Thursday, 28 May, 2009

What Not to Do With Your New Camera

Don’t drop your camera in water. Ever.

As you may know, I recently took a month-long trip to New Zealand, specifically to photograph all over both islands. As some of you also know, on just the fifth day I had a horrendous accident while shooting Matai Falls.

I’m OK, my camera is not. Let me give a little background…

As a present to myself for the completion of my first book, in late 2008 I bought a Canon EOS 5D Mark II kit with 24-105 lens. I paid $3,499.00.

I used the camera for a couple of months, including a really great trip to New Mexico and Arizona.

Then I bought a gently-used Acratech GV2 tripod ballhead from a friend. These heads are really excellent, overall, with one annoying design flaw. I’ll get to that in a bit.

I took my new gear to New Zealand excited at new potential it represented for me… 21 megapixels, HD video, super-high-quality images. The best camera I’ve ever owned.

So on this fateful fifth day of the trip, here’s what happened:

I had set up my tripod (with camera attached) at the base of the falls. There were people coming and going, snapping pics from a landing somewhat behind me and to my right. I made sure not to get in their way.

So here I was, waiting for people to be done and on their way so I could recompose and get the shot I had been visualizing.

While standing there waiting, I casually loosened a knob on my tripod head, intending to loosen the pan control so I could rework the composition a bit.

I heard a loud clatter, followed by a splash, and looked down to see my camera fully submerged in the water (after bouncing off two rocks.)

I immediately picked it up, turned off the power and took out the battery. And my heart sank.

My traveling buddy Monte lent me his original 5D so I could keep shooting.

A couple of days later, after everything had completely dried out, I was able to recover the images off the card. But the camera and lens both acted very squirrelly. Sometimes working, sometimes not. This gave me hope, however, that they might be repaired.

Then I remembered that the camera kit (body and lens) had been added to my homeowner’s insurance policy. I thought "well, at least it’s covered". Not exactly….

Back to the Acratech head design flaw: I also had the standard Acratech clamp attached; the one that by default comes with their heads.

The knob for the clamp is exactly the same size, shape and feel of the knob below that loosens the pan control. I keep replaying in my mind that fateful moment of turning the wrong knob, without my other hand on the camera.

(There is a pin on the Acratech head that is *supposed* to help prevent this; I wouldn’t count on it.)

On my return home to Colorado, I sent the camera and lens to the Canon repair center in Irvine. I’d heard great things from other serious-photographer friends about their service, price etc. and was hopeful.

A week after I sent the package, I received a confirmation from the repair center that they had received it. Another week went by, without a word, so I called them. They acknowledged they had it and promised to have someone look everything over right away. The next day I got two repair estimates: one for the lens, one for the body, totaling $1,000.00 for everything. My heart sank again.

Still I had hope. After all, $1K for repairs is certainly better than buying a new camera. But what about the insurance, you ask?

$5,000 deductible. Not helpful.

So another week goes by, and I’m in agony waiting to hear the final outcome. I’m checking the web site repair status… no change, day after day.

Today, I got a phone call from the guy who is in charge of estimating repairs. After several hours of aggravating phone tag, I finally spoke to him.

He informed me that, after reviewing the damage with the repair technician, they have concluded that–although the camera theoretically "could" be repaired–the cost of repairs would total more than the purchase price.

So to sum it all up: I’m out $3500 and now I don’t own a working camera. (I sold my other bodies and lenses to help fund the purchase of the 5D2)

I’d cry… but I am still in shock.

So there are two morals to my tale of woe:

  1. Make absolutely certain that you have proper insurance coverage on your gear.
  2. Be extremely careful manipulating your equipment while on the tripod – especially if there is water (and rocks) around.

I’m writing a letter to Acratech to tell them what happened in the hopes they might modify their design a bit. A different size or shape of clamp knob could have made all the difference.

Which leads me to another story of disappointment: I ordered a RRS clamp with a latching lever to replace the Acratech clamp, so this wouldn’t be a problem anymore.

Problem is, the way they assemble the clamp to the ball makes it virtually impossible to remove (they use special tools and Lok-tite).

So I have to send the Acratech head to their factory for them to remove the clamp, just so I can put a different one on. (I do really love the head by the way…)

I don’t yet know what I will do about a new camera. Guess I need another book contract!?

Below is the last photo my 5D Mark II will ever take.

Matai Falls © Nat Coalson

I hope my carelessness serves as a warning to others…. Feel free to commiserate here; I’m always interested in comments and questions.


  1. Hi Nat.

    I am very sorry this happened to you. I do appreciate your write-up, as it may save any future accidents of this type.

    Take care.

