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

Posted by

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)”

Tony said:

NancyP: My son used a ziplock baggie to protect his Ipod when he was at Holi. He took it out to shoot two pictures and then he got it right back into the protection; it was in excellent shape at the end of the day.

Your taping idea might work pretty well too but even the edges of the displays count as an entry point.

(His friend had his cell phone either in his pants pocket or handheld for frequent pictures and it came back heavily infiltrated just like in Roger's pictures of the lenses.)

And fine dust isn't the only form of exposure - big wads of powder end up in people's faces, etc.

Geoff Bryant said:

If that's how much gets in a lens what does it do to your lungs?

Arun said:

I rent from you and read your blog, but this is one of the most practical and useful posts I've seen. My wife and I drove to a Holi event earlier this year, and I had my 7D/17-55mm f/2.8 IS with me. The crowd looked a little rowdy and we chose not to get out of our car. Reading this, seems like this decision saved me a couple thousand dollars. The 17-55mm is not exactly renowned for its weather sealing.

Mike said:


Love your BLOG, Roger. But, when I saw this post my first reaction was hoping this didn't hit your business too hard in the wallet.
With the way these color runs seem to be popping up everywhere, seems like it is going to be a real challenge going forward.

Tim said:

I would consider using these findings as a launching point to supply quality underwater housing rentals. This would be a compelling market as most gearheads will buy superb optics if they want it, but expensive underwater housing cases are truly a prime use case for both rentals and expert advise and reviews. You can give me some rental credit later for this brilliant business plan.

Scott said:

So, if it is getting past the seals what do the camera sensor, mirror and mirror box look like?

Lauren said:

Would WR (Weather Sealing) like on many high end Pentax lenses helped?
Water would have been fine too in the case of Pentax WR/DA* lenses!

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Weather sealing helps, but doesn't stop it. We've had it in several weather sealed camera-lens combinations, although there does seem to be less of it.

The mirror boxes are every bit as bad as the lenses. The only good thing is it seems to blow of the sensors rather easily, but the bad news is we have at least one camera where it's all up around the prism.

Mike M said:

Re: the health effects, some distressing comments in an LA Yelp (http://www.yelp.com/biz/the-color-run-los-angeles): "It is not fun inhaling/swallowing copious amounts of powder... It was nasty and made it hard to breathe." "My lungs hurt like sh*t from inhaling a ton of powder." "Expect to breathe in corn starch, and a lot of it. I don't know how people with asthma could do it." "Yes, I breathed it in and coughed a lot as a result and yes, I should have carried water with me because of the dehydration ingesting so much powder brings."

Doesn't sound like a great event for anyone who cares about their lung health.

James Conner said:

Protect the camera and lens with plastic bags taped to a clear glass or UV filter on the lens. I recommend double-bagging in this case. After the race, put the still bagged camera in a large plastic bag. Remove the bags and filter at home. No guarantees, but it should keep your gear clean. It works well for me in rain and snow. Still, I wouldn't risk shooting a color run, let alone taking part in one. Those brightly colored fine particulates do one's lungs no good. If I had to take photos at such an event, I probably would use a disposable film camera.

Rocky Sharwell said:

Wow.....I am going to post this on my FB page as I have a number of friends who have done color runs...

John Taylor said:

Unfortunately it sounds like people may have decided not to take a risk with their gear and instead use yours. I hope you go after them if insurance doesn't cover the damages.

Jim said:

I have one of those weather proof Panasonic Lumix P&S cameras. I wonder if these would get penetrated. However I'd want to wear a breathing mask rated to protect against asbestos to even consider being anywhere near that stuff.

A G Dorsey said:

If you treat your LR property as if you owned it you would think several times over before you used LR equipment in such dubious situations. The condition of the returned equipment speaks volumes about this client's lack of consideration and common sense.

FM said:

Keep distance: rent a 300mm f/2.8 - problem solved.

Darryl said:

WRT Tim's comment:

This is perhaps an ideal use for the plastic U/W housings for some high-end point-n-shoots, but a "quality underwater housing" for a dSLR starts at about 7 lbs for a small housing/lens port and only goes up from there. Not at all pleasant to lug around where Archimedes' principle doesn't apply.

