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.

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