Christmas Tree Worms

Christmas Tree Worms

Photographers who drag electronics underwater tempt fate. Camera equipment requires special attention; gentle words of encouragement. I’ve had problems which occasionally prevent me from taking pictures, but one nagged me at the start of our Alaskan dive trip.

When we arrived, I was shocked to find beautiful colors and corals in Alaska that dwarf the beauty of many Caribbean sights. One of the few times I’ve see that many vivid colors in once place in my life!

But while attempting to capture this beauty as I was being swept along a steep wall, my strobe (flash) went temperamental and decided to flash only when it felt like it.

“WHY NOW?!?” I screamed through my regulator. “I NEED PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE OF THIS BEAUTY! No one will believe this is Alaska!”

I hear you ask - “What do I know about Cameras and Scuba?”

We often get thrown into new and unfamiliar situations and told to fix problems. Be wary of paralysis - just because it’s unfamiliar doesn’t mean you can’t figure it out. Tell your brain to stop spinning, take deep breath, and start at the beginning.

So, here’s an unfamiliar situation that you can solve. Without being a diver. Really.

And - I admit upfront. I should have figured this one out on my own, but I didn’t. I had all the information - just didn’t put it together. But you can still figure it out because you’ve probably experienced something similar. In one specific situation, it happens to an iPod.

You Guys Take Pictures? You Dove in Alaska?!?

Irish Lord

Irish Lord - Macro 2:1 extension tube with a strobe

Yes! Yes!

And to your next question, it was between 36º and 44ºF.

My husband and I are scuba dive buddies and we love to vacation on Liveaboards - small boats dedicated to the ritualistic die-hard philosophy, “Eat-Sleep-Dive.”. We have a blast with friends - it’s like camp for adults.

When we got married, he gave me an underwater camera setup - how cool is that?!? **

Symptoms and Stuff

Okay, start the process. List all the symptoms, gather background information, and generate some hypotheses.

My strobe is like your flash - illuminating a scene to capture color like the Irish Lord above.

  • The strobe is taking way too long. 15 seconds - an eternity! Sometimes it fires, sometimes it doesn’t. I’d hang there at the wall in limbo, just staring at that stupid little Ready light to come back on.
  • I’m diving on a live aboard dive boat, which means we dive between 2 and 4 dives a day.
  • We’re in Alaska, which is some of the most strenuous diving I have done. Regular 3 knot currents ripping us back and forth. Extra energy to stay in place for a picture, and to stop from being slammed into the wall.
  • This is the first time I have taken down camera equipment while wearing a dry suit instead of a wet suit.

Background Information

Whatever your hobby or situation, you make assumptions and conclusions based on information you’ve already acquired. In this case, here’s some relevant background info.

After I use my strobe, it usually takes 2 or 3 seconds to recycle (recharge).

Underwater, strobes are used to light up a scene and also to reveal true color. The deeper you dive, warmer colors with longer wavelengths (reds, yellows) are absorbed before the shorter-wavelength colors like blue and green. So below about 30 feet, a strobe is needed to capture reds, oranges, and yellows.

  • Strobe recycle time: Recycle time depends on how much energy (light) was dumped to take the last picture. The average recycle time is about 3-4 seconds.
  • Danger = Water + Electronics. Many problems are related to inappropriate and unexpected interactions between these two entities.

Stuff That Can Go Wrong

Social Feather Dusters

Social Feather Dusters - this is the "kicking like mad to try and stay in one place and not get slammed into the wall" shot. Macro 2:1 extension tube, strobe.

Now, electronics and water don’t usually get along, so taking expensive gear underwater requires some attention to detail. The goal is separate the stuff with electrons from the water with some sort of barrier. Commonly, o-rings and a fine layer of grease.

My camera itself has 17 o-rings. I can service 4 of them by myself, and I recheck and regrease them at various times during the trip. I service the big one around the film door every dive because I change film every dive. My strobe has one o-ring which is also checked every dive because I change strobe batteries every dive.

Servicing requires CAREFUL removal, inspection by touch for the smallest nicks, slight re-greasing, and intense visual inspection for anything other than grease. The slightest foreign particle can prevent a full seal and flood the camera.

And by tiny, I mean tiny. Little pieces of fuzz, like cat dander. Smaller than fuzz from a towel. And only millimeters long. That’s enough.


(I am one of the most anal photographers on any boat. Often alone at the camera table at 6am. Knock wood, I have never flooded a camera. As a comparison, nearly everyone else I know has, and that’s no insult to them. Sometimes the boats are rocking and rolling, and it’s raining 2 feet from your open equipment. It’s easy to do even when you’re very careful - I’ve just been damn lucky so far.)

Symptoms: Often permanent equipment death. Sometimes sad and depressing little bubbles escaping.

Salt Buildup

We usually dive in salt water. The boat is suffused with salt water, salt spray, and salty air. A thin layer of salt builds up on exposed contacts pretty readily, breaking the continuity of the circuit. Salt has a regular love affair with the battery contacts in my strobe, so I carry a pencil with an eraser and regularly shove the pencil down into the strobe to clean the contacts.

I’ve also found out (the hard way) that the same thing happens with rechargeable batteries. To save money (and weight for airline fees!) we take 16 AAs and 2 chargers each. The charging stations tend to be outside on the deck … in the salty air.

Symptoms: Intermittent functionality or temporary equipment death. Whacks underwater can sometimes fix.


Every 33 feet you descend, an extra atmosphere if pressure is exerted on your body (and anything else you take down). This includes camera equipment. Sometimes equipment that works fine on the deck fails at depth because pressure moves components around (like batteries) just enough to break the circuit.

