How to Ruin Your (or Our) Gear in 5 Minutes (Without Water)

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If there hasn't been a Color Run 5k or 10k race near you, there probably will be soon. And with all that color, you certainly want to take some pictures, right? Not with your camera you don't (and not with ours either).

I'm never one to worry much about lens dust. I've written about why you shouldn't worry about some dust in your lens. But the color bombs they throw out at Color Runs are different. In the last month we've had over 20 lenses and several cameras nearly ruined by these things. For what it's worth, all of the renters tell us they really weren't near any of the major 'color bombs.'

Here's a few pictures from a brand new lens that returned after its first rental -- at a Color Run. These pictures are, of course, after the lens was cleaned externally. All of that dust is inside the front and rear elements.

Now a few dust specs rarely cause problems, but this kind of dust affects light transmission and contrast, as well as causing fascinating flare (in pretty colors). The color dust is very fine, tiny specs, made to stick on people as the run by (I'm still trying to figure out why someone thought this was a good idea).  Because of this, the lenses' weather sealing, front filters, etc. don't even slow this stuff down. It's throughout the entire lens stuck on every element, on the gears and helicoids, and in the mirror box of the camera too. And yes, that includes pro-level lenses on pro-level cameras, all of which are supposedly weather sealed. As an added bonus, it doesn't blow out like regular dust. It must be wiped off.

Here's a look at the inner rim after the front element was removed.

Here's the front of group 2, nice and deep inside the lens (excuse the lights, this is a quick post just using worklights).

And here's one of a dozen Q tips I used to clean out around the focusing gears and helicoids. Remember, this was a brand new lens only used for this one shoot.

The end result for this lens was complete disassembly and cleaning. This was a fairly lucky one - it's a lens that we can disassemble and clean without requiring factory readjustment. For a lot of lenses that's not an option.

A number of lenses, including Canon L's and Nikon Pro lenses had to go to the factory, and at least one has been given the "financially not feasable to repair" sticker. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether they cover it under warranty or not.

You know what I'd probably find more interesting than the photos of what the insides of lenses look like after this? What the inside of the runner's lungs look like. All my medical training leaves me curious about that kind of thing.


Addendum - here's a bonus picture. A Sigma 8-16mm with the barrels removed so you can see how pervasive the Fun Run dust was throughout the entire lens. The dust around the mount side of the lens is so thick that it's blocking the AF motor from working properly and it's so caked into the lubricant that the helicoids don't zoom normally. This will have to be completely disassembled and cleaned piece by piece.


Roger Cicala


May 2013


BTW - Because I've already been asked: this won't be covered by the rental damage waiver going forward - it's considered negligent use of equipment just like when salt spray soaks the camera on the beach.

132 Responses to “How to Ruin Your (or Our) Gear in 5 Minutes (Without Water)”

John Dillworth said:

Let me guess. Spike in color related repairs right after March 30th? Perhaps from areas with large India populations? Welcome to Phagwah or Hole. The spring festival where colorful powders are thrown. I was going to go to one with my new Canon 5DIII. Glad I didn't do. anyway, the plan was to cover the camera in a bad and just leave the front element of an old 50 1.8 exposed. If the lens got damaged it was a throw away. Didn't want to go with a zoom as they can be "dust pumps" Might have worked but the story above scared me off for life. Thanks for this

David said:

Thanks for the tip, they are having one in Indy soon and now I know to stay away, very far away. I had the same musings about the lung issue too.

Katie Bohannon said:

I was wondering the same thing. I photographed the Color Me Rad for their official photos. (I only used a rebel and pretty cheap lens) Even with the rain guard, it was everywhere and I was left hacking and coughing the rest of the day.

Joe Gunawn said:

In your opinion, which camera maker has the best weatherseal? I hear that Pentax's and Olympus's weatherseal are legendary and trumps Canon's and Nikon's.

- Joe | fotosiamo.com

Jim Shepherd said:

This would be a good place to use an underwater camera and hose it off before opening the housing.

Jay Frew said:

I wonder if chest x-rays, shot on color-run participants, would be in technicolor ;~)

All joking aside, I would be more worried about the dust that finds its way into my respiratory tract, than lens flare, light transmission and contrast.

Cheers! Jay

Michael said:

I know there was one local recently. I didn't shoot it. I didn't even know about it until afterward. I saw some pics on Facebook. It looked stupid to me.

