April Showers Bring the Need for Camera Rain Protection
Rain can surprise you most any time of year of course, but when the seasons are changing your odds of being caught by a passing shower are all too real. Precipitation during the winter months is a given, and summers here in the northwest can be gorgeous, but spring and fall can be a bit iffy. Not only do you need to keep yourself dry, but your camera gear will thank you for keeping it dry as well.
There are a number of commercial options out there. The top of the pack would have to be the Aquatech Sport Shields line made in Australia. Made from multiple layers of a waterproof, breathable barrier fabric similar to Goretex, these raincoats for your camera and lens are not cheap, but they will protect your gear better than anything else. I've found they don't fit every setup though so you may find you need to choose between a size that is a bit too small and one that is a bit too big. I have the SS-600 for my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR but it I wish they made a model between this and the smaller SS-300. Other commercial options include products from Op/Tech, Kata, Laird and Tenba. All of these potentially suffer from similar fit problems though. It's just not practical for them to make a model to exactly fit every combination of camera and lens out there. If you buy one, take the time to set it up at home before you bring it on a trip to make sure it will work.
There are also a number of free or nearly free options that have been devised by ingenious (or desperate) photographers over the years. If you want to save some money or find yourself on a rainy trip with protection from the elements for your gear, you can likely improvise something yourself, but here are a few time-tested solutions for you to consider.
Plastic bags of all sorts can come in quite handy for rain protection. Carrying a selection in your camera bag is well worth the small space they take up.
If you need to wait out a passing shower so you can get back to shooting, take a large trash bag and place it upside down over your entire tripod and camera.
If you want to continue shooting in the rain rather than waiting it out, find a plastic bag big enough to cover your camera and lens and poke a small hole in one of the bottom corners. Put the lens cap on your lens and remove the lens hood. Then force the front of the lens through the hole in the bag. I know it probably doesn't seem like it will fit, but the plastic used for most bags will stretch to a remarkable degree. If find you need to help things along some, tear the hole a bit bigger, but keep it smaller than the end of the lens so it will still stretch some as you push the end of the lens through. It's this stretch that will ensure a tight, water resistant fit. You want the plastic of the bag to form a snug fit around the lens with the front just barely poking through. When you have the bag on, take the lens cap back off and add the lens hood. The hood will keep the water off the front element and the bag will keep the water off of everything else. Pull the rest of the bag down over the camera body and the top of your tripod. You should be able to reach up inside the bag opening to operate the camera controls.
This works best if you can find a clear plastic bag that fits so you can still see your camera inside, but if need be, pull the front of it up far enough to see through the viewfinder when you want to take a picture. A clear bag has the added benefit that you'll be able to tell that it's working as intended. If you do get any water leakage or condensation, you'll be able to see it. Clear produce bags from the grocery store work great for smaller lenses. For clear bags in a variety of sizes, just go to the freezer bag and trash bag aisle of the grocery store instead. Some bags work better than others, so if you find a kind you like, stick with it.
Many hotels provide complimentary toiletry items for their guests including tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner, small bars of soap and the like. Whenever you check into a hotel and get to your room, rummage around in the bathroom to see if they include a shower cap with what they gave you. If they do, keep it — with its elastic edge, it can be used as a rain cover for a camera and small lens. If you are using a longer lens, it can still cover the more sensitive electronics of the camera in a pinch.
If you are shooting digital, be sure to keep your compact flash cards dry too. If you get one wet, it will be fine once it dries out, but it might short your camera out if you use it wet. Keep a clean Ziploc® bag in your pocket or camera bag just for CF cards to be safe.
And just in case, keep a towel or large micro-fiber cloth in a pocket somewhere to dry things off should your other defenses prove inadequate.
So don't let a little rain stop you from enjoying your picture taking. With a bit of planning, your camera gear can keep dry while you continue to shoot.
Update 6/11/2006 - A reader reminded me of another good method — one I've actually used myself in the past but forgot to list here. If you go to a thrift store you can usually buy a raincoat or rain pants for cheap. Find one that is the right size and cut a sleeve or pant leg off and you're ready to go. If rain is immanent, slide the open sleeve or leg down over your camera and lens and it should keep the rain out nicely. If you shop around, you may even be able to find some raingear with elastic around the wrist or ankles that will stretch over your lens hood and give you an even better fit.