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
  • endinyal

    I hope you charged the customer appropriately for essentially ruining the camera. Sure it works, but I would never consider it a 100% refurbished camera ever.

    They rented it KNOWING it would get ruined, and would NEVER use their own camera! Like many people at Burning Man, they are just ignorant of their actions and it’s always someone else’s problem.

  • Alexander Gee

    I’ve got to say I only take gear that I’m willing to lose. You will regret it if you spend your time on the playa thinking about your camera. That said just tape across the camera body in small strips like doing paper-mache.

  • David Erichsen

    Thanks for answering man! Would you mind telling me how you went about wrapping it? Also did ya just use prime lenses?

    I would seriously pay you for a walk through of what you did lol I just got an a7riii and am petrified of bringing it lol

  • Alexander Gee

    Hey I did do it a second time for the 2017 burn. It keeps all the dust out but after a week the dust has made it about half way through the little gaskets. A wet paper towel when taking the tape off gets any remaining powder off.

  • David Erichsen

    Alexander, I know this is two years ago but I was wondering if this worked well and if you have done it since?

  • Marc Lamey

    I was there with a D810 and a D800 and both are as clean (or close) to) as when I came in… there are many ways to protect from the dust the gears… unless you do not pay for them you do not take care… and I’ve used them every day.. the only exceptions was the dust storm as they then remain into their protection houses….

  • phill luckhurst

    Having been in the repair industry myself I would rather someone return the camera in a state after an accident than them totally knacker it trying to fix it themselves. Seen that many times and the disastrous results. No need for the insults to me or the accused, as I said the customer may have walked in offering to pay for damage, or may have just posted it back. We simply do not know. How the user dealt with it is what counts.
    Like I said, I dropped my camera in the sand where it lay for a few hours with people kicking more sand and dust over it all that time. It looked a lot like this camera. It is my kit and I would not have knowingly treated it in any bad way, I was gutted when I saw it but glad I managed to sort it without too much pain.

  • Justsome Olddude

    Well,, guess i won’t be renting any D810’s from Lensrentals. ;o)

  • LAB 2.35:1

    Maybe not very nice of me, sure. But… please don’t tell me that this sort of damage happened by dropping camera in the sand at a beach for a few minutes/hours. I’ve done that myself. This isn’t what your camera will look like after a simple “accident” This is super fine dust/dirt particles that are oh-so-standard in the NV desert that are CAKED IN by manhandling the camera with your hands and rubbing those particles into every rubber surface and crevice! This is a result of repeated, LONG term abuse and total neglect for hours and likely days on end. There is NO QUESTION about it. “Someone else’s fault”??? What are you in 3rd grade? An adult with a conscience, a bit bit of self respect, and at least common sense would at least have the decency to wipe the smooth surfaces off (like the viewfinder, battery compartment, the body cap, etc.) to at show that they care, even the slightest. At least show an attempt to clean something regardless of how the carnage happened. This is blatant abuse, lack of any respect for the renter, and just plain arrogance.

    You know what this is? It’s this… bringing your rental back to Enterprise in this condition and smiling at a counter while giving the key back to the clerk, because you know… you bought “full coverage”. Sorry dude, I don’t buy your defense. The guy with that 810 is a turd, plain and simple.

  • phill luckhurst

    Really not nice to make such remarks when you do not know the full story. We do not know what happened, we do not know whether it was simply an accident, whether it was someone else’s fault or whether it was a case of neglect. We were not there when the camera was returned. If the customer was polite and apologetic, or a complete tool is something that lensrentals are too professional to state. All we can do is speculate and hopefully learn.

    Just as an example, my own camera got similar damage once on a beach in Tenerife. It happened when the zip on my camera bag broke and the body fell onto the sand. Many people walked past almost burying it before I noticed. I fixed it myself but I am good at that sort of thing. Took me hours all because of a tooth missing on the zip causing it to pop open under load.

  • pest

    Why can Zeiss protect there lenses from super small dust but Nikon can’t protect there bodys?

    If the viewfinder and flash are the weak points of the body, it’s a engeneering thing to fix that. But the ports aren’t sealed too.

  • pest

    Why refurbishing, it’s just a Nikon *JOKE

    Do people really send back equipment in this condition? No try to get the dust off from the surface and ports? How do look the lenses? What are the consequences for the rental guy? You can’t tell just the half story. This article is not just about cleaning dusty bodys. So where is the rest of the story?

  • Alexander Gee

    I came up with a solution for keeping the playa out of my camera that actually worked extremely well. The moving elements for the lens were covered in independent layers of tape and gasketed with paper towel brushes between each sliding surface. And of course a disposable UV filter on the front.

