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Top Ten Tips to Protect Your Camera at Sea

As a professional photographer working on the ocean or in it, I go through a camera body every two years. If I am lucky, they last me three.

After 12 years of working at sea doing large oceanic yacht crossings, island surveys, numerous pelagic trips, a stint in Antarctica and one year where I was actually at sea for almost 200 days of it, I think I’ve earned both my sea legs and my ocean stripes for working in harsh conditions. I didn’t get the nickname of ‘Pelagic Princess’ because I enjoy spending time on land.

Go on, scrape that jaw off the floor. I’m not kidding. It’s no secret that cameras don’t survive well in salty air and damp conditions. Taking your camera to sea on a boat presents anyone doing photography, from amateurs to dedicated professionals with a whole set of unique challenges that no landlubber photographer can match. Firstly the environment you are working in is a moving dynamic. Nothing stands still for longer than a couple of seconds – you, your camera, the ocean, people, the boat you are standing on and the animals you are working with. Then you have other hazards – ocean spray, banging your gear around, getting it wet, dropping it or dodging people who are getting seasick into the wind. Trust me, conditions can be brutal if you spend a lot of time out there.

If you are more like the average person who enjoys a few trips to sea a year, I thought I would impart some wise advice on how to keep your gear protected so it lasts longer. These tips not only come from personal experience of dawn til dusk trips, spending hours standing in the raging sun watching out for creatures, having to drop everything quickly to handle animals on scientific projects and dodging the strategic defecation of 40,000 breeding gulls on islands, they come from people I’ve met in the field over the years who have imparted tips and wisdom to me.

So if you have aspirations to become a seabird or cetacean photographer and spend the rest of your life dancing around on boats, here are a few tips to prolong the life of your camera gear and protect yourself in the meantime.

1. Shield the outside of your lens from the weather.

When researching this post I found that most people have traditionally tried to cover their lenses with plastic bags that have holes cut into the end of them. In the early days I actually bought a cheap raincoat and cut a sleeve out of it to use to protect mine. Thankfully some companies caught on to this and you can now buy good, weatherproof covers for your large lenses that will protect the external coating and the electronics of the lens from spray and salt. I use a Sport Shield from Aquatech for my gear. I like the fact that I can pull the cover over both my lens and my camera body if conditions get rough. It also allows for movement if you are zooming in and out to focus on subjects at different distances. It even has an extra to cover an accessory flash if you need one. Given that insurance for gear is horrifically expensive, buying one of these could save you from a claim for damage of your glass after a heavy day out at sea.

2. Invest in a good waterproof jacket

Why am I mentioning jackets when I should be talking about camera gear? When I worked in Antarctica, I had one afternoon where I was taking shots in eleven metre high swells. Yes you read that right. As I was wedged between 44 gallon drums of fuel and piles of rope trying to get shots of Black-browed Albatrosses in flight, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a large wave surging towards me that threatened to wash me overboard. Thankfully I saw it just in time to duck my camera gear inside my jacket and I survived the incident with my camera gear intact. That jacket was the difference between life or death for my camera at that moment.  If my gear had been outside it, it would have been wet to the point of immersion spelling instant death to camera electronics.  If my lens and camera had died that day, I would still have to spend at least a week of being at sea without my kit.  Thankfully that didn’t happen.  My old Helly Hansen jacket needs replacing soon but it has served me so well I will probably buy another one.

3. Get a good pair of sea boots for the winter and wet shoes for summer

What on earth do good boots have to do with protecting your camera? There is an old adage on boats that you should leave one hand for yourself and one for the boat. So which hand do you use for your gear? There isn’t one. A good pair of boots, preferably with a pale, good gripping sole, can mean the difference in slipping over on that wet deck or maintaing your stance in trying conditions. Over the years I’ve seen so many people fall and smash their cameras against the boat’s deck or superstructure. The $$$ of gear loss would take your breath away. A good pair of boots could save you or your camera from being the next gear casualty at sea. I always used to wear Bourke sailing boots on pelagic trips but they didn’t cut it when they came to grip so my preference now is to use either a rubber or Goretex boot with a sole that grips and won’t mark the deck of the boat. Sorrel Cheyannes are a good option. If colder temperatures are not an issue, then go for a pair of open, good gripping, comfortable sandals that will allow water to flow in and out around your feet like TEVAs.

