Equipment

About Getting Your Camera Wet… Teardown of a Salty Sony A7sII

Published October 27, 2017

People think that because I expect the worst and try to prepare for it, that I’m negative. That’s not it at all. I’m not a negative person; I’m cheerfully cynical. If I expect the worst and it doesn’t happen, I’m happy because things went better than I expected. If I expect the worst and it does happen, I’m happy, because I can tell everyone, “See, I told you this would happen.” So I expect the worst because that keeps me happy.

This post is a superb example of why expecting the worst is reasonable. There are all kinds of badness in this one post. There’s nothing good here at all. Well, except for Aaron’s disassembly. That’s very good. Everything else here is about mistakes.

Here’s a list of bad things that we’ll discuss.

  1. Camera manufacturers market their equipment as weather resistant. But if you get water inside the camera the warranty is void. So that’s pretty much “we guarantee it will work unless it breaks.”
  2. People think weather resistant means waterproof because they want to believe that.
  3. Service Centers play the impact/moisture damage card so much that everyone assumes they are full of …shirt… when they say so.
  4. There are two kinds of photographers: Those who have ruined a camera from water damage and are careful about water and see #2.
  5. Most service centers won’t work on a water damaged camera, even if you pay them. Some won’t even open it up to look inside if they see evidence on the outside.

So here’s the background. A Sony a7sII camera came back from rental and was completely dead when tested. The sharp-eyed tech noted some corrosion around a couple of screws.

Lensrentals.com, 2017

Lensrentals.com, 2017

That’s not very impressive, but the camera was dead and had been rented near the ocean. (I should probably add that this kind of thing is on our inspection checklist, so two different techs would have to miss the corroded screws for the camera to go out this way. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s not likely.)

Since the camera was bricked, it was going to need repair if possible. We know from long experience that this service center would refuse to even open the camera because of the corrosion on the screws. So we opened it up to look inside ourselves.

Just so you can play detective along with us, the two corroded screws were on the lower left part of the camera, near the battery door, so we started this exercise thinking salt water might have splashed up onto the left-bottom side of the camera.

So, Salt Water or Coincidence? You Make the Call.

We started by taking off the Sony a7sII viewfinder cover. There’s some dust under there but no signs of corrosion. The copper piece left behind on the out-of-focus camera body would be completely corroded with the slightest exposure to salt water.

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Next, we took off the battery door. This is an easy water access because the foam seal doesn’t go all the way around the door (it stops where the forceps are pointing). There’s no obvious corrosion here although one screw does look corroded and the stripping itself looks dingy.

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Removing the bottom plate, though, shows that this camera definitely got salt water inside. The white stuff is actual salt residue. If a new tech has a question about whether it’s salt, we tell them to taste it. (An experienced tech can taste it and tell which coast the water was from.)

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By this point we’ve pretty much ruled out the ‘camera coincidently died’ theory and have pretty well confirmed ‘got splashed with salt water and the outside was wiped down carefully’ theory. It’s probably no coincidence that the two corroded screws and the leaky (by design, not by a defect) battery door are right in this area.

But we also know that the viewfinder had no salt in it so we had some hope that camera might not be a total loss. You know hope? That happy sensation that life crushes out of you? So we continued the disassembly to see how bad things were.

Taking that metal base plate out to see the inside made us feel worse. The salt was literally caked inside.

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Up until now, there was just salt on body parts. That could be cleaned, and anti-corrosion treatment applied. But this ‘weather resistant’ camera has absolutely no weather resistance on the bottom. With that metal plate out you can see there’s a nice clear path up inside to all the important parts. The metal plates you see are the camera’s sensor and the IBIS system. So that hope we had, well, the reality is a 6 point favorite over hope.

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The next step is to remove the camera back and to do that we first have to take the LCD off.

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There’s more salt caked around the base of the LCD hinges.

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The next step was to remove the back of the camera.

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This finished crushing the last of our hopes and dreams that this camera might be salvageable.

