Weather Protection for your Gear (Part I)

Gear is not made for display at home in a glass case. It is meant to be used, abused and exploited. To survive, professional gear has a lot of weather protection built in – but there are always weak links in the chain. Consumer or Prosumer gear subject to the same abuse needs a lot of TLC to work.

No matter what your situation, this article explains what steps you can take to safeguard your gear, and get it back home in the condition it left it.

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First, a quick primer on weather-sealing bodies

You can’t seal each circuit chip individually, so camera manufacturers resort to wrapping their camera bodies instead. They protect their circuitry with a metal chassis (usually stainless steel or magnesium alloy) treated to be resistant to corrosion.

However, there are always ports, lens mounts, battery compartments, card slots, etc that are weak links in the overall weatherproofing design. So over and above a weatherproofing body, there are weather seals. Higher end DSLR bodies like the Nikon D4 and Canon 1DX are expected to perform under the toughest conditions. What are their weather ratings?

You might be surprised to know that professional cameras, still or video, are almost always rated at:

  • 0°C-40°C (32°F-104°F)
  • Humidity – Less than 85% (no condensation)

 
Guess what the rating for an entry-level consumer DSLR is? It’s the same. Nobody guarantees 100& weather protection, and many professionals and enthusiasts are disappointed when their ‘weather-sealed’ cameras stop performing exactly at that moment for which they had bought the camera in the first place!

For this purpose, professionals resort to protection:

Different conditions require different methods of protection. I’m going to divide this article into three groups:

  • Constant Conditions
  • Varying Conditions
  • Camera Material and Construction

 
Constant conditions are when you have constant weather, good or bad. Varying conditions are those situations where the weather is unpredictable, and non-negligible changes are expected during a single day of shooting. Camera material and construction will deal with different materials, and how they react under different weather conditions.

Constant Conditions

Rain

Rain is supposed to be pure water. It begins as water, but by the time it lands on earth it might have already reacted with gases in the atmosphere and become decidedly acidic, alkaline or basic. It isn’t as bad as concentrated chemicals, of course, but constant abuse over a period of one year or so will strip away the outer coating of your camera, no matter what it’s made of.

Let’s assume it’s pure water. What could possibly happen? Water will seep through the imperfections and reach the inner circuitry. Water damage isn’t usually covered by your warranty, and even if it were, how would you feel about testing it?

The important thing to realize is that the camera has to be covered with something. This cover must be light, cheap when compared to the camera, and must not interfere with the camera’s or videographer’s operation in any way. Is there such a thing? Not really.

For light rain, you can try something like this:

For heavy rain, you have two options:


Get the point? There are too many weak links for water to seep into – you cannot plug every one of them without a full cover. Stay away from rain, unless you have an assistant with a canopy on your back. And even he can’t protect you from sideways rain.

Sub-zero temperatures

Most weather-sealed professional cameras will work at -20°C (-4°F), even though the manufacturer might not mention it (the Arri Alexa does). If this weren’t so, most of Europe, North America and Russia wouldn’t have any live broadcasts during the winter. Professional-grade DSLRs are used at -40°C without issues, and most high-end video cameras can be stretched to about -30°C.

As long as the temperature is constant and the camera is used at a constant rate (to keep the temperature generated by the camera constant), it shouldn’t pose too many problems. The internal circuitry can weather the elements a lot better than the human body can.

But what if you don’t have professional-grade gear? Carry extra batteries, and keep them close to your body so they stay as warm as possible. Wear something like the Manfrotto Lino Men’s PRO Field Jacket. Other than that, you can’t do much if your camera doesn’t want to operate after a certain point. Worry about your batteries more, and keep equipment stored in padded bags.

Within the operating range, though, the camera can stay ‘naked’ – as long as it’s not snowing. If it is, run for cover. Not only is your camera in danger of being exposed to condensation, but might also be in physical danger if what is falling happens to be hail.

If you do happen to be shooting at -20°C or so, please carry eye-piece warmers, otherwise your breath might freeze on the viewfinder/eyepiece and make shooting hell. Something like this:

Heat

There are places on earth that have never seen snow or sub zero temperatures. These places are usually unlucky enough to see the other extreme – temperatures that can reach 50°C and higher. If the internal heat generated by the camera helps it in cold climates, it makes it worse in hot climates.

Funnily (only to those not having to shoot at these temperatures) the human body is better suited to high heat than the camera sensor circuitry. Heat also reduces the viscosity of lubricants within the lens, camera assembly, etc.

What do you do? You could hug the camera to stabilize the temperature – but that might burn you if you do it suddenly. Sharing the heat brings down the actual camera temperature. Okay, this isn’t always practical.

Higher end cameras have internal cooling fans. For the rest, you could use a fan:

You can also use a laptop cooling pad (not very efficient), a wet (not dripping) cloth dipped in water, a parasol or the shade of a tree or human.

High humidity

The rated maximum relative humidity of most gear is 85%. Most of them can be stretched to about 95% if the change isn’t very drastic. The weather sealing on a camera body stops large particles, but it can’t stop air and water vapor. Humid air (air transporting water) always enters and comes in contact with the circuitry. Now, condensation will not occur even when the humidity is 100%, as long as the temperature remains constant. But at such high humidity, even a small variation in temperature (which is bound to happen many times during the course of the day) can cause serious havoc – not something the camera can recover from.

If you’re working indoors or in a controlled environment, you could use dehumidifiers:

When storing gear, always use desiccants:

Silica gel can adsorb 15% of its weight in water vapor in a couple of hours. Instead of using one big sachet, buy smaller sachets to increase the surface area of absorption. As a general rule of thumb – when in a hermetically sealed box (no air can get in or out), 5 grams of silica gel are required per cubic foot of the box’s volume. The actual calculation is quite complex and depends on many variables, so it is always a good idea to add a little more than required.

When outdoors, there’s nothing practical that you can do that’ll work at 100% humidity, well, maybe luck. Some things you could try:

  • Use weather proof lenses
  • Better yet, don’t change lenses, filters, cards or batteries at all
  • Wipe your gear regularly, but not so much that it causes a temperature change!
  • Don’t try a ziplock bag – what is that? An extra filter for your lens?
  • Wipe your hands often
  • Use a dehumidifier or air conditioner when available

 
When storing gear in humid places (usually close to large water bodies like seas or lakes, etc), use a de-humidifying cabinet:

Lesson? Stay away from high humidity if possible.

Low humidity

Low humidity also affects gear. The human body needs at least 20% to stay comfortable. What happens when there’s no moisture in the air?

  • It gets dry, and there are lubricants in your camera that need the moisture
  • Static electricity becomes a serious concern

 
Just like cold dry air can crack skin, it can also impair the functioning of lubricants in your lens, shutter, etc. Much more serious is static electricity, which builds up when air becomes drier – all it takes then is for something (like your hand) to touch your gear, and – say goodbye to your circuit.

Usually, cameras are rated at a minimum of 25% relative humidity. If your working environment has humidity lower than this, try opening a window or boiling some water! Can’t do that? Then look for a humidifier:

When storing gear at low humidity levels, you’ll be better off using sophisticated anti-static devices like :


It also might be a good idea to wear one of these – one for each wrist!

Belkin Anti-Static Wrist Band with Adjustable Grounding

Next: Part 2