Spring Snowstorm, Grand Canyon
Nikon D70, Tokina 17mm f/3.5

When it comes to the life of a DSLR, there seem to be three different categories of camera owners.

First, there is the photographer who babies their equipment.  They never put a lens in a bag without first putting on both caps.  They switch lenses in 0.5 seconds flat to avoid getting dust inside.  Actually 0.5 seconds would be a little bit reckless, but you know what I mean.  They immediately freak out if it starts to drizzle just a tiny bit, or if there is dust in the air.  Their gear looks brand new even after many years of use.  (The people I always hunt for when it’s time for me to buy a “new” camera!!)

Second, there is the photographer who is downright abusive and reckless.  They dangle their camera over railings with their strap barely wrapped around their wrist, if they even use a strap at all.  They don’t hesitate to switch lenses on the beach or in a sand dune;  leaving their camera body exposed for a minute or two just dangling around their neck or shoulder.  They jam their lenses anywhere in their bag and they lost most of their caps months ago.  After just a few months or a year, their gear looks like it was used to pound nails, or maybe for self defense in a war zone by James Nachtwey.

Third, of course, is the middle of the road.  The photographer who does what it takes to get the shot, but still cares for and cleans their gear regularly.  They at least have “a system” for lens storage and swapping, and they use a UV filter or hood even if they don’t always have time to carefully place a lens cap on their lens while shooting.  Their gear shows signs of loving wear, but not abuse.

This article is for everybody, with two objectives:  First, to try and remind those “my camera is my baby” types that their gear was meant to be used, not worshiped.  Second, to try and remind those “let’s see how close I can get to that tornado” types that their gear is not indestructible, nor are they…  So without any further ado, here are five tips to ensure that your camera lives a long and healthy (but exciting) life.

 

1.) A bit of water never hurt, just keep a dry cloth handy.
Always wipe down your camera after exposure to the elements.  Regular rain or morning dew just needs to be wiped off, but salty water / air deserves a more thorough wiping with a damp cloth.  Keep this in mind if you have sweaty hands, too, not just if you shoot near the beach.  ;-)

Personally I’ve shot at the beach and near water many, many times and have gotten every single one of my cameras slightly wet at one point or another.  Weather sealed and non-sealed cameras / lenses, they’re all pretty hearty.  Yes, there is always a slight risk that a well-aimed raindrop could kill your camera.  But that’s a risk I’m willing to take, especially with a “lightly weather sealed” camera which these days is pretty much every camera above the most beginner DSLR…

 

2.) Don’t be afraid to switch lenses, but do it right and learn to clean your sensor.
Most cameras these days have one of those supersonic dust shaker thingies, and you can go quite a few months before needing to clean your sensor, even changing lenses frequently.  Don’t freak out if you forget to turn off your camera before changing lenses, it’ll be fine.  In general, keep your camera body pointed down when changing lenses; since it’s easier to clean a rear element than a sensor.

Learning to clean your sensor is still a good idea.  “Wet” kits cost just $20-40 and it’s a very easy task.  As long as you use a fresh swab and the correct liquid solution, your risk of causing actual harm to your sensor is almost nil.  Or at the very least if you’re too chicken to touch your sensor with a wet swab, just get a “rocket blower” type tool.  These will usually get 99% of dust.  Do NOT just blow on your sensor with your mouth, that’s just humidity / spit which causes dust to stick even worse.  (It’s also pretty stupid to use canned air blasters, especially with those detatchable straws.)

 

3.) Use the right cleaning tools for the job.  Retire them when necessary.
The best tools I can recommend are a rocket blower and a lens pen.  You don’t have to get the absolute most expensive gizmos, just use the right tool for the job.  And always do the same procedure.  Brush off your lens glass before going to town with actual rubbing.  (Lens pens are awesome for this!)  Otherwise, you could just be grinding a grain of sand into your glass.

If you prefer to use microfiber cloths or something similar, it’s usually a good idea to retire them after a while, especially if you have any accidents involving sand getting in your bag.  A new lens cloth costs a few bucks, and replacing your front element or even a nice UV filter can be $100+

 

4.) Workout your batteries.
Lithium ion batteries are pretty hearty things, they can last for many years if you take good care of them. I have Nikon batteries from 2006 that are still going strong!

