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Maintaining underwater camera systems

by Mark Webster

Reproduced from in focus 69 (October 2002)

Underwater photographic equipment, whether you are a professional or simply looking for snapshots, requires a serious investment before you even start to take your pictures. In addition to absorbing all the technical details required to produce a good picture you must also learn how to look after your equipment to ensure that it functions correctly throughout its life and does not let you down at that crucial moment, probably when you have spent a mint on that tropical trip which places you alongside a whale shark, great white, mantis shrimp or whatever!

Water, particularly salt water, is an extremely hostile environment to take any type of mechanical equipment into. Although our amphibious cameras, housings and flash guns are designed to keep water out and operate under these harsh conditions they will not do so forever unless a little tender loving care is applied at regular intervals to keep control of that marine attrition. The some basic principles will apply to both totally mechanical cameras and housings as well as the latest auto focus models, although the hazards of even a minor flood for the latter are much more dangerous as water and electronics generally do not mix!

The best approach is to establish good basic procedures for 'every dive' maintenance backed up with regular detailed attention and your camera system should then last you a lifetime. You may even want to plan more advanced servicing and. maintenance which is not as complicated as it may first appear. For those with slightly less confidence or time there are a number of specialist suppliers and service agents who will undertake those longer term complete overhauls.

Pre-Dive Preparations:

When planning to take your camera on a dive, be it a single day out or part of an extended trip, the first step is to ensure that you have enough time set aside to attend to the preparation of your equipment. More cameras and flash guns have been flooded by inadequate or rushed preparation than any '0' ring or structural failure. Even the experts and professionals ' flood their equipment and it is almost always due to something forgotten in the haste to get into the water to chase that special shot. So find a clean area, decide what lens and film combination is required for the dive and then commence a set of routine steps to prepare the camera system for the water. Listed below is a suggested procedure which should help to establish your own requirements:

o Remove the main '0' rings from the back plate (amphibious camera or housing) and lens or port. Clean the '0' ring seats thoroughly with a cotton bud or the edge of a paper kitchen towel. Now clean each '0' ring by wiping it with a paper kitchen towel and then regrease each one. Many people make the common mistake of assuming that more silicone grease on the '0' ring will produce a better seal. Wrongi This will only attract more in the way of dirt and debris ? the '0' ring should only be lubricated lightly until it shines by putting a dab of grease between you thumb and forefinger and then gripping the '0' ring as you pull it through. Replace the '0' rings and, if using a housing, install the camera and connect the hot shoe.

o Prepare your flash gun or flash housing in the same way, remembering to fit fresh batteries if necessary.

o Before loading a film in the camera, connect up your flash gun, having cleaned and greased the connector '0' ring, and test fire it. This way if you have a malfunction you will not unnecessarily waste film as you test the system. If you have a TTL flash system it is wise to also check that this is functioning correctly at this point. This is simply done by setting the flash and camera to TTL, setting the lens to a medium (say f8 or f11) and pointing the gun straight into the lens from 15-20cm. When the flash is fired from this range then the TTL indicator on the gun or in the viewfinder should indicate that the shot was OK and TTL has functioned correctly. The flash should also recycle almost immediately indicating that it has not fired on full power and that TTL control has functioned.

o Once you are happy with the flash you can then load your film and check it is advancing correctly - also conf irm you have the correct Film speed selected on the cameral Close up the camera back or fit the back plate of your housing with a final check that the '0' is clean and seats properly as you close up and latch.

o Now you are ready to assemble the remainder of the system. Connect flash arms, base plates, aiming torches etc. and check their functions. give the lens or port a final polish and the system should be ready for the water.

Post Dive Maintenance:

With the correct preparation your camera system should have survived the dive intact and dry inside. However, it is after the dive some of the greatest potential damage can occur as the water evaporates and leaves behind salt crystals which will cause corrosion, dry out '0' rings and eventually cause leaks if not properly washed off. This is particularly important if you are diving in tropical water with a high salinity, such as the Red Sea, where the water will evaporate quickly leaving large crystals which are especially invasive.

The best treatment is to submerge the system totally in luke warm fresh water, before the salt water dries, and let it soak for a while and then work all the controls to ensure that the salt water is fully flushed out. You can then finish off with ageneral rinse under running water before leaving the system to dry. If soaking is not immediately available then a quick rinse under running water will suffice in the interim, but the system should be soaked when the opportunity crises. If you are on an extended trip going through this operation after each dive it is still worthwhile soaking all your equipment once again when you return home as the water in the rinse buckets at dive centres or on live aboards quickly becomes contaminated with salt from other equipment. Between dives prepare your camera system as described above.

