Lately, I have been photographing a lot of temples. One thing that is quite common is incense smoke, which I was almost never around before. After shooting, I noticed my lens gets covered in white dust. It comes off with a brush but it sticks to the lens and I missed some, so a little was left for a day or so.

Does incense damage lenses? If so, would a clear protective filter provide adequate protection? It will obviously protect the front but I am wondering is the incense would enter other places such as in the zoom or focus ring and focus switch.

My camera body is weatherproof, and so are most (but not all) of my lenses.

Can it cause damage to the camera too?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I do a lot of temple hopping and like to stick my camera inside incense pits wherever I can get away with it. No camera damage to date. A big thing you want to avoid is zoom lenses or anything with external-facing mechanicals that would allow particulates to work their way inside the barrel. A prime on body is airtight enough, don't change lenses onsite and clean everything in a dry environment offsite. The glass is the only part I don't worry about. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ivan
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 19:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Johnny Please see: Short answers as comments — please resist the urge \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 22:29

4 Answers 4


There are reasons why broadcast studios, commercial film/video production studios, commercial photography studios, etc. have strict "no-smoking" policies and have had them for decades before the more recent trend to ban smoking in most public buildings as a public health issue: long term exposure to the byproducts of burning things can be severely damaging to photographic equipment and other sophisticated electronic devices.

It's not just about the dust. Most things that burn also have an oily substance that is heated and when it cools back down will form an oily film as it condenses on objects cooler than the air in which it is suspended. If you've ever cleaned picture glasses in a room used by a heavy smoker then you are familiar with the brown film of tar that coats everything and is difficult to clean and remove. Burning materials that include aromatic components almost certainly contain oils of various types to provide the scent.

It's not just your lenses, either. Semiconductor electronics are also very sensitive to dust which often has an electrostatic charge. One speck of dust in the just the right spot on a powered-up pc-board, particularly between two adjacent pins where a chip is soldered into a board, can be enough to fry the component or even the entire board.

Does incense damage lenses? If so, would a clear protective filter provide adequate protection?

A clear protective filter will protect the front surface of your lens from the effect of dust and smoke. But if the filter is present when you take photos the dust and smoke the filter has collected will affect your photos the same as if the dust and smoke were on the lens' front element. Additionally, the flat parallel surfaces of the filter may cause additional unwanted image degradation. This is especially the case if the temples in which you are shooting are dark with a few much brighter light sources such as candles or lanterns. In such an environment, ghosting is almost a given when using a flat filter on the front of your lens.

My camera body is weatherproof and so are most but not all of my lenses. Can it cause damage to the camera too?

It's not likely if the camera is only exposed to such an environment for short durations. The degree to which your camera is "weatherproof" will also play a part. (Unless it can be submerged in water indefinitely, a camera isn't truly "weatherproof", it's just "weather resistant.") The greater danger to most of the other parts of your camera would be if the camera were stored in such an environment for much longer periods of time.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great stuff. It's worth nothing that even fully "weatherproofed" camera and lens combinations are not airtight — they "breathe" air in and out while focusing or zooming (not to be confused with focus breathing, which is something entirely different). ref: Roger Cicala, from LensRentals.com, posted a blog article about the invasive color bomb dust at Color Run events. \$\endgroup\$
    – scottbb
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 18:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ That color run blog article is nothing compared to the one he posted after getting a camera back from Burning Man. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 19:15

Actually, smoke is very, very fine dust dispersed in the air.

When visible in the air, its density is high enough to absorb (black cloud/dark color) or scatter (white cloud/light color) light. When it is not visible in the air, its density is low enough that the absorption/scatter is overcome by the ambient light.

The dust and other pollutants in the air are responsible for low far-sight in long-lasting sunny days. After the rain, the dust is "collected" by the raindrops, taken down and it takes some time to raise the level back.

"Smoke" generated by rally car passing by on dry gravel/sand special stage is mostly SiO2 and large doses are lethal for any lens; the particles are tiny, hard and sharp. On the other hand, they can be blown off dry surfaces quite easily.

"Smoke" generated by burning oily (candles, water pipe, lamps,...) substances tend to form white to grey fatty films. They cannot be blown away; one need to wipe them away and/or use nonpolar solvents (alcohol). The particles are usually soft; the problem is in removing the film.

As a protection, as Alan already noted, use NG or UV filters; they are quite cheap, they don't alter the color and they slightly increase the t-stop. When shooting with colour/functional filters, you can cover them with UV to protect them too.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @Michael Clark: thanks for the edit - tailoring my English. \$\endgroup\$
    – Crowley
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 16:17

Photographers, who worry about damaging their lens due to accidental scratching or exposure to hostile environmental conditions, mount a UV filter. This is basically a clear glass filter that limits the amount of UV light that enters the camera. The UV filter will protect without changing the color or exposure to any applicable amount. Think of them as sacrificial filters to protect your camera lens

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I use UV filter as slight NG filter with several advantages: It is, as you wrote, dust/moist/fat barrier, thread protector, compared to the lens price, it is for free and it is UV filter. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Crowley
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 15:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, all this is true but this does not really answer my question. I own UV and Clear filters but I only mount them when necessary since they often add flare, specially in places with lots of light sources like temples. The question is should I protect my lens from incense or not? \$\endgroup\$
    – Itai
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 16:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don’t think anyone can give a precise answer however I personally would not worry about this issue. I would just get into the habit of routine lens cleaning. I would use ordinary lens cleaning fluid. Dust the lens with a camels hair lens brush, then add a drop of fluid to a lens cleaning paper sheet and swab genially in a circular motion, center to edge. For a more aggressive cleaning, use a drop of ethyl alcohol (vodka) will do this trick. Lens coating originated from natural accumulations on glass due to air pollution. Today we apply similar coats to reduce reflections from the glass. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 18:01

Of course, you can protect your camera with an UV filter but beware of the breathing of the lens when focusing and zooming.

Especially on those lenses where the rear element moves when doing this. A layer of chemicals, ashes, and oil could potentially deposit on the sensor as well on the lens. (Not only from incense but from candles as well)

Probably some basic protection, like a plastic bag or a rain bag can provide a "bag of clean air" for some time.

In my limited knowledge, yeah, the smoke and byproducts can (potentially) hurt your equipment. How fast? I have no idea.

But actually, a sensor would be easier to clean than deposit on the inner lenses. :oP


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