Ask the VR Photography Experts

Q: I dropped my digital camera into a lake. I let it dry for a couple of days and then tried to turn it on. Nothing worked. Is it salvageable and should I try to send it to Canon for repair?

A: The news is unlikely to be good, but you should call the folks at Canon (with specifics of your camera type) to find out what they recommend. Repair may be more worthwhile for a higher end (professional) digital camera than a consumer one, but in either case, the cost may be equivalent or more than actually replacing the camera.

The problem with digital cameras and water is that the moment water gets into the electronics and there's any sort of battery/power connected, everything short circuits. Basically, all of the electronics in the camera get fried to some extent. Repairing the camera usually means replacing all the electronic components, which with modern cameras are the majority of the inside workings. One also has to consider the effects of the water within the optics, which often result in mold and perpetual internal moisture. Some metal parts may also rust and fail down the road, as well.

If you have equipment insurance, consider filing a claim on the camera. Often, homeowner's policies will cover such losses, less deductible amounts.

If there wasn’t a battery in the camera when it fell in the water, things might be more optimistic... but then again, how many people carry their cameras around without batteries?

In the "old" days when cameras where more mechanical than electronic, a common recommendation was to keep the camera submerged in fresh water until it could be delivered to a repair shop. This would limit the amount of oxidation and mold growth that would take place if the already moist metal parts were returned to the air before being adequately cleaned or dried. Another recommendation was to immerse the camera in alcohol to help clean it and to aid in moisture removal (the alcohol would replace the water, and alcohol evaporated far more quickly resulting in more thorough drying.)

Many years ago, I flooded an underwater Nikonos camera (the original model which had no electronics) on an ocean dive. We completely disassembled the camera, rinsed all the parts in a bucket of fresh water and dried them with towels. Then we put everything into a baking tin in the galley oven at the lowest heat level we could manage (probably 150-200 degrees Fahrenheit). Everything was either metal or glass. The rubber O-rings we removed and dried by hand. Then we reassembled the camera and continued with the shoot. The camera still works today.

I remember asking the underwater cinematographer who helped me at the time how he dealt with flooded motion picture cameras with expensive electronics inside. He recommended another alcohol approach. "You hold a small container of high proof alcohol in your left hand while carefully cradling the camera in your right” he said. “Next, you lift the alcohol up above the top of the camera, quickly drink as much of it as you can while forcefully tossing the camera overboard with your other hand. End of problem." <grin>

Q: I thought the best thing to do with a wet camera was to freeze it as soon as possible, and to keep it that way until you could get it in to a repair shop.

A: I recommend strongly against this. When water freezes, it expands and the expanding pressure inside a camera could crack glass lenses and even metal structural elements. Note how the expansion of freezing water even causes rock to fracture. It would seem counterproductive to do this inside a precision instrument such as a camera.

When "winterizing" normal cameras for use in extreme cold temperatures, technicians actually remove the normal grease on gears and motors, and replace it with a "dry" lubricant such as graphite. This prevents freezing and any resulting damage inside the camera or lens.

- Scott Highton