One thing that most people forget about Li-ion battery care is that it’s good to work them out regularly. Especially if you’re a casual shooter and you only ever shoot a few hundred clicks here and there before putting your battery back in it’s charger. If your battery NEVER goes below 50% for example, it tends to lose the ability to “remember” that range below 50%. You probably have a 1-3 year old laptop that does this- It trickles slowly from 100% down to 30-40%, and then all of a sudden it dies without warning.

The best way to avoid this is to let your batteries go all the way down to 0-5% every so often. Then, charge them all the way back up to 100%.  Also, a couple of days sitting in the charger at 100% on “trickle charge” doesn’t hurt, however you should store them off the charger if it’s a matter of weeks or months.

Personally I have eight Nikon batteries now, all purchased between 2006 and 2010, and they are all working great despite heavy use. I totally deplete them on a regular basis, at least 2-4 times per month. This may be a little more heavy usage than normal, but they are still going strong!

 

64 minute exposure in sub-freezing weather, Yosemite
Nikon D300, Nikon 17-55 f/2.8 DX

5.) Know your risks involving temperature and temperature changes.
Many photographers are afraid of super cold temperatures, when actually the biggest killer is probably heat and humidity.  I’ve taken pictures in sub-zero temperatures with both sealed and un-sealed cameras and lenses, with no problems.  I’ve seen cameras left out all night that grow frost in the morning, and they’re just fine after “thawing”.

The thing to watch out for is extreme or rapid temperature changes.  If you’re shooting out in the snow and it’s time to go into a nice warm cabin, that’s when you gotta be careful.  The warm indoors will cause condensation on your cold camera, which could short out electronics or eventually cause fungus growth inside lenses.  The best thing to do is keep your camera bag with you out in the cold, and seal your camera in your bag before going inside.  Let the camera and bag warm up slowly for 20-30 mins and you’ll be fine.  Also beware in hotter climates and indoor AC; you can cause condensation just by going from a cool air-conditioned room out to a hot, muggy summer morning.  Especially those living in the American Mid-West and South.  Some areas could even benefit from storing your camera in a sealed case with some anti-moisture agents.

Going from hot to cold is actually not much of a risk at all, but again it has a lot more to do with the humidity than the temperature.

And lastly, beware of extreme heat in places you might not think.  Don’t leave your camera in a hot trunk, it can turn into an oven really quickly.  Doing this once or twice here or there won’t cause significant harm to your camera, however on certain cameras you will at least start causing your grip rubber to get “peel-y”.  Especially on Nikon cameras; because I personally cannot avoid leaving my cameras in hot places from time to time, I end up having my (camera and lens) grip rubber fall off every couple years or so.  Especially notorious is the thumb rubber on Nikon pro DSLRs, but now also the Canon 5D Mk3 CF card door has the same problem.

 

6.)  Get your gear serviced every 1-2 years.
This goes without saying, but a camera is a precision instrument.  Service and calibration, even when your camera seems to be functioning properly, is a great way to keep your camera “alive” for as long as possible.  Every camera I have owned has lived well beyond the “shutter rating” lifespan, and my D300 is still going strong on it’s 2nd shutter.  (A $200-$300 repair)

Aside from shutter replacements every few hundred  thousand clicks, it’s usually just a matter of getting your autofocus and metering calibrated, getting the sensor cleaned properly, and an overall checkup.  If you do these things, your camera will far outlive your ability to resist upgrading.  :-P

 

Do you have any of your own tips / reminders, that have helped prolong the life of your camera?  Please do share with us!

Take care,
=Matt=

PS:  It doesn’t really count as an actual way to prolong your DSLR’s life, but I suppose I should encourage photographers to resist a temptation to upgrade their camera for no reason at all.  More megapixels?  Not really necessary, for most.  The bottom line is that usually, if your current camera is working just fine then it will continue to serve you well.  I sure love buying a new camera body as much as the next photog, but I also like to get my money’s worth out of each purchase I make.  I hope this makes sense!