Caring for Your Cameras
Once you've made an investment in one fine camera or several, along with the
accessories and extra lenses that comprise a system, you're saddled with the
responsibility of caring for it properly — not only to protect
your investment, but also to insure that it works as well as it was designed
to. Here are the basics of caring for a camera:
- Protect it from dust and damage. This means having a safe
place to store it when you're not using it, and a safe way to transport it.
This usually entails a padded camera bag or storage case. There are a
million and one camera bags out there; the best solution to the Search For
The Perfect Bag is to own several, and use what you need for specific
Incidentally, try to think of the camera bag as storage, and distinguish
between your bag and what you carry when you're out shooting. Often, an
overloaded bag is just a hindrance in the field. The best shooting
configuration for your gear is 1) to have as little of it weighing you down
as possible, and 2) to have it as instantly accessible to your hand and eye
as possible. Some cheap advice: when you're out shooting, leave the bag at
home or in the car. At least the bigger bag. If you need to carry too much
extra film or accessories to fit in your pockets, try a belt pack or a fanny
pack. And don't use a case: "ever-ready" cases aren't. Take the camera out
when you're using it, and put it away when you're not. When you're shooting,
the best accessory is just a neck- or wrist-strap, and of course a lot of
Padded bags, by the way, should be vacuumed with a narrow nozzle vacuum
attachment from time to time, to keep grit and lint from accumulating in
corners and seams.
- Protect your camera from the elements. The latest
"All-Weather" point-and-shoots and such exotica as Nikonoses
notwithstanding, most of us usually need to protect our cameras against
adverse conditions. This may mean various emergency measures; for instance,
my shooting rig consists of the camera, a strap, and extra film and one
extra lens in a pocket or belt-pack — but I also always carry
a folded-up zip-lock baggie in my back pocket. This has saved the day many
times when I'm far from shelter and it starts to rain. I also have a small
waterproof bag in my larger case, in which to stash the camera when I'm in a
canoe, or sailing. This is different from a waterproof shooting bag, which
allows to camera to be protected while in use.
Dust-storms can be disastrous, and may even require the use of the
abovementioned waterproof shooting bag. The latter are useful for the
seashore too, although salt air won't have as much of a chance against the
better camera models; part of what you pay for when you buy, say, an EOS-1V
or a Pentax LX, is superior sealing against dust, moisture, and sundry other
airborne pollutants and corrosive agents.
Rule of thumb: if you find you're often fearful of taking your camera into
visually promising situations because of the risk to the camera, do your
work a favor, and get yourself a camera that can take it.
- Protect your camera from disuse. Take it out for some
exercise every now and then! In case you think I am being whimsical or
anthropomorphic here, disuse is a legitimate hazard in proper camera care,
especially with older, mechanical cameras. Shutters stick, lubrication dries
out, gears freeze. A camera that gets a regular workout will often remain
maintenance-free for longer than one which sits neglected on a shelf.
- Protect the camera against theft. Keep it close-by or under
sharp watch, and try not to forget it anywhere! Few things will disappear as
rapidly as cameras when they are allowed to sit out unguarded. Also, don't
advertise that it's there. Customized "I PHOTOG" or "PORTR8" license plates
and the like, and dumb bumper stickers about how you do it in the dark, are
a tip-off to thieves that your trunk may be full of valuable, portable,
easily fenced merchandise. Yet another type of "camera bag" can come in
handy here: one made of old, crumply brown paper. If you have to leave the
car briefly and don't want to carry the camera, leave it in the brown paper
bag — don't leave it sitting on the seat. Thieves aren't all
that smart (that's one reason they can't make an honest living) but they
don't very often look gift horses in the mouth.
Finally, insure your gear! Replacement value insurance is usually available
as a rider on a homeowner's policy. Talk to your agent — make
sure you're covered for replacement value on all your stuff, whether it's in
or out of the home. This is moderately expensive, but — well,
if you're a photographer, you're used to things being expensive. It's well
worth the added peace of mind.