  • Omesh Singh

    Burning man or burning manhood?

  • nikonian

    I shoot motocross and the fine sand out here isn’t your beach sand. It is a much finer powder. The stuff is killer and will get through protection. If you are using a zoom lens with a moving front element, that stuff will get inside whether you bag the lens or not. This is also why I don’t rent gear. My stuff is screwed up enough.

  • Jay Pike

    If you rent a car with the sole purpose of taking it into a smash-up derby, you’ll find that said “cheap” insurance won’t cover you there either.

    As others have pointed out, they have been able to survive Burning Man with their gear by being responsible with how they use it and how they store it. In a case like this, the end result of the rental return obviously exceeded any sort of normal wear and tear, and the condition indicated that the renter did not attempt to care of the gear either…

  • Jon Hellier

    I wonder how pollution particles (pm2.5 etc) will affect dslr cameras and lenses. I am going to china for a landscape photography holiday and will be keeping a close eye on the pollution levels wherever I go. I am hesitant to change lenses (or even take the camera out of the domke) when the the pollution is bad. Might even use a disposable rainsleeve hehe.

  • No insurace policy, even if it says “no questions asked”, by definition would make the insurer or underwriter cover any damages to the insured property ( also known as the insured’s interest) due to: in most cases aggravated negligence, never in case of gross negligence or voluntary acts by the insured party or that of any person or persons who he or her has trusted the insured property to.

    And that is by definition. In the case that insured’s interest being covered against damages that caused directly or indirectly by the insured party: Insurance companies are forbidden by law to extend cover to any damages that directly or indirectly arise or are aggravated due to voluntary actions, omissions, gross negligence and in most cases, not necessarily all, aggravated negligence of the insured party, its agents, representatives, or anyone acting on its behalf with its consent. Because it’s no longer considered accidental damage but voluntary or looked after.

    If you read the small print of the insurance policy for your gear you will find this clearly stated.

    That it’s why when you have your car insured against any type of damage (including the one inflicted by you to your car ) if you get into a collision and you are (and not both parties) are charged and found guilty of a DUI the first thing you lose is the coverage to any damages suffered by your car, then goes your own coverage to your medical expenses, lost income and permanent injuries that you had in your own policy for the driver.

    Moreover you or your state will most probably be liable for all expenses and disbursement made by your insurance company under your policy and the law to any third party that had suffered any damages due to the collision which settlement has been entered by your insurance company in good faith and approved by judge (due to most probable wording in your policy they will not even have to ask you if you want to settle or not).

    You may ask why? The answer is straight forward, besides committing a crime, you almost certainly committed what it’s called GROSS NEGLIGENCE when you sat on the car Under the Influence… the moment you did that all coverages against damages you had to own property (including yourself) were automatically nullified — by the gross negligence. And at the same time you actions opened the door for your insurance company to try recover any damages and expenses from the party that caused the collision (the collision is no longer an accident but the result of driving under the influence by one of the parties — you) or aggravated its outcome. Now you are probably uninsured against this risk because as a said insurance companies only cover accidental events, an never voluntary acts, gross negligence and almost never aggravated negligence.

  • Ed Bambrick

    The Greeks use Windex. I saw a movie about that once.

  • Ed Bambrick

    With that kind of attitude going in of course it won’t work out. think positive Dan. Have high aspirations and sometimes you surprise yourself. My motto, “It’s dirty work but someone’s got to do it. Might as well be me.”

  • Dan Pedraza

    well while she’s very beautiful highly unlikely that most are going anywhere with her other than a photograph

  • Dan Pedraza

    what moron would do that? It’s like shooting one of those color runs why put kit through that crap?

  • Volker Bartheld

    … something about the blur(red pictures – and please forgive me, if the joke has already been told): If that were _MY_ Nikon D810, I sure couldn’t take one single unblurred shot either, no matter the ISO or VR.


  • Kai, I don’t know the charge in dollars, but it was about 5 hours or technician time plus new rubber grips (we just never got the cleaned). Technician time is not cheap.


    In 1965, most of my lenses came back with fungus in them. Returning from the field, we just dropped our equipment and walked into the hot showers (improvised by genius sergeants) with our fatigues on.


    Has the sentencing part of the renter’s trial been reached yet? I recommend an attempt at lobotomy reversal.

    I’ve heard that boiling the camera in transmission fluid works too – just keep it off the bottom of the pot!

  • Kai Little

    Can I ask what you charged this customer for the camera detailing?

  • Ed Bambrick
  • Doctor Nick

    Consumer versus commercial insurance.

  • Jay K.

    You mean, “well playa-ed.”

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