Tuesday, March 11, 2014 

Housing & O-ring Maintenance

Underwater Camera Floods: Avoiding the High Water Mark

No subject scares underwater photographers more than having an expensive housed camera turn into an aquarium. Even a bit of water can turn electronics into a corroded mess.

Here are a few general tips on maintenance that should help you avoid finding Nemo in your housing:

1) Read the manufacturer’s instructions. Please carefully read through it. Housings all vary in care and feeding. For example, housings all have different depth ratings, or have varying ways of adding a sync cord. Some have all of the controls, but many have fewer housing controls than on the camera, with some controls doing multiple actions. Some o-rings are not removable but need to be wiped off. Some housings have controls that are user-serviceable, some aren't. Read the manual to find out.

2) O-rings are probably the most important and miss-serviced parts.
In addition to the large, noticeable o-ring on the back cover, every control has one or two, as well as the ports, and strobe or other bulkheads. Some are black, some are blue or grey, most should be serviced, but some should not.

If you don’t need to service an o-ring, don’t. A sealed o-ring will remain so unless disturbed, such as cleaning. A good example is a port: there is no need to service a port o-ring between dives if it is not removed or changed.

Following rule #1, you can generally service the rear, port and bulkhead o-rings as follows. Remove them carefully by pinching the o-ring at the corner and pulling it out/off. If it sticks, use the corner of a credit card to gently pry it up. Many housings come with a thin removal tool. A blunted wooden cuticle remover also can also be useful, but do NOT use tweezers, screwdrivers, needle-nose pliers, vise grips or any other sharp, medieval devices.

Then just wash the o-ring in warm water with a bit of soap. Pat it dry completely with a lint-free dishtowel; NOT a paper towel or used Kleenex. Try not to stretch it as you dry it.

Examine the o-ring in a bright light. Use a magnifying glass if necessary. Look for dirt, sand, cuts, dog, cat, rat, weasel or hamster hair. Be picky and meticulous; even the smallest hair can ruin your day.

O-rings can get cut or abraded fairly easily as salt crystals form and slice them with their sharp edges. Replace them from your spares as necessary, and order replacements.

You do have fresh spares don't you? O-rings need to be stored in an air-tight bag away from strong sunlight. Not a bad idea to pull them out of the housing when not in use and put them in a baggie inside. They get brittle with age, and should be periodically replaced.

3) If an o-ring is clean and in good shape, lubricate it with just a drop or two of the proper silicone grease. Put a couple of drops on your fingertips and gently pull the o-ring through them to apply. Do NOT use anything other than the grease that is from your housing manufacturer. For instance, using black o-ring grease on blue o-rings has been known to melt them, which generally results in you melting down when your housing floods. Use the manufacturer’s grease on the manufacture’s o-ring; they will not cover floods if you don’t.

Now repeat the mantra; OMMM... "MORE IS NOT BETTER...MORE IS NOT BETTER...". Do NOT over grease. Silicone grease is ONLY a lubricant, NOT a sealant. All you want to see is sheen on the o-ring, not globs of grease. If you apply too much, all it will do is act as glue for sand and dirt to stick to.

4) Carefully clean the flanges and grooves where they contact the o-rings. Use foam swabs, or a cotton swab with a piece of lens tissue wrapped around the tip. A clean used toothbrush also works well too. Blowing them off carefully with a can of compressed air is ok, but try to blow the dirt OUT of the housing, by holding it upside down. Again, examine all these surfaces carefully, they should not resemble "Beach Blanket Bingo" with sand everywhere, nor should there be any deep cuts or pinches that would result in a bad seal. Do NOT apply grease to the flat surfaces.

5) Now carefully install the clean, greased o-ring, making sure it is not twisted and lays flat in its intended spot. If it seems out of shape, let it sit there for a minute, then try pressing it into place again. They can get heated from your fingertips and become misshapen and enlarge slightly. With larger o-rings, start from the top with both hands and gently press them into place, without stretching them out of shape.

Examine the o-ring again, make sure there’s nothing that came off of a towel or your hands on them.

6) Install your camera with fresh batteries and a cleaned off card, then carefully close it. Always do an o-ring "sweep", running your finger along it's entire surface, just before you close the back.

Make sure the o-ring is seated and you haven’t pinched it out of position, and that there's not a sync cord or the edge of a silica gel bag stuck in between the surfaces. If you have a clear housing, check to see that there is a solid line where the o-ring seals. Breaks in color usually mean a problem.

Make sure the edges of the housing seem to be evenly spaced, and nothing looks out of position or warped.

