Good underwater camera care and housing maintenance are important to prevent problems from occurring in the water. A little preparation can go a long way. It can be very frustrating to find that preventable salt buildup stops your housing buttons from working at depth, especially as it always seems to happen when you need it the most!
In addition, not caring for underwater equipment can lead to harder to solve problems down the line. Even though you can't see it, corrosion can even get inside the camera itself. One day your camera might seem to be working perfectly and the next it's dead as a dodo! Speaking from personal experience here this can be very expensive and time-consuming to fix, as I recently found out.
While it is impossible to prevent every problem unless your camera is permanently in a vacuum, keeping good maintenance habits can help prolong the life of your equipment and prevent unanticipated issues from arising when you are on that expensive liveaboard in an extremely remote location with no hope of finding a service technician or spare parts. That's a great way to put a dampener on your holiday!
When you are traveling don’t close your housing or strobes, you will find it almost impossible to open them when you get to your destination due to the change in cabin pressure in airplanes. Alternatively, remove the o-rings to prevent a seal. A good place to keep them while traveling is inside the camera housing or strobe itself, so you don’t lose them or forget to install them again before diving. It is also a good idea to turn one of your batteries around in the strobe to prevent it from firing while being transported, which will drain the batteries and possibly overheat the strobe.
One of the most important things to remember when you are setting up your camera is to never rush. When you rush you make mistakes and this can lead to a catastrophic event such as a housing flood.
Try to find somewhere clean, dry and quiet to set up where you won’t be disturbed. Always follow the same routine so that vital things like o-rings don’t get forgotten - you wouldn’t be the first! I have even seen divers with a housing completely full of water because they forgot to install the main o-ring when they were setting up in a hurry. Routine fosters muscle-memory and makes it unlikely you will miss anything. Using checklists makes routine certain and prevents errors due to tiredness or being distracted at a vital moment. You can develop your own checklists that suit your methods of working – and get key steps from reading the camera and housing manuals first! RTFM!!
Never use anything except clean hands on your o-rings. It is very easy for lint or dirt from an apparently clean cloth to cling to the o-ring. It only takes the smallest particle to cause a leak. Cotton buds (Q-tips) can be used very carefully for cleaning o-ring grooves and the housing, but the best thing to use is the edge of a lint-free cloth. Never use anything like cotton wool or fluffy tissue that might leave lint behind.
Although it may be appropriate in other areas of life, another common mistake that many new photographers make is to use too much lube! You should only need enough silicone grease on your o-rings to make them appear glossy, usually, a tiny pencil lead size dab is enough. Make sure you lubricate o-rings from the strobe sync cord as well as the main housing o-ring and port o-ring.
Some camera housings use compression o-rings with which you should not use silicone grease at all as it degrades the special type of rubber. Special lube can be used sparingly and infrequently, only when the O-ring is especially dry. Check which products the manufacturer recommends for cleaning. Never ever use household chemicals such as Rainex as this can weaken the housing body and will no doubt void any warranty or insurance!
Never use an o-ring that has even small cuts or cracks. It is a good idea to keep spares of essential items like housing main o-rings and small o-rings and washers for buttons.
A good spares kit similar to a save-a-dive kit for SCUBA equipment can save you from missing that shot of the hammerhead, who is guaranteed to show up when you have been forced to leave your camera on the boat. Over several years I have built up a collection of essential items that are necessary for setting up my equipment and can help solve any minor problem that might arise. Many of these things can be bought at your local supermarket or hardware store, although there are a few specialised products that you may want to purchase from a camera retailer.
It is a good idea to use a silicone gel sachet to soak up small quantities of moisture that might occur due to condensation. If you are in a remote location with no camera stores there are plenty of other absorbent items you could use. I have used tea bags in the past (check they are intact - nothing like a few loose tea leaves in the dome to ruin your pictures), and I have even heard of other photographers using tampons or even Oreo cookies (which perhaps might not be my choice)! Anything absorbent will work - just make sure there are no small particles or lint which can get onto your lenses or worse, stick to your o-rings and flood your housing!