James' suggestion about double plastic bagging taped to a clear lens filter is pretty ideal.

jason holzworth said:

i recently met with a bride who wanted to do this for her engagement session, i will be passing on that one.

J. Dennis Thomas said:

I was hired to photograph one of these events last week (05/04). I was there for 4 hours and shot almost 6,000 frames right in the thick of it. I simply used a cheap Opteka rainsleeve, a ziptie to keep it tight on my lens hood, a UV filter on the front of the lens, and a bandana over my face.

After the run was over I took the camera out of the rainsleeve and wandered around with the camera and lens unprotected and I did get close to the crowd as they were unleashing color bombs.

At the end of the event I blew off the camera with compressed air and there's not a speck of dust on or in my camera or my lens.

My camera has gotten much dustier when shooting Bonnaroo, ACL Fest, Lollapalooza, Fun Fun Fun Fest, etc...

"For what it’s worth, all of the renters tell us they really weren’t near any of the major ‘color bombs.’"

It sure looks like none of your renters took the proper precautions, or ANY precautions for that matter. And I don't believe they're being exactly 100% truthful.

You can definitely cover these events with absolutely no detrimental effect to lenses or cameras.

Please take a look at my photoset on flickr. You can see how insanely dusty it is, and you can see photos of my lens taken a couple of days afterward. I'd post pics of the camera, but I lent it to someone for the weekend. The only residual dust you can see is on the lenshood, which is perpetually sticky from gaff tape.


Daniel Cormier said:

Have you had any equipment come back after Burning Man? I hear there's a pretty constant, fine dust cloud. I imagine you'd get similar results after a few days.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

We do have equipment come back from burning man covered in dust, but that doesn't seem to get inside the equipment the way this does.

Robin Leveille said:

Sounds like a job for Duclos Lenses.

Chris said:

A company called Outex make a completely airtight solution for underwater photography that isn't as loose as the aquapac-style covers, nor as heavy or expensive as a full dive housing... their front elements screw onto the lens threads and the back of the sleeve clips onto your viewfinder, so things line up perfectly. Have a look! :)

Paul said:

I shot one of these events earlier this year using an Olympus OM-D, sealed in a modified 1 gallon ziploc bag with a hole cut out for the lens. I sealed the hole by taping it to the lens hood and also had a skylight filter on the front of the lens. I also carried a small can of compressed air to clear the front of the lens periodically. The camera and lens made it through fine, but it took 2 days colored dust to clear from my sinuses.

Pat M said:

Ouch, that poor lens!!

I love their tag line - be healthy. Yeah, running through and breathing clouds of fine particulate matter that can likely get down nice and deep into your lungs. THAT sounds healthy to me!

Dennis Krukover said:

Thanks for the post and warning. This is similar to Indian festival called Holi - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holi

I have heard of it before and recently seen Seattle Color Run online. Indian festival really captured my attention, at the time, from photography point of view. I thought it would be cool to be a spectator @ Holi some day. The colors, the colors, the colors... This all changed after your post.

Thanks for the warning.

Will KISS.

R. R. Photography said:

A lot of the photographers of color run stand safely on the side and most of them use some type of plastic bag to cover it. Ive ran two colors runs and im probably the only who ran it with a dslr. I ran both with a 24-70L version and and had no issues. The filter and hood helps blog alot of the dust. I barely got any on the lens itself. i have a 5dmk2 and a 6D. The 5dmk2 worked fine of course but i was scared for the 6d, although canon does state that it is weather sealed and that there is only 1 type of weather sealing when i called them. i did start the race with a bag over it but was so hard to see thru the bag so i took it off the other half of the race.

The camera look like a mess after i was done with it but it quickly came off using a blower and qtips.

I am NOT advocating that it is 100% safe, but what is the point of spending that much money for the weather sealing if you cant even uses for these purposes.

Check out my pics from the color run. Thanks

Mark said:

If the gear looks like that on the inside you have to wonder if breathing this super fine dust seems like a "fun" idea.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

"Weather Sealing" is two lies for the price of one: it isn't sealed and it can't stand up to weather past a certain degree. A little rain or snow - probably so. But I can't tell you the number of people who have sent back dead equipment after shooting in the rain because they really believed in 'weather sealed'.

