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This happens all the time in coastal and tropical environments. Transferring the camera and lens from a cool, low-humidity location like your car or hotel room directly into a warmer, high-humidity environment causes condensation to form on the lens (on the front and back elements).
Making the problem even worse is that these humid environments are likely where you like to go on vacation/holiday, and that is when you tend to take the most pictures. So that means this problem ruins a lot of shots. It has happened to me many, many times.
So how do you fix this problem? Well, once it happens, there is no fix. There are a few things you can try, which will be addressed at the end of the article, but you just have to keep wiping off your lens, and waiting for it to acclimate. This can take a while. Sometimes it just takes a few minutes for the lens to acclimatize and stop fogging over, but other times it can take half an hour.
Since you cannot fix it once it happens, you have to avoid the problem in the first place. How do you do that? You have to let your camera or lens acclimate ahead of time.
Obviously, you cannot just leave your camera bag laying around outside. You will need to let everything acclimate while keeping it safe. Here are some tips for decreasing the time necessary for your camera and lens to acclimate to the outside temperature and humidity while keeping it safe:
If you have a secure hotel balcony, you might put your camera and lens out there to let them acclimate. You probably don’t want to leave them out there overnight though. Even putting aside any security concerns, the coastal environment is not friendly to electronics, and prolonged exposure isn’t great for your camera. You can, however, place the camera and lens out on the balcony or other secure place for a while, as you are preparing to go out. Leaving them outside for a half-hour or so ought to be sufficient.
If you are getting up early to shoot a sunrise, for example, you might place your camera and primary lens out there immediately after you wake up, and let them acclimate while you are getting ready to go. That will give them some time to acclimate.
When you are driving around, or heading to a place you plan to photograph, keep your camera and lenses in the trunk of your car. That will keep them out of the air conditioning, and allow them to acclimate to the outside temperature and humidity.
Sometimes, however, you want to keep your camera handy in case you come across a great shot. In that case, keep the AC off and roll the windows down. All you are doing is keeping your camera and lens out of the air conditioning so that they acclimate to the temperature and humidity outside.
If you leave your camera and lens in a zipped-up camera bag, then the acclimation process will take exponentially longer. The camera bag, while certainly not air-tight, will prevent air flow and keep your camera and lens surrounded by cool, dry air. You don’t want that.
Instead, when you are acclimatizing the camera and lens – whether that be on the hotel balcony, in the trunk of your car, or some other place – keep them outside the camera bag.
The place where you are likely to have the biggest problem with condensation, is the front of your lens. Therefore, that is the part you should spend the most time and effort acclimating. In doing so, take off any filters or lens caps that are on your lenses. You don’t want a UV filter and a lens cap keeping the warmer, more humid air from getting to the front of your lens and acclimating it to the conditions outside.
Once the condensation happens, you just have to ride it out until your camera and lens acclimate. At the same time, you should periodically wipe off the front of the lens. That way you can see if the condensation is going to return. If you are not wiping it off periodically, you won’t know.
In addition, if the situation is not too severe, you can wipe off the lens and then quickly snap off a shot or two before the lens starts fogging up again. That usually works after the acclimation process has been going on for a while.
Keep a micro-fibre cloth handy for this process. If you don’t have one, you’re going to have to use whatever is available to wipe off your lens – like your shirt (and I’d like to scoff at this notion, but I’ve been forced to resort to that many times). Buy a couple of clip-on micro-fibre cloths that come in little pouches. You can just clip one to your camera strap and you’ll always have it handy. That will also keep you from having to dig through your bag to find one (they always go to the bottom in a hard-to-reach corner).
A picture with any significant fogginess due to condensation is a goner. You will not be able to save it.
If the picture only has a minor amount of fogginess, however, there are some things you can do to try to clear it up. These are by no means sure-fire cures, but they will help a minor case of fogginess. Your first thought will probably be to increase the contrast and clarity in Lightroom or ACR. Those will work a little bit. A slightly stronger move is to take the photo into the LAB colorspace and perform the basic LAB color enhancement move. A fortunate side-effect of the color enhancement move is to remove a haze from the picture. Again, none of these tactics is a magic wand, but they can help.
Condensation is definitely a trap for the unwary. Light conditions change fast. Optimal conditions at sunrise and sunset are fleeting. You don’t want to be standing around waiting for the condensation on your lens to disappear and miss a shot.
Take steps to avoid the problem and acclimate your camera and lens ahead of time, while at the same time keeping everything safe. Do this either ahead of time, or while you are en route. Then make sure you are wiping off the front of your lens periodically, it will keep you from missing shots when the light is optimal.
Editor’s Note: I have encountered this situation many times. In Bangkok however I found that the image I took with the fog (below) had more feeling and impact than the ones I took after it cleared. So don’t stop shooting, you never know what you’ll get!