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Yep, that’s salt caked inside the back along the bottom of the camera, and along the side where the ports are. At the bottom right, just above Aaron’s finger, you can see the HDMI and multiports as they insert into the main PCB. They’re both covered in salt and corrosion, so at the least, the main board has to be replaced.

But the amount of salt and corrosion here and on the bottom means we wouldn’t trust anything in this camera, ever again. It can’t even be a parts donor — the chance that those parts will eventually corrode and fail is too high. That’s why many service centers won’t repair water damaged cameras; they have to give a warranty after the repair and chances are very high something they didn’t replace is going to fail during the warranty period.

Just to complete the exercise lets see what the rest of the insides look like. The aluminum plate comes off next. You can’t tell from the picture, but there’s been enough corrosion that the metal surface is pitted, that’s not just salt you see in this picture.

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Likewise, the copper plate underneath, even though it didn’t get nearly as soaked, is already pitted and discolored. Saltwater just eats up copper.

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The SD card assembly gets removed next, and it, too, has enough corrosion that it would require replacement.

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With the covers off we can look at the damage on the board a little better.

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Looking a little closer shows that the actual pins and traces around the ports are dissolving.

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And on another area of the board, the traces and pins are nearly as bad.

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Even though we hadn’t seen any apparent corrosion around the viewfinder we took it out just to make sure there was none on the inside; there wasn’t.

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We took off the grip to assess the battery box. While the box was fine we saw another leak in a poorly sealed area – the camera strap lugs don’t have a seal and some water had obviously leaked in there (red arrow).

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The top assembly came off next, and at first glance, it all seemed OK.

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However, when we took off the metal plate to the right, we found more salt and corrosion underneath it.

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Not that it matters, but the bottom of the PCB seems to have remained dry.

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Removing the next layer of shielding lets us look at the in-body stabilizer (thick aluminum pieces) and the circuit board behind the sensor. There’s a little salt tracking along the right edge and some corrosion of the screw in the upper right (in the picture). The marks are from the assembly; I’m not trying to draw your attention to anything.

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The corroded screw, along with a few others, holds the IBIS in place to the camera chassis.

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After removing them it became apparent that even screws that looked OK on the surface had some corrosion along the head.

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The sensor itself seems fine, and the film of salt in the two corners of the IBIS doesn’t seem too bad to look at.

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But salt water tends to wick into the areas where it can do the most damage. The sensor / IBIS assembly has to be shimmed to the chassis to keep it appropriately aligned to the lens mount; a tilt of 10 microns might be noticeable. The shims and shim mounts had soaked up salt water to the point they were fusing together; we had to pry the shims off.

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After removal, it becomes evident that the shims and mount areas were much more affected than the film of salt on the back of the sensor assembly suggested.

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The last piece out was the shutter assembly. We had assumed it would be protected, but nope. You can barely see it because I overexposed the picture, but there’s salt over by the motor and gears of the shutter assembly, too.

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So, a Little Detective Work

This camera here was never fully submerged in water; the sensor chamber and viewfinder were clean. The reality is, the entire top assembly was clean except for the edges where water leaked in from the strap lugs or ports. But the bottom and port side was pretty saturated. So the likely scenario was taking pictures near the surf and water splashed up from below and probably behind. Looking at the salt stains on the chassis supports that idea; the bottom and edges are saturated. The edge stains go higher than the lens mount, there would have been marks in the sensor chamber if the camera had sat in water that deep.

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So What Did We Learn Today?

Salt water is really, really bad for cameras. Even in small quantities. Really. Bad. 

If this had been fresh water there’s a chance the camera would have survived. Saltwater, no way.

Trusting ‘weather resistance’ is risky business. 

They all say they have it. But none of them define what it is or how much they have. This camera had easy water access from the battery door, the entire bottom, and around the camera strap lugs that we showed you. It also has two rotating dials that you can pour water through, but this splash didn’t hit those. The viewfinder and hot shoe are a bit leaky, too.

Wiping the camera off carefully and saying it never got sprayed with water isn’t very efficient at anything other than establishing your level of trustworthiness. 

And just before it starts, we don’t discuss interactions with individual customers.

While I rarely defend the service center, there are good reasons why they won’t touch your water damaged camera. 

