The Challenges

Kevin in Vietnam asked me this week "is there any special care or techniques" to keeping a lens in good condition while in South East Asia.  I've covered this in the past in bits and pieces and it remains a popular question.  Instead of answering Kevin's question directly via email I told him I'd like to cover this question 'in-depth' in this week's column. 

South East Asia has several unique factors which makes keeping a lens in top shape challenging.  These factors are:

1.  High humidity and temperatures, and changing humidity as we bring lenses out of air conditioned spaces, into the outdoors.

2.  Challenging environments (bumping and jarring due to transportation types, crowds, and handling by baggage handlers), insecure environments (theft) and dirty and dusty environments.

South East Asia is known for very hot and humid weather.  More, we often stay in air conditioned hotels, eat in air conditioned restaurants, and shop in air conditioned malls.  Air conditioned spaces have much lower temperatures and levels of humidity.  As we transit from air conditioned environments to outdoor environments extreme variations in both humidity and temperature take place and create special challenges with condensation being a particular problem area. 

Humidity causes accelerated corrosion, and condensation exacerbates these conditions to the point of fogging up lenses and mirrors, often enough so drips and drops become an issue.  In some extreme cases condensation can create enough moisture to short out circuitry. 


What Can We Do?

Desiccant products have been around for ages and are still effective today.  Some products are even improved.  Carry some silica gel packs in you camera bags and seven some moisture absorber packs.  They come in all sizes and if you buy them from a reputable store   they'll offer all types and be able to advise as to the size and properties best suited to your needs. You can even dry out these packs during your travels to make sure they keep on working.

SLOWLY transiting your equipment from air conditioned spaces to the outdoors is also advised.  I'll often set my bags by the door and crack the door allowing for a gradual increase in temperature and humidity.  I'll also leave my equipment in the bags for 15-30 minutes once outdoors and let the bags act as a sort of 'insulator' while the desiccant products inside my bags work for me at the same time. 

The absolute worst thing you can do is grab an unbagged camera from your chilly hotel room and walk directly outdoors to take pictures.  Your lens objective, LCD, and possibly even the internal mirror will fog up and your hands will be wet with moisture which can work its way into cracks, crevices, buttons and switches. 

Anyone who has traveled or worked with me knows I carry a stack of fresh clean hand towels in my vehicle, with more towels inside individual bags.  These are good for more than wiping sweat off my face, they're also good for absorbing moisture and wrapping around equipment to insulate when exiting an air conditioned car, wiping moisture and dirt from my hands, and I'm always throwing used towels in the back of the vehicle and replacing them with new clean ones. 

When in a vehicle, reduce the A/C gradually before arriving at your destination so as to equalize temperature and humidity between inside and outside the vehicle.  If you'll be popping in/out of the car often leave a window cracked and don't let it get too cold inside.

It should go without saying to always transport your equipment in suitable bags.  I have a bevy of such bags from military grade hard cases, dedicated camera trolleys and backpacks, and improvised bags mocked up for specific uses.  Some have high-density foam, others padded dividers, and others just have towels to wrap around equipment.  I can't cover every condition you might encounter, at least not in the scope of this piece, so you'll need to think things through and do the best you can in protecting your gear. 

Consider vibration, heat, impact, exposure to water, and whatever other conditions your equipment might encounter.  I carry a selection of extra large Ziplock freezer bags with my gear and if I think I'll be fording a creek or river I'll take the time to put my equipment in the bags.  If I'll be going by boat I use the bags. If it's raining heavily I use the bags.  Extra Large Ziplock bags can be your best friend.  I also carry a lot of clean hand towels and large rubber bands.  I'll wrap and band the towels around lenses and bodies and THEN put them in the ziplocks.  I'll do whatever is necessary to have my gear in perfect working order upon my arrival.

