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

Published May 8, 2013

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.

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Equipment
  • 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.

  • THX723

    Festival of Colors 2013 …

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Ben

    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.

  • 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!

  • Daemonius

    Interesting and bit disappointing.

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

  • Roger Cicala

    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).

  • Joe

    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.

  • Scott

    Better out the holi/ color run disclaimer on your faq page as well so people are adequately warned.

  • Roger Cicala

    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: but I don’t know of any permanent damage.


  • Shane

    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.

  • John Pren

    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?

  • Debra

    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.

  • Alex

    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.

  • silke

    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 ..

  • Roger Cicala


    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.


  • Richard

    “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.

  • Adam

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

  • Ben

    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?

  • Richard

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

    Same idea with colored dust/powder.

  • 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?…

  • Ben

    Technicolor Asbestos.

  • Michael

    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!

  • Jay Frew

    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

  • Jim Shepherd

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

  • 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 |

  • 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.

  • David

    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.

  • John Dillworth

    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

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