On the front end, this didn’t look that bad. But repair would have been impossible. You’d have replaced the entire camera except for the viewfinder. Even when it’s less severe, you can never be sure what part has just enough corrosion to fail in another month or two. (That’s why we won’t reuse the viewfinder even though it seems fine.)  As an aside, one of the reasons we’re so vigilant about corrosion is we have seen a lot of cameras that got splashed and seemed fine fail two or six weeks later.

The beach is the sworn enemy of your gear. If the salt-spray doesn’t get you, the sand will. When you go into hostile territory, take appropriate precautions. And yes, Johnny, I know you spend every weekend photographing on the beach and nothing bad has ever happened to your camera. Yet.

 

Roger Cicala and Aaron Closz

Lensrentals.com

October, 2017

 

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Equipment
  • Impulse_Vigil

    What’s a high humidity environment? Mine lives year long in PR’s 90% humidity but I do try to store it with desiccants etc. Going on two years now with it…

    I haven’t taken out my much older GF6 lately to see how it’s doing, that one’s actually been near the sea mist despite the lack of sealing, now I’m curious whether it’s given up the ghost.

  • Douglas Watt

    First rate piece, and of course confirming what has been out there as the conventional wisdom for a long time, namely that salt water is death to any kind of electronic gear, even ‘water resistant’ cameras. Another superb technical review by Roger, as we have all come to expect!

  • disqus_mn1vCGF1To

    My D810/16-35 was totally pummeled by a wave about 6 weeks ago (rogue ‘blowhole’ effect through the rocks, storm swell, knocked me over). Within 2mins I dumped a liter of fresh water on it (all I had), ran it under tap when I got home and later sealed body & lens into a pelican case with 2 big tubs of moisture absorber for 3 days. So far so good…. Funny this guy says they see cameras fail 2-6 weeks later. We shall see…

  • Anthony New

    Re rates of corrosion, I try to keep my cameras out of salt water, but have run a lot of radio-controlled model boats. Immersion of electronics even in moderately salty water will destroy pcb tracks in a few hours or less if the unit is powered, due to electrolysis. Submerged receivers retrieved or cleaned next day are just scrap. 🙁

    However a brief exposure (even complete dunking) of electronic parts is often repairable if the battery is removed *immediately* and the unit rinsed thoroughly in clean water (tap water is usually okay but distilled is better) to clean out all the salt/brackish water/whatever, then left to dry.
    Optical parts and sensors may conceivably need much more careful cleaning and/or replacing.

  • Drew Armstrong

    I purchased the A7R3 because of an increased level of weather proofing. This still has me nervous. With my Canon 7D Mark 2 my solution to clean off the salt water splashes was to leave it out in the rain. Roger, if my own camera (Not a rental) gets splashed… with salt water what is the best course of action? Take the battery out… Repeatedly rinse with fresh water in the same manner as it got salt water wet to begin with and then let it sit to dry for a week with silica gel packages in a Pelican case?

  • Mi_ka

    absolutely correct – I wonder whether the weather resistant bodies/lenses properly incorparate air pressure compensation ports that leave out at least most of the intruding condensation by use of some hydrophobic filter or so

    or the expected use is to leave the camera to dry out without a lens and a battery after each rainy session?

  • Devil’s Advocate

    The problem with water and lightning damage is the damage done which you can’t see – the various short circuits caused often allow excess voltage into parts of chips that can’t cope with it and the chip becomes degraded internally. This results in reduced lifespans, often manifested as an intermittent fault that gets worse as time goes by. I reckon the A7 in question was sat in a salty puddle at some point.

  • Devil’s Advocate

    She was right as long as the salt didn’t absorb so much water it dissolved itself and then got into the phone. I’m pretty sure the phone was dead without the bag of salt. Most people would use a bag of rice instead of salt these days which seems to work in some circumstances.

  • Devil’s Advocate

    You also have the issue that a decent slop of water on a warm camera will cool it and the air inside, causing the air to contract and suck water in. Once in it’s capilliary action time……

  • Geoff Moseley

    But what’s the solution?