- Mechanical maintenance: the usual cautions apply. Don't let
your cameras sit around gathering dust. Because they do get dusty, however,
it's a good idea to regularly give your camera a once-over to get rid of
dust and foreign matter. Canned air can be used, but it has several
disadvantages. It is harmful to the atmosphere; it must be stored upright in
cool places, avoiding direct sunlight; it should never be taken in
pressurized airplane cabins; and unless you hold the can still and upright
as you spray, you risk accidentally ejecting liquid propellant onto your
equipment. This can mar finishes and damage delicate mechanisms. Also, when
cleaning inside the camera with an open camera back, always be very cautious
of your shutter with canned air! A blast of canned air should never be
sprayed directly at the shutter blades, as it can cause irreparable harm
that may require a complete shutter replacement. While were on the subject,
get into the habit of never allowing anything at all to touch the shutter
blades: not your fingers, and not even the film leader as you load film.
For general light cleaning, a small bulb blower and a camel's hair brush are
best. Two tips: I've found that a cheap, accessible source of bulb blowers
is to use infant nasal syringes, available in any good-sized supermarket.
And when using brushes, buy the best quality camel's hair brush you can find
(available at art supply stores) — better brushes shed less
— and take special care to always store it properly in a
sealed plastic baggie! A brush that is impregnated with oils, grease and
grit may do more harm to your camera than good.
Avoid excessive heat, but then again, you needn't be a nut about it. Cameras
and film can probably take more heat than you think they can if you're the
worrying type. The dashboard of the car for six hours on a 90-degree day is
a bad idea, but I've done it and it didn't result in disaster.
Batteries can leak, so batteries should not be left in cameras which are
being stored for long periods of time. Then again, if you have to store your
camera long-term, it would be best if you could take it out every few months
and click the shutter a few times on every shutter speed, run through the
apertures, and operate all the dials and switches. Think of this as a kind
of yoga — stretching exercises — for your li'l buddy.
- There is one more major requirement for caring for all fine
cameras which were appreciable investments — which is to find
yourself a good repairman, and avail yourself of his services on occasion.
Cameras, especially mechanical cameras, which are used day-in, day-out,
should go in for maintenance at regular intervals — just like
you take yourself in to the doctor's for a checkup, or like your car gets
its 50,000 mile servicing. While you're at it, ask if your repairman can
give you the numbers at which your shutter speeds and apertures tested out.
That way, not only will you know when and how you may need to compensate a
little, but you can keep tabs on your camera's performance from year to
year. This can mean less frequent testing, always a boon.
- Cold weather: working in freezing temperatures involves
special skills and won't be treated in depth here. However, the most
persistent danger presented by freezing temperatures with regard to camera
maintenance is condensation. Whenever your camera and lens get thoroughly
cooled off in dry, freezing air, be sure to put them inside a sealed plastic
bag before coming indoors. This prevents condensation from forming inside
the camera and especially inside the lens, where it can do permanent damage.
If the temperatures are especially frigid and/or the indoor air especially
humid, use two bags, one inside the other. Allow your equipment to warm up
for several hours before removing it from the bags.
- Electronic cameras can sometimes have problems with excessive
humidity such as heavy fog. Other than wiping the contacts (which can
usually be found between the back and the body, and the body and the lens),
there is little that can be done apart from importing the camera into a less
humid environment, opening it up, and waiting. Again, if this is a frequent
problem for you, you are probably using a camera designed for light amateur
use and could profit from switching to a pro-grade camera with improved
moisture sealing. Another alternative are the aforementioned waterproof
shooting bags, which usually have an optically clear plate that clamps over
the lens and a transparent plastic bag that surrounds the rest of the
camera. Some even thoughtfully provide reverse "gloves" for your hands.
Like many other photographers, I await the day when outright waterproofing
becomes a standard feature on pro-grade cameras!
