Zen and the art of digital camera maintenance

10 tips that will keep your camera on target

“Normally, we do not so much look at things as overlook them” is a popular Zen quote, but when it comes to digital cameras, you shouldn’t overlook their regular maintenance. Keep your camera in good shape and it will reward you with years of great pictures.


So, you’ve saved for months and have now purchased that digital camera you’ve always wanted. It has the latest features, a high megapixel count and it makes a rockin’ image. And now that it’s in your hands, how do you take care of it so that you not only make the best quality images possible, but have many years of enjoyable use too? Here are ten tips that will make your shooting experience the most enjoyable it can be, and prolong the life of your camera by performing simple maintenance tasks regularly.

Bag it

    It’s important to keep your camera covered and padded. Many manufactures make cases that fit your individual camera that are  designed to keep the dust and elements away from sensitive electronics, and envelope it in padding to protect it against that inevitable drop from your purse or pocket. When not in use, you camera should always be covered in a padded case. Domke and many other traditional camera bag makers have economically-priced options.

An equation for disaster

It’s really a very simple equation:  Little buttons + dirt = big problems. Because point-and-shoot cameras tend to be small, the crevices between buttons and body are slim, but large enough to allow dirt and debris between them, which reduces the functionality of the button.  If used with care, canned air can is an asset in removing debris that’s embedded under buttons. Canned air should NEVER be used to clean DSLR sensors or shutter chambers. If dust in these areas becomes problematic, send the camera to a qualified repair shop for cleaning.

Smother and cover

    A clean lens yields the best image quality, so it’s important to prevent smudges and other marks on the front lens element. An investment in a microfiber cloth is money well spent. This cloth will clean the lens without scratching the glass element.  If “fogging” the lens with your hot breath and wiping with a microfiber cloth won’t remove smudges from the lens surface, you may need to use lens cleaning fluid. In some instances though, lens cleaning fluid can remove delicate coatings that are applied to the lenses to reduce glare and flair within the lens while enhancing contrast and color fidelity.

    Before applying lens cleaning fluid, contact your lens or camera manufacturer or check the manual to verify that it won’t degrade the coatings applied to the optics during the manufacturing process. Lens cleaning solution should never be applied directly to the lens surface.

    If you’re shooting with a DSLR that has removable lenses, cleaning both front and rear elements becomes equally important.  Many photographers purchase a "UV" filter and permanently attach it to the front lens element. This will protect the front lens element from dust, debris, scratches and in some cases, even drops. The logic is that it’s much cheaper to replace a UV filter that’s scratched than to repair the front lens element. Lenses should also be completely covered when not in use and “bagging” them to protect from dirt and the elements isn’t a bad idea either.
Cotton is king

In extreme situations where you have no protective options for your camera, use whatever resources are available to you. A clean, dry cotton shirt (or even underwear!) is a better option to allowing your camera to get waterlogged. Ensure though that the cotton cloth you wrap the equipment in is clean and dry. Wet clothes will often do more damage than good, and can make a bad situation even worse.

A large, gallon-sized zip lock bag in your pocket can also mean the difference between saving your camera and having to purchase a new one when you’re trapped in a sudden downpour. It’s also cheap and fits easily into any pocket or camera bag. I like plastic bags like these when I go canoeing. I place the camera into the bag, fill it with air, and seal it. If the canoe tips and the equipment falls out, it will usually float.

Losing your memory

    Maintaining the memory card can also keep you from losing images due to faulty sectors on the card itself. Gently blow the card slot with canned air to remove built-up dust and debris that may accumulate within. If your card has exposed metal contacts, such as SD and Xd cards, inspect these areas for dirt build-up and use a pencil eraser to gently clean these areas.  Cameras should be powered down and not writing or sending files when the card is removed. Removing cards while files are being transferred or written can damage both card and camera while additionally corrupting the files already written on the card. Formatting the card regularly will also “mark” the bad sectors in the data storage area and will help you avoid losing images due to badly written files that have incomplete data.