Dirt, grit, sand, and dust are just as damaging to your equipment.  Keep it to a minimum as much as possible.  To protect your great use the same measures as you would to protect your gear from water.  Bring a small 2-3" soft haired paint brush with you in your bag.  If the outside of the ziplocks or towels have a layer of dirt/grit/sand/dust, then use the brush to knock off as much as you can while opening it.  Knock it off before unwrapping it.  Carry these brushes in outer pockets of your bags and use them to clean off your bags before opening the bags.  Pull the brush from the side pocket, clean the outside, open to the inside.

If you're carrying a small point and shoot on your body in SEA, Ziplock it and keep your sweat away from the camera.  Plus, you never know when you're going to slip and fall in a giant puddle.. :)


Other Protections

Lens Hoods

I recently answered a question for a reader concerning filters and if they protect lenses are not.  Sure, they do to an extent, but a lens hood protects your lens much more than a filter could ever hope to.  They'll take more abuse, more impact, and  more anything else than will a fragile glass filter.



Strap it up!  Straps around your telephoto lenses are absolute musts.  NEVER pick up a DSLR by the body when a big lens is attached.  You only have to tweak a lens mount 1/10,000th to throw the entire thing off.  I personally draw the limit at my 70-200.  I pick the DSLR/70-200 combination up by the lens.  And I keep the lens foot on the 70-200 which works as a handle.  And I keep a strap not on the body, but on the lens.  I hate straps on bodies.  If you're lucky enough to have a 300/2.8, 400/4, 500/4, that big strap that came with it.. it's for the lens and not an extra body strap.  Strap it up and keep all that weight on the strap and not the body.  Here's a link for a Canon 300mm F2.8 IS, $4200 USD's.  Look in the grey square where it says "what's in the box" and you'll see "WIDE STRAP."  I guarantee you that if you show up at a Canon service center with no strap and a tweaked lens mount and over $1000 worth of damage they'll notice the strap wasn't being used and they may even laugh at you.



I use Nikon AH-4 leather hand grips on ALL my DSLR bodies.  The Nikon models are far superior to the Canon models or any other than I know if.  They allow the weight to be carried on your wrist vs. your hand.. so you can have the camera/lens hanging by your side and your hand totally relaxed because you're carrying the weight around your wrist.  They work great on Canon's, Sony's, Pentax's, all of them.  You might have to get creative with the threading, but it will work. 



There are Lenscoat products and Lenshood products and rain shield products and even special umbrellas to keep the rain off your lens.  Look through your camera catalog and check out what's available and use good common sense as to what will work in your environment.  They even make "Camera Armor" DSLR skins .


Keeping it Clean

When you're out and about in the field you're sure to get your equipment dirty.  It will get wet, muddy, dirty, dusty, smears on the lenses and filters, and I even know someone who got a piece of snot on their sensor.  This stuff happens and you need to be prepared to deal with it.  I've already talked about cleaning sensors several times and I plan on making it a full learning topic in the future so I won't cover that today, but we will cover most everything else.


Cleaning Tools and Supplies

I strongly recommend you carry the following in the field with you:

1.  2-3" soft bristle paint brush with wood handle.  Get a decent one.  A course stiff bristle plastic handled brush will be of much less value and might possibly harm your gear.

2.  Soft hand towels.  I take no less than a half dozen with me on any day outing and I'll clean these and have them ready to go the next day.  You never know when you'll spill your coffee on your equipment or in your bag, or anything where a quick soft and clean towel will come in very handy.

3.  Small 3-4 ounce bottle of Windex WITHOUT ammonia, diluted 50/50 with water.  This stuff will clean everything from the LCD screen of your laptop, to sticky soda spills, to your eyeglasses, to the outside of your lenses.  However, ammonia or a straight mix could possibly harm your gear, remove numbers from keypads (as will excess scrubbing) and possibly cause other problems.  I personally use a 50/50 mix of Windex and water and have never had any issues.  I find it invaluable.  I will NEVER use it on lens optics, and will only use it on filters when I have no other choice.  Filters and lenses have fragile coatings and it's best to only use an approved lens/filter clean by your manufacturer, though don't be surprised if after reading the ingredients you find out it's diluted Windex.