When setting up your camera be aware of temperature changes between an air-conditioned room and fresh air - you will need to give the camera and housing some time for the condensation to evaporate before putting it together, otherwise, all your pictures will be foggy. If you set up your camera and housing in air-conditioning, as long as the housing seal is airtight you should have no problem once you take it out into the fresh air.
A good general recommendation is not to let your housing sit in the hot sun, even for a few minutes, especially if it is a smaller transparent acrylic model (larger metal housings with bigger air spaces and opaque body materials will cope with heat better). Condensation can develop and that will ruin your pictures and possibly even damage your camera. Covering it with a damp towel when on the boat will keep it cool and help prevent salt from drying and building up on housing knobs.
Be careful if you have long hair to tie it back when setting up your camera, and always make a last visual check before closing the housing. A stray hair can be very hard to see and is a common cause of camera floods. Depending on the type of closing mechanism, it may help to squeeze the housing closed first. You will hear the air being forced out creating a vacuum before closing the latch for a tight seal.
Check everything and then check it again. Always take a test shot once everything is set up as a final check to make sure everything is working, your strobes are firing, that your batteries are fully charged, the memory card is in the camera, and you didn’t forget to take the cap off the lens.
When you enter the water protect the camera from the impact. The best scenario would be to have someone on the boat carefully hand it to you once you are in the water. If for some reason this is not possible (for example when there is strong current or you need to make a negative entry), either protect the camera with your body when you backroll or hold it high above your head as you make a giant stride entry so that your fins take the primary impact. This will help prevent the camera from moving inside the housing, which can make for a very frustrating dive when the knobs don’t touch the camera and you can’t change any of your settings. It can also help prevent leaks which might occur with a heavy entry which could bump or dislodge the latches.
Once in the water and as you are descending, check the housing for leaks. Hold the camera with the port facing downwards so that any water would pool in the port away from the camera. Watch for stray bubbles (a few will most likely be trapped under the buttons and escape on the descent - this is perfectly normal). Also, remember to wave away any small bubbles that collect on the port with your hand as these will appear in your photos.
Any bigger streams of bubbles coming from the main seal or buttons, or visible water leaks, should not be ignored - return directly to the boat, keeping the camera in the port-down position until you are able to exit the water and take it out of the housing. DON’T PANIC - most leaks are usually very small and if you remove the camera quickly from the housing on the boat it is usually unaffected. No object is worth getting bent! Make sure you always ascend slowly. Your personal health and safety are always the first priority!!
Remove the battery and SD card from the camera and dry inside the battery compartment and also the rest of the camera as much as possible. If the camera was submerged in salt water, carefully wash the battery compartment and camera with fresh water before drying. Salt is very corrosive and is the arch enemy of any electronic equipment.
After the dive, you will no doubt be excited to see how your pictures have turned out but the first thing to do is to carefully soak the camera and housing in freshwater to prevent salt build-up. You can push all the buttons in the rinse tank to make sure any salt trapped around them is washed out. Never leave your camera in the rinse tank unattended, who knows what might be carelessly dropped on top of it – another camera or regulators often share the same tanks in some remote locations. It is not uncommon for a camera to be flooded in the rinse tank!
Dry the housing carefully with a soft lint-free towel before opening it - microfibre travel towels are perfect for this job. Back up the data from the SD card onto a hard drive or computer. Use a little silicone lube on a clean toothbrush to clean around the housing buttons to keep them moving freely ready for the next dive.
You also need to take good care of your sync cords. You should unplug and clean them after every few dives – generally at the end of each diving day is a good time to do this. If you don’t they may seize up completely and you won’t be able to open them.
Make sure you dry the outside of the cable and connections first to avoid water dripping inside the bulkhead when you open it. You can use the corner of a piece of tissue to dip into the bulkhead and act as a litmus to soak up any stray drops that sneak their way inside. Use a clean toothbrush to remove salt and corrosion which can build up on the threads of the bulkhead and connection, and lubricate the o-rings daily. If the strobe starts to fire by itself underwater, it is likely there are a few drops of water inside the bulkhead. If this happens, end the dive and check and dry all the connections.