Plugged In: Weather-sealing, portability can go together

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Now that winter and snow have arrived, it’s time to take a look at using camera gear under adverse weather conditions.

Moisture, dust and below-freezing temperatures can fatally damage photo gear, or at least prevent its correct operation. A few basic precautions help, but getting the right gear for adverse conditions makes the most sense.

No digital camera works properly when wet. Lenses fog and electrical equipment fails, sometimes permanently. In order to be moisture-resistant, both camera body and lens must be sealed against the intrusion of moisture and dust, yet many high-end camera bodies and lenses are not sealed at all. Before trusting any claims of weather and dust resistance, check reviews of those cameras at a respected test site such as http://www.imaging-resource.com and http://www.dpreview.com.

Weather-resistant does not mean weatherproof nor waterproof. The term basically means that a camera will resist, for a finite time, the intrusion of casual moisture from rain and fog, but not a continuous stream of water nor water under pressure. Dunk an expensive weather-resistant camera underwater and you’ll be in the market for a replacement.

The same caveat is true of claims that a camera is “dust-resistant,” which only reduces the amount of dust getting into your camera during normal operation. It does not guarantee that there will be no interior dust and dirt when you’re changing lenses in a dusty or windy environment.

To suffer dust or moisture damage, it’s not even necessary to expose a camera’s innards by standing under a waterfall when changing lenses. The mere act of zooming in or out, which changes the length of a zoom lens, may be enough to cause problems. After all, nature abhors a vacuum, and as you change the length of a lens when zooming, that air needs to move in and out of the lens and camera body, pumping external dust and moisture with each zoom movement.

Similarly, claims of cold resistance simply mean that a camera has been found to operate correctly to some below-freezing temperature, usually down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s not very cold, particularly during an Alaska winter. Actually, most cameras work pretty well in much colder temperatures. I’ve used older Pentax dSLR cameras in minus 30 conditions without any problem. Of course, that older Pentax K20D is weather sealed and cold resistant.

Some basic precautions can be very useful in protecting ordinary cameras and those that claim to best the elements. Minimize zooming to avoid unnecessarily sucking cold, wet or dusty air into your camera. If you’re using a weather-resistant camera body, then be sure that the attached lens is similarly rated. Keep gear in sealed bags unless and until needed, and then protect it from rain, moisture and dust while in use. Take great care when changing lenses to shield your open camera body and lenses from rain, fog and dust blowing into the camera. Take care to prevent moisture and dirt collecting on the unprotected rear element of each lens.

Allow cameras and lenses to gradually warm up or cool down within a sealed Ziploc bag when moving them between warm and cold conditions. Only remove the cameras and lenses after their temperatures have equalized with those of their new environment. Because all batteries lose power as temperatures drop, carry fully charged spare batteries in a warm pocket next to your body.

In order to avoid operational problems caused by cold lubricants, keep cameras and lenses next to your body, under a warm coat when outdoors. Try to keep cameras and lenses as warm as possible by stowing them back in warm conditions between shots. Finally, don’t store your camera in your car on cold nights. It will become “cold-soaked,” to use the old Alaska phrase, internally condensing moisture and becoming far too cold to use safely and reliably, even if the battery’s not already failed due to very cold temperatures.

That’s basically how to protect any camera, resistant or not, from adverse environmental conditions. Some better cameras are designed to fend off environmental problems without as high a degree of care and protection.

Let’s first turn to highly weather-resistant compact cameras. Imaging-resource.com recently performed an extensive, comparative review of the most common pocketable waterproof cameras, whose results we’ll summarize here. The reviewed cameras included Olympus TG-2, Panasonic TS5, Pentax WG-3 GPS, Sony TX30, Canon D20 and Nikon AW110.

These cameras are not designed to provide ultimate image quality. They’re designed for a good balance between robust weather and dust resistance, along with good handling in adverse conditions. After extensive testing, Imaging-resource.com ranked these cameras, from best to worst as: 1. Olympus TG-2; 2. Canon D20; 3. Nikon AW110; 4. Panasonic TS5; 5. Pentax WG-3; and, 6. Sony TX30. The Olympus and Canon models have ranked well within this category for years and are probably the best bets for active Alaskans needing a compact, weather-resistant camera.

Among upper-tier cameras, Pentax and Olympus stand out for consistently producing high-quality, weather-sealed cameras and lenses.

  • Both of Olympus’ OM-D series cameras, the earlier E-M5 and the more recent E-M1, are extensively weather-sealed, though most Micro Four-Thirds lenses are not. Olympus does market a reasonably sharp, affordable and compact weather-sealed kit zoom lens, its 12- to 50-mm, as well as a prograde, weather-sealed, 12-to 40-mm zoom lens. Olympus also promises a new weather-sealed 40- to 150-mm prograde telephoto zoom in the near future.
  • Every Pentax dSLR except its lowest-tier dSLR camera, the K-500, is weather and dust sealed. Even the now-discontinued Pentax K-30 is adequately weather-sealed, and produced excellent image quality, as well. It’s successor, the K-50, seems even better from reviews that I’ve seen. At the upper end, Pentax’s K-5 series fits legendarily good image quality in fully weather-sealed metal bodies, while the new 24-megapixel Pentax K-3 is making a quite a stir as arguably the best APS-C dSLR of all, with robust weather-sealing a bonus. Pentax also makes a broader-than-average range of weather-sealed lenses, denoted by the identifiers WR or DA* in the name of each such lens. The least expensive Pentax WR lenses, the 18- to 55-mm, is a decent kit lens that produced good images when used at apertures between f/7.1 and f/11. Not so the 50- to 200-mm WR telephoto. Although sharp enough when set at 100 mm and f/8, this is not a lens that I would use to make large exhibition prints. Pentax’s 18- to 135-mm WR lens has a reputation among lens reviewers as a very handy, all-round vacation lens that produces nice-looking images, but its corners are not sharp enough for my taste. Better is the new HD (High Definition) WR version of Pentax’s classic 55- to 300-mm zoom. This is a decent, affordable and handy zoom that’s now weather-resistant and with an improved anti-reflection coating. Complementing this telephoto zoom is an entirely new weather-resistant, normal-range Pentax zoom lens, the 20- to 40-mm Limited series, and a 100-mm WR macro that I’ve found to be wonderfully sharp and crisp.
  • Of interest: This week’s Every Friday program at the Kenai Fine Arts Center features a free public talk and informal discussion by Dr. Terese Kashi about the effects of music on the brain, at 6 p.m. at the Kenai Fine Arts Center, 816 Cook Ave. in Old Town Kenai.
  • The 2013 Peninsula Art Guild-Kenai Fine Arts Center annual arts and crafts fair will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 29 and 30 at Kenai Central High School, with a visit from Santa from noon to 4 p.m. and a chance to win an iPad. Admission is free.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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