 

4. Use UV filters to protect your glass

You only get one chance with the glass at the end of your lens. Most new lenses come with hoods or protective covers at the end for a reason. At sea, use it. Even with a hood attached and your best intentions in place, the wind can blow sea spray on to your glass. I’m going to tow the line of a lot of other online bloggers in recommending you screw a standard UV filter on the end of EVERY lens you use at sea. They might cost you between $20 and $50 per filter but I ask you – what would you prefer to replace? The filter? Or a $2000+ zoom lens? I use Hoya filters on my gear but any from B&H, Kenko, Cokin etc will do the trick. Protect your glass at sea and your lenses will serve you well over a longer period of time.

5. Microfibre Cloths

Whoever invented these needs an award. I’m not talking about the tiny pieces of cloth that you would use to clean your eye glasses. I’m talking about the washer sized, lint free cloths that you can buy in supermarkets. I keep one in my pocket of my jacket to instantly whip out and wipe salt spray off my gear at sea. I keep another in my pocket in a zip lock bag (more about those later) so it stays dry while I use the other one. At night when I get home, I use a moist microfibre cloth to wipe the salt off my gear and a dry one to dry the gear after I’ve cleaned it. You can then throw them in the wash and re-use them. Believe me you will feel happy you have them at hand when conditions get rough on the open ocean.

6. Take the pressure off your neck – use a harness!

Using a harness to hold your gear at sea serves a multitude of purposes. Firstly it takes the pressure off your neck and places more of it in your shoulders. Why is this important? If you are anything like me, you will rarely get a break during daylight hours on a boat.  The first time you head to the loo will be the time you miss the most amazing shot of a passing whale, dolphin or seabird. This translates into very long hours on the deck wielding gear that can weigh between 2kg and 20kg, depending on the size of your kit.  Standing upright and doing photography for twelve hours with few or no breaks can be very physically wearing on anyone, young or old.

So what harness should you choose? One that supports your camera and your body firmly. Through friends I recently discovered Cotton Carriers. These are awesome because you can mount a small plate with a tripod screw to your camera (despite what anyone argues, tripods and monopods are USELESS at sea), put the harness on and clip the camera to you so it stays close to your body. This allows you to use both your hands to stabilise yourself when you are moving about on a rocky boat without having your camera gear swinging around from your neck strap only and smashing against the nearest hard surface.

 

7. Stop your camera from giving you the love bite of the century and use a comfortable strap around your neck.

In conjunction with a good harness above, a good camera strap can mean the difference between returning from sea in a marginally tired state and landing with a head ache, neck ache, sore back and a love bite from your camera strap that would make your partner cringe. I like soft, slightly elasticated neoprene camera straps at sea. Optech in the USA make really comfortable camera straps. For extra comfort and warmth a tube of sheepskin is good. The strap from the camera manufacturer is OK and very strong but I’ve yet to encounter one that is comfortable enough to rub against your bare skin for long periods of time on a boat.

8. Get a waterproof grab bag

No I’m not talking about buying a waterproof camera bag. I’m talking about a bag that, if the boat you are on was going to sink and you had to jump overboard, you could jump into the water with your bag and your gear would remain dry. Despite advertising claims, MOST bags leak. The nice looking Lowepro Dryzone bag is a classic example of this. It is useless. The waterproof Tizip is hard to close quickly so you are left with a bag that allows moisture to get inside, affecting both your camera gear and a laptop too if you are carrying one. Working in Antarctica where I had to jump on and off inflatable boats, the Lowepro Dryzone was NOT a good choice. I ended up having to throw it inside a waterproof barrel on shore excursions because I couldn’t trust it to float if it ended up in the sea. It defeats the bag’s purpose don’t you think?

