Sunday, September 12, 2004

How PJs deal with rain

Even if PJs aren't covering hurricanes or sports, they still need to know how to deal with rain and wet conditions. Most PJs shoot weather features for record (it rained today) or filler (the expected parade was cancelled, but the hole remains). If not, they'll cover breaking news in the same conditions. This means their camera system (presumably $5,000 or more) is exposed to these conditions.

When it's raining or the PJ covers water-related events, take a minimalist approach and only risk one camera and normally only one or two lenses (if possible). If the first camera fries, at least there's one more working until the first one comes back from the shop. But, let's consider how to stop it from frying in the first place.

Use an underwater camera
Probably the safest plan is to use an underwater camera with a dual-purpose lens (some lenses only focus properly underwater). Although this is probably the best alternative for extreme cases (hurricanes, floods, mud-bogging competitions), it can still be used for general assignment work around the city in a pinch. The only problem is film changes.

Likewise, there are underwater cases for many popular cameras. No, we can't use the 400mm. But in 100 MPH winds, it isn't much use anyway. Since many pros have point-and-shoot cameras for weekend vacations, birthdays and such (sorry to disappoint everyone), an underwater case is a good investment. The desk would rather have something from a staffer or freelancer using a point-and-shoot than a big hole on the page. However, most situations won't get this bad.

If necessary, use a single-use (disposable) aqua camera. It may bring back a hurricane image when it would've been impossible to get any image otherwise. Although it isn't much of an advantage, at least the film is sealed throughout the process.

Even though it's not a pleasant thought, NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) warfare is a reality on this planet. Underwater cameras can be decontaminated when standard cameras can't. Additionally, most underwater cameras still have manual shutters, film advances and meter overrides. If there's an electromagnetic pulse, they still work. Again it boils down to something versus nothing.

Rain covers
Several companies make really nice covers for camera systems. I think Aquatech's cover is probably best for pro PJs on the coasts and serious sports shooters, but they're expensive. I'd get one, but price is an issue.

Some covers provide "optical-quality" forward lens covers (filters) with their capes and covers at reasonable prices. However remember the lens system is only as good as the weakest link. Cheap glass leads to cheap images.

Water resistant materials used are important for different reasons. Some water-resistant, lightweight and flexible materials were introduced in recent years. They aren't watertight, but they'll keep most rain off the camera.

Neoprene covers (divers' wet suit material) give cameras extra protection from minor impacts, but also give PJs a little more trouble with focusing and are much more bulky to carry and store.

Clear vinyl is lightweight and has excellent water resistant qualities. However, it isn't very flexible for storage. It also tends to be clingy make the PJs' hands hot with extended use.

My personal gear is protected by a Pelican rain jacket. It also doubles as a minor blimp (sound dampener). It mounts and dismounts from the camera quickly and is water repellant. The arm sleeve and main pocket allow plenty of room for my hand to opertate the camera controls.

I dislike the eyepiece window and can't understand why they chose to place the preview window on the top instead of the back. Otherwise, I'm happy with the value for the cost. It's saved my cameras from hurricanes and saltwater assignments.

Because everyone's shooting habits are different, consider the following before choosing the right cover:

- Doesn't obstruct the PJs view through the eyepiece or lens.
- Protects from splashes in multiple directions.
- Allows the camera to be operated from inside and outside the cover.
- Allows lenses to be manually focused (AF lenses sometime decide not to work).
- Cover and sleeve(s) are useful or can be adjusted for various length lenses.
- Allows access to change camera settings and film without allowing water to enter.
- Allows PJ to see control LCD and preview window (digital).
- Has a way to mount on a monopod or tripod.
- Doesn't fog up under humid conditions (some manufacturers don't always think this one through).
- Can be easily attached and removed.
- Is lightweight, flexible and easily stored.

Nice features are:

- Has a way to attach a flash and/or flash cover.
- Has an extra lens shade/shield.
- Has windguards and anchor straps.

Grocery and trash bags
For most PJs on a budget, plastic bags are the best bet. It's free. I've used this method for years and have never had serious water damage. For normal lenses (wide to 200mm), use a plastic grocery bag. For larger lenses, use a tall kitchen trash bag (black is best to minimize reflections).

