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
  • 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.

  • Mike M

    Re: the health effects, some distressing comments in an LA Yelp ( “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.

  • Roger Cicala

    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.

  • 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!

  • Scott

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

  • Tim

    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.

  • Mike


    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.

  • Arun

    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.

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

  • Tony

    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.

  • NancyP

    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

  • Roger Cicala

    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.

  • Jason

    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?


  • P. Roberts

    Many thanks for posting this up Roger.

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

  • Tony

    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.”

  • Chester

    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…

  • Roger Cicala

    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 🙂

  • 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.

  • BigEater

    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.

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

  • Brad K

    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.

  • Roger Cicala

    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.

  • Roger Cicala

    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 $$.

  • 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?

  • grh

    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.

  • What about smoking?

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

  • Frank Sheeran

    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.

  • CarVac


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

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