"That's been in storage for years. Why did it receive an ‘Ugly’ grade?"
There are a few things that can significantly lower the value of photography equipment. Fungus in a lens, rust on body screws, or oil on an aperture can really put a damper on your day. The truly unfortunate fact is—sometimes bad things happen to good equipment. Some of the most damaging occurrences can happen not only from misuse and rough handling, but from improper storage. Permanent damage can happen to your gear simply by sitting too long in the wrong place.
Most of these issues can be prevented by taking a few steps to ensure your stuff will be safe. Here are a few things to watch out for when packing up your equipment for a while—whether it be tucked away in the garage until next month or packed away in a basement for the next 30 years. Viewer discretion advised—some of these photos can be pretty gnarly for gear lovers.
Moisture is The Enemy
What you're seeing here is actual, living fungus. Many readers probably have never seen fungus growing inside of a lens. Believe me—it’s an image you won’t soon forget. Most types of lens fungus look something like a spiderweb inside a petri dish. Fungus spores are all around us, floating on the breeze peacefully until finding its way into a lens or viewfinder. Most weather-sealed lenses work better at preventing this sort of thing compared to their non-sealed counterparts, but even they aren’t completely spore-proof.
The scary thing about lens fungus is that often, by the time you see tendrils creeping across your glass, it’s usually too late to just clean the growth off. As fungus grows, it excretes an acid that will eat into the protective coatings of your lenses, or even etch fine lines into the glass itself. If there is a silver lining to the storm cloud that is lens fungus, it's that often times a small cluster of fungus may not affect picture quality to a horrendous amount. It will, however affect your resale value. Most lenses that come to KEH with fungus end up getting an automatic 'Ugly' rating. Thankfully it's extremely unlikely that spores will jump from one lens to the next while in storage.
Fungus needs moisture and food to grow. This food can be something like oil leaking from an aperture, excessive dust between glass elements, or even grease from a spare fingerprint that smudged the rear element. Sometimes these things are hard to avoid, but the best way to avoid fungus growth is to keep your equipment as dry as possible. Without moisture in the environment, the fungus won't be able to spread out its tendrils and further damage your equipment.
Corrosion or rust can also start creeping in on your body screws or other metal pieces if a splash of ocean spray or sweat from your hands isn’t properly cleaned off before putting your equipment in storage. Often times, metal shutter blades or a pop-up flash will slightly rust and fuse shut, only to be coaxed open by an extensive repair. Therefore the drier, the better when it comes to keeping electronics or precision mechanics safe. Equipment in more humid states like Florida or Georgia are always at greater risk of this than those in Arizona or California.
Heat is the other, less obvious half of the two biggest storage issues. Storing equipment at an excessively high temperature can cause lubrication grease to thin out and run. The same can happen with oil on an aperture or shutter blades. I’ve been asked before, “Why is an oily aperture so bad?”
Cameras and lenses have a lot of small moving parts inside. They are designed for precision and generally don’t have a lot of empty space inside amongst the gears, flaps, shutters, springs and other mechanical stuff. The lens aperture is a prime example of this. Generally, an aperture is made of very thin metal blades that are able to snap open and shut at a moment’s notice. When oil seeps out from between the mechanized parts of the lens, it sometimes makes its way onto those thin blades, and can cause them to be sluggish or sticky. If an aperture isn’t able to respond instantly, a photographer could miss his or her shot. Even if the oil doesn’t tend to gum up the blades, tiny microdroplets can sometimes fly off of the aperture and onto the glass inside the lens, leading to spots or even haze on your glass.
High temperatures can also degrade some plastics and rubber gaskets over time, causing them to dry out and become brittle. If you’ve ever tried to clean a camera with a sticky grip that just wouldn’t come clean, it's because the heat combined with the salt and moisture from a hand caused a chemical reaction in the rubber grip. I can tell you from experience—if you find this, you’re better off sending it in to get the grip replaced than trying to clean it yourself.
Other Problems to Watch Out For
Having had my own two hands on these types of issues, I’ve seen my share of other problems arise as well. After five years in a closet, basement or attic, any tape or sticky substance will harden and absolutely ruin whatever surface it is stuck on. Yes, even electrical, masking and gaffer’s tape will eventually dry out and cost you money. I've spent enough time scraping old adhesive from velcro tape off of external flash units to give me nightmares.
Another big problem we see here is battery corrosion. Most consumer batteries left in a camera body or flash for too long will eventually expand and leak into the battery compartment, making a hazardous mess for whoever opens the compartment next—if it can be opened at all!
Sadly, even airtight hard cases aren't always safe for cameras and lenses. Various glues, adhesives, some protective foam, paints and solvents can release gasses over time as they degrade. If kept in an airtight container without ventilation, these gasses can distribute small particles that can leave a lens completely coated in haze, inside and out.
What can I do!?
This isn't a comprehensive list, of course. Any number of unforeseen hazards can creep up on your equipment. Natural disasters, floods or fires can't be prevented. We've even seen the occasional bug or moth between the glass elements of a lens.
Thankfully, there is hope. Check out our How To Store Your Gear post for some tips on how to prevent these horrors from happening to you so you can get the most resale value when it's time to part with your equipment.
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