The best style of bags for sea are those that don’t involve zips (which end up corroding and getting jammed in the salt air) and have a roll top with a clip so that they can survive you swimming with it or a capsize of the vessel into the water. Therefore I recommend products from Ortlieb, the traditional manufacturers of dry bags. Lately we have been using combination rucksacks with roll tops from an Australian company called Over-Board. These bags are excellent both on boats and in kayaks because you can use them like a daypack that remains completely waterproof so you can swim with them. In comparison to Ortlieb they are also really cost effective. Although they advertise camera bags, Over-Board has yet to design a bag that carries an SLR or two with a number of lenses for their range. When they do, I will be one of the first people to trial it because being at sea is such a huge part of my life.

9. If your budget allows – get a backup camera body

I work as a professional photographer and as such I usually have at least two camera bodies with me in case one fails. I can also claim my gear on my business. I realise this doesn’t apply to everyone. Recently I was shocked to see a 12MP camera for sale at a local Post Office for $80. If something happens to your DSLR at sea and you are like me in that you feel psychologically traumatised without it, I would suggest you get a back up camera, even a point and shoot, to cover you for the rest of your day or trip.

10. Snap Lock Bags

Another product design that deserves a medal. Just when you thought the Snap Lock bags you buy in the supermarket were made just for lunches and snacks, along comes a photographer. Snap Lock plastic bags can be a god-send at sea. They can keep your microfibre cloths dry, a spare one can be kept in your pocket to throw a circular polariser in if you take it off and can’t put it back in your bag. If you don’t think these are useful, I’ll remember you next time I see your sunscreen plastered through your camera bag because another punter has fallen over on to your pack causing the cream to explode and cover the contents of your waterproof bag. Even if you use one to put liquids, snacks, your lip balm or lens cloth in, trust me you won’t regret having a few of these in different sizes at hand. Just don’t rely on them to be 100% water tight. They will protect your gear but they will not be enough to keep your camera dry if you fall overboard in bad weather.  They are just a good supplement to the waterproof bags I’ve recommended above.

Then of course there are some scenarios that gear manufacturers can NEVER account for, but I’ll leave those stories to another post.

 

20 thoughts on “Top Ten Tips to Protect Your Camera at Sea

  1. David Bishop says:

    Dear Inger,

    Your info. regarding on board ship gear is very helpful especially as I’ll be leading a birding group on a small ship in eastern Indonesia. I’m thinking that Neos would be very useful for all the wet landings?

    Your website is very impressive and I especially enjoyed some of your very attractive images. As a professional photographer I wonder if you could confirm for me the following:

    To all intents and purposes I’m wasting my time using the Nikon 80-400 zoom as it rarely produces very sharp images? I also have the Nikon 500 F4 which i quite simply superb so I guess I have the answer there. However, I lead specialist Bird and Nature tours and have to be diplomatic about taking too many images so the zoom is more discreet. Can you suggest an alternative?

    Best wishes

    David Bishop

    • inger says:

      Hi David,

      Thank you so much for commenting on my post. It’s always great to hear from other people working with birds.

      The Neos will serve you very well on your shore excursions because they cover your entire boots to your knees and the beauty of them is that you can whizz them off and you have your comfortable hiking boots on to do longer walks on land. The only issue with them is two lots of boot scrubbing if that is required. You’d need to scrub both your hiking boots and the Neos. In Asia, I’d be surprised if boot scrubbing is required from you though.

      The question of lenses is one that has cropped up on my Facebook page before and is one that is frequently discussed in the field too. Quality, weight and speed of a fixed length prime lens vs. the lightweight, slower flexibility of a zoom is more often a matter for personal preference. I use a Canon 100-400 a lot at sea because birds are flying both close to and far away from me and I like the flexibility. That said, I’ve seen some excellent shots from 500mm+ fixed, prime lenses of birds almost on the horizon so if you have a combination of a high MP body with a fast prime lens, you will get great shots of animals that are a long way away.

