Travel disasters: How to rescue your waterlogged camera

(Original Caption) Next time your camera drops in the water, dive in after it and start snapping. Some wonderful pictures can be made underwater- if your camera is leakproof and you know the tricks of filming the fishes. At Silver Springs, Florida, where the water is ideal for submarine photography, Bruce Mozert, who's been an underwater shutterbug for 16 years, recently conducted a class in the art for a few friends. Multicolored fish and water plants, lighted dramatically by refracted rays from the sun, turned the underwater "classroom" into a shimmering world of beauty which the students were delighted to capture on film. United Press Staff Photographer Joe Schuppe took the plunge also and made these fish-eye views of the students learning frogman photography.
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

It's a nightmare for any snap-happy traveller. But there is a way to deal with a waterlogged camera — if you know how. 

Cameras and water don’t generally mix. But whether it’s just been soaked through in the rain, dropped in a puddle, or seriously dropped in a river, the first rule is do not madly press buttons hoping to see it’s still working, and certainly don’t just blast it with a hair dryer, which can push water further in.

Obviously, get the device out of the water as quickly as possible. The longer it’s submerged, the worse the damage may be.

Once it’s back on dry land, take the battery out straight away (if you can) and don’t push any buttons first. If it’s a smart phone that you can’t open and take the battery out, try to completely power it off (don’t push any other buttons). Doing this can help prevent a short circuit. If a camera’s lens is wet, taking the battery out without turning the camera off will also prevent it from retracting, pulling more water inside the camera body.

Remove the memory card. While it shouldn’t lose images if you do this straight away, leaving it in something wet is just tempting fate. Flash memory cards (SD, Compact Flash, memory stick and so on) should be unaffected by water but dry them completely.

Do not put the camera or phone in an oven or on a radiator. Don’t blow it with the warm or hot air of a hair dryer, because the heat can harm the electronics, but placing it in the warm air of an airing cupboard should be all right.

Wipe the device with a paper towel or clean towel — but please don’t rub the front of the lens with paper towel or tissue. Even the softest of these is too abrasive (which is good to remember in every circumstance). For the lens and other glass parts, it is always best to use a proper microfibre cloth. Pay particular attention to drying the edge of the lens where it joins the lens barrel. If water penetrates inside the lens barrel, between the elements, it can mark the lens coating or you could end up with fungal blooms. Then you will need professional cleaning by technicians at a camera store.

I advise not to blow air directly into the device because this can push water further in. If it does, the minerals it deposits on circuitry can cause oxidation and corrosion. With a fan or heater on cool, though, you can blow air across the openings to aid drying. This uses the Bernoulli principle — as warm, dry air moves quickly over the openings, it creates decreased air pressure in it, which can draw moisture. The best trick is to leave it in front of warm, moving air for hours.

The phone or camera can be put in a bag of dry, uncooked rice (or completely submerged in a bowl of it). Do this for at least 24-36 hours, or much longer, if you can. Patience can really pay off — resist the temptation to fiddle and “rush it”. But it is also important to keep an eye on things. If the rice absorbs the water well, it might turn soft and mushy — so be prepared to change the rice as soon as there’s any sign of this happening. There’s some suggestion that starch from the rice could get into the phone or camera, though there seems to be no evidence of this — but perhaps wrap the device in a paper towel first.

Sachets of synthetic desiccant can help. The downside of saving the silica gel packets from new shoes or noodles is that they may have already reached their moisture capacity — but desiccant for flower drying can be bought at some craft stores. Keep it in a plastic or glass container with an airtight seal. In a crisis, in a zip-top bag, the desiccant will help to suck moisture from an electronic gadget.

There’s something called a Kensington EVAP rescue pouch for electronics (it’s generally under $20). EVAP contains a special drying agent that, its manufacturing company says, is 700 per cent more effective than rice. The manufacturers recommend that, for best results, allow six to 24 hours and simply wait for the humidity indicator to signal that it’s ready.

Dry-All Cellular Phone Emergency Kit is similar — a bag with desiccant that you put the phone or small camera in — as is Bheestie Bag (the same sort of prices, available online). This company also suggests putting your gadget in the airtight plastic pouch periodically (perhaps after having your phone in a pocket in a rain shower) to make sure there is no lingering moisture.

While you are drying a device, rotate it every few hours, because gravity will encourage any water to run downhill and, hopefully, find an opening.

It might just take days but once you are confident that the camera is completely dry, put the battery back and turn it on. If it doesn’t start up normally straight away, turn it off again, take the battery out and consult a specialist or the manufacturer’s technical help line.

Top image: Bettman Archive.

In an emergency

  1. Disconnect the battery as soon as possible.
  2. Don’t start madly pressing buttons.
  3. Remove any memory sticks.
  4. Put enough rice into a bowl or bag that you can bury the camera in it, or put in a bag with desiccant, or a commercial drying agent.
  5. Wait for moisture to drain out of the camera for a few nights or up to a week.
  6. Don’t turn it back on until you are as sure as you can be that it’s completely dry. (Be patient.)