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Chilly dip

Having flooded my camera while diving, I thought I’d try it again. And what could possibly go wrong when you go diving in sub-zero temperatures?

It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. Someone mentioned on Thursday that they were diving on the Saturday, if anyone else fancied a dip. Ok, so it’s January and has been freezing all week. How hard could it be? Pretty frosty, as it happens.

I’d been diving back in mid December and the air temperature then was a bit lower – it was -3 in the car park and our wet kit kept freezing to the bench. The water was surprisingly warm – 7 to 8 degrees. This time the car park was a bit warmer at around zero, but the water had dropped to 5 to 6 degrees. It made a difference.

For a start, the camera battery kept fading.  I’d take three or four shots and get a low battery warning. Turn the camera off for a few minutes, then back on and I’d get another few shots before it complained again. The camera wasn’t the only one complaining. When I got in, the water creeping into my neoprene hood was painful. All the shock of a brain freeze without the fun of a Cornetto. We all got very cold hands despite thick gloves – so cold that my fingers felt like they were burning. It was difficult to work the controls on the flash and camera because my fingers were numb. On the plus side, the cold had taken most of the algae out of the water and the lack of other divers meant there wasn’t the usual stirred-up silt. I’ve dived here before when you could barely see your mask. This was good conditions for UK diving, with visibility of perhaps 15 meters.

On a murky day

The fish were as frisky as ever. Odd when you think that their bodies must be at, or close to, water temperature. We were diving in fresh water in a flooded quarry, and it had been stocked with fish probably when it first opened. The trout are now big and partly tame. They get fed so often by divers with little bags of fishfood that they approach any diver on the chance of a meal. We found one old trout that was blind – it swam slowly along the bottom and didn’t recoil at movement. In fact it bumped into my dive buddy. There are usually sturgeon, but they’d gone off somewhere to be replaced by some large carp. The fish hang around in a shallow part of the site, so they are striped with bands of sunlight refracted into rainbows.

The good news though is that the camera didn’t flood. I was worried that the O ring seal might have been damaged by the screw that was stuck against it and caused the previous flood. It looked OK, but there’s only one way to find out.

Blind trout

I was also trying-out a new way to reduce the backscatter in my pictures. My camera is a digital compact, so it has a small built-in flash. There is a big diffuser panel to soften the light, but it’s close to the lens axis so lights up all the silt in the water. The way to reduce this is to use an external flash on an arm, so the light beam is off the lens axis. But I need the internal flash to trigger the external one. I’d tried reducing the power of the internal flash to its minimum but it still made every shot a snow scene. So I bought some adhesive plastic mirror film and stuck a piece to the back of the diffuser. So the internal flash is blocked from lighting the subject, but still triggers the sensor on the external flash. Did it work? Yes, once I’d moved the external flash forwards enough that the sensor that controls its light output couldn’t see the reflection in the diffuser. I got my best photos to date, in terms of clarity and lack of silt.

The diving itself was … an experience. It was the coldest water I’ve been in, to date. But all my kit worked, my body core stayed warm and we had a couple of nice dives. I’m not sure what I could do to make the camera warmer – there’s very little free space in the housing that could fit a hand-warmer. I’m not sure I want to chance getting iron oxide dust inside the camera, either. Perhaps I could warm-up the camera itself before I put it in the housing? That’s probably a better idea. I could even get the camera warm, but make sure that battery was hot. As it was I just swapped for a fresh battery between dives. Oh what fun we have trying to keep cameras working in the cold.

We had a great day though, and I got some good pictures. It has to be the most fun you can have in a rubber suit.


Après moi, le déluge

Unlike King Louis though, I do care about what happens next. The story starts with me arriving at the end of the queue to get into a diving site. The camera and housing were in a tool tray on the passenger seat. I poured myself a hot drink from the flask and began to assemble the camera into its underwater housing. Then the queue started moving. So I dumped the camera into the tray, threw the tea out of the window and made my way in.

The usual business then ensued with getting scuba gear assembled, getting my drysuit on and sorting out what we were doing and who we were doing it with. I threw the camera into the housing and pressed the rear door closed. It was a little more resistant than normal, but the O ring seal is always a bit tight. And off we went diving.

I was trying-out something new with the camera and its external flashgun, to try and eliminate backscatter from silt in the water. This mean that, as soon as I was back from the dive I had a look at the screen on the back of the camera to review the pictures I’d taken. And then noticed there were beads of water on the inside of the housing. And then noticed there was a puddle of water in the bottom of the housing. It didn’t dry up, even with the names I was calling it. (This level of invective will usually scorch paper)

So out of the housing came the camera and out of the camera came its battery. The camera was wrapped in my towel with the battery door open. Luckily we were diving in fresh water, so there was a chance the camera might survive once it dried-out.

At the end of the day I got home and put the camera on a radiator to dry. I then had a good look at the housing. Trapped in the groove that the O ring seals into was a tiny black machine screw – the kind that holds cameras together. It was small enough to allow the housing to close, but large enough to cause a leak. It was a small leak: the housing took on perhaps an eggcup full of water after 45 minutes under three times normal atmospheric pressure. It did the fateful job of killing my camera, though.

