Imagine a trip of a lifetime to Iceland. You’re at the imposing Seljalandsfoss, a 200’ tall waterfall that you can walk behind. The sun is low on the horizon and you have a marvelous composition. You go to take a picture and . . . nothing. The mist from the waterfall got into your lens, which wasn’t sealed against weather. Nothing works. Frustration!
You walk away from the waterfall and switch lenses. Thankfully, the camera works again. Now you go to Diamond Beach, near Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon to photograph icebergs on the black sand beach. The wind is blowing and surf crashing. You put a graduated neutral density filter on to even out the exposure between sky and ocean. The spray leaves droplets on your filter, so you grab a towel and wipe it off and take the shot. Later, you realize your expensive Grad ND filter is scratched. Why? Because, well, it’s salt water and blowing volcanic sand that were on your filter and, as you wiped it dry, they scratched the glass.
Whether you’re in Iceland, Death Valley or Washington, DC, the elements are your friend and your foe. Some of the best photos come during the worst weather. And, if you’ve been taking pictures long enough, you’ve seen these situations where gear gets damaged by the elements. Maybe it’s happened to you.
Threats from the Elements
One of the biggest threats to cameras is moisture. Even weather-sealed cameras and lenses can be damaged after prolonged exposure to water. Serious problems abound with salt water. The water, itself, can cause problems, the salt can cause corrosion in metal and electrical components, and the grit from the salt and sand (there’s usually a beach around salt water, right?) can get into everything, from tripod leg locks to the connections between camera and lens. Another threat is blowing dust or sand which can infiltrate the smallest of openings and, in extreme cases, can scour the paint of your car or mar the surface of the glass in your lens. And blowing, gritty dust gets into everything, including your camera bag, where it can lurk, unnoticed, waiting for an opportunity to get into something it shouldn't. That’s a lot to look out for and protect against!
It’s hard to enjoy a photography outing if your gear doesn’t work because it got wet, or dirty, or scratched. So how can you keep everything protected while going out in bad weather?
Fortunately, there is no shortage of options. Clever and enterprising designers have created all sorts of protective gear you can buy. And a whole lot of MacGyver wannabes have come up with ingenious ways to use ordinary objects to keep your expensive equipment safe.
15 Products and Hacks
Umbrella: If there’s any chance of rain, I’ll always travel with a sturdy umbrella that collapses into a small size. A big golf umbrella would protect more area but it takes up too much space and gets really unwieldy as you try to set up a shot. A smaller umbrella is easier to work with. Try to get one with a small diameter handle. You can duct tape it to a tripod leg. Some backpacks’ shoulder straps have a pocket and I’ve seen hikers put the umbrella handle in the pocket and use cords and ties to secure the umbrella to the pack. That makes it hands free. If it’s windy, however, an umbrella won’t do much to keep things dry and will destabilize your tripod, making it harder to shoot. Time for another solution.
The Novoflex Patron is a system that includes an umbrella and a tripod attachment to hold the umbrella. You can also put a “tent” over the umbrella and create your own blind! It’s quite a system, but a bit pricey. At the opposite extreme, if you don’t mind looking really weird, Google “Nubrella,” an umbrella that attaches to your shoulders.
Lens hood: In light rain or drizzle, putting your lens hood on may be all you need to do, if you have a weather sealed camera. The hood can keep the front element of your lens shielded from the rain. This works better with the longer hoods of telephoto lenses but even wide angle hoods offer some protection, maybe just enough for you to get that shot! I have a flexible lens shade that came, free, with something else I bought. This, or any other kind of lens shade, can keep light rain off the front element.
Protective Camera Covers/Rain Sleeves: In case your camera isn’t weather sealed, it’s raining and windy, or the rain/sleet/snow is really coming down, you’ll want to be using a camera cover (as in the photo at the top of this article). Made of plastic or water-resistant fabric, they fit over your camera and have an opening for your lens, as well as openings on the bottom or sides for your hands. You can spend from $5 to $200 on camera covers or rain sleeves. The cheap ones may only last one or two outings, while the expensive ones will last a lifetime. How much bad weather or waterfall photography do you do?
Found Objects: If you don’t want to spend the money on a rain sleeve, there are a lot of everyday things than can be pressed into service. Some people have had good results using the plastic shower cap from their hotel. The elastic opening goes around the lens and the cap goes around the camera. You have to make another hole to mount the camera to a tripod, though. But hey, it’s free, not perfect. Other people have used the bag hotels give you for ice, zip lock bags or even grocery bags (plastic, not paper!). There are a number of videos you can find that show how you can punch a hole in the bag for the lens; use the lens hood to keep the bag in place, and use the bag handles to tie it down on the tripod or ball head.
Pack Cover: Many backpacks come with their own rain cover. Even if your gear is inside a backpack, it will only be protected from the elements for so long. Eventually, water is going to soak into the backpack. A rain cover will prevent this and keep all your gear dry. Don’t have a backpack rain cover? Bring along a large plastic trash bag. It’s better than nothing and, in a pinch, you can use the trash bag as a rain poncho.
