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What to Do When Your Camera Gets Dropped in Water

The last image I took before my camera took the plunge. See that little rapid downstream, right about there…

I recently noticed my camera had a lot of dirt on it, so I took it to the nearest creek and threw it in for a good scrubbing. OK, maybe not, what actually happened was every photographer’s nightmare. Setting up on the side of a creek to photograph a series of rapids, I tripped, with the result of my camera getting a solid dunking.

Now, speaking from experience, this is what we call an “Oh [email protected]#t!!!…” moment. A 10 on the “Brown Pants” scale. In other words, an unpleasant experience. However, quick action and a proper drying out process can, in some cases, save your gear from an untimely demise. Despite its underwater expedition, my DSLR is still alive and well, thanks to the tips below.

What to Do Immediately When the Worst Happens

Take care of yourself first!!!

First and most importantly, are you injured (other than pride)? The camera can wait!

Fresh Water First Aid for Your Camera

  1. Immediately hit the power switch to off and yank the batteries out of the camera. If you know where the button battery to maintain date/time on your camera is located and can quickly and easily get to it, take that out too.
  2. DO NOT open the memory card slot yet. Usually, this is one of the most watertight parts of the camera.
  3. Get as much water off the outside as possible, and if water is draining out of it, let that continue until it has stopped. Gently shake the camera and tilt back and forth to get as much water out as possible.
  4. Pull the lens off carefully. Point the camera down as you do so to avoid getting any additional water into the interior around the shutter. Often this is one of the better-sealed areas, so if you are lucky no water has gotten in here.
  5. Pull your memory card out, if it is dry set it aside. Otherwise, plan to dry it out with the rest of your camera.
  6. With all compartments open (battery, memory card, etc.) wrap the camera and lens in something absorbent until you can start the drying out process, below. Anything that will help soak up water is fine including towels, a spare t-shirt, etc. If it soaks through, replace with something dry, as needed.

Salt Water

  1. Pull out your phone or another internet capable device.
  2. Search for an appropriate funeral dirge.
  3. Stand solemnly with head bowed while playing music because “It’s Dead Jim”.

Saltwater is the “anti-device”. If it doesn’t immediately kill it, it will in short order. You can try the same process as for freshwater above, but hopes are dim. I know it sounds crazy, but your best chances are to flush it with fresh water, before you open it up, to dilute and wash away as much of the salt as possible.

Highly conductive and corrosive, it is simultaneously sickening and fascinating to watch a camera die by salt water. Lights flash, it may smoke, pop, and hiss before it eventually dies. Yeah, the voice of experience…

Drying it Out

Drying it out takes time, but time is also your enemy. Water + Time = Corrosion. So, you have to get the water out as quickly as you can, which is only possible if whatever you use pulls water from its surroundings efficiently and quickly.

There are many methods that claim to dry out your electronics. I have heard people say that using rice, wheat germ, kitty litter, a low heat oven, or numerous other miracle substances or solutions will bring your electronics back to life. In my experience, only a few things work, and some of these home remedies can actually make things worse. In large part it depends on the severity of the dunking, and how well your camera is weather sealed.

What Has Worked For Me

After performing the freshwater first aid above, I got back to my hotel room and started drying everything out. When on the road your options may be more limited for drying agents, fortunately, there was a Walmart not too far away, which carried my material of choice, Damp-Rid. If you can’t find this, here are a few other options for “drying agents” in order of preference:

Damp-Rid, or similar moisture removing products.

  • Typically, found in the RV or fabric care sections of the store, “Damp-Rid” is a product designed specifically to pull water out of the air.
  • This has by far worked the best for me. It is calcium chloride, non-toxic and very effective.
  • The biggest downside of it is if you use the most potent version, you have to leave everything relatively undisturbed, moving it around could spill the container and dump drops of the absorbed water back on your camera.

Hanging Moisture Absorbers.

  • This is a catch-all for products used to keep closets and clothes from smelling musty.
  • Look for brands that use the same active ingredient as above, calcium chloride.
  • These work well for travelers as they are enclosed in a packet that can be moved.
  • These tend to have the drying agent in smaller doses so they don’t produce drops of water. They may take longer to work.

Silica Gel. You know, those little packets that come with all your electronics labeled “Do Not Eat”.

  • While you can buy it online, silica gel is usually harder to find in enough quantity.
  • The exception is if you have an arts and crafts store nearby (Michael’s, Joann, etc.). They may carry large boxes in their floral area, as it is used for flower drying.

Uncooked Dry Rice.

  • Easy to find, but will take the longest to work.
  • I prefer long-grain, but jasmine rice will give a nice floral note to your camera.

Drying Setup and Process

  1. Get a relatively airtight container or bag large enough to fit your gear and the drying agent. Storage totes, garbage bags, dry bags, etc.
  2. If using a commercial product, prepare the drying agent for use per manufacturer’s instructions.
  3. If using rice or other bulk items, pour this into a small open container that will not leak or spill.
  4. Place the drying agent container inside the large container or bag.
  5. Put the camera and any accessories around the container of drying agent.
  6. Seal the large container up and put it in a place where it will be undisturbed.
  7. Ideally, leave it in a warm area.
  8. Leave it alone for 5 days. Seriously, resist the urge to peek or turn it on. 5 days!
  9. After 5 days (subtle, right?), open it up, put in a fresh battery and turn it on.
  10. If it powers on, do a happy dance!  If it doesn’t, time to call the insurance company, repair center, and/or camera store.