7) If you have an electrical sync cord: Wipe off copper electronic sync cord contacts with rubbing alcohol (buy the 91% variety), and even use a bit of silicone grease on the threads when installing them. Then leave the cord connected for the whole trip. The contacts are fragile and if it's working, it does not need to be serviced between dives. Covers need to be immediately put on sync cord ends; copper and salt air is a bad combination.

8) Be sure to try your installed camera with the strobe before you go diving. Test a couple of frames to see if you’ve left the lens cover on, strobes are syncing, etc.

9) A piece of thin sanitary pad usually fits in most housings and provides a bit of "oops a few drops got in" insurance. It’s a good idea to tape it and any silica gel packets in place with a bit of electrical tape. It’s really a bummer to see the words “Dry-z-Air” when you are trying to focus on a whale shark.

10) Always test your housing in the dunk tank on the boat. That's a plunge, swish-swish, watch for bubbles, dunk...NOT a toss-it-in-until-I'm-ready-to-dive dunk.

11) Go diving! Have fun, swim around slowly, take lots of pictures!

12) Later soak the entire rig in warm fresh water, even if you’ve done it on the boat. 15-20 minutes is all you need to do. Again, work all the controls to get the salt out. Let it dry out of the sun and heat.
Disassemble handles from trays if you ever intend on moving them again. Salt water can act between dissimilar metals through electrolysis and weld them together; i.e. your stainless bonds to your aluminum handles.
If you're having some sticky controls, or something is "welded" together a warm bath with vinegar can help dissolve salt and corrosion safely. There is also a marine product called "Salt Away" that can work. If the part is small, you can put it in an ultrasonic cleaner.

Once a year or so, you should send your housing into the manufacturer's repair center for servicing. Those small o-rings in the controls generally are not user-serviceable and need periodic replacement. Springs, latches and controls get worn as well. Don't pack the housing and take it on a long trip without servicing the o-rings and checking the system on a test dive first.

The above doesn't have to take a long time, and a complete cleaning is not necessary every dive, but take your time and examine your housing carefully before you get in the water. Be meticulous about your equipment and it will last you for many years of diving!

Some General Dos and Don'ts:
  • Be meticulous and careful when setting up your rig. Good time to tell your friends and family you need some alone time without distractions for an hour. Concentrate and develop a method for putting things together. Do it the same way every time and you won't forget a step.
  • Use a dab of anti-seize compound, or even silicone grease, on any stainless to aluminum bolts. Most are anodized, but some anodizing is better than others.

  • Clean, inspect and service your o-rings if in doubt. If you've been diving off a beach that's sandy or gritty, it's a good idea to be very careful. Off a boat or liveaboard your serviced o-rings can probably just be inspected carefully and continue to be used.
  • Close your cover or port carefully. If something seems off, it usually is. A latch that's hard to close may mean something isn't loaded correctly. Rotary housing latches can be sand traps. If you've rinsed the housing and still find sand, then you may have to disassemble it. Usually it's just a small screw or two; clean it out and reassemble.
  • Always do an o-ring "sweep", running your finger along it's entire surface, just before you close the back. You'll feel any grit you missed.
  • Always do a test of your camera and strobes. Make sure your settings are correct, go over anything you don't understand about their operations - while you can still look at the manuals.
  • Always test your housing in the dunk tank on the boat. Better to find out there that you have a problem.
  • Always do a test dive without the camera in the housing if you are worried there might be a problem. Go down to depth, and work the controls. Adding a small soft weight as a counter-balance is a help, as is a wad of tissue or paper towel inside to help spot where a leak is occurring.
  • Consider getting one of the new "Vacuum Check" leak detection systems. These new systems allow you to pump a bit of air out of the housing and let it sit. If the pressure drops, then a light changes color to allow you to fix it or abort your dive - before a bad flood can occur!
  • DON'T leave your camera in the rinse tank between dives, or for longer than a couple of minutes. MOST floods happen in the rinse tank. Cameras get dropped in on top of each other and latches get sprung, etc. Scratched ports are the least of your worries. Also, during your dive the housing and controls get compressed. Coming up from the bottom and then putting the camera in a non-pressurized tank of water can allow some controls to weep a bit. So just rinse it well, take it out and leave it under a towel out of the sun between dives.

  • DON'T let anyone clean their mask out in the camera rinse tank. Anti-fog solutions have been known to be hard on o-rings.
  • Never jump in the water holding your camera rig. The fast pressure can pop things open, along with it getting bumped and scratched. Including your head. Have a deckhand hand it to you, or suspend it from a line, then retrieve it once in the water.