Vacations are Evil

     As counter-intuitive as it seems, vacations can actually be very bad for your camera equipment.  Sand, saltwater, and even sun screen can all be detrimental to the upkeep of your camera. Sand can easily embed itself into the inner circuitry and gears of your camera, causing accelerated wear. Sun screen lotion is typically oil based and attracts dirt and other deposits that will impair proper function of the camera.  Saltwater is highly corrosive to electronics and will deteriorate circuits and wiring. Again, the best defense is a good offense- keep your camera covered when not in use, and clean your hands before making your photos if you have sunscreen on.

Puppies and Pig-tails

    Kids and pets are wonderful subjects, but can also be dangerous to your camera. Young children and pets will naturally pull on a camera strap if it’s hanging over the side of a table, so don’t let neck straps overhang a table or chair. Puppies love the feel of soft camera bags with the harder center, filled with your camera, and identify it as a chew toy. Keep your camera out of the reach of little hands and canine teeth.

A Steal of a Deal

    In the modern world, theft can be an issue. Ensure that you’ve got the manufacturer’s information for your camera, including make, model, serial number(s) and all receipts. Each lens or accessory should also have a serial number and other pertinent information recorded and kept separately as well. If your equipment is expensive, checking your homeowner or renter insurance for a photographic equipment rider is a good idea if the cost for the rider isn’t more than the cost of replacement over a six month period. Making photos of your equipment can also help police and insurance representatives in completing your paperwork too. Have all documentation in one place and ready to use in the event of theft.  For very expensive equipment, and in extreme cases, engraving may also be an option worth considering.

It’s All About the Accessories

    Accessories- filters, flash attachments and other equipment also need regular maintenance to work properly. You should have a regularly scheduled time for reviewing and cleaning accessories. I tend to do this based on the season- Baseball, Football and Basketball. 3 times a year is adequate for most equipment. If you use a TTL flash, make sure that you clean the on-camera contacts with an eraser as well as the contact points on the hot-shoe of the flash. Filters should be checked and cleaned. Cables, particularly electrical ones, should be checked for wear and fraying.

    It’s also a great time to clean your camera bag too, and a trip to the dry cleaners will make even older bags look new again. If you live in colder climates, these three seasons are also an excellent time to think about weatherizing for the anticipated conditions. Many bag manufacturers have specialized severe weather protection available for most cameras.

Feel the Power

    Batteries can be of particular concern because of leakage. If a battery leaks while housed in the camera, it can cause damage that’s unrepairable to the camera, and if severe or left for a long enough period of time, can affect other equipment within the proximity of the battery as well.  Some basic battery tips are:
•    Overcharging a battery is a no-no. Only charge the battery long enough to give you a “green light” on your charger, even if there’s a “trickle charge” feature built into the charger.
•    If your camera uses “AA” sized batteries, never mix fresh and old batteries into the camera. Older batteries have a larger variation in voltage and can cause issues with the inner electronics of the camera. Always replace with a full set of fresh batteries.
•    Don’t charge your batteries if you anticipate long term storage. Charging the batteries before or directly after storing them for extended periods can lead to leakage. After taking the equipment out of moth balls, turn the camera on and shoot until the battery is depleted, then recharge. Over time, batteries will discharge on their own if not used, and there may be little charge left if the battery is stored for a long time
•    For long term storage, the battery should never be left in the camera. Take the batteries out and if possible, place in a covered, corrosion resistant container.

For those who have little experience with a camera, the bottom line in maintenance is this: Take good care of your equipment and it will, for many years, take good care of your photographic needs. A well-executed camera maintenance routine will add years to the life of your camera and accessories and give you the full benefit of the technology that’s in your hands. And if you decide to sell that equipment, much like a used car, there’s a lot of psychological value to the buyer if they can review the “maintenance records” while they kick the tires.

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