The care and feeding of your underwater camera gear
A series of recent articles I wrote prompted some of my underwater photographer buddies to ask me about the best ways to care for your underwater camera equipment. It’s a question I have been asked many times. I've been in underwater photography professionally for over 12 years. For 3 of those years, I worked as the Service Manager for Reef Photo and Video, and I learned many valuable lessons from the unfortunate mistakes of others.
My job as service manager consisted of receiving incoming packages for service, and with the help of my technicians, evaluating what needed to be done, how long it would take, and how much it would cost. When the workload became too high, I'd end up jumping in and helping with repairs and overhauls as well. In addition to repair work, we also did many custom modifications, including pole cameras, remote monitors, and custom fabricated adaptors.
In my first 3 months on the job, I learned very quickly there was a huge difference in how customers cared for their equipment. We would receive some housings with dozens of dive trips under their belts, looking brand new. Others, after 6 months of use looked like they had been found right next to the Antikythera Mechanism.
The single biggest cost variable on a housing repair or overhaul, is the technician’s time. There is a direct correlation between how much a service procedure costs you, and how well you've cared for your housing. Running a service department for underwater camera equipment is a costly endeavor. You need to have specialized tools and equipment, along with skilled technicians who take a minimum of 6 months to get up to speed. Then you need to inventory a staggeringly large variety of specialized parts, none of which are inexpensive. At the time I worked at Reef Photo, we charged $50 per hour for technician labor, which I thought was a bargain. Some of our competitors charged twice as much.
Parts are expensive but the time however, is the most important thing. The amount of time the technician needs to spend on your housing, whether it’s a repair or simply an overhaul, depends entirely on how well you’ve cared for it, and how much corrosion it has.
There is a direct correlation between how much a service procedure costs you, and how well you've cared for your housing.
Saltwater is your enemy. Saltwater causes corrosion on metal parts, and corrosion is bad. Corrosion is the difference between the technician taking 2 hours to disassemble your housing, or 8 hours. So we want to avoid corrosion as best as we can.
Quality housing manufacturers go to great lengths to avoid corrosion. They will coat their aluminum parts by anodizing them, they will use non ferrous metals like stainless steel, or plastics like polyoxymethylene, and delrin.
In a perfect world, none of these materials corrode. This isn’t a perfect world. Anodizing, like painting can be done very well or very poorly. It depends on so many variables in the process. A good anodizing application offers more protection than a poor quality one, but even the very best protective coating can still be susceptible to scratching and impact damage. Stainless steel can corrode for a variety of reasons, most commonly due to the quality of the alloy that was received from the supplier. Stainless steel's resistance to corrosion is due to the amount of chromium, nickel and molybdenum in the alloy. There are numerous different grades of stainless steel for different applications, and different methods of quality control in the suppliers.
Some manufacturers have taken to adding sacrificial anodes to their housings. Used in boats and many other marine applications, zincs as they are more commonly known will reduce galvanic corrosion. However galvanic corrosion only occurs underwater. When sitting un-rinsed above water the zincs offer no protection, yet corrosion is still occuring. The single most important thing you can do to protect your housing is to rinse it.
I cannot stress enough, the importance of freshwater rinsing and soaking of your camera gear. Rinsing a camera housing is an often misunderstood procedure. I have witnessed firsthand photographers give their camera a cursory dunk in the freshwater tank, only to find salt crystals all over it after it had dried hours later. They scratch their heads in confusion. “Why are their salt crystals present? I rinsed this!”
The reason is because your camera housing is filled with nooks and crannies for salt water to hide in. Each button and control mechanism has a recessed hole, which is a perfect place for saltwater to hide. It’s very easy for it to get in, and very difficult to completely get out. The proof is in our example above - a brief dunk in the tank just won’t do.
Now then, herein lies a problem - the rinse tub is the most likely cause of flooding your housing will encounter. While I find they serve a useful purpose for rinsing immediately post-dive, I would not recommend leaving a camera sitting in one. So what do we do?
My recommended procedure
Rinse the camera in the dockside or boat rinse tank immediately post-dive. Do not leave it in here unattended.
Cover the housing with a towel, or other sun barrier if left in an open area. Do not let it bake in the direct sun.
Once you are done diving for the day, soak the housing in a large container of fresh water. Soaking is best, but if you don’t have access to something large enough to soak it, rinsing it under running freshwater is the next best approach. Try your best to soak it. I will actually remove my camera from the housing before soaking it. This allows me to view my photos, while eliminating the risk of flooding the camera.
Disassemble your rig - that is remove the strobe arms and clamps.
While soaking (or rinsing) manipulate each control on the housing 10 times. If it’s a button, push it 10 times. If it’s a control knob, turn it back and forth 10 times. This motion helps remove the trapped saltwater from each control assembly and is one of the most important steps in this process.
Leave the camera to soak, and let the salt leach out of areas you can't get to.