  • Dried salt water is your housing’s enemy. Salt crystals form in the controls and they can cause leaks. If you don't have access to a fresh water rinse, leave it in salt water. As long as it doesn't dry, it's fine.
  • Try not to let water dry on the glass ports, especially in the sun. You'll get some cosmetic water spots on the port's coating if it does. There's nothing you can do to remove them once they're there. They won't hurt the photo quality at all, but it's nice to avoid them.

Sunday, March 09, 2014 

Choosing an Underwater Photography Lighting System

What’s Right for You? by Denise Kitchel

Why do I need a lighting system?
That might seem like a silly question, but it is not always obvious to people what factors are involved in determining how much lighting they need. There are a few things that determine the amount of color saturation and image clarity in underwater photography: depth, ambient light, and water clarity. Obviously you're not in control of the depth that your subject is at, or the water clarity, but you do have some say in the amount of light. By adding to the available natural light, you’ll be able to improve the color saturation, sharpness and clarity of your photos.

Underwater Depth and Color
Think about rainbows; they are a vision of light refracted into individual colors through rain (drops of water). So, it’s only natural that when we’re under water, colors change based on the light from above being refracted and absorbed by the water. Each color is a different wave length and energy level, which means that each color absorbs at a different rate.

Colors vanish underwater in the same order as they appear in the color spectrum.  

  • Red – The first to disappear, you may see a noticeable difference in red at 5ft and a complete loss at 15ft.
  • Orange – The next to go, oranges will be lost at between 25 and 30ft.
  • Yellow – Next are yellows, which fade at 35 to 40ft
  • Green – The last to go are greens at anywhere between 50 and 75ft.

Keep in mind the impact of horizontal distance as well. If you are 10 feet underwater, and you are viewing an object that is 10 feet away, you are viewing the light that has reflected off of that object, which has actually travelled 20 feet to reach your eye. At that point, all of the reds will have been filtered out.

Similarly, the light from your system will have to travel 10 feet to the subject you’re shooting and reflect 10 feet back to the camera lens, for a total of 20 feet. Keep this in mind when setting up your shots. The closer you get, the better the color.

Mind Games
The interesting thing is that our brains are wired to compensate for the loss of color. We see a familiar object under water and we see red, because we know it is red, but when we take a photo of it with only natural light, there is no red. So, you actually need lighting when you don’t necessarily think you do.

Where do I start?
To choose the right underwater lighting system, you will have to think about a number of things: What kind of photography will I primarily be shooting, stills or video? What subjects will I be shooting? What will the available light be like where I dive? What kind of camera, housing and lenses will I be using? Why am I taking photos and what do I plan to do with them?

Once you have answers to these questions, you’ll be well on your way to picking out the right components you need in order to put together a lighting system that will take your photos to a whole new level!

What do I have to choose from?
There are several components that go into a lighting system: one or more types of lights, arms, trays, handles, clamps, adapters, mounts and sync cords. Below is a description of each and how they work together to make one awesome lighting system!
Types of Lights - Lights generally fall into one of two categories:

Continuous Lights – These are lights that you turn on and they stay on until you turn them off. Their output is measured in lumens, which defines the total amount of visible light emitted, and can range anywhere from 300 to 18,000 lumens. Focus lights and video lights fall into this category.


  • Focus Lights
    Focus lights are lower lumen, continuous lights. They help you to see while setting up a shot, and help your camera lock in focus on subjects in the somewhat dim lighting conditions found underwater. They are essential for night diving, in that trying to hold a dive light for visibility and take pictures at the same time is nearly impossible.

    Some have built-in red lights, or a red filter, which is great for shooting shy creatures (like crustaceans or octopus) that can’t see the color red. It also means that you won’t be the one swarmed by krill while trying to get a shot of that gorgeous manta, but your buddy shooting video with high-lumen white light certainly will!

  • Video Lights
    When shooting video you’ll need a strong light, at least 800 lumens, but 1200 or more is recommended, with a wide beam angle. Video is all about capturing movement, so think about needing to light up a large space with even light out from edge to edge.

    When shooting video with a wide angle lens, you’ll want 2 lights in order to have even coverage. For macro video, a single 800 lumen light will do the job, but a minimum of 1200 lumens is necessary if you’ll be shooting both still and video.

Strobe Lights – These are lights that emit a short burst of intense, extremely powerful light, providing crispness, sharpness and color saturation to your photos. They are usually connected to your camera housing with a sync cord, allowing the camera to signal the strobe to fire. Their output is measured in underwater guide numbers that range from 12 to 32 or more.