The screw was trapped here, by the hinge

A quick check showed that the camera wasn’t completely dead, but it was badly injured. It would power-up enough to extend the lens, but the rear screen wouldn’t work and neither would the zoom controls. So, big decision – do I wait and see if the camera will revive, or buy a replacement if I can find one cheap enough? The check also found the source of the screw. There were actually two missing; one from either side of the tripod socket. Perhaps what I should do in future is give the camera a good shake before I put it in the housing, or at least check the O ring seal all the way round.

This is the screw, compared with an SD card for size

I’ve also got yet another dead copy of this camera that could be an organ donor. This was my first copy of this camera, and died with a common fault when an internal screw came loose. If the drowned camera doesn’t revive I might try swapping-in some components from the donor. Not that I have any way of telling which parts might have broken, but I can have a go and see what happens. Curiously, the loose internal screws that killed the first camera are different to the one jammed in the housing, so it’s not a repeat of the first problem.


But… repair or replace? I have one working copy of this camera and it would be useful to have two. The whole reason I had two was for just this situation. So off to eBay I shall go. The Canon G9 fetches a wide range of prices, but scruffy ones that lack a charger or case can be quite reasonable. The drowned camera shows no signs of getting better so I’ll leave it on the radiator, but replace it is. Lo and behold, eBay spits out a very reasonably priced and tidy G9 with the original camera case. So we’re back up and running. The next thing, of course, will be to dive the housing to see if I’ve fixed the leak. What I’ll do is put the dead camera in it to stop it being too buoyant. I’ll pack the housing with tissues, which will be a good indicator of leakiness or success. Sounds like a plan.

This is also why I dive with a camera that is good, but not expensive. I may have had a bad day, but my broken camera was replaced for less than my buddy spent on one of his new fins. (He bought two obviously, or he’d swim in circles). The joy of cheap – the G9 is not the very best camera, but I can buy replacements at a reasonable cost, so I don’t mind putting them into situations where they might break.

Let’s call this gaining experience.

Taking me up the alley

I live near York, or perhaps we should call it Old York or York Original? Anyway, it’s a medieval city that, due to arguments over ownership, kept its stone walls and gates instead of using them as building materials. Quick diversion – local humour: ‘welcome to York where the roads are gates, the gates are bars and the bars are pubs’. And it was the latter that drew me here on this day: we were taking part in a pub crawl. In particular, we were crawling the pubs using York’s alleys and passageways, collectively known as snickelways, a combination of three Yorkshire words: snicket, ginnel and alleyway. Take a camera, I thought, it will look interesting and what could possibly go wrong?

Nine pubs, for a start. Better plan to imbibe just a half in each one unless I fancied sleeping in one of those alleys. Pickled in a snickel. Not as cute as it sounds.

Thankfully nobody coming the other way

And which camera? Do I go splashproof or widest-angle lens? Or just something small and light? I could really do with a wide-angle lens in the tight passages and my digital compacts stop at a 35mm equivalent (54 degrees). I could take an SLR with my 15mm lens but do I want to carry it? How about my Espio, as it has a 28mm lens? I could load it with some Delta 3200 and develop that in 510 Pyro. The Espio recognises DX coding for ISO up to 3200, so that works. And of course I’ll throw my Canon digital compact in the bag for colour shots and the ability to stretch my ISO if needed. The die is cast.

Now, as we all know, in theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice the difference between theory and practice is greater than theory predicts. (Try saying that at the end of the pub crawl). So how did I get on?

Well, the first thing was that I’d not shot the Espio for a while but I had been using the Canon digital compact. So each time I went to use the Espio I held it out in front of me and looked at the back. Then I did a puzzled face, as there was no screen on the camera. I was definitely right to bring a compact rather than an SLR though, as speed of use and ease of carry were important. There was even space in my small bag for a bottle of water, to drink between beers to be sure I could find my bus home later.

Diving up the back passages was by far the best way to get between pubs. York gets busy on a Saturday night, even when it’s raining. But most people stay on the main streets, so slipping down a snicket was like a private bypass. Some of the back ways were no more than shoulder width, which would have been interesting if anyone had come the other way. Our host and guide produces the definitive map to all the pubs (128 so far) and he had produced the route and plan for this event. It couldn’t have been easier, which is just as well when there are a dozen of us, with a bit of a glow on and distracted by the sights or lost in chat and not paying attention. Herding cats is easier, as you can use gaffer tape.


The camera /film /developer combination was not that good, though. It looks like the Espio was underexposing the film. Where the lighting was even, the film had plenty of detail amongst the grain. The shots taken in the dark though, where the lighting was uneven, had featureless shadows. Perhaps it’s the film – I know the camera was working ok from previous shots. The development should have been ok – I was using 510-Pyro and it has worked well for everything else. My money is on the camera doing a bad job of metering when there are a few bright lights and a lot of dark space. The Canon G9 though, worked just fine. It’s a good workhorse. But I think the Espio could be leaving me. It’s not that compact and my Olympus XA seems to do a better job of metering. Film is getting expensive, so I need to use cameras that handle it well. Perhaps I’ll give the Espio a last chance to do what it was really meant for, and shoot some colour negative film with fill-in flash.

The irregulars

On the other hand, the negatives look better than the scans. I’m sure I have one of those slide copier things somewhere around. It’s a lens in a tube with a slide and negative mount on the end. Mount it on the camera and you have a device for making 1:1 copies. If I can find it I will have a go at making digital photo copies of the negs to see if the problem is with my (old) film scanner.

Anyway – much fun was had. And a sorry – I just enjoyed the silly innuendos. And in this context, even innuendo sounds like an innuendo.

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