      I know what you mean regarding discretion with your 500mm lens and guiding but it comes down to whether you want quality shots or just ID shots with the lesser lens. The ability to judge the feeling of the group and whether they feel the camera is getting more attention than the paying customers is a good skill to have. Most groups of birders have at least a couple of members who are wielding large lenses these days so I’d be surprised if you didn’t get more queries from birders on how to get better shots if you are getting good ones yourself.

      I hope this helps?

  2. Iain Stych says:

    Great list, obviously well thought out from experience. Like your products of choice.
    Thanks

    • inger says:

      Thanks Iain, the ideas for including them were borne from a lot of mishaps I’ve seen at sea. Glad you like these tips. They could really apply to anyone who does frequent pelagic, sailing or kayaking trips :-).

  3. Carl Billingham says:

    Hi Inger,

    Some great advice there.

    I also put a pack towel in my dry bag to soak up any moisture, leaks or splashes that might find their way in while it is open.

    And if the worst comes to the worst and my camera gear catches a wave, I have something to dry it off with quickly!

    Cheers,

    Carl

    • inger says:

      Hi Carl,

      Thanks. Agreed. The microfibre cloths I mentioned in the post are the same material as many pack towels. I don’t know why more people don’t use these? They dry quickly and you can re-use them. What’s not to like?

  4. Chris Bray says:

    These are great tips =) thanks for taking the time to post them.

  5. Ken says:

    If you go to sea on a longer oceanographic research cruise (and here at Woods Hole, it is increasingly common to have a photographer and/or a videographer on one of our ships), you should replace the “wet shoes” with steel-toe work boots. A research vessel is more akin to a floating factory floor, after all. In addition, those Tevas will not be allowed, even to go to the shower. Close-toed shoes are required at all times, and even recommended on smaller boats like the one pictured at the top of the post, where you will almost certainly have your toes stepped on by someone caught off-balance in a moderate swell. Also, extra batteries and a separate (not in-camera) charger so you can cover the 24-hour operations typical of large research vessels and an extra UV filter for those times when the salt spray overpowers even your moderately clean microfiber cloth.

    • inger says:

      Hi Ken,

      Thanks for your comment to my post. It’s great to hear from someone at Woods Hole!

      The post with tips was really meant for the great majority of the public heading out to sea on day trips, not people like you or I who actually work out there. I think we fall in the minority.

      The smaller research expeditions I’ve worked on involve banding of birds and doing island survey work. The OH&S terms on either of these haven’t specified steel capped boots because we haven’t been working in an environment where we could be seriously hurt. If however, I went on a research trip with the Australian Antarctic Division aboard their ice breaker, the Aurora Australis, I would be fully required to wear steel capped boots, use latex gloves for handling samples and be prepared to scrub both my boots and tripod legs before and after shore excursions. The number of people participating in those types of research trips is in the hundreds, compared to the thousands of others who just go out there for leisure.

      The extra batteries is an excellent tip on boats too because you can run out of power quickly out there and 12v sockets are notoriously slow for recharging. The post was really aimed at protecting your gear and yourself out there. Usually for me, extra batteries and memory cards are a must have but neither do anything to really protect my stuff, they just make it easier to stay out on deck for longer :-).

      I’d love to visit Woods Hole one day as I’ve read so much about it. Hopefully one day I’ll be one of those photographers on board an expedition with you.

      Thank you again for your comment.

  6. DebbieL says:

    I have two comments. I nearly bought a cotton carrier harness for my Sigma 100-500mm + Canon 7D gear. Decided against. When you want to use a tripod, you have to unscrew the harness screw fitting then screw in your tripod plate before being able to use. Seemed pretty long-winded.
    Very fine for carrying if not using a tripod.
    The neoprene strap I bought has a problem. The fasteners that should hold down the slack at both ends slide off. Consequently, the straps poke out!
    That’s all for me. Love your work.

