How to Ruin Your (or Our) Gear in 5 Minutes (Without Water)

Published May 8, 2013

If there hasn’t been a Color Run 5k or 10k race near you, there probably will be soon. And with all that color, you certainly want to take some pictures, right? Not with your camera you don’t (and not with ours either).

I’m never one to worry much about lens dust. I’ve written about why you shouldn’t worry about some dust in your lens. But the color bombs they throw out at Color Runs are different. In the last month we’ve had over 20 lenses and several cameras nearly ruined by these things. For what it’s worth, all of the renters tell us they really weren’t near any of the major ‘color bombs.’

Here’s a few pictures from a brand new lens that returned after its first rental — at a Color Run. These pictures are, of course, after the lens was cleaned externally. All of that dust is inside the front and rear elements.

Now a few dust specs rarely cause problems, but this kind of dust affects light transmission and contrast, as well as causing fascinating flare (in pretty colors). The color dust is very fine, tiny specs, made to stick on people as the run by (I’m still trying to figure out why someone thought this was a good idea).  Because of this, the lenses’ weather sealing, front filters, etc. don’t even slow this stuff down. It’s throughout the entire lens stuck on every element, on the gears and helicoids, and in the mirror box of the camera too. And yes, that includes pro-level lenses on pro-level cameras, all of which are supposedly weather sealed. As an added bonus, it doesn’t blow out like regular dust. It must be wiped off.

Here’s a look at the inner rim after the front element was removed.

Here’s the front of group 2, nice and deep inside the lens (excuse the lights, this is a quick post just using worklights).

And here’s one of a dozen Q tips I used to clean out around the focusing gears and helicoids. Remember, this was a brand new lens only used for this one shoot.

The end result for this lens was complete disassembly and cleaning. This was a fairly lucky one – it’s a lens that we can disassemble and clean without requiring factory readjustment. For a lot of lenses that’s not an option.

A number of lenses, including Canon L’s and Nikon Pro lenses had to go to the factory, and at least one has been given the “financially not feasable to repair” sticker. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether they cover it under warranty or not.

You know what I’d probably find more interesting than the photos of what the insides of lenses look like after this? What the inside of the runner’s lungs look like. All my medical training leaves me curious about that kind of thing.


Addendum – here’s a bonus picture. A Sigma 8-16mm with the barrels removed so you can see how pervasive the Fun Run dust was throughout the entire lens. The dust around the mount side of the lens is so thick that it’s blocking the AF motor from working properly and it’s so caked into the lubricant that the helicoids don’t zoom normally. This will have to be completely disassembled and cleaned piece by piece.


Roger Cicala

May 2013


BTW – Because I’ve already been asked: this won’t be covered by the rental damage waiver going forward – it’s considered negligent use of equipment just like when salt spray soaks the camera on the beach.

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
  • Robin Manford

    Second photo the dust is clearly on the exterior of the lens, right? Because the same trail of dust across the lens extends onto the lens hood or whatever that is to the left of the image.

  • Horrified! Like coloured asbestos!! ?

  • The first renter did not have to pay (actually there were two at once) because we had not been clear on the damage waiver. Many subsequent renters, despite our warnings, have had to pay.

  • JR

    So did the renter have to pay? Who paid?

  • Color Run is the only event where you get to party once you cross the finish line. The event is immensely popular all over the world and although runners do not receive any prizes, they are showered with colour run powder, which is made of corn starch. Color Run is not your typical fun run event because it puts more emphasis on fun. Even first-time runners are welcome and for families who are looking for a unique way to bond with children, Color Run is a great idea to consider. Participants need to pay for the registration fees, which may vary from region to region.

  • Jim Nooney

    Having worked in the repair department for both a dealer and for Leica this is a really fascinating article. I totally agree with your decision not to cover this kind of damage under the rental waiver.

  • David Rouse

    Do you folks have any recommendations for protection (hopefully less expensive than a hard underwater case)? I saw a documentary with Richard I’Anson where he was using something that looked like an AquaTech soft cover (at Holi in India), but some people recommend a marine bag.

  • Chucklou

    Having had lung problems recently, I will be going no where near any of those “fun runs.”

    I am guessing it would take a lawsuit (or several) against the dust manufacturer and punitive damages to stop this.

  • Candace

    You’re correct. Pigments are all considered carcinogenic. The fda approves them based on slanted tainted tests. And if you’ve been following them closely, you know that nutrisweet (aspartame) was openly admittedly carcinogenic and publicly protested but people vs coke and the chemical companies lost and FDA approved it with only the exception being in the case of a pregnant woman. It turns out that it causes a lot side effects within a few days of beginning to drink it. and long term it does considerable damage both neurologically and causes holes to occur throughout your brain tissue. They nerve and brain damage can not be reversed, yet this is still on the market. And it really became the Roe v Wade if you will, heavily toxic chemicals and elements being introduced into our food supply and medicine supply regardless of public opposition, and regardless of health risk . When they finally succeeded in getting a DA approval, that open the gate for a flood dangerous chemicals to be putting out food, beverages, household cleaners, air fresheners, weed killers, bug sprays, you name it. The market suddenly started Mushrooming with all these new products.