  2. Thanks Momo, much appreciated… I might have mentioned also to always carry a “spare” camera but I, like most, can’t usually afford to have more than one nice camera body at a time…

  3. Wow, Nat – what a sad cautionary tale! I hope you are able to get a replacement soon!

    I actually just reviewed my insurance after getting my own 5D Mark II – and a good thing, too, as I just didn’t have the coverage I thought I did…

    – Jack

  4. Check the terms of the credit card you used to buy the camera. A good number of them have accidental damage coverage with no deductible.

  5. Sorry for your loss and thanks for sharing so that others are alerted.

    Again thanks for your presentation at Lone Tree Photography Club.

    Check with your tax accountant about claiming a casualty loss. Might have some value.

    Bill Brennan

  6. Man, that really sucks. But what a life-saver Momo turned out to be! That would be way too much insult added to injury if he hadn’t had a camera for you to use while there in paradise.

  7. Terribly sad story.
    If your camera had to go, at least it went out on a beautiful shot.

  8. Nat

    Very sorry to hear about your loss. I will be talking with my insurance agent after reading your story.

    As Bill mentioned above – thanks again for the super presentation at the Lone Tree PC. I have had several members comment that yours was way up there.


  9. Hi Nat,

    I am sorry to hear about your camera. We have recently changed the design of our quick release knobs to a trilobe so it is very easy to feel the difference between the knobs. It was introduced with our new GP ballheads in March and is now making its way onto our latest GV2’s. Please give me a call when you get a chance (909) 394-1802.

    Best Wishes,
    Scott Dordick
    CEO Acratech Inc.

  10. Thanks everyone for your well-wishes. It’s been quite a traumatic experience, but once I realized “it’s only money” (yeah…) not such an ordeal.

    A huge thanks to Scott at Acratech for chiming in. I ordered a new head from them, that has a different locking knob on the clamp… maybe will keep me from repeating my blunder in the future!

    And in case it didn’t come across strongly enough in my original post… these Acratech heads are the best there are. Get one! And consider other clamps, like RRS, etc. depending on your usage and shooting style.

  11. Thanks for your experience. I learned the easy way about backup equipment, liability, and replacement insurance, before I had my accident, where I was driven into a pond, and lost a pair of 1DMkII bodies, a 24-70L, a 70-200 2.8 is L, and a 580ex, plus my cell phone, at a golf tournament I was covering. I had backup equipment to fall back on like my extensive collection of prime lenses that covers the focal lengths I lost in the accident. My clients who depend on my photography, including those who signed wedding contracts, and newspapers who have deadlines, didn’t have to look to another photographer to replace me because I didn’t have anything to fall back on, because I had backup gear, an insurance agent working on the problem, and I was busy booking more work without a hiccup.

    I’m sure I’ll refer back to this link often as I “preach” my story to others on forums, and use your story as the example of what not to do, and why.. 😉

    I hope you don’t have another story like that one in the future.


  12. Ah great, I’m not the only one who submerged a 5D MKII fully. I had the same, sold everything to fund it. I’m a jobless student so for me this thing was like all I had.

    Worst thing was my BIKE fell, it rolled out of the bag, rolled 3 meters and there it was, on the bottom of a small river. Ugh.

    Good luck, I’m now drying the body it happend yesterday and let’s see what it does after a couple of days. But yes this sucks. 🙁

  13. Nat, I had a someone hand my backpack to me when changing boats in Thailand. They turned it upside down and the zipper came open, dumping my camera in the ocean. Salt water is not recoverable. Managed to get the film processed, but now NO ONE handles my gear but me, even if they are big, strong guys. Wouldn’t let them touch it in the Galapagos as we changed boats or had wet landings, even though the “rules” said I wasn’t to even wear it as a backpack. Thanks for the insurance company info, I need to sort that out.

    Hope to see you at your show this week.

  14. Ok, if you’re camera is dead from drowning here’s a final trick to try and bring it back to life. This is really a final resort, only intended for people who are at a dead end. (Remember, one of the worst things you can do once your camera has been drowned and dried out is to simply switch it on. Highly conductive residues of salts and minerals that were dissolved in the water dry out and bridge electrical connections and cause short circuits). Ok, here goes….1) Get three buckets of distilled water. 2) Remove the battery (if you haven’t already) and body cap, and leave the camera in the 1st bucket for 15 seconds. Agitate very gently. Drain and move to the 2nd bucket. 3) Leave in the second bucket for 15 seconds, agitate very gently. Drain and move to the 3rd bucket. 4) Leave in the 3rd bucket for 15 seconds and then remove, drain and leave to dry face down on some kitchen towel for 5 minutes. 5) Take a sealable container (it must be air tight) (and say, about 5 gallons in size) and half fill it with a silica dessicant such as dririte (basically, the more the better). 6) Put a piece of paper towel on top of the crystals and then your camera. 7) Seal the container making sure it is absolutely air tight. 8) Leave for 24 hours and then replace the silica gel crystals and leave for another 24 hours. 9) Keep your fingers crossed, insert a new battery and switch your camera on.


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