This is Your (Well Our) Camera at Burning Man

Published September 15, 2016

In the repair department, there are things we hate. Salt water for cameras and lenses, salt water and sand for tripods and lenses. Sand in legs of the zoom mechanism of lenses ruins threads, they’ll never be smooth again.

Right behind those two is dust. Dust doesn’t always destroy equipment, but dust in equipment ruins pictures and can ruin circuit boards. So we hate Burning Man. The fine alkali dust that gets in everything at Burning Man isn’t as bad as sand and salt water – but it’s up there. Every year we tell people to take cheap or disposable equipment to Burning Man. It’s probably going to be ruined, and you aren’t going to like the charges. And every year people say, “It’s just dust.”

Side note for future renters. If you don’t want to take your own equipment into an area where you know it will be ruined, don’t rent our equipment and assume the Lenscap policy will cover you. It does not cover gross negligence, reckless, or intentional damage. Lenscap is designed as coverage for any accidents you may encounter, not as a way to avoid having to take common sense precautions when using our equipment in inhospitable conditions.

Since we’ve been doing a lot of Burning Man cleanup, we thought we’d share what a typical item goes through. Maybe some of you will pick up some cleaning pointers. Others may get some logical respect for dust. And some others will enjoy a peak inside the Nikon D810 that is the subject of this little post. I’ll warn you on the front end: this isn’t a teardown with great pictures. These are quick captures while we were working so there may be some motion blur and bad lighting.

So here’s a couple of views of our weary traveler as we received it., 2016, 2016, 2016

The viewfinder cups are removed. There was a lot of dust under them and while you can’t tell here, inside the viewfinder., 2016, 2016

This is a poor shot, but the flash is open here, showing how much dust got into the flash tray., 2016

Before we did anything else, particularly opening the port covers, we spent 15 minutes blowing and brushing the easily removed dust off.  Pardon the blur, but it gives you a general idea of what’s left., 2016, 2016

It’s not looking great yet; that’s for sure. But we felt like we could open the ports and look at the connections. There’s still lots of caked on dust, but it’s not loose enough to fall into things. We could have used some wet cloths and things at this point and gotten off some more dust, but we didn’t want to add moisture to the equation yet.
I’m not saying that’s not an entirely acceptable option, but our primary goal at this point will be getting dust out of the inside and for that we wanted things as dry as possible.

The battery compartment, memory card slots, and the area around all the I/O ports had plenty of dust inside, so we knew further disassembly would be required., 2016, 2016

We have kind of a love-hate relationship with disassembling Nikon cameras. The good part is they are very logically laid out and assembled, with each panel coming off by itself which makes disassembly a joy. The bad part is Nikon has a policy of using as many different sized screws as is humanly possible, making it necessary to keep incredibly organized.

For example, there are nine screws of 5 different sizes holding on the bottom plate. This may be because they’ve carefully engineered the best possible screw at each location to provide the most strength. It may just be because they hate us. I’ll never know., 2016, 2016

As each panel was removed, we saw the same thing; the rubber weather resistant seals stopped the majority of the dust. In most of the pictures below you can see beige areas along the rubber seals that are caked dust. Beyond the seals, inside the camera, there are loose dust particles that got through, but the vast majority was kept out.

Overall, I’m impressed with how much dust did NOT get inside the camera. But there was still way more inside than was acceptable. One thing I should note is around every port and opening there was more dust close, and less dust further away from the opening. If there had been relatively even distribution, we might consider that it all came in through the mirror box or viewfinder or something. But I’m comfortable some dust got in from every possible access., 2016, 2016


inviewfinder, 2016, 2016, 2016


It doesn’t show well in pictures of this size, but while there was a little dust on the PCBs underneath all those covers, it wasn’t an enormous amount. We blew it off, of course, but it wasn’t bad. Each of the plates and seals that we removed were cleaned inside and out after removal., 2016, 2016, 2016, 2016

Here are a couple of crops from the main PCB and internal back cover to give you an idea of what I describe as ‘light dust’ inside. It’s more than acceptable but probably wouldn’t cause any damage., 2016, 2016, 2016, 2016


I haven’t mentioned it, but all of the rubber grip material was removed, too. There was no way to try to clean it well in place. At this point were pretty happy with what we’d seen. There was a lot of dust in the viewfinder assembly, but not too much had gotten into the rest of the camera. We were expecting worse, though. When you see this kind of dust under the lens cap…, 2016, 2016