    Good Housekeeping published an article back in the nineties about a highly dangerous preservative called BHT and others. BHT is mostly listed in cereals, and was at the top of the list with big warning symbols. I started checking labels and found it was on the label of just a few kinds of cereal… Some of which I normally used. So I started avoiding purchasing those serials. But I kept an eye on my labels. After about 6 months I’d say it started popping up on more and more brands and kinds until I literally had to switch eating oatmeal and completely gave up boxed cereals. Intestinal cancers stomach cancers, lymphomas, renal cancers, they’re all on the rise. Four generations in generations literally multiple millennia, people worked outdoors all day getting sun exposure and skin cancer was unheard of. but then came the Sun tanning lotions and Sun screens that are full of chemicals that you are slathering on your skin and then baking them in. No skin cancers are through the roof. I don’t know why people don’t recognize the connection between chemicals and cancer.

  • Candace

    They aren’t selling starch to you to inhale. So no. The problem it can cause isn’t limited to inhaling corn starch, its inhaling pigment too. And it’s not just your lungs, it’s also your kidneys, liver, lymph nodes, etc. Organs that must filter pigments from your body. You wont reap the results in the short-term … it’s down the road.

    FDA-approved substances make it into our sphere of consumption all the time. I don’t understand why people dont start a movement to start banning the fda-approved chemicals … cancer has sky-rocketed.

    People are being fed a lie that cancer is hereditary or genetic. It’s a misleading statement. Only a few cancers are potentially hereditary ….VERY FEW. Almost all are from toxic chemicals and substances that the FDA has approved. Bee populations are collapsing. Over 75% of food we consume are SOLELY pollinated by bees. I am over a half century old so I remember a time when any kind of cancer was RARE. You just didn’t hear about it. Suddenly every other person has or has had it at least once. Cancer was a mystery illness just a few decades ago. Now you can go on cancer website and see the LIST. Of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, spermicides, fungicides, pigments, plastics, cleaners, insulation, petroleum products and byproduct, etc. that cause cancer (your oncologist can tell you just where it came from. And interestingly, sugar, viras, bacterial, and fungal infections are also cancerous. That leaves little room for “hereditary/genetic” cause. What they really mean is some people dont possess a specific gene that they *THINK* is responsible for fighting certain cancers … or the mechanism for disposing damaged genes (yep you guessed it … these chemicals damage your genes or gene replication a d THAT causes a cancer cell to be produced … but it’s not a genetic damage you inherited.

  • gearhed

    Many artificial food dyes are banned both domestically, and in many foreign countries. Just a short search produced the following . . .

    FD&C Red No. 2 – Amaranth, E123,
    FD&C Red No. 4,
    FD&C Red No. 32 was used to color Florida oranges,
    FD&C Orange Number 1 was one of the first water-soluble dyes to be commercialized, and one of seven original food dyes allowed under the Pure Food and Drug Act of June 30,
    FD&C Orange No. 2 was used to color Florida oranges.
    FD&C Yellow No. 1, 2, 3, and 4,
    FD&C Violet No. 1.

    How do you or anyone else know for sure that the dyes used in this “Harmless Cornstarch” will not cause lung cancer in children twenty years from now? Would you want your child to breathe this stuff?

  • David Parsons

    It’s colored cornstarch. If that is cancerous, then every grocery store in the world has a huge problem.

  • gearhed

    Well, if someone threw powder on me, to breathe into my lungs, I would consider that assault, and possibly affecting my long term health. Is this substance certified not to cause emphysema, or cancer in twenty years? Even the best pulmonary doctors recommend NOT to breathe in ANY foreign substance, if you don’t have to. Just because some stupid person thinks it would be cool to color all the runners purple for laughs, does not mean it is a healthy idea. The JAMA Medical Annals are full of supposedly harmless substances causing many deadly illnesses years later. Why risk it?

  • D to the J

    Because of this comment, I won’t ever be using your company for rentals.

    “BTW – Because I’ve already been asked: this won’t be covered by the rental damage waiver going forward”

    Not because I do these color runs, or sea-salt-seas, or burning man dust-fest events, but because “going forward” you should add a clause that states if you are doing a shoot that is invasive you will be liable for the cost of cleaning and/or replacement of the camera or lens, OR add an insurance policy OR get out of the business.

    Corporate America is killing America.

  • Me

    “…The powders are not toxic. Based on stuff one would use in cooking…”

    None of the the stuff one would use in cooking is meant to be sniffed and inhaled. “Non-toxic” means they are safe to ingest (eat), not inhale (breathe).

    Have a thought about how non-toxic ordinary flour is, then google “flour dust exposure”.

    Use common sense.