1) It's obviously not waterproof, otherwise you could immerse it and you can't. It resists water droplets getting inside and the resistance is done mostly with tape and foam rubber.

2) If it's not waterproof, it definitely isn't dust proof - dust particles are much smaller (1-10 microns) than water droplets (although the micro droplets in water mist can be that small). Water also tends to adhere to surfaces through capillary action much more than dust does.

So far, we've had to disassemble Canon and Nikon 70-200 f/2.8, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 AF-S, and Canon 17-40L, and 16-35L lenses for internal dust after Color Runs or Holi photography. Those are all 'weather sealed'. I will say it was less than unsealed lenses, but still enough to require complete disassembly.

Obviously sometimes you'll get by with it, and sometimes you won't.

As an aside, I understand that many lenses require a front filter to 'complete' their weather sealing. But since UV filters also aren't water tight, again, it's a matter of more water resistant, not 'weather sealed'.


pingu666 said:

you could put sealer around the edges of a cheap uv filter, on the glass to metal bit, both sides, maybe chuck a moist tissue in the bag to attract any dust that gets in?

could be a great use of a action sampler waterproof camera too :-)

Luke Mike said:

Hi Roger, you stated that:
' ...it’s considered negligent use of equipment just like when salt spray soaks the camera on the beach...'
Could you please tell us in what situation it happens exactly, is it enough to stand on the beach on a stormy weather??
Thank you.

Dave Young said:

Thanks for the heads up. I've never heard of a colour run, but it's the kind of event I guess would attract a lot of photographers for the visual element.

Having seen what it does to lenses it's definitely one to avoid for the sake of your equipment, let alone one's health!

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Luke, salt water is 99.9% guaranteed to ruin a lens and / or camera. After about 150 of our renters had freak accidents where the largest wave in the history of the world happened to splash all over the equipment despite the fact that they were amazingly careful and hundreds of yards away from the nearest surf, we had to change our policy: if you were close enough that salt water got in it, you were negligent. I know it sounds harsh, but we literally wrote of a couple of dozen cameras and 50 or more lenses before we changed it (which was several years ago).

Luke Mike said:

@ Roger.
Thanks for the answer. I was not thinking of the situation where a camera falls or is sprayed with salty water but rater wondering if the gear are in any danger if they are used near the sea side i.e. if the morning breeze may do any damage, or if the see is really rough - will the airborne water be any danger to equipment (not droplets - rather mist). I am asking this because I am planning to spend about 4 weeks in the sea resort this year shooting with 40mm pancake, 135 f/2.0 and 300 mm f/2.8 IS II (which are owned by myself)
After above article I am getting a bit paranoid :) Thanks.

Nicholas Condon said:

If this silly color dust is getting stuck inside the camera like this, I wonder what it is doing to the lungs of the participants? If the stuff is water-soluble, the runners are likely to get a good dose of the dyes into their bloodstream. If it's insoluble, I'd wonder about silicosis.

Personally, I'd rather not run that experiment on my own lungs.

Alex said:

Thanks for the heads up! I will definitely take an underwater casing to my next colour run...

Diane said:

What a great post! I had just read this when we had a bride ask for a color bomb "trash the dress". I declined! Thank you so much!!

James said:

WHAT THE HELL??? How does the dust even make it in the camera??? At what points are they sucked in? This makes no sense to me!! WTF

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:


Dust gets in anywhere: cameras and lenses aren't even watertight (even 'weather sealed' ones aren't watertight). Even if they were, there are still air leaks and dust is much smaller (1 to 10 microns) than water droplets. If air circulates, dust will circulate with it. It's inevitable.

And for all those people who like to use the word "pump" with zooms, I'll throw out that even focusing elements move and move air with them. 4 of the 10 lenses we most commonly clean dust out of are primes.

Kentaro said:

I shot a similar event last year with no problem. It was fun but the health concerns did cross my mind as people were coughing all around me. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who care about their equipment but had no problem with mine. It rinsed right off under the tap.

Here's the lens today.


Here's how close I was. As you step into the clouds of starch, you get a lot of boring pictures, so there's no point in showing most of them.


