The great outdoors is brutal. Sure it can throw up the odd Kodak moment (other brands are available), but there’s so much grunge to get through to find them. Dust, sand, mud, water, hair and even fish scales all get on your camera gear and will, given the chance, damage it beyond repair.
So a proper cleaning regime is required to keep all that tech in tip top condition. What you do though depends on what has got onto your kit.
Water: There are two main types of water. Fresh water from rain, rivers, ponds etc and the more harmful salt water from the sea. All can hit your camera as spray or full on if you drop it or are hit by a wave. Fresh water should be blotted off with some kitchen towel or other absorbent material. Do not wipe it off, especially from a lens. Natural water contains grit, soil, and all sorts of abrasive contaminants that will scratch lenses or at least rip through the delicate and important coatings. So gently lift the water off first.
Salt water is a much more dangerous beast. As well as impurities that can scratch, it also has salts which will corrode. So get any gear hit with salt water blotted off immediately. Photo gear is much more tolerant to fresh water than salt, but anything more than a mist, you’ll need to ensure the battery is out to prevent corrosion.
As an underwater photographer, I’ve seen how quickly a battery can corrode when salt water gets in, so act quickly and you may just save your gear. Dry off the salt water and then apply a diluted white vinegar solution, get it on the electrical contacts to remove the salts and then wipe over again with fresh water and dry.
In an emergency, during an over ambitious beach shoot for example, open the battery compartment and check for water ingress. If water is present in the battery compartment leave the door open, battery removed, and the door facing downwards so no more water can run into it. Then get it to a safe place for cleaning and drying.
Dirt: Grit is a lens killer. Dirt, sand, mud are all forms of grit and while they are inconvenient on a camera body, they can be disastrous on a lens. Camera lenses are glass, which is hard to scratch, but they are coated in special materials to stop reflections and refractions and these are easy to scratch.
If the grime is damp or wet place the lens facing downwards and leave it to dry thoroughly. Using an air blower waft away as much material as possible with the lens still facing downwards so gravity helps. Then use a blower brush, or a soft make up brush gently brush away the remaining grit
Zoom lenses with a moveable barrel need extra care as grit can get into the extendable section causing a rough action. This is where a spudger comes in handy. I know it sounds like something Harry Potter would hit while riding a broomstick, but it’s a blunt piece of plastic (metal scratches) which can be used to tease out grit from crevices in your lens. I use those free brushes you get with hair clippers, but that’s because I’m balding and clip my own hair.
With the lens dirt free you may be tempted to give it a scrub with a lens cloth but don’t. Lens cloths are the devil’s dishcloth for lenses. Do not use them unless necessary and they are clean. It is far better to use distilled water and paper stalked cotton buds. Dip the cotton bud in the water and gently circle it over the lens. Using a lifting action change the bud often so any particles you cannot see are pulled away. Once clean use several dry buds again in a circular motion to polish off the water leaving a gleaming lens. You could use lens cleaning solution too.
The rest of the camera and lens can be cleaned with either Isopropyl alcohol or even warmish water on a cotton bud. Make sure you get everywhere, especially if salt water has touched your camera as the tiny screws holding the body together often rust.
The great outdoors can and does energise and enthuse us photographers, but it’s a dangerous world out there and so a well thought out and provisioned camera kit should include the right cleaning products.
Gavin Parsons studied photography at Huntingdonshire college one of the most eminent stepping-stones into commercial photography in the 1990s. His career skewed into journalism when he accepted the role of technical writer on Practical Photography magazine and then slid into the water and he became one of the UK’s top underwater photographers and was the editor of Sport Diver magazine.
Gavin is an award winning wildlife photographer, accomplished environmental portrait photographer and now a Youtuber with a growing channel dedicated to all things photographic.