Silica Gel Packs: I have a collection of these small packs that come with shoes, bags and other merchandise. They’re great for absorbing moisture. If rain is in the forecast, I’ll be sure to take a couple of these babies in my pack. If any gear gets wet while I’m shooting, the gel packs will help to dry it out once the camera is back in the pack.
Hand Warmer Packets: These small, inexpensive and highly portable packets give off heat for up to 10 or 12 hours. They’re great for keeping hands and feet warm in cold weather, but have several other uses. Some people use a rubber band to place a hand warmer packet on their lens during overnight, long exposure photography, such as star trails and astrophotography. The additional warmth from the packet keeps moisture from building up on the lens as the dew point changes. Toss one in the camera bag to help gear warm up from being inside in air conditioning to outside on a hot and muggy day, or to help gear warm up from a mid-winter shoot outside as you’re driving back home.
Camp Towels: I typically have a small, absorbent, quick-drying camp towel in my bag. I use it to wipe off my gear and dry my hands. You can get these from any outdoors store and they’re so worth it. Who wants to put a wet camera into a dry bag? You just get the inside of your bag wet. Dry off you gear first. I can also use it to wipe down my tripod. If I’m at a beach or sandy area, that’s the last thing I’ll do before heading home. The towel will get rid of a lot of the salt and sand and prevent them from getting inside your tripod as you close the legs. I won’t use the towel again until it’s washed, as I don’t want to get salt and sand on anything else. If I’m out in sand dunes, and everything is dry but getting dusty, I can use the towel to brush off most of the surface dust and grit on my gear.
Microfiber Cloths, Lens Wipes, Pec Pads, etc.: If you’re shooting in the rain, you’ll need a supply of cloths like these to keep drying your lens and filters. They take up no room at all, weigh nothing, dry quickly and are super absorbent. I’ve got a collection of microfiber cloths I’ve gotten as giveaways at conferences and meetings. I keep a handful of these in my bag and use them to wipe my lens or filter dry. Pec Pads, Kimtech Kimwipes and other brands are disposable, one-use wipes. Make sure that whichever you choose is lint free. You don’t want to be leaving a lot of fibers on your nice clean, dry lens.
Underwater Housing: OK, this might be a bit extreme, but putting your camera in an underwater housing is one way to protect it from all things wet or dry. I wouldn’t go out and buy one just for rain protection but, if you already have one (maybe leftover from that snorkeling trip a few years ago) that’s sitting in the back of your closet collecting dust, you might try it next time you’re out in bad weather.
Waterproof, Insulated Pad: I like the Therm-a-Rest Z Seat Cushion Insulated Sitting Pad. It’s light (2 oz.) and folds up to a small 2 x 3 x 12”. It gives me a platform to kneel or sit when I’m on wet ground (don’t knock the creature comforts!) and you can use it to keep your backpack and gear off the wet grass or out of the mud. Who wants to sling a muddy backpack over your shoulders at the end of a long day shooting? A large plastic trash or leaf bag can also serve this purpose, but without the insulation in colder temperatures.
Extra Filters: If you have a duplicate filter and it’s raining out, you might want to bring it. One filter can be on the camera while the second is being wiped dry. Not everyone will have two UV filters for a lens but, if you do, swapping them back and forth in wet weather can make life easier.
Water Bottle: Why would you need water? Aren’t we talking about protecting against water? Well, remember that story at the beginning of this article about how salt water can scratch a filter? I saw a great tip about using your water bottle to wash the salt water off the filter before wiping it dry. Viola! No salty grit and no scratches!
Memory Card Case: I have a small Pelican memory card case that’s weather sealed. That keeps my SD cards from getting wet. Equally important, it keeps them from getting dirty. My backpack has a few dedicated pockets for memory cards. But guess what? After a while, those pockets start collecting grit, and grit is the last thing you want to be pushing into your camera’s card slots. Protecting your cards protects your photos and protects your camera.
Zip Lock Bags: If you’re going from warm to cold, cold to warm, or wet to dry, your camera is going to need time to adjust. During that adjustment period, condensation often occurs, and it can happen inside and outside of your camera. To minimize any chance of condensation, put your camera and a silica gel pack into a zip lock bag before you change climes. That allows the gear to more gradually adjust without all the moisture condensing.
And, above all else, if you must change lenses, be extra, super, duper careful. Wet, windy, sandy, salty environments can play havoc with your gear. If you have to change your lens in these conditions, try to shelter your camera as much as you can. Swap lenses under your coat or inside your camera bag. Use your body to block the wind.
Between commercial products and photographer hacks, there are plenty of ways you can protect your gear in bad weather. If you’re careful, there’s no reason to stay inside. So, get out in bad weather. Otherwise, you’ll never get the dramatic light of a clearing storm. Magic happens in and shortly after bad weather. Don’t miss it!