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Sunday Morning
23 June, 2002

A Weekly Column By
 Mike Johnston

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, you¹re 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 you¹re 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 occasions.

Incidentally, try to think of the camera bag as storage, and distinguish between your bag and what you carry when you¹re 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 you¹re 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 don¹t 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 film.

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  "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 you¹re 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 you¹re 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, don¹t 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 didn¹t have today¹s 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 multi-coating.

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 you¹re 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 2002

Mike Johnston writes and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine called The 37th Frame for people who are really "into" photography. His book, The Empirical Photographer, is scheduled to be published in 2003.

You can read more about Mike and find additional articles that he has written for this site, as well as a Sunday Morning Index.

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Entities: Pentax, china, Mike Johnston, sailing

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