Portable electronics have the same Achilles' heel as the invading aliens in M. Night Shyamalan's movie s--Signs: water. It's not a good idea to get your digital SLR wet. Taking photos in a rainstorm can end the life of your camera. So how do you protect your camera while taking pictures in a spring shower or a summer deluge? Dress your camera in a rain cover--usually, waterproof fabric that keeps water away from the lens and body, while leaving both the business and control ends open for business.
The good news? There's a surprisingly wide variety of covers to choose from, and many come in a number of sizes to fit various lens lengths and flash attachments. I tried each one with my Nikon D7000 and a variety of lenses.
AquaTech Sports Shield
AquaTech's Sports Shields (both the Professional and Basic varieties) are made of lightweight waterproof fabric that folds up quite compactly. Installing it (I tried the Basic design) is reminiscent of putting a sweater on a dog; you unzip the Sports Shield's two zippers, pull the lens through, drape it over the camera body, and zip everything up. To keep water from leaking in the front, a Velcro strap tightens around the lens hood.
In addition to the cover itself, you'll need an eyepiece that replaces the one that comes with your camera. AquaTech sells models for most popular digital SLRs for $30. The Sports Shield stretches around the eyepiece for a watertight fit there as well.
When it's time to use the camera, you can see the LCD and controls thanks to a large plastic window, and of course you can use the eyepiece as well. And while you might be getting rained on, your right hand is dry since it snakes up an access sleeve to control your camera. While this wasn't my favorite rain cover--that award goes to the Kata which follows--AquaTech wins second place, particularly for its compact storage. In its small mesh travel bag, you can take this on extended photo shoots and know that rain won't stop you. Prices range from about $80 to $190, depending upon the size of the camera and lens you're trying to protect.
Kata Elements Cover
The Kata Elements Cover ($55-90) looks like something you'd use to handle plutonium. It has a cavernously large, flexible clear plastic body, with three thin black fabric sleeves jutting out to accommodate the lens and both of your hands.
Because the body is transparent, you can see the entire camera. And because you can insert both of your hands, Kata's cover feels particularly natural and easy to use. It is bulky, though, not just due to the large plastic housing, but also because it closes with a long Velcro strip instead of a zipper. It doesn't fold up nearly as tightly as most of the other rain covers, and it doesn't come with a carrying case. Nonetheless, if I had to choose one cover to take into a rainstorm, it would be the Kata.
LensCoat takes a much simpler approach to protecting your gear from the elements. The RainCoat ($50-100) is essentially a thin neoprene tube that cinches tight around the lens hood at one end and leaves the back end completely open so you can reach and see the controls (some material drapes over the camera to help keep it dry). Larger versions of the RainCoat also have a sleeve on the right side so you don't have to enter the rain cover from the open back end, and it's available in a variety of colors including black, navy, and camouflage.
This much is true: The RainCoat is unbelievably easy to don, and it's thin, light, and compact for travel and storage. I wouldn't mind carrying the RainCoat in my camera bag as an insurance policy for light rain, but I'm not crazy about the open back, which exposes the camera to too much precipitation during extended photo sessions in the rain.
Op/Tech USA Rainsleeve
Not all rain covers have to be made of fancy materials like neoprene or cost as much as a meal at a fancy restaurant. If you want something simple and inexpensive, there's the Rainsleeve, which has the same basic shape as other rain covers--it's a tube into which you insert your camera--but it's made entirely out of a lightweight plastic and costs just $7 for a set of two.
There's just one moving part to manage: An elastic drawstring that you use to cinch around the lens hood. The back is open (like the RainCoat). And the plastic is so thin and unobtrusive that I was about to successfully use my camera by handling it through the Rainsleeve, keeping my hands on the outside entirely.
Is it durable? Not especially, but at 2 for $7, it doesn't need to be. Does it look a little goofy? Absolutely--much like you enclosed your camera in a giant plastic bag. Nonetheless, it is a lightweight addition to your camera gear bag, and something you may want to keep around, just in case.
Using a rain cover can be awkward. With the camera enclosed in a waterproof sleeve, there's no way to use a camera strap. ThinkTank solves that problem by integrating its own strap in the top of its Hydrophobia ($140-160).
This cover is like AquaTech's Sports Shields on steroids. The lens sleeve cinches onto the lens hood with Velcro, and there are two sleeves you can insert your hands into. Like the Sports Shield, this cover wraps around a replacement eyepiece ($35, available for most digital SLRs) and has a large clear plastic viewing window. But there's more: Even the eyepiece is protected by a flap of plastic; if your camera gets wet when using the Hydrophobia, you're doing something wrong.
Unfortunately the Hydrophobia trades all that functionality for bulk and complexity. To use the strap, for example, you have to securely strap the camera into the inside of the rain cover, which is hard to do--especially in the field as it's starting to rain.
Vortex Media Storm Jacket
If you like the idea of LensCoat's cover--just a single tube that's open at both ends--then you'll probably like the Storm Jacket ($35-60) as well. Made from a water-repellent nylon and fitted with bungee cords at both ends, you can quickly insert a camera, cinch it around your lens hood, and be ready to shoot in seconds. But unlike the LensCoat, you can use the bungee at the rear to customize how open you want the back of the camera to be.
In practical terms, though, I found that closing the back made it too difficult to use the camera controls--which, all things considered, made the similar LensCoat rain cover somewhat easier to use and more practical in real life.