When I go to very humid locations for photography, like rainforests and swamps, keeping my camera gear protected from the humidity is one of my top concerns. Lens fogging, fungal growth, and water damage are all risks to your camera equipment in the tropics and similar environments. It’s not unusual for gear to cease functioning after prolonged exposure to humidity. In this article, I’ll give you the run-down on how to take care of your camera gear in humid conditions.
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Will the Humidity Damage Your Camera Gear?
Humidity itself will not harm photography equipment directly, but it’s still a problem to deal with. The most obvious reason is that mold/fungus can grow on your equipment, especially in your lens, if you store your gear in humid conditions for long periods of time.
Another concern (less of a long-term issue) is that your lens or viewfinder can fog up if it’s very humid outside, becoming momentarily inoperable.
If you’re taking a trip to humid regions like the tropics, especially the rainforest, you have reason to be concerned about the wellbeing of your gear. Luckily, there are practices which reduce the risk of issues associated with humidity.
Camera and Lens Fogging
Imagine that you’re in the rainforest. You see a jaguar that just captured its next meal, and you raise your camera to document this incredible moment. But the camera’s autofocus searches, and all you see through your viewfinder is a low-contrast blur. You realize your lens has fogged up. Even though you desperately wipe away the fog, it returns within seconds – it’s inside your lens, too. The opportunity passes, and the jaguar returns to the trees with its meal.
Trust me, you never want to be in this situation. Sometimes, the air is so wet that condensation is very hard to avoid. Let’s try to understand why condensation occurs on your lens, and what you can do about it.
1. Why Does Fog Condense on Camera Lenses?
A camera lens fogs up when the lens itself is at a temperature below the climate’s dew point. Dew point is the atmospheric temperature at which condensation will occur on a surface. The more humidity in the air, the higher the dew point, and the higher the risk for lens fogging. This is why camera fogging is prevalent in the tropics, or hot and humid summer days.
2. Avoid Air Conditioning
One of the most common ways photographers fall victim to lens fogging is to go from an air-conditioned space to a hot, humid environment. In this situation the camera is much cooler than the dew point outside, so condensation rapidly accumulates on the lens and camera. Even if you wipe it off, it will continue to accumulate until the camera warms up to be above the dew point.
To avoid fogging when you leave an air-conditioned space, you can keep your camera in a Ziploc bag until the camera warms up to the outside temperature. Once acclimated to the surrounding temperature, you can open the bag, because fogging won’t be an issue.
3. Persistent Fogging
There are times when there is no temperature change, but your camera may seem to spontaneously fog up. In my experience, this occurs when lots of water has accumulated either in my camera bag, or worse, in my equipment. In these cases, it seems to be the evaporation of the existing moisture in your equipment that causes it to fog.
Like all fogging issues, it is best to prevent them from happening in the first place. This can be done by simply keeping your camera gear as dry as possible. If your camera does get wet, let it dry slowly rather than heating it. Then there’s always the classic “put it in a bag of rice” tip (and its variants) for stuck moisture – if you can find a bag of rice that’s big enough for your camera.
Lens Fungus and Mold
As bad as lens fog can be, the bigger long-term concern is lens fungus and mold. Once fungus starts growing in your lens, there is no good way to undo the damage. It is usually very difficult and expensive to repair.
Lens fungus usually looks like a white mat that spreads over the glass:
Fungus that’s particularly bad can make your photos washed-out and soft. It will also add severe lens flare to your photos in backlit conditions, such as when the sun is in your frame.
It’s best to prevent mold or fungus from growing in the first place by keeping your camera gear dry. That can be difficult in high-humidity environments, but it’s not impossible. Below are some tips on how to keep your gear dry.
Tips to Keep Your Camera Dry in the First Place
1. Stay Aware of the Conditions
Extra caution should be taken when you’re shooting in humid conditions. It may sound like common sense, but I have to stress it.
In dry conditions, a splash on your camera may not be a big deal; those water droplets would evaporate on their own quickly. The same isn’t true in humid areas, where water may find a home in the nooks and crannies of your equipment and be there to stay. Little stowaway droplets like these are what raise the risk of mold the most.
So, more than usual, be careful around splashes, rain, and droplets falling from trees. Keep your gear inside your camera bag as much as possible, and avoid changing lenses if it’s raining or even in heavy fog. This may sound like being over-careful, but keep in mind that “ordinary” things you’d do in dry areas can result in fungus or mold in the tropics.
2. Use Ziploc Bags and Silica Gel Packets
When I’m shooting in the rainforest, I keep my camera and each lens in its own Ziploc bag with a couple of silica gel desiccant packets. This keeps my gear dry when I’m not using it, and it helps dry it out again after each usage. The idea is to store your gear in a low-humidity environment that sucks away any pockets of water.
There are many different desiccants on the market. I like the silica gel packets, especially the color-indicating silica gel that changes color as it becomes saturated with moisture. Once a packet is saturated, it no longer removes humidity from the air and must be replaced (or dried out again). The silica gel I use is reusable if microwaved. Even so, I recommend bringing plenty of packets on a trip in case you go through them quickly and don’t have access to a microwave.
There are some desiccants that you should be sure to avoid, such as desiccating salts, because they start to sweat once they become saturated. In other words, they become a liquidy mess – a disaster in the camera bag (I speak from experience). Stick to the silica gel packets; they work like a charm.
3. Create a Dry Box
To prevent mold from growing on your camera equipment long-term, store your gear in a sealed box loaded with desiccant when not in use. (Air conditioning acts like a very large dry box – so, you only need to bring something separate if you’re staying in a place without air conditioning).
Any sealable box which fits your gear and can be packed in your luggage gets the job done. I fill the dry box with silica gel packets and a hygrometer to measure the humidity. I strive to keep the box below 70% humidity to prevent mold from growing. For a shorter trip (under two weeks) there may not be much of a concern for mold. For anything longer, or if you live in the tropics, I highly recommend utilizing a dry box.
Another perk of a dry box is that it can work like a camera hospital. Twice now, I have been given cameras that had spontaneously stopped working in the tropics from people who took none of the precautions in this article. Out of options, I placed the camera in my dry box for a couple days to see if that would help. Lo and behold, they came back to life afterward.
4. Always Bring a Rain Cover and Poncho
A heavy downpour can come out of nowhere in tropical regions, and other humid areas, so always have a rain cover for your camera bag. I’d double down by also getting a large poncho that fits over yourself and your bag when you’re wearing it. If your gear is packed in Ziploc bags as recommended above, and you have a rain cover for your camera bag plus a poncho on top of that, you and your gear can survive even the heaviest of downpours.
Ponchos are better than rain jackets because they can go over your camera bag conveniently and can be packed very small. A poncho is also much cheaper. Don’t be fooled by the more expensive ponchos available online. A $5 poncho works just fine. Even a trash bag works in a pinch!
I hope this article has helped you prepare your photography gear if you live, work, or visit the tropics. With the right precautions, you can keep your camera safe in the rainforest, swamps, and other humid environments with no issues at all. By keeping your gear dry and following the tips in this article, you reduce the risk of humidity-related issues, so you can capture every moment.