my sensor about halfway through this trip, but I had forgotten my pocket rocket (a terrible thing to do). I tried every other way to dislodge that dust particle to no avail. It drove me crazy! Anytime I used an F-stop over f8 I could see the shadow of that spot. Learn from me, don’t leave that blower at home.
On the subject of sensor dust, here is something I have learned. When shooting in dusty or just bad weather it is a good idea to have two bodies set up with two different lenses to cover what you need for that time. I travel with one full frame body and one APSC body. Depending on what I think I will face that day I rig one with a longer lens and one with a wider lens, so that I don’t have to change lenses while I am out in the dust. Using this technique I can keep my camera sensors much cleaner, for longer. (It’s also faster in the field than changing lenses constantly on one body.)
I hope these tips help you as you think about caring for your gear on your next adventure beyond the end of the asphalt. Take care!