Like you said, I wouldn't want to breathe the stuff. I definitely don't want it in my gear.

If someone wants to shoot those things they should go by themselves a P&S and treat it like a disposable and trash it afterward. Or maybe put the camera and lens in a zip lock type bag? Of course I bet the IQ would be terrible.

Best to just avoid these things!

Ben said:

Technicolor Asbestos.

Trenton said:

Color runs are insanely unsafe thing, both for yours and your gear's health. I wonder what's gonna be the next fad: long exposure night shoots of a glowing nuclear fallout maybe?...

Richard said:

Given that this post is a disclaimer/warning, Holi should probably also be mentioned.


Same idea with colored dust/powder.

Ben said:

Wow, I am kind of shocked here. Roger, I love this blog but your statement that this would be considered negligent use and wouldn't be covered under the damage waiver has just ensured I will never rent from you all.

How could someone shooting this event from the sidelines possibly be expected to know that pro-level weather sealed equipment would be at risk from this? How can you say that is negligent use?

Adam said:

Frankly, if you're renting pro-level gear you should know weather-sealed does not dust proof.

Richard said:

"How could someone shooting this event from the sidelines possibly be expected to know that pro-level weather sealed equipment would be at risk from this? How can you say that is negligent use?"

I think he just told us.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:


We haven't said a word to the 25 or so renters who sent stuff back full of dust already and have simply eaten several thousand dollars worth or repairs without a complaint (including several people who did not purchase the damage waiver). We will be considering it negligence going forward - because now we've told everyone.


silke said:

There's a simple solution for this problem, just buy a rain cover for your camera, they normally are very cheap, you can just take pictures on these color runs with them and they protect your camera very well ! And maybe buy a protection-filter for your lens, those aren't that expensive either.. I'd rather spend 40dollars for good protection than the cost of a new camera/lens ..

Alex said:

It is excess particulate matter in the air, same as a sandstorm, dust storm or volcanic fallout. Negligence seems completely appropriate to me. If you want to shoot these, use a disposable OR underwater rig.

Debra said:

I just watched some videos on this. I had never heard of it before reading this. Watching all that 'colored dust' may be kind of cool, but I seriously think it cannot be good for the lungs. Heck, Dr. Oz says I shouldn't use my mineral based makeup (still do) because of it's small particles. I would not want my gear anywhere near this stuff. Nor my lungs for that matter. Thanks for the heads up.

John Pren said:

Roger, you wondered what the human lung might look like after one of these, I was wondering how the lung deals with normal dusty conditions, and is there any medical procedures?

Shane said:

How about one of those clear plastic housings for underwater photography? Not to mention a ventilator and goggles if you HAVE to shoot one of these things.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

This dust is so fine I think you'd need almost a micropore respirator mask - a simple surgical mask isn't going to do much - as far as prevention. If I'm informed correctly the colored powder is basically finely ground corn starch and coloring. The lung is a pretty impressive filter for dust until it gets overwhelmed - but there have been articles in the medical literature about breathing in other forms of cornstarch. Basically it sure doesn't make anyone's lungs better: http://erj.ersjournals.com/content/21/4/646.full but I don't know of any permanent damage.


Joe said:

I'm with Jim Shepherd - time to see how well sealed the Sea and Sea units are. Either that or setup the camera in a fish bowl and seal it, using a rf remote to shoot.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Scott, we are adding it both to the FAQs and the damage waiver specifically - but we'll cover damages for any rentals shipped up to the time we do that (which will be today).

Daemonius said:

Interesting and bit disappointing.

Got any spare Olympus SHG lens to test against all those failed Nikkors and Canons? :D

Theresa said:

I was reading about the Color Runs this week, my immediate reaction was to check my schedule to see if I was free to shoot at one...and in the same moment my brain said"hmmmmmmm, I hate the dust I get at a horse barn/riding ring, this might be bad, maybe I won't try it" So, thank you for this information....and you're right, this CAN'T be good on our lungs, either!

Ben said:

Roger, that seems very reasonable of Lens Rentals. Taking the hit for people who didn't pay for the waiver seems above and beyond, actually.

thomas said:

I have been to a color run event and I was absolutely in the clouds of dust or whatever it is they toss. My gear did not look anything like this. whatever that person said about not being in the middle of it all is in no way true. I used my 70-200 and a 24mm lens (both canon L lenses probably sealed better than most lenses out there) neither of my lenses has a speck of dust on the inside. What you have there is seriously negligent treatment to the equipment.