…and in the mirror box, you figure the front of the camera is going to be worse than the back., 2016, 2016


That makes sense since it’s the most exposed. It’s also the bigger problem since it’s in the optical path. On to the quick picture, just to thank Nikon for the ease with which the front and top cover assemblies come off in their cameras., 2016, 2016

The front assembly itself and the lower (base plate side) of the front of the camera weren’t horribly dusty, although worse than the back., 2016, 2016


But the area above the lens mount and under the flash was badly caked with dust. This isn’t surprising since this area is open to the viewfinder, the lens mount, and the flash assembly, so there’re lots of ways for the dust to get in., 2016, 2016


This is especially a problem because there are lots of mechanicals in here that don’t like dust: springs, mirror, and shutter motor gears, etc., 2016, 2016


When we took the top off, the same thing was apparent. Lots of dust got in the top center area and seemed thickest in the parts we didn’t want it in: motors, gears, the optical prism, and electro-mechanical dials and switches., 2016, 2016


One thing we did notice at the top; there wasn’t a lot of dust right around the rubber seals, and the distribution was more even, which makes me think most of this came in from the front panel and around the viewfinder assembly rather than directly through the top seals., 2016, 2016

And Then…

Well, I won’t bore you with 762 eight-by-ten color glossies of what we did there at the Group B bench. But there was much Rocket blowing, many Q-tips were sacrificed, the sensor, AF sensor, and mirror box were wet-and-dry-and-wet-and-dry cleaned. Toothpicks cleaned gears and springs. And much time (about 2 hours) passed. After which everything inside looked shiny clean and new.

Here’s the camera reassembled, but still missing the rubber grips which are more difficult to clean than the insides., 2016, 2016


To give you an idea of how difficult, here’re two pieces as they sit currently. Both have been washed with soap and water. The larger part has also had a vinegar-water wash (that works with alkali dust) and toothbrush scrubbing. We’ll try one a few more things but at this point, I think we may lose this part of the battle and have to replace the rubber. But the camera itself is working fine.

Because someone will ask what we do know, the camera will go into service as a testing camera here for at least a few weeks (probably 8,000 shots) to let any remaining dust work its way into the mirror box and/or viewfinder and get cleaned again.

So now you see part of the reason why I’m so cynical when people tell me their camera was caked with dust and dirt but they cleaned it off, and it’s fine. The outside of this camera could have been cleaned (well, maybe not the rubber grips). But it wouldn’t have for all that long – those dust encased springs, gears, and switches would have started misfunctioning sooner rather than later.

Protect your gear, my friends. Plastic bags, rubber bands, and tape are your friends. Dust, water, and sand are your enemies.


Roger Cicala and Aaron Closz

September, 2016



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
  • Yes, common sense and a bit of compassion for the rental company!

  • Yep, that dust is brutal and clings like glue. It must be brushed, vacuumed and toweled off, not blown deeper into recesses with compressed air. I took my (own) Fuji X-T1 and Sony PAS to this and last year’s Burn. Both did very well despite this year’s frequent white-out dust storms. Needed outer body, EVF, battery compartment and sensor cleaning. Fuji’s weather-sealed lenses and not changing lenses often helped a great deal. Gear is dry-bagged when not actually making exposures. I had also taped over any vulnerable ports I won’t be using. Just saying that it is fairly easy to minimize camera gear damage with behavior and maintenance, and not end up with a situation this bad. I suspect that the user of that Nikon was more than casual about using it responsibly, thinking: “hey, it’s a rental… I bought the damage coverage…dust is not my problem”.

  • jeffp3456

    Where do you get such cheap insurance? I would like to call them.

  • Doug

    I guess I’m a little confused. I insure all my photo equipment with a comprehensive, no deductible, 100% of the purchase price, no questions asked policy for $79/year. You guys charge about that for insurance for a one week rental of one piece of equipment. In other words, you grossly overcharge for insurance. Isn’t a disaster like this simply the cost of doing a business like yours? Rental car companies sell comprehensive policies, for example, and they are similarly grossly overpriced, I assume to compensate for the occasional insanely irresponsible driver. I imagine they would choose not to rent to that particular driver again, just as I am sure you will not rent to this particular photographer again. So what’s the beef?