Strobes are essential for still photography. Yes, your camera has a built-in flash, but that flash was intended for above water photos, where you don’t need to worry about things like refraction of light through water and reflection from backscatter. It’s also built-in, which means it is in a fixed position on the inside of your housing, where it will be shadowed by the port on your housing, and the light it emits will always be straight ahead. It will light up the particles in the water really well, meaning lots of good shots of backscatter, but not light your subject too well at all. With a strobe, you can position your light in a way that reduces backscatter, and give yourself some creative lighting options.

Manual and TTL Exposure: Strobe can have two different exposure control systems; manual and auto-TTL. Manual is just that; a control to change the power (duration) of the strobe's output. TTL (Through The Lens metering) is a method for the strobe to either be controlled directly from the camera with an electrical sync connection, or by using an optical sync, to mimic the camera's flash. This is also sometimes refered to as D-TTL, or slave TTL.

Can I use a high-power continous light instead of a strobe? The answer is not really well. Even the smallest strobe puts out thousands of candle power of light intensity instantaneously. This very quick, high-powered light gives you the color saturation and sharpenss desired for still photos. If you use a continous light for still photos, you'll have to shoot at high ISOs, with slow shutter speeds and open aperatures, as the light just doesn't have the same intensity. Your photos will tend to be soft looking and darker, without intense colors, sharpness or detail. In a recent test we conducted, an 18,000 lumen video light put out about what a small strobe could, and it really only worked well for macro or close up photos. This is an area of some debate, and again, it depends on how you're going to use your photos.

Things to Consider

When choosing lights, you’ll want to consider several things in order to make sure that you’re getting the best light for the money.
  • Construction – Look for anodized aluminum, or high-quality plastic construction with double o-rings. For strobes, look for a sealed battery compartment.
  • Features – Look for additional features like battery life indicators, power settings, swappable batteries, varying beam width, Red or UV color. For strobes; a target light, ready and/or TTL indicator lights, a test function, and the number of pre-flash settings are the features to look for.
  • Batteries – Does it use standard batteries or lithium rechargeable? How many? Does it come with a spare set? What is the capacity/runtime? What type of charger does it use? Can it be "wet-charged" and not use an external charger?
  • Controls – Look at ease of use, readability, the number of brightness settings and filters. For strobes, also look at power settings (duration of flash) and TTL vs. Manual control.
  • Mounts – What type of mount does it have? Ball or YS-mounts are generally used. Does it come with others for wrist mounting a dive light, etc?

A tray is the base for connecting all of your components together. Most DSLRs will come with a tray and handle, so you may not need to choose a separate one. If you do though, you’ll need to consider a few things. The size of your housing is the biggest determining factor for which trays you’ll have to choose from. After that, your options will be narrowed based on the mount for the type of housing you have. Next, you’ll want to look at how adjustable they are, so that you’ll be able to configure it best for your fit (the size of your hands with gloves on or off) and so that you’ll have a better chance of being able to reuse it if you buy a new housing.

Trays can be single handle or double handle. Some trays come with handles attached, and some you purchase separately. In any case, you’ll want to choose handles that have a comfortable grip for your hand size.

Arms & Clamps
Once you’ve got your tray and handles figured out, you’ll want to think about what kinds of arms you’ll need. There are flex arms, float arms (to offset the additional weight of your system), and rigid arms that come in several different lengths. You’ll connect them together with clamps that allow you to position your lights however you’d like and lock them into position or allow them to be easily moved.

Adapters & Mounts
Any number of adapters and mounts are available to connect together components from different manufacturers. Some are necessary to mount lighting on top of housings instead of arms, others adapt lighting to different arms. Just know that if you’re buying separate lighting system components, rather than purchasing a lighting package, you may need to purchase adapters and/or mounts as well.

Sync Cords
Sync cords provide a connection between the housing and strobe to fire it in sync with the camera's built in flash. There are two types of sync cords: Electrical and Fiber Optic.

Electrical sync cords can provide the best performance and save the camera battery. However, the housing must be able to support them by providing a connection into the camera, which can be another source for floods.

Fiber optic sync cords are the newer method and are preferred for ease of use. One end of the cord connects to the strobe, and the other end is connected to the outside of the housing, over the camera’s flash, by attaching it to  a built in port on the housing or simply with Velcro. When the flash fires, the light travels through the fiber optic cord and signals the strobe to fire. The beauty of this is that there is no hole drilled into the housing, so no worry about flooding.

How about a Lighting Package?
Want to make it easy on yourself and get the biggest bang for your buck? Consider purchasing one of our lighting packages. We’ve put together what we think are the best configurations for various housings, based on the needs of our customers, at a reasonable price. Take a look on our website!

About Jack

  • Adventurer, diver, sailor, photographer, writer and sometimes graphic designer. Proprietor of Optical Ocean Sales, LLC. Enjoy the blog, check back and please leave comments!
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