4.  A small Swiss Army knife.  I can't count the number of times this tool has saved the day.

5.  Prepackaged Sensor Swabs (thought we won't talk about this today) and other basic sensor tools for field use.

6.  No less than a dozen anti-static microfiber Tiger Cloths in small ziplock bags.  I have one of these in my pocket, two in my knapsack, a few in each bag, a few more in my glove box, and more spread out everywhere.  These are very handy for cleaning delicate surfaces, especially lenses and filters.  I never use them twice.  I use them once, put it back in it's bag, and stow it away until I can clean a batch of them, at which time I'll neatly fold them back into the bags which lets me know they're ready for use.  The reason I never use them twice is because all it takes is a single grain of sand stuck in the fabric to etch a deep line across your expensive lens surface.  If I drop it I don't use it, I stow it away to be washed and break out a new one.

7.  At least a dozen extra-large Ziplock Freezer bags.

8.  Small LED flashlight with extra batteries.

9.  Several 6x12" surfaces of fine flannel type cotton perfectly clean.

I carry off of the above and more.  And it takes up very little room.  Besides for the hand towels and extra large Ziplock Freezer bags this entire kit can be stored in a small pouch of about 8x3x3 inches.


Cleaning Equipment

I clean as little as possible in the field other than using the hand towels to wipe off moisture and obvious dust/dirt/grit.  It's always a better option to have your camera equipment and lenses cleaned at your service center and with the reasonable prices charged in the SEA region this is even more true. 

I'll use the diluted Windex mixture to clean anything sticky like soda, food oils, or whatever kind of smears off my laptops LCS screen.  I'll also use the Windex mix to clean the same sort of debris off lens barrels and camera bodies, but remember less is better when it comes to your camera equipment. 

I'll use the 2-3" soft bristle brush to brush dirt and any sort of debris of any surface including a lens surface AFTER making sure it's perfectly clean.  This is a safe tool unless you force pressure or use it dirty. 

I'll only use the Swiss Army knife when I must as I much prefer not to bugger up any screw heads.  However, in an emergency this simple tool can save the day.  It can clean corrosion off battery contacts, tighten loose screws, help open stuck battery doors, and more. 

The Tiger Cloths are great for fine cleaning camera bodies, and the small flashlight is invaluable for lighting tight places.


Cleaning Lenses

Like sensors lenses should only be cleaned as much as absolutely needed, never more.  This means sometimes you'll need to chip dried mud off with a toothbrush, and other times you'll just need to remove a single fingerprint on a filter surface. 

I clean my lenses in the field this way:  Using the 2-3 inch soft bristle paint brush I remove any dirt/dust/grit/hair from the lens surface.  Often this is all that's needed.  If there are light smears I'll use my hot breath to fog up the lens surface and then remove the hot breath with the soft cotton fabric strips.  If there are heavy smears I'll use the diluted Windex with Tiger clothes, followed by hot breath and cotton fabric strips. 

The flashlight can be used to shine from the rear objective up through the lens barrel and inspect the lens interior for dust and fungus.  Since most lenses are air sucking (telescoping) devices even new lenses will be full of dust.  Don't look if you don't want to know the truth.  No lens should have fungus growing, and if you see it plan on getting the lens professionally cleaned. 


Good Judgment

Cleaning camera gear without causing issues or damaging the gear is all about good judgment.  When you're out in the field and you need something to work 'right now', you'll often take chances you wouldn't otherwise take.  However, if you're handy at cleaning electronic gear and you're very careful, you'll do fine with camera gear.  When in doubt as to if a solution is safe to use, consult your instruction manual or even the manufacturer's website.

Keep everything dry, do your best to avoid condensation, and use a lot of common sense.  However, don't be so timid that you never use your gear.  Gear is meant to be used and I use my gear hard.  I also spend a lot of time maintaining it. 

I hope this helps.  I know I didn't cover every possible scenario, but I think I gave it a good start.  If you've got your own methods you think others will benefit from send them in and I'll share them here in the column.  We can always learn from each other.