  • John Parulis

    Lack of respect and selfish disregard. Hope you guys charged for this. I’ve been to burning man a bunch of times. Still cameras always encased in an underwater housing. Video cams always brought out during calm weather and protected with plastic wrapping. Never a problem with either cam. There is a mix of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly at Burning Man.

  • Athanasius Kirchner

    I see, that’s incredible.

    I sometimes feel like the choice of materials in electronics has gone backwards in the last decade.

  • LAB 2.35:1

    Looked like new after they put them back together, no issues.

  • Chris Attebery

    Douche level 99+

  • James Vincent Paquette

    Well played.

  • Athanasius Kirchner

    Wait, so the pagers were fine? I don’t understand 🙁

  • Frank Fremerey

    thank you & I hope there are not many customers who handle your gear so badly…

  • Edna Bambrick

    They make a protective case for that too. He’s probably just not the cautious type.

  • Edna Bambrick

    Roger, do you ever cover the problems associated with dew points? I keep my house at 68 most of the time and if I were to take a good lens out into a 73 degree dew point, a lot of condensation will form on the cold glass in both the interior and exterior of the lens. It occurs to me that the drops can be large enough to form rings when the water dries and comes up to temp. My solution is to put my gear in a clear dry bag while inside and then place it outside until it comes up to near ambient temperature (usually an hour or so) to avoid the issue.

  • Edna Bambrick

    There’s only one excuse to ruin a camera at Burning Man. Her*.

    *not my photo

  • Greg Dunn

    Thanks, Roger!

  • Greg, blowing with a Rocket blower, then very very gently with a sensor swab and pure alcohol. And sometimes gently isn’t gentle enough. It is, as you say, very delicate.

  • Greg Dunn

    Just curious – how do you guys clean the first-surface mirror? I know that coating is fragile as can be; you can’t use a brush, and I don’t think compressed air would remove anything which adhered to it.

  • Lloyd Harner

    underwater housing 😉 also good at burning man

  • Claudia Muster

    Laypersons are usually not aware how difficult it is to make a seal dust proof. Even if something is perfectly water sealed it still may let in dust (reason: dust doesn’t have surface tension). So even an underwater housing may not be dust proof.

  • J. Effingham Bellweather

    I can’t believe just how inconsiderate, irresponsible and asinine some customers are. Tip of the hat to you Roger and your outstanding professionals at LRs.

  • Zos Xavius

    yeah you can suck in water. i have once with at least one weather sealed lens that fogged up immediately. most seem to allow air to flow around the front element which should be hopefully protected by a deep hood anyways. Its just something to be aware of. I’ve had the top plate LCD fog from moisture ingress and the camera still survived. I would be wary of torrential rain to be honest. At the same time I’ve left cameras on tripods in the rain for long periods of time and had no real issues.

  • Stanislaw Zolczynski

    Would that mean that zooming in and out weatherised lens in torrential rain would suck the water in? What about lenses with internal zoom mechanism?

  • Stanislaw Zolczynski

    I`m sure my old Nikonos II would pass the Burning Man test with flying colors. Pity Nikon doesn´t make a digital Nikonos

  • Zos Xavius

    I just did that this morning! Its in the microwave drying now. 🙂

  • Stanislaw, that’s a good question. I’m sure a lot of it is because the dust particles are lighter and moving with air while raindrops tend to fall through the air; and air does circulate through the cameras.
    I’m sure there’s far more involved. Water surface tension might let water creep in some cracks that dust would ignore. But obviously dust gets in all types of gear pretty easily.

  • Zos Xavius

    I’m actually amazed that you were able to break this camera down, clean it, and reassemble it in 2 hours or so. That’s efficiency! Have you ever thought about doing repairs for people? You have a better lens testing setup than most factory service centers.

  • Yolande Hanna

    Venus Factor Xtreme Review – Time To Link Up! Physical Product, Low Refund

  • Zos Xavius

    Because they are light seals. These cameras also have to allow air to enter and leave the body at various places because zoom lenses displace air when zoomed. A lot of the pentax cameras let air breathe around the viewfinder for instance.

  • No, although it does look like it now that you pointed it out. It’s the coppery colored flex like you see in the top front, but in shadow and covered with dust.

  • Stanislaw Zolczynski

    How come, weather sealed cameras stop the heavy rain but let the dust in?

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