  • Here’s the set of pics (dear moderator, feel free to add this to the previous comment). I also uploaded a photo of my gear wrapped in plastic in the set.

  • I just shot one of these events with my own gear. I put filters in the front of the lenses (Canon 6D + 85mm F/1.8 and Canon 7D + 17-40mm F/4 L USM) and I wrapped the combos in plastic wrap, carefully so that it was tight around the filters. A whole lot of it! Of course I decided some the settings ahead of time: picked a focal length on the 17-40, etc. I went in the middle of the action and took a whole bunch of shots. The powders are not toxic. Based on stuff one would use in cooking. The only things that got messy were the neck straps… which were dirty to begin with, so now I washed them and they’re cleaner than before the event.
    It is a very nice event, totally worth trying!

  • Roger Cicala

    HI Lynn,

    We don’t really see much trouble on Ocean cruises except the occasional camera dropped overboard. If we do, it tends to be sand, not salt spray causing problems. We don’t ding renters for sand getting into the works, but we do a lot of disassemblies to clean sand out of focus and zoom rings.

  • Roger,

    Good article … and this reply is rather long after it appeared.

    I thought I’d check with you on a semi-related issue that came up on DPReview, about an appropriate camera to take along on a week-long ocean cruise.

    One of my first reactions to the OP was “rent a nice camera for the week”, but then I got to wondering if that would be fair to the rental company.

    I was wondering if anything like the above “color run issues” might apply, except for the scenario of renting a camera to take on an ocean cruise. Have you and your repair techs observed that cameras and/or lenses need special attention after an ocean cruise? I suppose you would tend to not know how the camera was used.

    I suppose some would return with obvious salty residue on the front element. Or not?

    I guess my question is whether I am too cautious about taking my camera to the beach. I wouldn’t take a “bare camera” without something like a gallon freezer zip-lock for a DSLR, or quart size for point-and-shoot.

    Is the air heavy with salty humidity an issue? Or is that yet something else I’m uninformed about?

    I have observed that when I attempt to take star trails in lower temperature in high humidity, the lens can mist over, or frost over if that chilly and a certain dew point. The camera body will be moist, clammy, and almost sweaty.

    I have to think something like that is going on inside the camera also, maybe to a lessor extent. Residue from salty, humid air can be wiped off with a damp towel, but not the internal logic board, or the sensor.

    If you have the time and interest to respond … not really expected but appreciated … perhaps you could also respond directly to the DPR post, por favor?

  • Roger Cicala

    echoy97 – no, we don’t work that way.

  • echoy97

    A lot of camera rental requires customer to use credit card to pay a safety deposit, enough to cover the cost of a brand new lens. Cant you just make your customer buy the ruined lens?

  • Mark James

    I shot one a few months ago. I wasn’t overly worried, but after seeing this I’ll be more careful. My body is sealed and I used my long sealed zoom because I knew it would be messy. I just blew the dust off of the outside of the lens and body when I was done and can’t see any adverse effects.

  • Bernd

    That’s gotta be excellent for your lung.
    My only conclusion is that these particels are extremely small so they can creep into the lens.
    I’ve been in the Sahara in Sand storms with my gear an never had such an infestition of dust.
    Thanks for making us aware on this.

  • Jim

    I’ve been hesitant to shoot these. This is telling me maybe I’ll still stay away.

  • Roger Cicala


    I accept your point of view, but this isn’t “a bad renter”. We’ve written off a dozen or so lenses and a couple of cameras from color runs not to mention spending hours and hours disassembling and cleaning other lenses that could be salvaged. Not a big issue, we write off and repair damaged goods every day. But it has always been our practice to let people know when we detect things that can harm equipment, or find equipment that has issues. But if you’d looked at this blog other than to click one link and get defensive, you’d already know that.

    I’m glad you haven’t had problems. But other people have. Another “sad part of the internet” is people who assume because they haven’t had a problem, the problem doesn’t exist. See D800 left focus points, D600 sensor dust, Movi electrical fires, or dozens of other examples.

    I allowed your post, despite the fact that newly created, anonymous hotmail accounts have a tendency to be people who for whatever reason don’t want others to know who they are, which often turns out to be people who are invested in some way in the product. But I do think it important to let people know there are two points of view here and numerous people have survived color runs with their equipment intact.


  • David

    I believe that this is a bad blog. As with any rental, the rental was not taken care of, by any stretch of care. I have been to many color races and I can tell you that not camera has been ruined.

    If you are upset that you rented something and it got ruined then I would contact the person that was in charge of the equipment. The problem was not where it was used but the lack of care while in the possession of the renter.

    This is just another sad reminder of our society. Instead of telling the person at fault it was there responsibility, we lay fault at the person or in this case the event, as being liable. At the end of the day, it is the owners responsibility to rent or no rent the equipment.

  • Bert

    I know a photographer who went to one of these. She wrapped her camera in plastic. She didn’t have to do any unusual cleaning of lenses, etc, that I know of – but she did say she was really worried about her camera while she was there.

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