Regular Maintenance:

Many photographers use their equipment in short intensive bursts, such as a week's live aboard trip, or regularly for a few months during a summer diving season. During these periods the pre and post dive maintenance is normally sufficient to keep your system up to scratch. However, when the time comes to store the equipment for a period or the equipment has been in regular use for some time then it is a good idea to extend your maintenance procedures to ensure all will be working when next required. The suggestions below are not gospel, but once again I hope will aid you to establish your own procedures for your system:

o If you are storing your equipment for any length of time it is best to remove all '0' rings. If they (ire left in place with the camera or housing closed they will become squashed and deformed and retain that shape, which could have disastrous consequences. For '0' rings which are difficult to remove with your fingers, use a blunt instrument to ease them out ? never a knife point or pin as this will cut the '0' ring. Clean and grease them and store in a zip lock plastic bag. Make sure you mark the bags with the origin of each '0' ring if they are similar in size and section.

o Do the same for all leads and connectors and then clean and grease all threaded shafts, locking catches, baseplate attachments etc. Use a silicone spray or silicone grease and this will ensure that items do not seize during storage. Electrical contacts can be cleaned with a pencil eraser or, if inaccessible with a proprietary electrical spray cleaner.

o It is best to remove all batteries in case of leakage during storage. Before removing them from your flash, turn it on to let it charge up then remove the batteries without firing. Flash gun capacitors are best stored charged. If you use Ni?Cad batteries it is best to fully discharge them and then fully charge them for storage, this will help them retain their 'memory' of being fully charged.

o Check ports for scratches. If your ports are perspex then it is possible to polish out the scratches using ''T' Cut (abrasive car polish) or Brasso, finishing off with toothpaste for a really smooth finish.

If you have a glass port which is scratched then there is not much you can do with it. Small scratches will fill with water when you dive and often will not be noticeable in your pictures. However, deep scratches will show and will require the replacement of the port.

Clean lenses with a lens cloth or proprietary cleaning fluid and remove dust from the inside of the camera body, especially around the film transport mechanism and pressure plate. You can use a camera blower brush for this or one of the canned compressed air products from photo shops.
Your system should now be ready for storage in a dry dust free environment, either a cupboard or a camera case will do nicely.

Longer Term Maintenance:

Just like a car a schedule of routine maintenance supported by regular detailed servicing will ensure that your camera system won't let you down at the crucial moment. The frequency of these services will be largely dictated by how much you use your equipment and how well you conduct your routine pre and post dive maintenance. If you are only using your system occasionally, say for an annual overseas trip, then you can probably plan to service your camera or housing very eighteen months to two years. If you use your system more frequently then an annual service is probably advisable.
Whether you have an amphibious camera (Nikonos or Sea and Sea) or a housed system, the objective is the same - to dismantle, clean and grease the '0' rings and control shafts which are inaccessible during routine maintenance. These are the areas which will gradually dry out or suffer from a build up of salt crystals on shafts or under controls which eventually work their way past a seal and cause a flood.

It is perfectly feasible for the 'amateur' technician to strip and service his or her own equipment given reasonable manual skills, the correct tools and guidance from a handbook. These guides tend to be written by independent photographers, who have developed their own procedures, rather than the manufacturers. There are several excellent publications with procedures supported by illustrations and photographs for the Nikonos and Sea and Sea owner and servicing kits are available either from the manufacturer or from specialist dealers. I will not attempt to guide you through the individual systems here, but simply recommend that you consult books such as 'A Manual of Underwater Photography' (de-Couet and Green), the Nikonos Book series (Jim and Cathy Church) and How To Use Sea and Sea (Joe Liburdi and Cara Sherman) all of which provide sufficient guidance if you have the courage.

If you own a housing then the prospect of a full strip down and service is perhaps not so daunting. Controls, shafts and '0' rings are larger and more accessible although you must be cautious not to break components whilst dismantling the housing ? housing designs and manufacturers come and go frequently and it is not always possible to get spares. Whether you are stripping a camera or housing adopt a methodical approach. Keep a series of notes as you strip a component detailing spring positions and the orientation of controls on shafts. Place parts into individual containers (ice cube trays are good for this) so that parts do not get mixed up during reassembly. Replace all accessible '0' rings and clean and grease those that cannot be removed by coating the cleaned control shaft with grease and running it back and forth through the seal.

Occasionally you will encounter seized controls or attachments, especially where stainless steel or brass is mixed with aluminium. Do not try to free these by force as it will inevitably end with either the bolt/screw shearing off or the thread stripping in the camera/housing. I have found that soaking parts in warm water with a little vinegar normally helps dissolve the corrosion deposits. Having done this apply W040 or Plus Gas and leave the parts whilst this penetrates. If the parts still refuse to come apart then you can try applying a little heat with a heat gun and try to free the parts as they expand. This treatment is a lost resort, heat should not be excessive and should not be used anywhere near plastic parts or very fine control rods for obvious reasons.