Brandon Schatz said:

It's good to have an article like this that explains the risks of covering a color run event. I strongly believe that the renters of the equipment that had these issues didn't care about your gear and should have paid for the maintenance, because they did knowingly abuse your gear. They are saying that they weren't close to the color bombs and it just isn't true. The lens with all yellow came from a direct hit of bag of yellow or they camped out in the yellow color zone for the duration of the event and took several direct hits. If it was in or around the festival it would have had a blend of colors and not be just yellow.

When you get ready to go into the festival area, you know that color is going to be everywhere, so by going in with rental gear is just plain abuse. Also, they do a countdown, so you would have had plenty of time to get out of the way.

We cover these events all the time and haven't had any problems at all with our gear. We also don't go into the middle of the Festival areas where a majority of the color is being thrown. The better photos are from the outside of the festival anyways like a few have said in the comments. If someone were to want to get some nice stills inside the festival... I would recommend just using a GoPro on a mono-pod with a water proof case. Most photos are not usable after the first couple seconds of the color throw because it's just a haze.

The color runners are some of the most positive people. They are very respectful and appreciative of you trying to help them capture their moment. It's a great event and photographers shouldn't be afraid to cover it as long as they respect the gear.

It's completely reasonable for you to charge people that return gear in this shape. It's not right and people should pay for this kind of abuse.

Also, if you do want to cover this kind of event, you should try to get with the company organizing the photography. It takes a lot of photographers to cover 15-30k participants in an organized manner. Your photos will get the most exposure, you'll get full access to the venue, make some money, and have a blast doing it.


Brett said:

I think that is totally negligent of the renter, I have rented for years from LR - and I treat the lens I rent as if they were my own; always very careful about where and HOW I am using the lens. I never change lens outside, instead do so in a near clean-room environment and do it fast to reduce any chance of dust entering either the camera or lens itself. I usually do not get the extended coverage, but do so for certain lens i.e.(Canon 300mm f/2.8L ISII) - I just always want to be a 'good' renter of the products I can get from LR, because there are soooo many other lens I want to try ! Roger you guys are great ! I tell everyone that I in fact, do not own the $5,000 lens projecting from my Canon 60D - but am renting it, and peeps are always keen to know where from...

Andrew said:

@Luke Mike

I live at the coast and take A LOT of shots in windy conditions. When I get home, I lick the camera and if its salty I wipe it down, same with the lenses. The only problems I have had is that the rubbers on the lenses and body have 'grown' quicker than normal. Im assuming they are absorbing the salts. - Nikon D200, Nikon D700, Nikon 24-70mm 2.8 and nikon 70-200mm f2.8

Andrew said:

..Oh and Nikon NC filter's on both lenses.

W Sanders said:

A lot of the synthetic colors used for Holi in India are toxic or carcinogenic. For this reason some festivals have banned synthetic colors and gone back to using traditional, natural spices. I would hope the US festivals have vetted their powders for toxicity.

ken said:

Wow...didn't realize salt spray was enough to void the insurance (picturing stereotypical bikini shoot in the surf :-)

I'm amazed that much dust got in. FWIW, I never had problems w/ Pentax gear in the slot canyons in AZ and there's a lot of dust there...just not this man-made stuff...

paul said:

you should add this new disclaimer to your rental contract "if your use our gear in a 'color run' event you pay for cleaning cost"
that is every disrespectful to you guy and all of us who will be renting it next.

Anthony said:

Time to rent Nikonos' again, they'd eat color runs for breakfast!

Colin Lenton said:

Noted. For beach shoots and color run shoots I will rent from BorrowLenses , and I will use you guys for everything else I shoot.

Balloon dog said:

It amazes me that there are posters here who still claim, after seeing and reading this article, that their camera and lens made it without any precautions.

The dust may not be inside the lens elements, but I am sure that if you disassembled you gear, you would find a fine, gunky, colorful mess at every spot that has lens lubricants or oils.

I bet your cameras are pretty foul too, once the cover comes off.

Plastic bags, taped to a UV filter lens is the least amount of protection I would use.

Most likely I would use a (bagged) disposable camera or a (bagged) throw-away anslig with kodak ektar or provia film.

Why risk thousands of dollars in equipment anyway?

Leave a Reply