Kevin Purcell said:

I'd never heard of this before. Useful to know.

One thie FAQ page they point out that this is colored food grade cornstarch. That's why it's so fine.

There is going to be a run in Seattle on 5/12. If it rains it should be interesting (just like UK "custard powder").


Do the kilometer “Color Zones” affect runner vision? Or breathing?

The Color Run™ explosions are basically food grade cornstarch and are 100% natural and SAFE. As with any substance, you want to keep it out of your eyes and our “certified” color throwers make sure to aim low as you pass by. Some “Color Runners” opt to wear glasses or goggles for their eyes and use a bandana or dust mask for their mouths. As shown on the “about” page the middle lane is the “low color lane,” which offers a “lighter” color experience. In summary: We work pretty hard to make it so our precious “Color Runners” get as much or as little color on them as they like.

Not much work has been done on the harm of inhaling this material (even the OSHA warning sheets show "No data" for acute and chronic inhalation.

It's also that white powder they put in surgical gloves so some folks were interested what happens if you breath it in. Result: "The results show that inhalation of cornstarch glove powder leads to the development of a subclinical inflammation in the airways, with an accumulation of eosinophilic granulocytes."


The FAQ also points out:

Are cameras and phones safe to have in the color zones?

Our race photographers are totally fine shooting from a medium distance (25-50 feet). If you want to get shots right in the midst of the color we recommend covering cameras/phones with plastic wrap.

THX723 said:

Festival of Colors 2013 ...


Couldn't image being the videographer from this shoot, man and machine. *cringe*

Erika Thornes said:

I have to say that my underwater bag (EWA Marine) was sealed before I left the car, and I didn't take my camera out until I got home, and had run the bag under water. My bag STILL has remnants on the outside of it, waiting for its next dunk. But, I did have a blast shooting the color run, but there is no way I'd do it with rental gear or a rental underwater bag, as my bag is still dusty. Great (and sad) post.

CarVac said:


I presume you had less of an issue because 70-200's and fixed 24mm lenses don't pump air in and out.

Frank Sheeran said:

Could you list the lenses that seem to be damaged, and whether the list matches my following theory?

If the lens changes size when focusing or zooming, air has to go from outside the camera/lens to inside (or vice versa). If it was air-tight, the air pressure would act like a spring forcing it back against your attempts to move it. Even with pro, "weather-sealed" lenses. (eg 24-70L) they are so easy to zoom that we can be certain there isn't that much impediment to air, and therefore to dust, entering. I haven't tested this and am only a (long-term) amateur, but I suspect that no matter how dusty it is outside the camera, you'll get practically no dust inside if:

1) the lens size does not change at all. Thus even though there might be gaps, they're may be literally no air moving through the gaps.

2) if your lens does change size from focus or zoom, focus/zoom it before getting to the site. Many Speedgraphic and Leica photogs got most of their good photos with pre-focused cameras; just use the hyperfocus rule or whatever and you should be good.

2a) its conceivable that an internal-focus lens may not change size externally, and yet inner movement may force air out gaps in the back and in gaps in the front, or something. So if a lens with a fixed front element still seems to suck dust in, try not focusing it either.

3) don't change lenses on site. Don't change lenses later without a full external wipedown.

Mr Char said:

Color Run. Never heard of it. Feels like I unwittingly stumbled into a cult. A commercial one at that. Weird.

nandadevieast said:

What about smoking?

grh said:

I learned of Holi while watching the film "Outsourced" Quite entertaining, and recommended.

The underwater housing idea is excellent. Can't see how corn starch molecules can be any smaller than water molecules.

Joann McCraw said:

I was also thinking of the same thing. I woder how the lungs of those runners would look like. For sure they've inhaled all those dust while running too. Anyway, i wonder if those who rented those lenses have to pay anything after returning those lenses with dust already? Do they have to pay for the cleaning of the lenses?

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Joann, we haven't charged anyone yet -- we didn't know what it would be like so we can't expect the renters to know -- but we will be going forward. FWIW a full cleaning like this costs a couple of hundred $$.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Frank, they've run the gammut of every brand and every quality (including weather resistant lenses), however, they all seem to have been standard or wide aperture lenses. No 70-200 and up yet. Mostly zooms, but zooms are most rentals so I don't think that means too much.

