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.
If you do flood the camera:
Say several bad words.
If you’re underwater, make a controlled ascent. If the camera or lens has been immersed in saltwater, it’s dead. There is nothing that can be done. You’ll hear miraculous stories of rinsing camera bodies in freshwater and drying them in rice. These are all fallacies. The millisecond a drop of saltwater touches the camera sensor, or any printed circuit board, the camera is dead. (Believe me, I've examined about 500 of them, 3 of which were my own.) Rushing to the surface and potentially getting yourself DCS is not going to help anything.
Once topside, open the housing, remove the camera and lens.
If you have a leak alarm, immediately remove the battery. If the flood has occurred on a strobe, remove all batteries right away. Batteries and saltwater make for a horrible combination, producing all kinds of nasty alkalies that are very corrosive to cameras, strobe housings, humans and aluminum boat parts. Dispose of the batteries as safely as you can.
Soak your open housing in freshwater. Yes this sounds crazy, but believe me, it is the best chance of saving your housing and minimizing the repair bill. Open that bastard right up and rinse both halves inside and out. If there are other photographers on the boat, I would not recommend using the camera bucket. Depending on the nature of the flood and the amount of time, it's a possibility your camera battery has leached some alkaline substance we mentioned earlier inside the housing. Use the freshwater hose if that is an option. Or even rinse the open housing in saltwater to remove any battery chemical residue before using the freshwater bucket.
Once you get back to your room, keep rinsing, and then let dry.
In another blog post, I wrote a paragraph about a huge myth when it comes to camera floods. This myth is that when you send your flooded housing back to the manufacturer, a team of white-coated CSI technicians will perform a comprehensive inspection using lasers, scanners, and the latest forensic techniques to determine the cause of the flood. Nothing like this happens, sorry to burst your bubble. So there is no need to “preserve the crime scene” of your housing, like so many customers have thought.
What service technicians do as part of the analysis is:
Clean, lubricate and re-install the main and port o-rings in accordance with the manufacturers recommendations
Pressure test the housing in a wet pressure pot. This will be at various depths and times. Most people are surprised to know that floods are more likely to occur at shallow depths than deeper ones.
Remove and dry the exterior of the housing thoroughly.
Open the housing and examine for flooding.
Repeat the sequence at least one more time to be sure.
With this test, we can demonstrate the flood was not the fault of a housing defect. (Any housing will be pressure tested at the factory before it even leaves.) Logic will dictate that the flood was caused by an improperly installed user o-ring. In the 3 years I worked as a Service Manager, I supervised and conducted thousands of pressure tests. Not once did we ever find a camera housing that leaked for unknown reasons.
I mention this because many times I’d receive a flooded housings for a repair estimate that still had un-rinsed saltwater in it. On more than one occasion, I’ve received still flooded housings - all sealed up with the camera, lens, and a liter of saltwater still inside.
Next to smashing the housing with a large hammer, this is quite possibly the worst thing one can do. The corrosion we’ve been discussing will be horrific. Not only the salt water, but the mix with the battery chemicals will wreak havoc with your o-rings, and control mechanisms. On more than one occasion, I had to tell these owners that their housings were a total loss. Not only that, but it’s potentially harmful to the employees of the shop, the UPS driver and every package that is near yours while in transit.
Open the equipment only in your room
My final bit of advice is to make sure you only open your camera housing, strobes or video lights in a dry location. In your air conditioned room if possible. If you can help it, don't open anything on the dive boat or dock. Doing so will vastly increase your chances of flooding the camera. You may get away with this once, twice, or 50 times, but eventually it will catch up with you. If you get to the dive site, and find you’ve left the lens cap on, my advice would be to shrug, call yourself a bad word, and not dive with the camera that day.
My friend, and former Nauticam Sales Manager, Chris Parsons once had a brand new Canon 5d mark III camera. Just as he was about to splash, he discovered the memory card was not inserted correctly, so he committed the cardinal sin - opened the camera on the dive deck and fixed the problem. As he was doing this, he even joked about how you are not supposed to do what he was doing. He sealed up his housing, and you guessed it, flooded his camera after jumping in.
Contaminates, like hairs or towel fibers can (will) find their way onto a main o-ring seal, causing a leak. The bigger issue is getting water inside the camera. A single drop in the wrong place will wreak havoc. I’ve seen people handle their open cameras while still wearing wetsuits dripping with water. Or the others on the dive boat, who may have their heads in their fannys, leaving over you to get their sunglasses, dripping water into your brand new housing.
Humidity also plays a role, which is why I suggest opening these in an air conditioned room. Ask anyone who’s ever owned a boat, what salty air does to unprotected electronics.
Lastly are strobe batteries. When you change these, pretend you are performing a surgical procedure. Make sure your hands are dry. And I don’t mean, I just toweled them off dry, pretend you are about to pick up a chunk of sodium. Water on your fingers can get on your NiHM or Lithium batteries, and this will create problems and lead to a flooded strobe.
For the years I worked at Reef Photo I've offered this same advice to countless customers over the phone. Some received it well, and followed it well. Others would disagree and even argue that I was wrong, and 'they had been doing it this way for 60 years!'
The advice I'm offering is simply based on the countless lessons I saw come though the doors of the service department. Yes you can ignore my advice, and you can likely get away with what you have been doing, but in my opinion you are increasing your odds of failure. The best recipients of my advice are insurance actuaries, because they very well understand the concept of risk mitigation. And that's what this is - each of these tips reduces your risk of failure to some degree. The sum of all these items together, it amounts to a significant reduction in risk.
I’ve written this largely from the perspective of camera housings, but the same information applies to underwater strobes and video lights as well. While strobes tend to be made from some form of polymer, they still have the same issues when it comes to user o-rings, control assemblies, flooding and batteries. You should rinse and care for these the same way you do with your camera.
I hope you’ve found this informative. Of course don’t hesitate to contact me through this page if you have any questions or need any advice. We hope to see you diving with us soon!