Cameras and Water Don’t Mix

Posted in Under the Sea on April 15th, 2009 by MadDog
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I’ve been taking photographs underwater for a long time. In the beginning, it was nearly more torturous than it was worth. I started out with a small plastic housing made to protect 35mm throw-away film cameras. It came with a strobe light. I think it cost a couple of hundred dollars. Of course there was no focus, no zoom, no close-up capability. It was as basic as a camera can get. Add to that the hopelessness of getting film properly processed and printed in Madang, and you don’t leave much room for fun.

Nevertheless, I did take many hundreds of shots, waited for the pitiful processing, patiently scanned them into the computer and dutifully put them up on our old diving website (which is still up, but an embarrassment – I’m too sentimental to take it down). You can still find the original web site there by following the “the old web site” link. An example of the best we could manage with this rig can be found here. Compare that shot with this one.

As I began to get serious about underwater photography, I purchased an Ikelite housing and strobe for my Minolta SLR camera. It was a monster. It leaked like a sieve. I managed to flood two cameras. Fortunately the cameras were available very cheaply in used camera stores. I took many hundreds of shots with this housing and it sits in an honoured position in the “MadDog Museum of Incomprehensible Folly” at our home (admission free if you BYOB).

Underwater photography - the old way
The rig above weighs about a thousand kilograms (rather, it feels as if it does) and is very difficult to manage underwater. Jumping into the water with it was always a risky proposition. I received several bruises and at least one bloody nose over the years that I used it. After a while I gave up the macho delight of plunging into the water holding onto a boat anchor and asked someone to hand it to me after I was safely bobbing on the sea.

The next outfit was an Olympus C8080 in a factory PT-023 housing. I never had any argument with the quality of the shots that I got with this rig. The images were an order of magnitude better than film (DIGITAL – AMEN!) and it was a quarter the size and a tenth the weight of the old rig. It was still a two hand job to handle, but at least I could enter the water with it without risking injury.

I did, however have several BIG arguments with the build quality of the housing. It broke on me twice. The first time it broke I noticed a small leak and managed to surface before I lost a camera. The whole front of the housing is made to come off so that one can (presumably) fit another type of port for the camera to look through. However, the entire front of the camera was held in place by two little cam-lock devices that hooked onto tiny plastic projections on either side of the round port opening. The projections are about the size of the little clicker thingie on the end of a ball-point pen (you can see the remains of one in the image below). When one broke, the whole front of the housing came loose. You can imagine the result:

Olympus PT-23 repair job number one
Though I saved my camera by surfacing as quickly as I safely could, I did lose a camera the second time the housing broke. This time it was the main hinge that holds the housing halves together. The housing is intended to open like a clamshell so that you can load the camera into it. Most underwater housing are made such as this. The problem is that (again) the amount of material devoted to strength was inadequate. The hinge broke while I was underwater and allowed seawater to flood in. The result was this mess:

A drowned Olympus C8080

That’s right, a completely destroyed C8080 camera. I found another one cheaply on EBay and began with a vengeance to re-engineer the fastening together of the two halves of the housing. Here is what I devised:

Olympus PT-23 repair job number two
The stainless steel plates and bolts replace the hinge mechanism. The other side is still held together by the original snap-lock fasteners. It works okay, but it’s a little fiddly to get the bolts adjusted just so. I still use it for teaching and as a backup.

My current camera and housing is a Canon G-9 in a factory WP-DC21 housing.  Here is a picture of the housing:

The Canon WP-DC21 housing for the G-9 cameraI like it very much. It fits in one hand, creates images as good as I need, and it cost me only about US$600 when I bought it new. I have no complaints.

My only problem now is that when the jerk on the street stole my camera, he (or the cop) dropped it. Here’s the damage:

Canon G-9 thief caused this damage when he dropped it

It doesn’t look like much and has no effect on the usefulness of the camera until you put it into the underwater housing. Then the little thingie that allows you to control the button shown above presses constantly on it and locks up the camera. You can take pictures, but you can ‘t work any of the controls. Here is why:

Damage to Canon G-9 caused by thief when he dropped it

The green arrow shows the button again. As you can see from the red arrow, the metal was bent in the fall and now is separated slightly from the main frame of the camera. This causes the button to be further from the frame than it was. I did manage to fix it by shortening the little plunger that is meant to allow you to push the button while underwater. So, it’s fixed now.

I have a new Canon G-10 and a new WP-DC28 factory housing waiting for me in Canada. I’ll be taking photos with it when I return to PNG in mid-June. Whoopee!

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