Soooo, that either means people with longer lenses were standing further back away from the dust, or people who have the sense to use longer lenses also have the sense to wrap things up before shooting this. I can't say which.

Brad K said:

Hmm, this is interesting. I shot a color run at my university last semester and didn't have any problems with it, and I was literally standing arms length away from the color throwing at times. Of course, I wrapped my 16-35 in a trash bag and sealed the end around the hood with gaff tape, so that seems to have been enough to keep things clean inside. I also at a few points made pictures with my 70-200 and 300, neither of which were wrapped at all and I was still only 20-30 feet away from the color at that point.
I guess 'nice' L lenses and 1D bodies really are sealed pretty well.

Denis O'Donovan said:

Madness! Thanks for the heads up and will be steering well clear of those things.

BigEater said:

Business opportunity!!! If everyone is so curious about the dust in the lungs you gotta start renting out bronchoscopes!!!! Olympus makes some very nice ones.

Tony said:

Sounds like a perfect time to use the five buck disposable film cameras you find at the corner drug store. Get nasty, develop, throw it away - easy peasy.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

BigEater, given the number of times a week I write emails like "I'm sorry, but there's no way to mount the Canon 500mm to your point and shoot camera" I'm really not too excited about helping people learn bronchoscopy via email :-)

Chester said:

Interesting. I photographed a Holi-related color throwing event a while ago using my D600, 80-200/2.8 AF-S, and 300/2.8 AF-I. I stayed upwind of the event, using the 300mm's reach to avoid the worst of the colored dust. Some dust did end up getting on my setup, but I don't see any sign of it getting inside the camera. Perhaps Holi color dust is different...

Tony said:

Everyone should keep in mind that camera company's claims about "sealed" are basically wishful thinking except for their underwater cameras. The rubber skirts at the base of the pricier Nikon lenses are closer to an umbrella than a deep sea diving suit. The skirt doesn't even contact the body on the 16-35 or the 14-24. Canon is probably no better. I've worked in R&D at a manufacturer of equipment that goes down 600 feet into oceans, and other electronic gear that has to run outdoors in the weather 24/7/365 so I've seen what it takes. I'd use a Nikonos to shoot a Color Run and I agree Roger that going forward this counts as equipment abuse. I'm sorry to hear about the costs your company is eating. You obviously need to do several rentals on the average piece of gear to have a good financial picture.

My son attended a Holi festival at the local hindu temple. I was out shooting landscapes 4 miles away and I was able to see the dust cloud which covered about 10 acres. I didn't get a straight answer about the identity of the powder, either there or at the Color Run web page. It's been described as both talcum powder and as corn starch. Color Run says it's "like" powdered sugar which might imply corn starch.

They have this in their FAQ which also seems a bit cavalier:

"How is the color administered? Will I be hurt, maimed, or killed?
Ha ha ha! we love this one. No, it doesn’t hurt at all. It is like getting into a powdered sugar food fight."

jseliger said:

A person on Reddit posted some links about airway health and inhaling corn starch.

P. Roberts said:

Many thanks for posting this up Roger.

Jason said:

Hi Roger,

I guess a waterproof cover designed for underwater work would help.
But apart from that and don't change lenses and stay upwind (or away), any suggestions for methods that might protect lenses in such environments?

Or is this buy a cheap lens and prepare to sacrifice it territory?


LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Jason, I think 1) front UV filter, 2) Plastic bag or wrap taped to the filter and extending over the camera (either a bag, or clear wrap you can press buttons through) and a longer lens staying a bit further away would be appropriate. Several people have mentioned they shot with 70-200 lenses and that would seem ideal. I have gotten one 70-200 back with this stuff in it but it didn't seem as bad as the shorter focal length lenses.

NancyP said:

This sounds like a job for a "sealed" cell phone with tape over the power/ computer connection, microphone, and buttons. After all, these phones do put up with a lot of pocket lint. Have a damp microfiber cloth or cotton tip at the ready, because even these small cornstarch particles might show up over the minute lens beneath the touch-screen. Barring that, disposable film camera would be fine.

Yes, I'd recommend a N95 respirator at least. I am surprised that any runners participate.

The race organizers could make it much more pleasant by having the race on a reasonably warm day, and throwing or spraying colored water at the participants

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