Keeping Your Camera Dry (In the Wild)

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By forrest/Forrest (2,578) Send mail to this user on November 21, 2008 4:11:01 PM CST

Keeping Your Camera Dry
First, the Humans
The Camera
    Rain, and Melting Snow
    Cold Weather

Keeping Your Camera Dry

You've heard of a "fair-weather friend," and know that you don't want to be one ... a fair-weather photographer is also something you don't want to be, but for different reasons. One is "SAD;" photography is fun, and can still be enjoyed in the dark of winter. More importantly, there are great photos to be had in mediocre, or downright antagonistic weather. Newly fallen snow looks like a coat of magic covering the world. Dew adds the glisten of a thousand diamonds to every surface it coats, and helps bring out natural color saturation. Best of all, normally crowded trails tend to be empty, giving you unobstructed views, and all the time you need to set up or wait for the best light.

There are a few issues, though; if this was easy, everybody would do it. Comfort is the most obvious issue. Nobody is going to take their camera out for a hike when it's painful to be outside. And, of course, sensitive electronics tend not to like contact with water! Let's take a look at how to get past these hurdles, so that you can enjoy photography when you choose to, instead of when the weather allows.

A canyon wall channeling a stream in the foreground

First, the Humans

Cotton kills, but you should already know that if you're hiking far enough for this to be an issue. Jeans are the last thing you want to wear if you might get wet. They hold up pretty well in moderate wind, though. The secret to staying warm is to wear layers. ( And to avoid cotton near your outer layer, as it soaks through, and stays wet. )

Most body heat is lost through the extremities: your head, especially, your hands, and your feet. A wide-brimmed hat does wonders to keep you dry, and maintain visibility. I like the "Seattle Sombrero," but I live in Seattle (home of the rain), and have to contend with rain more than anything else. Gloves, obviously, can be a big help, if you find a pair that doesn't prevent you from using the camera. "Mechanix" gloves run $10 to $15, can be found in most gas stations, and are tactile enough to let you use the buttons and dials on your camera with ease. They also do pretty well in the wind, and trap a lot of warmth.

The Camera

Fortunately, keeping the camera itself dry is the easy part, in almost any situation you'd bring your camera into. Keep in mind that most cameras are pretty resilient, and won't stop working the moment you get a drop of water on them. Obviously, make every effort to keep your gear dry, but don't stress too much about it. This article will focus on taking your camera out in the rain, snow, and extreme cold; scuba diving, kayaking, and the like fall outside the scope of this article, requiring better gear and serious attention to detail.

Rain, and Melting Snow

Snow isn't much of a problem in and of itself; it can usually be brushed off before it has a chance to do any damage. Near the freezing point, though, it will melt on contact. Whether you're dealing with snow or rain, drops on the lens can frustrate your efforts at a good photo, and feel like ticking time bombs.

Good cameras deserve a good bag to travel in, but some of these will soak through, given the opportunity. Unless you know your camera bag is waterproof, it's a good idea to "double bag" it. A backpack counts, makes carrying the gear easy, and gives you plenty of room for anything else you might need. Some people prefer to travel light, though, so pelican cases, might be a good idea (I find them too bulky, but others swear by them). I use a 10 litre sea bag, which holds a 5D with a 300 mm f/4 IS mounted, and has kept them dry while floating in Seattle's Lake Union, dragged behind a kayak. These, also, are fairly cheap, and virtually full-proof, but a bit cumbersome to work with.

Keeping the camera dry when in use is the last piece of the puzzle. I've seen people set up a tripod, and then hold a rain coat over their camera before and during an exposure. This never seems to work very well. A real umbrella can be operated with one hand, and, with a bit of twine or a bungee cord, can be carried with your tripod. It can also be mounted or held high enough above the camera to provide good rain cover without blocking the light to avoid extra vignetting.

If your lens has a hood, use it. If not, look into getting one; this won't protect the body, but will help to keep the front element (objective lens) dry, as long as it's not pointed upwards.

Cold Weather

The batteries that drive modern digital cameras will go flat very quickly when they get cold. They'll stop being able to deliver a charge long before they're actually depleted; pull the dead battery out and put it in a pocket inside your jacket, and it will magically come back to live - this means bring extras. (Lithium ion batteries work much better than their counterparts in this regard.)

Condensation is a killer; when you get back to your car or house, your camera will be much colder than the surrounding, heated air. Dew will form on the camera, potentially soaking it. A weather-sealed kit should in theory be immune, but most photographers prefer not to risk it. If you're out in the cold, but in dry weather, seal your camera inside a large zip-lock bag when you come in, so that dew forms on the outside of the bag rather than your camera itself; remember, the water is being pulled out of the air, condensing on a cold surface. Simply wait for the camera to get to room temperature, and this won't be an issue.

A snowy waterfall in a mountain storm

By Forrest Croce.

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From mahuya/Mahuya (0) Send mail to this user on January 28, 2009 6:09:28 AM CST

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From svenivan/Sven (1,053) Send mail to this user on June 10, 2009 5:04:37 AM CDT

Very good post ! Thanks !

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From jthode/Jim (4,674) Send mail to this user on October 25, 2009 4:46:20 PM CDT

Forrest, One point, you wrote, "If you're out in the cold, but in dry weather, seal your camera inside a large zip-lock bag when you come in, so that...". The key for this to work well is that the camera must be put in the sealed bag BEFORE you come in a heated space. You want the cold dry air in the bag with the camera and it is best to flush the bag out with the dry air when out side. If you wait to put the camera in the bag when your in the heated area, you have defeated the purpose. Jim

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From simmer/Simon (2,724) Send mail to this user on April 14, 2010 10:12:38 AM CDT

I learned this the easy way Forrest, through experience. I was in Java years back, and we were climbing a quite active volcano near the east coast. We woke up early in the morning to climb to the top(much as you would Fuji in Japan)and the sunrise was magnificent! Streaks of blue and purple emerged from the clouds on the horizon, it was enthralling! I reached for my Minolta SLR to take a picture only to realize it was so cold that the batteries wouldn't work. In despair I turned to my friend, and he quickly understood my problem. "Take out the batteries!" he said, "and rub them in your hands to heat them up. That should het the ions moving. If that doesn't work then bite them." Sure enough, within two minutes, my camera was snapping away. The other option is to set your camera to timer. For some reason, this seems to require less energy and will sometimes work.

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From simmer/Simon (2,724) Send mail to this user on April 14, 2010 10:14:56 AM CDT

Very informative Forrest, especially the condensation part. Regards,

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From 56photos/Donn (3) Send mail to this user on May 18, 2011 1:35:31 PM CDT

thank you the article was very informative!

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From cherisstyle/Cheris (0) Send mail to this user on July 30, 2013 2:00:52 AM CDT

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From nacho25/Nacho (0) Send mail to this user on December 10, 2013 4:43:21 PM CST

Fantastic! Best regards from Spain Tutoriales Photoshop

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From nacho25/Nacho (0) Send mail to this user on December 10, 2013 4:43:28 PM CST

Fantastic! Best regards from Spain Tutoriales Photoshop

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From creativestream/spammer (0) Send mail to this user on June 23, 2014 4:42:44 AM CDT

To protect your lens, we can also use a UV filter... am I right?

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