The Care and Feeding of Your Lens

How do you take care of your digital camera? If you answered, "Well, I try to keep from dropping it into the mud too often," then perhaps you should pay a bit more attention to your photographic tool.

Thankfully, most digital cameras are fairly rugged and handle routine abuse in good cheer. But if you want your camera to live a long and happy life, giving you the best possible photos along the way, then this week's newsletter is for you. Let's see how you should take care of your camera's most important asset: the lens.

Treat the Lens Like Royalty

It's probably no surprise that the lens is the most delicate and most critical part of your camera. For the most part, that means the most important thing you can do to keep your camera in top form is to keep the lens clean. A dirty lens can reduce the quality of your photos, diminishing the value of the pixels your camera generates.

Use the Lens Cap

The best way to keep your lens clean is prevention: Use a lens cap all the time to keep dirt, dust, and grime from accumulating. Many point-and-shoot cameras make this easy by incorporating a mechanical cap that closes over the lens when you power off the camera.

For everyone else, you'll have to remember to use the lens cap. Some photographers like to use little elastic lens keepers that wrap around the lens and let the lens cap dangle below. Some cameras come with these gadgets; they're also available in camera stores. My advice? Don't use them. In a strong wind, the lens cap blows around and can even slap the front of the lens, potentially doing more damage than using nothing at all. A much better solution, in my opinion, is just to keep the cap in your pocket.

Cleaning the Lens

A critical thing to remember at the outset is that you don't want to scratch or cloud the lens in the process of cleaning it. Keep that in mind as you read the advice that follows. Using the wrong materials and techniques could do more harm than good by converting a temporary problem (dirt and film) into a permanent one (scratches and permanent clouding).

To clean your lens, start with a blower--you can either use a hand-powered model that you squeeze to blast air through a tube, or compressed air in a can. I prefer the hand blower, because cans of compressed air can throw contaminates on the lens along with air. If you do choose to use a can of air, always hold it straight--never sideways or at an angle--and start blowing before you point it at the camera lens. Don't worry about the force of the air, though; in my experience, you can't damage the lens with too much air. (The same is not true when blasting other parts of the camera--never use compressed air inside the camera body, for example.)

After that, use a lens cleaning cloth or tissue to remove any stuck-on debris. If you use lens cleaning fluid, place a drop or two on the lens tissue and clean the lens in a light, circular motion. Be sure never to use facial tissue or other non-photographic material to clean your lens, and don't apply cleaning fluid directly to the lens.

Filter or no Filter?

Since the lens is the most sensitive part of the camera, you might wonder if you should protect it with a filter. Traditionally, SLR owners have been known to screw a UV or skylight filter onto the end of their lenses. The philosophy here is simple: If you crash the front of your camera into something, it's a lot better to wreck a $25 accessory than a $300 lens.

As it happens, there's no firm consensus on this issue. It's a matter of personal preference. My opinion is that if you spent $300 (or $500 or $1000) on a lens, it makes little sense to muck it up by slapping a cheap $25 piece of glass over the top. Consequently, I don't use filters to protect my lenses.

That said, I'm pretty careful. But if you can look in the mirror and admit that you're a klutz--or if bad things just seem to happen to your portable electronics--then an inexpensive lens filter might be a wise investment.

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