Flooding a camera and other underwater photo gear is a nightmare for all underwater image-makers. Unfortunately, if you work underwater long enough, at some point, you will experience the horror of a flood. Over the years, I have flooded a Nikonos V, a film camera, a housing, several strobes and some dive lights. I have also had minor floods on a few digital camera housings.
Our costly camera gear is kept dry by a cheap gasket called an O-ring. Underwater imaging gear manufacturers use O-rings composed of different materials and suggest that a specific kind of O-ring lube be used to keep the O-ring flexible, keeping it from drying out. Basic underwater photography training states that we need to check all O-rings for damage and dirt before entering the water. The O-rings need to be lightly greased with the correct lube. The lube can attract dirt, so you need to make sure the O-rings are clean after adding the lube. It is crucial to make sure the groove in which the O-ring sits is pristine.
In most cases, floods are caused by user error. Therefore, it is essential to take your time preparing your gear. Besides the O-rings, make sure the camera is sitting in the housing correctly. For example, a camera out of alignment in the housing can cause a leak. Strobes and video lights need to be checked; it is easy to forget to lock the battery door. Finally, never let anyone else prepare your gear or open and close your housing. Just like analyzing your breathing gas, this is your responsibility.
In the field
You have to consider the environment you are diving in. For example, if you are shore diving, sand could be a real problem. So, it is vital to pay special attention to ensure there is no sand on the O-ring or the channel the O-ring sits in. Also, O-rings and other gear can fail when you are in the field. So, it is essential to have tools, including small brushes, extra O-ring lube, and spare O-rings for all your gear. A captain I used to crew for used to say an O-ring cost US$15 in the camera store and US$150 on the boat!
Many camera-housing manufacturers install a flood alarm. If a housing floods, the water connects two wires, and an audio alarm goes off. Most of the time, when you hear the warning, your gear is already damaged. I often thought that instead of a buzzer, the alarm should be a recording saying, “Your equipment is screwed!”
Nowadays, many housings have a vacuum test and alarm system. You use a pump to create a vacuum in the housing. If air enters the housing, so will water, and an alarm will warn you of the problem. Testing a housing for leaks before entering the water gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling. Also, it is fantastic to know for sure that the housing is sealed while still on the surface.
Murphy’s Law states: If anything can go wrong, it will. So, even when you do everything right, floods can happen. Many professional cameras and lenses these days are weather-sealed, so these cameras have a better chance of surviving a flood. For this reason, if you are not using strobes, make sure you keep a cover on the hot shoe and sync ports. In addition, if the flood occurs in freshwater, there is less chance of corrosion. If the housing floods in salt water, rinse the inside of the housing in fresh water, dry it out with a paper towel and hairdryer. The bulkheads, LED trigger, alarms, and any exposed electronics will more than likely have to be replaced.
If the camera is weather-sealed and the flood happened in salt water, put a cover on the hot shoe and rinse the camera in fresh water. Remove the battery and memory cards. Thoroughly dry the camera inside and out with a paper towel and hairdryer, and hope for the best.
Most strobes separate the battery compartment from the sealed electronics in the head. Usually, you can discard the batteries, and rinse and dry the battery compartment. However, there is a good chance you will have to replace the battery door.
If everything fails and you have to replace your equipment, it is essential to have insurance on all your camera gear. Divers Alert Network (DAN) offers dive gear equipment insurance that covers photo-gear floods. For more information, go to: dan.org/membership-insurance/equipment-insurance. ■
Larry Cohen and Olga Torrey are well-traveled and published underwater photographers based in New York City, USA. They offer underwater photography courses and presentations to dive shops, clubs and events. For more information, visit: liquidimagesuw.com and fitimage.nyc.