Weatherproof Claims

(commentary)

The missing claim of “weatherproof" on the Olympus Pen-F has brought up a bit of angst among the faithful: is Olympus stepping back from this feature in their camera line?

Simple answer: no. 

Olympus appears to be trying to micro-manage nuanced differences between a lot of very similar cameras. It’s an old Japanese consumer electronics maker tactic, and confusion and complexity is part of the marketing game. If you don’t know how the consumer brain works, complexity and conflicting messages allow sales people to more easily steer customer buying decisions to whatever they need to sell today.

But I’m already off point and I just finished the second paragraph ;~). 

What is my point? 

The camera makers make boasts about weather sealing and water resistance, but they actually don’t pony up to the bar and state, let alone honor, IP ratings. IP stands for “ingress protection,” and defines a standard used throughout all products to tell the user what the actual level of protection is.

Most people don’t know that there are solid (e.g. body parts down to dust) and liquid (e.g. water) IP ratings. These ratings look like this: IP13 or IP04. The first digit is the rating for solids, the second for liquids. Almost no camera maker actually states an IP rating, partly because it leads to potential future liability. The Nikon AW1 is an exception. It has a rating of IP68, though Nikon splits that into separate dust and water IP ratings in their manual. Moreover, Nikon hedges their bets by using the phrase “in-house tests have demonstrated…” instead of actually claiming independent testing to the standard. 

Why all the hedging and non-specificity? Probably because the camera companies can’t distinguish between actual failure and user failure. Most tend to claim “user damage” when you submit a “weatherproof”, “dustproof”, or “shockproof” camera for repair. Nikon, for example, will tend to imply that you left a door unsealed or didn’t lubricate your o-rings properly if you send a flooded AW1 in for repair. 

I actually have a fair amount of experience with AW1s in the water. In my Galapagos workshops I’ve now seen about a dozen AW1s used in snorkeling. I’ve seen multiple instances where the camera was properly handled and sealed where displays have clouded, and one where there was clear ingress of water. On the good side, this last trip we had one AW1 get banged against lava by a wave—remember, Nikon also claims the camera is shockproof to MIL-STD-810F Method 516.5 levels—that badly dented the front of the lens and destroyed the seal around the front element allowing water into the lens, yet the camera was not flooded despite being under water when this happened (and afterward, at least until we could get it to the boat). 

Still, the point I’m making is that I hear from quite a few people who submit what they thought was a “protected” camera for repair, and the repair is denied due to user abuse. 

Which brings me to this: if a manufacturer says they’ve done something to prevent dust or water ingress (“weather sealing” or “weather resistant”), they’re not likely to back that up with repair action on their part. All it means is that they’ve put more attention into the seals that keep external elements out than in a model without those claims. 

The problem, of course, is that these are interchangeable lens cameras. Change lenses, and all bets are off. Indeed, I’d say the most common problem I’ve seen with moisture getting into cameras isn’t mist or light rain, it’s condensation due to mishandling the product when going between cold/hot and dry/humid environs. 

So a technique you need to learn: if you have to move between cold/hot and dry/humid conditions, you’re going to need to remove the air. Not completely, of course—though that would be wonderful if we could—but as much as you can. 

Condensation is a critical mass thing. The more air you have with moisture in and around something, the more likely that moisture becomes a problem. The proper thing to do is to bag you camera when moving between those differing conditions and to remove as much air out of the bag as you can. Then let the camera stabilize in temperature before opening the bag. 

You can find zipper lock bags big enough these days that can hold a Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, so there’s no excuse for condensation being troublesome. Every photographer moving between indoors and outdoors should have a few of these bags in their backpack and be using them. 

That’s still not going to help you with the camera makers’ repair departments. You can do all the right things and still get repairs refused on gear that should have withstood the ingress. 

Thus, the other thing you need to do is make sure you carry emergency rain covers for your gear and use them. You don’t need anything fancy. The low-cost plastic cinch-bag type work fine for mist and light rain if you use them correctly. And yes, I believe you should use them on cameras that are supposedly weatherproof. Moreover, you have to still think about potential condensation as you move out of the wet environment back into the dry indoors (see above). 

So what are those IP ratings that the camera makers aren’t providing?

For physical objects including dust:

0 — no protection
1 — objects greater than 50mm can’t enter
2 — objects greater than 12.5mm can’t enter
3 — objects greater than 2.5mm can’t enter
4 — objects greater than 1mm can’t enter
5 — dust protected but not prevented
6 — dust tight (no ingress)

For liquids:

0 — no protection
1 — dripping water falling vertically
2 — dripping water at up to 15° off  vertical
3 — spraying water at up to 60° off vertical
4 — splashing water from any direction
5 — water jets (6.3mm nozzle) from any direction
6 — powerful water jets (12.5mm nozzle) from any direction
7 — immersion up to 1m
8 — immersion over 1m

Most of the cameras claiming some sort of weather protection are probably IP53 or IP54. Most other cameras with any sort of seals are probably IP42 or IP43. Cameras without seals are probably IP40. And note that the physical object rating would be with the lens or body cap mounted. 

In short, yes, I’ll take cameras that have additional sealing. But I don’t overvalue that “protection.” I still take precautions to make sure that dust and water aren’t getting where they shouldn’t be. You should, too. 

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