    • inger says:

      Hi Debbie,

      Thanks so much. I wasn’t sure if you were talking about the Cotton Carrier or my post being long winded though ;-).

      I think Cotton Carrier are trying to combat this as they have started to produce carrier fittings for both Manfrotto and Velbon tripod heads for the exact reason you describe above. I was aiming this post really at people who go out on pelagics where tripods aren’t really suitable but I agree.

      Sorry to hear about your neoprene strap!

      Thank you for your compliments re my pics. It’s great to hear from a fellow fanatic of feathered creatures! 🙂

  7. michael hunter says:

    Hi Inga,

    Long time no see, you certainly have embraced seabirding in a big way. I just get seasick,have seen most of what I want, don’t think I’d survive the South Atlantic which would be great. Of the many seasick cures, none of which worked for me in the Antarctic or SE Pacific, NOT DRINKING ALCOHOL has worked wonders on a few relatively minor trips.

    Thanks for the waterproof bag tips, weve been looking out for wproof backpacks and the Aussie ones look good. Who in Aus stocks the German ones do you know, I mean the big 100+ litre ones?

    Cheers

    Michael

    • inger says:

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment above! It’s great to hear from you!

      Yes sadly I’m still a bit of a pelagic tragic. Sorry to hear about you getting seasick. I sometimes think I should do a whole post on tactics for avoiding getting sick at sea.

      To buy Ortlieb bags in Australia, I would highly recommend you contact Expedition Equipment in Rosebery http://www.expeditionequipment.com.au/ . They provided excellent service when we were planning the Heard Island Expedition and they will be the key outfitters I’ll be recommending to the Australian pax joining me on the Western Tibet Expedition next year.

      My suggestion would be to research the bag you’d like and then call them to see if they have it in stock or if they can order it in for you from Germany.

      I hope this helps? Again, lovely to hear from you and please pass on Richard’s and my regards to Penny.

      Cheers,

      Inger

      • Susan Nicholls says:

        Re a whole post on avoiding seasickness: yes please! And thanks for all this excellent info on sea-borne photography without tears.
        Cheers, Susan

        • inger says:

          ha ha ha Susan, I am probably the last qualifying person to write a post on sea sickness as I don’t get affected by it….. I’ve just been on the other end of it sometimes! :-/ 😀

  8. Hi, I’m heading off for a week’s sailing in Turkey and fully intend using a B&W clear filter that I have- I’d prefer to damage that than the front element! A couple of questions on filters if I may:
    1. Can you actually see a difference in the image quality when using a filter? I don’t mean a scientific difference, but can you see a difference with the Mark 1 Human Eyeball? I can’t unless the lighting is extreme such as a very bright point source.
    2. Why do you use a UV filter? Would a clear one, like the Nikon NC do the trick?

    thanks very much
    Graham

    • inger says:

      Hi Graham,

      Thank you so much for your comment and I’m sorry for the delay in reply. I am currently leading an expedition in Namibia and Botswana. In my experience the difference a standard UV filter makes is negligible and you virtually cannot notice the difference unless, as you say, you are pointing to a very specific light source like the sun. Using a UV filter or a clear filter is fine. I would just prefer to have one of these on the end of my lenses to protect the main glass at the end of the lens from scratches. I do hope this helps.

      Enjoy Turkey. I was there in June at both Kas and then on the Greek Island of Meis/Kastellorizo/Megisti which is worth visiting if you are cruising around!

      Safe travels!

  9. Joey Alford says:

    Really good info. I’ve been looking for a few weeks in preparation for our trip to Antarctica but by far with your extensive experience on water, this article has been very helpful. Been taking U/W photos for many years but our first time in these conditions. Helped me decide on several things. Thanks so much.

    • inger says:

      Hi Joey,

      Thank you! I have been working in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean for many years so I’m pleased my post helped you to plan!

      Enjoy your trip down there. It is an incredible part of the world – one that I feel privileged to call my office occasionally.

      Best wishes

      Inger

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