Don’ts

  • Do not apply direct heat!
  • Don’t use any dusty substances, like clay-based kitty litter. This product is mostly powdered clay, and will simply attach itself to your camera, making things worse.
  • If possible, do not “nest” your camera in the drying agent. Because you have to have all the compartments open to truly dry it out, small granules and dust could get inside and make things worse.
  • Resist the urge to turn it on and see if it is working too soon. If there is still any moisture in it, you may potentially cause more damage by doing this.

Get it Serviced

Regardless of whether it powers on or not, you should send it in to a service center after you dry it.  Many insurance companies will require you to send it in to be checked by a certified repair center to see if it can be repaired or must be replaced. Even if it does power up and everything seems fine, it is a good idea to have it checked for corrosion or other issues that may result in a future mechanical failure.

About that Insurance

There are a solid ten seconds from the time you hear the splash and the horrible realization hits you that your camera is soaked until you remember you have insurance that will cover this.

You do Have Insurance Right?

Many photographers neglect to carry any insurance, or rely only on a homeowner’s policy. If you fall into one of these categories, you are taking a big gamble with your gear. Can you afford to replace everything out of pocket if the worst happens? Will making claims on your homeowner’s policy raise your rates or potentially get you canceled? Does your homeowner’s insurance even cover the type of loss in the conditions in which it occurred? What is your deductible? Do they cover the scheduled value replacement or market value?

Carrying a separate policy on your equipment just makes good sense, and is generally fairly affordable. While there are many options out there, I carry an Inland Marine policy with a scheduled list of equipment insured at its replacement value. For a few hundred bucks a year you can cover tens of thousands of dollars of photography equipment, far less than what it will cost you to replace the gear out of pocket. With the constant changes in technology and releases of new gear, camera gear is constantly depreciating in value. If your SLR takes a bath as mine did, you want to make sure you can replace it, not have to settle for a lesser camera or nothing at all.

Replacement in the Field

In my case, I managed to do this on the first morning of a large photography festival and workshop series we host and manage each year in South Dakota, “The Black Hills Photo Shootout”. There are no camera stores anywhere within an 8 hour drive of our event location. The best I could do was hope the nearest big box electronics store (who will remain unnamed, but I can tell you are known for their best buy’s) had a suitable replacement. Fortunately, they did. I checked their inventory online to confirm this before my panicked trek there.*

This is why it is so important to develop a relationship with an established and reputable camera dealer. Although we have seen the demise of many of the small local camera shops, in the age of the interwebs, you are only a few clicks away from an overnight delivery of a new camera body.

*Side Story – My Big Box DSLR Buying Experience

I typically buy my gear from B&H, but unfortunately, I had precisely two hours to get a camera and get back to the shoot. While I know the folks there can work wonders, getting a DSLR in my hands in Spearfish, South Dakota all the way from New York City in that amount of time was probably beyond even their magic powers. (Scotty! Where is my transporter??!?)

I knew exactly what I wanted; a 5D Mark IV, no lenses, no accessories, just the body and a battery grip if they happened to have one in stock. I checked online, saw the nearest big box electronics store (who will remain unnamed as before, but I can tell you are known for their best buy’s) had 4 in stock. I jumped into the truck for the drive to them.

When I got there, I made a beeline for the camera section. There, I found a very friendly sales guy. After ten minutes of searching around, he couldn’t find it. He told me they were out and asked if I might be interested in a different model from a brand that my lenses wouldn’t work with. My usually delightful personality was a little subdued and edgy at this point, so I politely informed him he had 4 in stock, and he was probably looking in the wrong cabinet. The internet and live inventories are an amazing thing.

After he did a little more digging around, my snarky got the better of me and out came “I know the words “Sony” and “Canon” look an awful lot alike, but you might want to stop digging through that pile of a6500’s, and look over here where you have the Canon DSLRs stored. ” I immediately felt bad and apologized, explaining the crap-tastic day I was having. He finally found the camera, I rejoiced, and he started to ring me out. While doing so, with a slightly nervous voice, he asks me if I want the extended warranty. And being unable to resist, I put my serious face on and asked, “Does it cover dropping it in mountain streams and other bodies of water. If so, does it cover only fresh water, or is there also coverage for salt water?” Before I could tell him I was just joking, he stammered out “I’m not sure”, and called his manager. Too committed at this point to say I’m kidding, I decided to ride this out and see where it took me. The manager showed up and politely explained to me the extended warranty process. It covers manufacturer defects, yadda yadda, during normal use, blah blah blah, no mountain streams, etc. He pauses and asks if I have any other questions.

“How about a bear attack, what’s covered then?”

The silence and mouths hanging open were priceless. This is why I require adult supervision at all times.

Gear

Like this article? Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques. Jason’s Articles at Photofocus

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