- Lenses: the Great Filter Debate simmers ever onwards, of
course. Some people habitually use filters to protect the objective
(outermost lens element) from harm and soiling, while others swear that
filters degrade optical quality and refuse to use them. I like using yellow
filters with my black-and-white films for visual reasons, so my decision is
made for me right there. But whatever decision you arrive at for yourself,
don't make the mistake of cleaning your lenses too often. Ever seen the
designation "cleaning marks" in catalogues of used gear? Compulsive lens
cleaning will harm almost all lenses in one way or another. Older, uncoated
lenses didn't have today's super-hard glass in their objectives, and
excessive cleaning often made million of miniscule scratches on the glass,
cutting contrast and clarity. But today's objectives, although much harder,
are multicoated, and excessive cleaning will actually wear through the
As on a windowpane or a windshield, a buildup of haze, oils and grime will
occur on your lenses over time, so they should indeed be cleaned
periodically whether they look dirty or not. But once every month or two is
plenty. If you habitually leave a filter over the lens all the time, once
every six months or every year should be fine. Clean your protective filter
as often as you like, and if you ever notice any signs of wear, replace it.
And even if you swear that filters degrade the image quality, be sure to
carry one with you for special situations like shooting in heavy sea spray
or blowing sand, or that mud-wrestling match you were sent to cover.
- Proper Cleaning Technique: As I say, the best way to clean
lenses is not to have to. But when you do clean your lens, two methods are
best. For lightly soiled lenses or lenses with fingerprints, use one of the
microfine cleaning cloths available in most camera stores. They work great,
cause minimal wear to the lens, and allow very little residue to remain
behind. With these, use no liquid cleaner.
For dirtier lenses or those which have come through tough situations like
salt sea spray, more care is needed. First, remove as much grit as possible
without rubbing, using a blower or a brush. Then use liquid lens cleaner and
either lens tissue or a soft, lint-free cotton cloth (cloth baby diapers,
washed several times with plenty of fabric softener, work well). The more
outright dirt or grit there is, the more liquid should be used on the first
pass. The lens cleaner should always be applied to the tissue or cloth;
then, hold the lens upside-down as you clean. This way, no lens cleaning
fluid can seep down into the lens mount. Turn the lens right-side-up only as
you're completing the final polishing, so you can inspect it critically. And
remember, easy does it! The less rubbing, the better.
Use It Up
A final thought: while it's important to care for your cameras, be careful
you don't protect your gear too much. Cameras are tools, and were made to be
used. The better a camera you've paid for, the less coddling it's likely to
need — and I'd guess there are more people who fanatically
protect their cameras than there are who abuse them. Either extreme is a
mistake. A camera swathed in towels and locked in a padded case back at the
house is not going to help you make better pictures; in fact, it may be even
more of an impediment than a banged-up, dirty old box with a scratched-up
lens. Many fine pro cameras were designed to be used hard and long — and if you're going to treat them like antique china, you just
won't be getting your money's worth.
It's worthwhile to care for your camera and keep it operating in tip-top
shape. Protect it, yes; care for it, yes; but, in the end, don't be afraid
to use it up.
Mike Johnston writes and publishes an old-fashioned, entertaining quarterly
ink-on-paper newsletter called The 37th Frame (
www.37thframe.com). He has a
B.F.A. in Photography from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in
Washington, D.C., where he was a student of the late Steve Szabo and of Joe
He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and
Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his
editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he
presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John
Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely
discussed among photographers.
His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications
and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his
articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the
English magazine Darkroom User.
The 37th Frame is an ink-on-paper
quarterly for a small but select audience that's sardonic, sarcastic,
intelligent, independent, practical, entertaining, funny, and well written.
It's especially notable for detailed subjective reviews of lenses.
TO SUBSCRIBE: send a check for $18 for one year or $32 for two years to:
Mike Johnston, The 37th Frame, 316 Windsor Drive, Waukesha, Wisconsin 53186.
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