Whacking the strobe underwater sometimes fixes the problem.

Boy is that frustrating when it happens, ’cause then you’re dragging useless equipment around for an entire dive. Pretty much guaranteeing that whale sharks or schooling spotted eagle rays wander by. Auuughghgh!

Symptoms: Intermittent functionality. Seemingly temporary death of equipment that magically works back on the deck. Again, whacks can fix.

Review the Background Information

So, “strobe-not-working” problems can be caused in several familiar ways.

  • Flooding - many opportunities to screw things up
  • Salt build up on contacts - conditions always optimal
  • Pressure - every dive

So, any of these relevant?

Flooding - I’ve never had a water issue with my strobe - they’re pretty robust when it comes to flooding. And I would’ve seen water between dives.

Salt buildup - I’d cleaned the contacts several times, and the strobe worked on land before each dive. With good alkaline batteries. So, probably not.

Pressure - Possible, as it’s hard to control. But was this happening on every dive?

So, this is good info, but it’s not giving me the warm fuzzies for hypothesis-land.

So, familiarity - has this happened before?

Everything I’ve written so far is so familiar to me that it’s through my head in 30 seconds. But let me lay it out for the debugging process.

When a problem happens, step back and open your brain. Does this ring a bell? Anything close to this ever happen before? We need to narrow the possible source.

Recall - my strobe doesn’t fire. In the past, I’ve experienced this when

  • electrical contact was not being made
  • the batteries were dead (like I forgot to change them or they died mid-dive (which can happen on a night dive)) …

…ahhhh, that triggered a memory - Hypothesis #1

On night dives, the flash has to dump a lot of light - more than during the day. This leads to a longer recycle time before the strobe can fire again. Sometimes I have to wait 5 or 7 seconds to take another shot (that’s a long time when a shark is swimming by and you want the shot!)

Could this be the problem?

In Alaska, we didn’t do night diving. We also didn’t dive deep enough for total darkness (except for that one really deep one to see the stern of the sunken ship. Shhhhhh.). So, probably not the cause.


Anemone - strobe used

Hypothesis #2

Longer discharge times - that reminds me. Rechargeable batteries take longer to recycle after a dump. Not a huge amount, but enough to be annoying for several quick high-dump shots in a row. Could it be?

Good guess, but I wasn’t using rechargeables this dive. I got completely frustrated and angry at rechargeables and the rechargers a year or so ago, so this trip I was an alkaline baby all the way.

The Final Straw

I remember even now the frustration I felt trying to take pictures on a vertical wall of life - a beautiful scene of colors I wanted to capture, but I was being swept away by the current surge! Kick-kick-kick to keep myself at the same point on the wall while I kept looking down at that stupid red light to turn on, letting me know it was ready to fire again. GIVE ME A BREAK! Then FINALLY little red light. Sheesh! **rolls eyes**

When I got back on the boat, I sought out a fellow photographer who’d been to Alaska before.

“I’m having trouble with my strobe. It’s taking forever to recycle - longer than I’ve ever seen. I’m worried there’s something wrong with the charging circuit.” I was concerned - broken gear in the middle of nowhere means no more pictures. I lost a strobe once and chargers, my husband has had worse experiences. Everyone gets caught.

“How long is the recycle period?” he ask me.

“On man, it’s like 15 seconds!” I told him, my eyes wide with bewilderment.

“Well, for a darker wall, that sounds about right. Remember, we’re in Alaska. This isn’t diving in the warm Caribbean - we’re diving in 42ºF water.”

… and I admit, the engineer stood there scratching her head. (In retrospect, IDIOT!)

So he continued, “The chemical reaction in the battery is slower at lower temperatures. That means less current is produced and it takes a lot longer time to recycle (recharge) the strobe.”

Oh, I felt 1) like an idiot, and 2) relieved and appreciative that a fellow photographer clued me in to something I knew intellectually, but had never experienced to such an extreme.

Testing, Verification and All That

No need for testing here. Before I’d gone to Tom, I’d already run through the most likely culprits and enough similar situations to immediately recognize that he was right.

But we should test the idea against what we know. So, I knew from experience that strobe recycle time is influenced by many things - sometimes it is near instantaneous, and it can be annoyingly long during night dives. I’ve also found different performance with battery type.

Therefore, my brain should have wandered down this avenue … what else was different about my diving? Drysuit and cold.

And once I considered temperature, the engineer should have gone, AHA!

(But maybe it was the brain freeze of the ice water suffusing my scalp.)

Post Script

I was talking with a colleague the other day, and he mentioned how he’d charged his iPod and gone running. Shortly into the run, it stopped working. He thought, well, I guess I forgot to charge the battery so he stuck it in his pocket. Then at the end of the run, it worked for a little while again.

So he recharged the iPod before his next run. Then same thing, but he KNEW he had recharged it. But then he remembered it started working after sitting in his pocket. So he held it in his hands for a bit and voila - he finished his run with musical accompaniment.

Same story.

Cold batteries are just lazy.

2000 pound Stellar Sea Lions - no strobe used. Note no warm colors are captured, and there are no warm colors in the first place!

1000 pound very curious Stellar Sea Lions. These are the fin-biters, mine included. Note no warm colors to capture. No strobe.

** My setup is a Nikonos V - a workhorse and an excellent setup - small, lightweight and durable. SB-105 strobe, Ultralight strobe arms, 35mm, 28mm and 15mm fisheye. 2:1 macro setup. While it’s a film camera, I’m in love with the picture quality and am still not ready to go digital.

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