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
  • Kentaro

    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.

  • Roger Cicala


    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.

  • James

    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

  • Diane

    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!!

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

  • 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.

  • Luke Mike

    @ 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.

  • Roger Cicala

    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).

  • 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!

  • Luke Mike

    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.

  • pingu666

    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 🙂

  • Roger Cicala

    “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’.


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

  • 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

  • Thanks for the post and warning. This is similar to Indian festival called 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.

  • Pat M

    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!

  • Paul

    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.

  • 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! 🙂

  • Robin Leveille

    Sounds like a job for Duclos Lenses.

  • Tony T

    I guess it could be worse … I’ve always had respect for people photographing paintball events:

    1:30 comes to mind.

  • Roger Cicala

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

  • Darryl

    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.

  • FM

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

  • A G Dorsey

    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.

  • Jim

    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.

  • John Taylor

    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.

  • Rocky Sharwell

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

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