After a few hours, remove the camera and let dry in a shaded area. Some will dry with compressed air, but if you do this, please be sure the air supply is clean. Tank air is often clean enough for this purpose. Shop air (compressed air that drives air tools and other shop equipment,) often has oils in it. Do not use shop air, unless you know it’s very clean.
How often should I have my housing overhauled? This is a really tricky question to answer. While some manufacturers will offer specific periods of time for housing service, the answer really is “When it needs it.”
As I’ve mentioned earlier, the main variable is how well you care for the housing, and most specifically how well you rinse it. When a technician performs an overhaul on a housing, the what they are doing is looking at the sealing surfaces on each mechanical control. Every control knob or button has an o-ring which keeps the water outside of the housing. Of course you as the user can’t see them under normal circumstances. They are hidden behind the plastic buttons. Good magnification is generally needed to give them a proper inspection.
Even light amounts of corrosion formed on the control button shaft can lead to abrasions on the surface of the sealing o-ring, reducing its ability to seal. Severe amounts of corrosion will certainly compromise the o-ring, causing a leak. So during an overhaul the technician removes each and every control assembly. He or she will examine the shaft for signs of corrosion and if present, remove it. Then they will replace the sealing o-ring.
A well cared for housing will have little to no corrosion. This means the technician will not have to spend billable hours cleaning each control shaft (and in some cases replacing them.) More importantly, if there is no corrosion present, the housing really doesn’t need an overhaul.
The takeaway message here, is the better you rinse your housing:
The less likely it will leak
The less often you’ll need to have it overhauled
The less expensive the overhaul will be when you have it done
The less aggravation you will experience
For those with electronic strobe cables
In 2009 when I first began working at Reef Photo, electronic sync cables for strobes were very common. Over the years the electronic cable, while still in use, has largely given way to the fiber optic cable. Fiber optic is simpler, less expensive, and far more reliable. I've been using the same fiber optic cables for almost 10 years with thousands of dives on them, and never once a problem.
If you are using fiber optic cables, congratulations. You can skip on to the next section. If you are still using electrical sync cables, I'd encourage you to read this carefully:
Electronic sync cables present their own set of challenges, particularly the Nikonos-style ones. Ikelite-style connectors are a far better design and more reliable, but they still require some attention to detail.
For those still using Nikonos cables:
If the option exists to swap to an Ikelite-style plug, or a fiber optic cable, do so. This may not always be a factory available option, but some custom service departments, like the one at Reef Photo might be able to make these conversions for you aftermarket. When I ran the service department, we performed countless custom modifications of all kinds.
Anytime you handle a Nikonos plug, do so very carefully. They are highly susceptible to misalignment which will result in their failure and you spending money. It's a horrible design, which is why very few use them nowadays.
Remove the Nikonos plug, particularly the camera side one, after every use of the camera. (When you are cleaning and rinsing, not after every dive.) The nikons plug unconnected is not waterproof, so you have an option of plugging the exposed plug, or if you don’t have a plug, rinse the housing with the cable still on. The plug is a much better approach, so if you don’t have one, consider getting one.
Carefully inspect and install the little o-rings on your plugs and connectors. Lubricate them every time. The o-rings that seal these are tiny, finicky and leak frequently.
Carefully wipe down the plug and threads using a cleaning agent. I recommend Deoxit Gold.
When you install the cable, pay careful attention to the orientation. Use magnification if you have old eyes. Do NOT under any circumstances rotate or wiggle the plug inside the connector after you have pressed it in. If you don’t have the correct alignment remove, re-align and re-insert. The is the number one reason these connections fail is from rotating or wiggling the plug once you have inserted it.
When you are installing the cable, pretend you are diffusing a bomb. It is so easy to damage these and they require finesse.
Never, ever, under any circumstances leave these plugged in all the time. Remove them when you rinse your camera housing. If not, they will corrode in place, causing you to need a replacement of the plug, and cable at minimum - a $400 repair if you're lucky.
Do Nikonos plugs sound like a pain in the ass? They are, which is why my first recommendation was to get a different plug.
For those using Ikelite cables:
Ikelite cables are a much better design. If you must use an electronic sync cable, they are a much better choice in they are more reliable and easier to use. While not as good as fiber optic cables, they don't require the same Swiss-watch precision and attention to detail the Nikonos-style plugs do. A little-known secret is Ikelite plugs don't need to be specific to Ikelite housings. Chances are an Ikelite bulkhead will fit on your housing from Subal, Nauticam, Sea & Sea, Aquatica and many others.
When rinsing with an Ikelite-style cable:
Remove the cable
Clean the plugs with a contact cleaner, like Deoxit gold
Install the cap on your connector
Rinse the housing as described above
Like the Nikonos plugs, you should never leave these connected all the time. Eventually the metal parts will corrode and seize, requiring the same expensive replacement procedure.
If you have a camera flood
I’m going to make a controversial statement - camera floods are 100% the user’s fault. I say this as someone who has flooded several camera systems. Each and every time it was my own stupid fault. And your flood was your fault. Accept it as a life lesson and move on.