Dust and Rain Covers: A Comparison from Africa (Part One: Poncho Covers)

Dust and Rain Covers: A Comparison from Africa (Part One: Poncho Covers)

At 55 to 80 million years old, the Namib Desert is one of the oldest and driest deserts in the World. The Namib is made up of massive fields of sand dunes, a humid, fog-laden coastline, and arid rocky plains.

Throw in a side trip to the Etosha salt pan and Namibia is one of the most lusted after photography destinations in the World. However, all of that sand, salt, and humidity can play havoc with the fragile inner workings of your cameras. Thankfully for me, several notable rain / dust cover manufacturers provided me with equipment to protect my gear during my recent trip to Namibia. 

In full disclosure, the gear was provide to me by the different manufacturers, but the reviews are mine, without input from the manufacturers. 

The name Namib means vast place and, let me tell you, it’s vast. We drove for four straight weeks and barely scratched the surface of what there is to see. I had many different occasions to run the gear through its paces. Sadly, Namibia is the middle of an almost decade-long drought so dust was everywhere.

A bit of a disclaimer, each and ever person I talked with at these companies explained that sand and dust are different enemies than rain. Their covers are designed and built to keep out rain. Sand / dust protection is more of a bonus.

What I Took With Me

Camera Gear:

To cover most of the photographic opportunities I expected to encounter, I took Canon 5d mk3s, a 16-35mm f/2.8, a 24-70mm f/2.8, a couple of 70-200mm f/2.8s, a 400mm f/2.8 (plus an extender), a Fuji X-Pro 2, and Fuji’s 35mm and 56mm. I also packed a tripod and a monopod. None of the gear I tested was designed for the mirrorless.

Kolmanskop, Namibia. That’s a lot of sand. Image from let us go photo

Protective Gear

Generally, rain and dust covers come in one of two types of construction. First, a poncho that fits or drapes over the camera. Second, a fabric pouch or enclosure that the camera is zipped or strapped into. The ponchos are typically lighter weight and less expensive. On the flip side, the ponchos aren’t as sure-fire at protecting your gear from dust or driving rain. To operate your camera while under a poncho you need to lift part of the cover to get at your dials. The enclosure-type covers typically have hand-access sleeves that will allow you to keep shooting without exposing your gear. 

For part one of this set of reviews, I’m going to cover the poncho-type covers. The next article will cover the enclosure-type covers and a few interesting rain / dust accessories.

Poncho or Sleeve-Type Covers

Driving vast distance or sitting for hours on a game drive means that you’re not always using your cameras. A lot of patience is required in both landscape and wildlife photography. When cinched or zipped shut, the less-expensive poncho covers certainly kept my cameras free of dust while they sat in my open truck.

OP/Tech’s USA Mega Shoot Cover 

OP/Tech's Mega Shoot Cover. Image from OP/Tech USA.

I should note before I get too far into my review of the Mega Shoot Cover that OP/Tech isn’t currently making these covers anymore. Perhaps they’ll restart manufacturing at some point in the future. I loved the soft neoprene material that OP/Tech chose for their cover. It really does have an almost indestructible feel to it. I also really liked the flexible lens cap. It was easy to slip on and off even with the massive hood attached to the 400mm. I rarely struggled to bring the covered lens to bear. The OP/Tech allowed me to keep my camera covered during the long hours waiting for wildlife, but, more importantly, it never got in the way when I needed to move quickly to shoot. Even when the elephants were shaking the ground. 

The OP/Tech allowed me to keep my camera cover during the long hours waiting for wildlife, but, more importantly, it never got in the way when I needed to move quickly to shoot.

I didn’t however like how much exposure there was to the back of the camera. Essentially the cover is a big cape that overhangs the back of the camera. When not in use the rear of the cover has two bungee cinch cables to close up the overhang and protect the back of the camera. Opening the cinch to use the camera will expose your equipment to the elements.

Newswear’s Long Lens Rain Poncho 

Newswear’s website is full of photographers using their products in conflict zones and otherwise terrible conditions. It was no surprise that when the rain poncho arrived it was made of extremely light-weight durable ripstop nylon. 

Close up of Newswear's button hole for the eyepiece and transparent panel for the LCD. Features typically only found in enclosure-type cover.

Unlike some of the other poncho type covers, the Newswear Rain Poncho had a plastic view panel and a button hole for your eyepiece; features more common to the enclosure-type covers than the poncho version. These features allow you to keep an eye on the LCD screen and the viewfinder without uncovering your camera. However, as a poncho type cover, there is no way to operate your camera without lifting the cover at least a bit to access the controls. I suppose you could keep your equipment under wraps if you were going to operate it remotely. 

