Avoiding the Ravages to Your Camera and Lenses from Salt-Rich and Humid Environments

Photo of salt pans at the Pink Lakes in the Murray Sunset National Park in AustraliaCanon 5D camera and Canon 24mm f1.4 L series ASPH lens. Exposure Details: 1/15 second @ f22 ISO 100

Here's an image from around 5 or 6 years ago which I stumbled across as part of a long and detailed reorganization of my digital image assets (you know, photos). I guess it's the sort of task you might set yourself at this time of year. The whole new year thing is such a weird concept, but it does provide us with an opportunity to clean out the old in tray and finish up some of those mid term projects.

So, while not the greatest image I've ever made, it does provide me with an opportunity to write about the dangers salt can pose to our valuable camera equipment. By the way the original photo was made at the Pink Lakes within the Murray Sunset National Park.

Salt can corrode metal and, as such, needs to be kept away from our camera and lenses. The problem is when you're lying down on the ground, working close-up with a wide angle lens, its very hard to avoid salt coming into contact with your camera gear. It seemed that, no matter how careful I was, I just couldn't avoid a crust of salt building up on my gear. What's more there was so much salt encrusted into my clothes that I started to walk with a limp. Jeans, shirt and shoes were immersed numerous times into a large tub of fresh water on return to the camp site. It took several more washes, upon returning home, before all the nooks and crannies (sorry granny) were no longer bothered by the insidious salt. 

So what are the best ways to protect your gear when shooting in a salt-rich environment? Of course prevention is always the best form of cure. During my 2010 trip to Antarctica I used a Kata E-702 Elements Cover to provide protection for my camera from saltwater and snow. I found it very difficult to photograph with this cover in place and only ended up using it when photographing from a moving zodiac. For folks without a dedicated waterproof camera case salt remains a problem. Here's how I suggest you deal with the problem.

Immediately after your photography session has finished (i.e. Burning Man) employ a soft, absorbent microfiber cloth, dipped in fresh water, to wipe off any salt from the outside of your camera and lenses. This kind of cloth should be fine for your cameras LCD screen/s, but is not recommended to clean your precious glass lenses and filters. To avoid scratching the surface of any LCD screen/s its also a good idea, before wiping any affected surface, to use a hurricane blower (no brush) to loosen solid particles lying on the surface of the screen. You wouldn't want to scratch your screen by pushing these hard, abrasive particles across its surface now would you? Your camera and lens instruction manuals should provide general care suggestions that may help provide further guidance in this regard. Be sure not to apply commercial (i.e. household) cleaning fluids directly to your camera and lens bodies.
The same is true for any glass surfaces, such as lenses and filters, that have been exposed to salt. Holding the filter or lens in question above the blower will allow gravity to help dispel any nasty foreign particles. Next use a separate, dedicated lens cleaning cloth, also dipped into clean, fresh water to clean the surface of any exposed glass (i.e. lens or filters). Finally employ clean and dry microfiber and lens cleaning cloths to finish cleaning the respective metal and class areas.

After photographing under hot, humid conditions moisture and condensation may result. To avoid damage to your camera's circuitry and prevent fungus forming inside your lens it's a good idea to remove moisture from camera body and lenses alike. This is how I do it.

  • ensure your camera is switched off
  • remove the batteries and memory card, leaving the respective compartment doors open to promote drying
  • remove the lens cap and any filter from the front of the lens
  • remove the lens from the camera body, ensuring neither a front or rear lens cap is attached
  • place all these items, separate from each other, into a large, air-tight tupperware container with some freshly activated silica gel sachets placed inside the container
  • Seal the lid firmly onto the top of the container, ensuring you've burped it first to remove air.
Ideally you've sealed all the items into the container under relatively mild conditions. It wouldn't make sense to seal humid air inside the vessel. That would only make the job of the silica gel, to absorb any moisture within that environment, harder. It's also important to ensure that the silica gel in question is fresh. I make sure I store mine inside the same, air tight container and re-active it when its color changes. One of the more commonly available silica gel types is clear or slightly yellow in color. It changes to a milky or hazy white when it's no longer able to absorb moisture. Its at that stage that it needs to be replaced or reactivated by placing in a moderate oven for around 10 minutes to remove the moisture and bring the silica back to life. Just don't over heat it as the packing around the crystals will deteriorate and you'll end up with them spilling all over the place. If you use silica gel of a different color a quick google search, including the words color change, will help you understand when the crystals in question are no longer working. 

So, rather than saying you shouldn't photograph under humid conditions or in a salt rich environment, I'd rather say do so at your own risk. And also that by following reasonable preventative and camera/lens care procedures your chances of experiences problems are significantly reduced.
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Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru