Combat Use of Consumer Cameras in Dusty Areas
I was lucky enough to have been asked by someone about to be deployed to Afghanistan if I had any idea if his Nikon D40 would hold up in the relentless sand and dust which blows over there.
Yes, it would be nice to have a sealed professional Canon or Nikon, but who wants to pay for it, much less carry it unless you're a dedicated photographer, as opposed to an active participant.
I'm addressing what happens with regular consumer cameras more intended for use at home than out in desert combat.
I honestly had absolutely no idea, because I'm such a wimp that I've never served in our military, much less over there today. (Yes, I have worked as an engineer designing Fire Control Systems that fire missiles that deliver warheads, conventional or slightly stronger, within inches of their targets in defense of freedom, but that's easy compared to actually serving.)
Thus I asked readers who are brave enough to serve for their experiences, and from these comments I write this summary.
The great news is that the people who are over there are amazed at how well these things hold up.
Sand and dust clogs weapons faster than it clogs cameras. Cameras use a lot less and drier lubricants, cameras don't contain explosions that spit out hot metal for every shot, and cameras don't have to open to spit out brass.
The bad news is that unlike weapons, there is no way to clean and clear a camera jam out in the field, so it has to go in for service.
The dust and grit gets in everything eventually.
Several people report good results by blowing out the crud every day to a week or so with clean, canned air in a clean environment.
Some people go to the effort of keeping their gear in Pelican airtight cases when not in use, but I suspect ZipLocs or a regular case would work about as well.
People who have shot the D40 with 18-55mm kit lens in Iraq, Kuwait, and Qatar found it performed wonderfully. They were careful to not change the lens outside if they could avoid it, but didn't notice any dust in any important places after a lot of use, and there's plenty of dust!
They noticed that going from an air conditioned building to over 100º heat outside that the D40 would drip with condensation. That desert isn't a dry heat, but the D40 soldiers on anyway.
Other report the D40 with 18-200mm held up fine in Kuwait and Africa. Just like with their weapon, they made sure to clean it all the time. All it takes is a wipe down and a couple of blasts of compressed air in as clean an environment as possible.
Use Hoya HD UV filters over everything because they are made with tougher-than-normal glass and coatings.
If you have separate cases for lenses, use them. Use your lens and body caps. Don't put loose caps in your pockets, since they will pick up dust which will get back in your camera or lens when you replace the cap.
Close anything that can be closed. Get a good camera bag, or plastic bag everything when not in use. Try the Lowepro AW (all-weather) bags which include rain flaps (dust flaps).
People also report great results with Canon point and shoots, not even needing the obvious choice of the weather-sealed ones. Of course the pocket cameras are always with you, a huge advantage of them versus an SLR. (I'd get a weather-proof one, but remember I'm a wimp who's never been there.)
If you don't get to places to recharge, you may be happier with cameras, like a Nikon F4 or point-and-shoot, that runs on AA batteries. If you have to carry spares, the very expensive AA Lithiums are incredible. They last much longer than any alkaline, and they weigh much less, too.
Much to my pleasant surprise, apparently unsealed consumer cameras hold up much better than expected. It's nice if you want to carry a tougher camera like a D300s or D3, but if not, soldier on which what you've got.
Blow them out often, don't expect too much, and apparently the people who use them are extremely happy with the results.
I am honored that you people are out risking everything to help the rest of us enjoy ourselves here at home. I almost feel guilty relaxing, especially at Christmas as I write this, while you folks are out there risking everything.
If it wasn't for you great people, we'd have no USA and no peace and quiet in which to enjoy anything. It would be compete mayhem without the police, firemen, Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines, Force Recon, SEALs, Army Rangers and everyone else with enough courage to put their own safety aside so that the rest of us can relax.
It's great to get questions from people more concerned about their cameras than than their own well-being while serving in the defense of others.
Some of the people who helped with input to this article are
Michael O'Banion, Corporal, USMC, First Battalion Seventh Marines, Twentynine Palms, CA.
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