Poncho-type covers will require you to lift up the poncho to access your controls.

In a rain storm you could operate your camera and the rain would roll with gravity off the sides. For example, during a thunderstorm I wanted to take some photos of lightning in the distance. Despite the rain coming in sideways, my gear stayed dry. However, dust and sand can easily blow upwards and a poncho won’t protect you. Newswear was very clear about this when they sent me their product to try. When it comes to dust, the Newswear poncho is more of a batten down the hatches and wait for the wind to pass, then start shooting again. I should note that the light-weight nature of the poncho meant that I did take it everywhere. It was even useful to spread out on the ground if I needed to put down a camera for a spell. 

Ruggard's Large Rain Shield 

Ruggard sleeve-type cover.

The Ruggard Large Rain Shield is more of a sleeve than a poncho. The Rain Shield uses a drawstring to cinch both ends and a velcro closure to seal up the tripod mount. Similar to the other ponchos, the Ruggard Rain Shield felt like you’d close up shop and wait for the storm to pass before opening up the cinched ends to operate your camera. Opening up the sleeve to operate the camera would expose your camera to rain and dust. 

Typical sleeve-type cover cinch.

Again, the Ruggard product was exceptionally light. More than once I’d spread it down on the ground to protect my camera while I fiddled with something else.

Ruggard rain shield in Dead Vlei. Image from let us go photo

Lightware's Rain Cover 

Unlike the other fitted ponchos, the Lightware Rain Cover was oversized to allow you to stand under the poncho to shoot. Think of the dark clothes that are used for large-format field cameras. I should also point out that the Lightware is, well, incredibly light. Despite its weight, it survived being slammed shut in my trucks tailgate at one point. 

Lightware rain poncho.

I may sound like a broken record, but although the Lightware would work wonders for rain, it shouldn’t be used to keep dust out. The folks at Lightware were also very clear about the main use for their product. When I was sitting in my truck in a torrential downpour to photograph a soaking lioness, the inside of my truck was soaked, but, half under the Lightware Rain Cover, I was dry  — more importantly, so was my camera.

Lioness in the rain. At least the Lightware cover kept my camera dry. Photo form let us go photo.

Ruggard's Fabric Camera Rain Cover

Ruggard cover sporting an eyepiece button hole and a transparent panel for the LCD.

A bit of a hybrid, this Ruggard Rain Cover sits over your equipment as a poncho, but it also had a plastic view panel so that you could keep an eye on your LCD and an eyepiece button hole. Being part poncho, however, even if you take the time to seal up as much as you can, there is nothing to stop sand and dust from blowing up under the cover while you are actually operating your camera. I also wish that Ruggard made these big enough to fit over the 400mm. It may not be as effective as the enclosure covers I’ll outline in the next article, but the price is right for something that gets so close.

Lead image as well as wildlife and travel photography used with permission of let us go photo

Product images from B&H Photo or directly from manufacturer's website, as listed below.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

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Or buy a (really) weather sealed camera.

I don't disagree that that helps! But, getting sand on to your camera means that every time you want to change the lens, memory card, or battery you need to thoroughly clean your equipment. In such harsh conditions, I was happy to have the extra layer of protection.

Good article Mark. I was thinking of writing this too. There a bunch of other rain covers that look good that I think could be compared like Think Tank and Peak Design.

Thanks Michael! Part two is coming shortly with another raft of the more fully enclosed covers.

A few large clear plastic bags and duct tape work wonders. DO NOT change lenses during a dust storm. A cheap, soft 50mm paint brush cleans dust off cameras better than the expensive stuff.
In Africa neither rain nor dust are more dangerous to cameras than vibration so use plenty of foam padding.

I had enough bodies that I wasn't changing lenses during the day, usually only at night, after blowing off my cameras with a rocket blower. I will incorporate a soft paint brush into my clean-up crew though, great suggestion. Namibia has a ban on plastic bags . . .

As for vibration, I'm with you. The tracks we had in TZ were some of the worst we've been on. Luckily when we're off the road, it's unusual for me to be driving. The cameras are usually in a pack, on my lap, which has a lot of 'foam' padding. ;)

I always have a soft toothbrush in my bag, it can get in some deeper grooves (like the focusing ring rubber) and remove the stuff really well. That with the rocket blower is a good combo too.

You guys are making great suggestions. I'm packing a paintbrush and an extra tooth brush the next time I'm off!

In dusty places during transport or just storing I bring a dry bag. This keeps the sand and dust away when not taking pictures. If the dry bag is big enough it can also be used to change lenses in and it is quite fast to get the camera and lens out.