    Should we still remove the batteries (to avoid a possible short circuit) and drop the lot into a bucket of fresh water? Preferably distilled?

  • Rodrigo Andrade

    I am also not convinced by the splash scenario, too much salt. I once did run a sort of control experiment, I fell on a bonefish flat with a nexus 5 phone on my shirt pocket. The Nexus 5 is (was) not weather sealed and It was throroughly soaked. It additionally remained in my soaked shirt pocket for an additional 10-15 minutes until I remembered it was there and dried it. So I interpret this to be a “splash” worse case scenario. However when I disassembled the phone, the corrosion was restricted to the proximal edges of the case with little wicking further inside. Given this experience, the damage you found suggest to me a more sustained sitting in saltwater rather than a brief splash. But of course there is the issue of time to cleanup, which we cannot control for. Perhaps next time you have a dead body you can run some controlled tests. Thanks for the article.

  • Morgan C. Gordon

    Roger, have you ever used a rain cover while shooting in wet or sandy conditions (Kata, Peak Design, Think Tank Photo, etc)? Do you have any opinions as to the level of protection they provide compared to your plastic bags and rubber bands method?

  • Graham Orbell

    Patrick, in my opinion it’s best to first gently use a vacuum cleaner to try to suck some of the salt water out. Not so close that you suck the seals out. Wipe down with a damp rag. Then take it to a repair shop as quickly as possible. That should at least delay the inevitable. Washing with fresh ( as you ask ) is likely to wash the salt further into the works.

  • yeah, I’m sure that camera was non-operational within a few months LOL. Among non-CaNikon brands, the Olympus and Pentax weatherproofing is legendary, and many would argue even better than most CaNikons that claim to be weather sealed.

    Meanwhile, I’ve lost count of how many Sony’s I’ve heard tales of dying in the wilderness under only moderately tough conditions. I wouldn’t take my chances…

  • Mi_ka

    great advice! should be in any camera’s owners manual! 😀

  • Mi_ka

    Once I just splashed a not weather resistant DX7630 for maybe a third of a second just barely in sea foam from a surprisingly bigger wave hitting me by the beach while I was framing from low angle and the camera died instantly.

    When I opened it a few days later I was shocked to find corrosion pretty much everywhere except the sensor-lens assembly.
    I have been a semi-pro electronics technician since the early ‘90s and have had unfortunate water splashes on stuff and I expected there would be some minor water intrusion but no way to the extend I discovered later on disassembly, given the seemingly very minor incident.

    It seems that sea water foam lacks the surface tension that prevent uncontrolled intrusion through orifices and button holes and it seems sea foam crawls all over the inside of the camera if it just finds a small entrance point to the body even more so as the micro bubbles expand as they heat up in there. Maybe if it was not sea water foam but just a similarly small splash from plain sea water my chances could have been better…

    Maybe that A7 was standing close to the sea surface when some higher than expected foamy wave hit its base and foam crawled through the base.

  • Graham Orbell

    The excellent camera repair guy I used in the days of film once told me that if my camera gets splashed with salt water, to pick it up by the carry strap and swing it around my head and throw it further out to sea, because he can’t / won’t fix it. ( not with a rental of course )
    In over 50 years of pro work I’ve never needed to do that…yet.

  • Color Crush

    I learned last year never to take a camera to the beach. A few grains got into my kit lens and it took a while for the grinding noise to go away. I knew one guy that ruined the a7R dials from too many beach shoots. The moment you swtich lenses, in-between the process a gust of wind can blow a few grains in the sensor housing which could cause scratches or shutter issues. Avoid the beach unless you being paid handsomely for the shoot.

  • Larrry

    That was my thought as I read this, particularly if the prior rentals were in a coastal area. Reminded me of a personal experience where I rented a diesel truck from UHaul. A few days later they called me about the gas I put in it that destroyed the engine stranding the renter after me. I pointed out to them to check the recorded in/out odometer readings. It showed I put around 10 miles that didn’t budge the fuel guage and didn’t have to put any fuel in it. They hung up when they saw that.

  • Zen
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