In a dry environment, remove the camera eyepiece and lens shade. Put the camera inside the bag. Gently fit the eyepiece over the outside of the bag to the threaded mount. All the PJ wants is an exact impression of the size. Don't screw it all the way on.

Attach a rubber band over the front of the lens and stretch the bag tight. Gently mark the front of the lens by attaching the lens shade or using a UV filter.

Remove the eyepiece and filter or shade and rubber band. Remove camera from bag. Use a scissors to cut the exact front and rear holes as measured. Place camera back into the bag and line up the holes. Reattach the eyepiece on the outside of the bag to the camera on the inside of the bag. Reattach the rubber band over the lens with the hole aligned to the lens. Reattach the lens shade or filter.

This method allows the PJ to see completely through the camera and lens. It isn't waterproof, but it resists most rain. If PJs must directly handle the camera, reach under the bag. If not, attach the camera to a monopod or tripod and tie the handles together. Most camera functions can be operated through the thin plastic.

An additional slit can be cut on top to allow a synch cord or flash hotshoe. Wrap the flash with another bag and tie the handles together at the base. Stretch the plastic over the flash head. Hold it in place with a rubber band. Cut a hole for the light to escape or use white plastic as a diffuser.

Keep a chamois inside a zippered sandwich bag. Tuck it under a coat/photo vest/shirt. When the lens or eyepiece gets soaked, gently remove the water with the dry chamois in circular motions from the outside to the inside of the lens.

Most grocery stores and auto parts shops sell chamois cloths along with car cleaning supplies. It's actually a piece of extremely soft, flexible, non-abrasive and absorbent leather. There are synthetic chamois cloths, but they don't work as well. Cut it into smaller pieces and keep a spare piece in a camera bag or photo vest to wipe dust/rain/mud/blood off lenses as well since they don't damage the lens and will trap dust between the fibers.

Pelican cases
Waterproof Pelican Cases are highly recommended. They're critical for any harsh conditions. They're particularly useful in bad weather, water-based assignments and desert environments. The military-grade, durable cases completely seal and keep the water and dust away from equipment and protect the contents from damage until it's time to use them.

Again, these are useful in NBC environments and the exterior can be decontaminated without damaging the contents.

They also have a custom interior padding system. The foam is pre-cut into half-inch cubes. PJs can arrange items on the foam, trace out the items and pluck the foam out by hand. The case interior can be customized in 15 minutes.

An additional bonus of the case is how professional the PJ looks to freelance clients. I think it lets the client know the equipment is expensive and worthy of the additional protection (as well as the additional cost of hiring a pro PJ). Even if the PJ has a mid-range camera, equipment or stobes it looks impressive in a nice case.

Personal rain gear
I have two types of rain jackets (warm and cold weather) and a pair of rain pants. I should get some firefighter boots, but I can't see myself using them. In colder parts of the world, I'm sure waterproof boots are vital.

As a suggestion, get a matching rain suit (jacket and pants) before it rains. I got my last set (the pants wear out faster than jeans) on a rainy day and got stuck with neon-yellow clown pants. I probably should upgrade mine soon or paint on a smile.

Again, I'll suggest a boonie cap to keep the rain off PJ's necks and eyepieces.

I've seen other sports shooters use creative engineering to mount large (golf style) umbrellas onto their monopods. It keeps the PJ and the equipment dry in minor storm conditions. The additional advantage is protection from the sun (and stray light on lenses) in blazing hot stadiums.

Although it's a cool idea, I can see how one strong gust of wind or slanting rain/sleet/snow will render it useless. The additional problem is the potential hazard of the umbrella flying onto the playing field (make sure this can never happen).

Ground tarp
I hadn't thought about using a ground tarp until I was researching for this entry. I think it would work more as a rain collector during a storm, but I could see how it would be useful for location portrait PJs to keep the subject dry.

When standing on really soggy/muddy ground, I've found round garbage can lids flipped upside down (like a bowl) work great.

Enough for now,

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