If the prospect of this effort and responsibility fills you with horror then the easy alternative is to pack your kit and send it to a specialist service centre or dealer and let them deal with the potential problems! A full service appears to be expensive at first, but if it saves you from a flood then it is money well spent. Most service agents return the equipment pressure tested and with a short term guarantee which gives you time to test the equipment before your next trip.

Packing Equipment for Travel:

In my view protecting your equipment whilst travelling is a key requirement in your preventative maintenance procedure. All that effort will be totally wasted if your equipment is damaged in transit to that exotic location you have saved for months to afford. Strong equipment cases with plenty of foam padding internally should be used. The injection moulded resin cases are some of the hardiest (e.g. Pelican, Underwater Kinetics etc.) (although aluminium and plastic are also suitable dependant on their contents and how you travel. Fragile items, such as lenses, should be wrapped individually in foam or felt to prevent them chaffing against other equipment. When packing the cases consider that you may well have to unpack them all for a security or customs inspection - repacking a complete jigsaw can be very frustrating and stressful especial ly if you are running a little late for your flight!

If you are travelling by air it is always preferable to hand carry expensive camera equipment as cabin baggage. However, airlines are becoming increasingly strict on the allowable size and weight of hand baggage, so it is sometimes necessary to place it in the hold. If this is the case then pack your equipment very carefully with extra padding around individual items even if this means using additional equipment cases - you have to imagine not only the rough treatment it will receive during handling, but also the weight of all the other baggage on top of it in the aircraft hold! It is wise to lock or padlock each case and add a luggage strap to each in case of a failure of a hinge or latch on the journey. Covering hold baggage with stickers identifying it as containing photographic equipment is not wise for obvious reasons.

Whether your equipment travels with you in the cabin or in the hold, there is one very important action not to forget whilst packing the equipment ? remove at least one main '0' ring from each camera, housing or flash gun. Even the cabin pressure will be slightly less than atmospheric pressure at sea level and unless this differential is allowed to equalise in your equipment small '0' rings can be displaced by the now higher pressure in your equipment. Many have suffered thinking that their equipment cases are 'pressure prooC because they have an '0' ring in the lid, only to find that a camera or flash floods on the first dive via an unseen '0' ring dislodged on a cable gland or controlshaft.

Precautions on Location:

So you have arrived for your one day dive excursion or that long awaited live aboard trip to coral seas, but your troubles are not over yet! More often than not you will be joining a group with mixed interests and perhaps assisted by a crew who have little appreciation of the fragility of you expensive camera equipment. In order to ensure that your precious equipment survives the first day let alone a week you must take some basic precautions and offer some guidance to your fellow divers and crew. Here are a few tips for a happy trip:

Make sure that anyone likely to handle your camera system (crew or divers) knows how to lift it and hold it correctly -I have witnessed more than once camera gear being hauled in by the flash lead. If you use the flash arm to lift the system then make sure it is attached securely before you enter the water and at the end of a dive - if it parts company then the camera hits the deck!

If you are diving from a small boat, RIB or inflatable try to carry your system in a brightly coloured plastic storage box with foam padding and find space for it at the stern of the boat (less slamming movement here). Make sure everybody knows it is there and that it should be placed in the box immediately it is handed back into the boot after a dive. These boats are always cramped and heavy equipment is constantly dropped or falls over especially when deploying and recovering divers. By taking these precautions hopefully you will avoid errant feet or worse still a weight belt or cylinder making contact with your camera system.

If you are on a live aboard then find a safe storage area which will not allow your equipment to fall to the deck if the boat rolls. Many boats provide 'cubby holes' for photographers with charging points which is very convenient until items begin to roll out - make sure everything is chocked to prevent movement when the boat is beam onto the swell. Often the best place for your system between dives is on your bunk well supported by blankets and towels.

Be wary of leaving your system in direct sunlight as the internal pressure in cameras and housings can rise rapidly. This could cause condensation on lens elements or ports when you enter the cooler water, or worse a flood from a popped '0' ring seal. Keep your equipment cool by covering it with a towel when you bring it on deck for the dive.

If you (ire making a safari style trip, such (is those popular in the Red Sea, then you must take extra precautions for the preparation of your equipment. There is almost always a breeze on the coast which will carry fine sand particles. Make sure you prepare your equipment inside your safari vehicle or inside a tent on a clean surface. It is best to bring a small table cloth to lay out when you change films and clean '0' rings and bring plenty of small plastic bags for storage of clean items. Washing your equipment after a dive is even more important under these conditions as you have sand and salt to contend with. Fresh water is often at a premium on these trips so make sure that there is suf ficient allowance for photographers when you book.

The above advice is by no means exhaustive and will probably seem daunting to consider at first. However, developing your own routines is more than worthwhile (is it will ensure the survival of your equipment and your peace of mind in the water. More importantly it ensures that your equipment operates when you really need it to and remains intact to bring back those stunning images of the underwater world.

Reproduced from in focus 69 (October 2002)


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