Ikelite Underwater Camera Housing Overhaul

Having always wanted to take decent (read: macro photos with a digital SLR camera) underwater shots whilst snorkeling and SCUBA diving, I had pined over an underwater housing for my Canon 40D. However, if you’ve ever looked into underwater housings for SLR cameras, you’ll know that they are horrendously expensive ($2500+ at the bottom end of the market)! A new housing can cost as much or more than the camera body itself and that doesn’t include the lens ports which are costly as well.

Secondly, my camera is old (bought in 2007), almost ancient by digital camera standards! So getting a new housing for the camera is impossible because the underwater housing manufacturers make a new housing for the next camera released. No point making housings for old cameras, that’s not where the money is.

I had bought an underwater point and shoot camera (Olympus TG-4) a few years ago to test the waters (note, there’ll be a few intentional and unintentional water related puns in this tale today) and it was OK. It definitely took photos underwater and is a solid piece of gear (I even made a bunch of accessories for it). However, I was never truly satisfied – the photos could be grainy (due to low light and a high ISO), photos were a bit flat (need a powerful flash), focus was difficult and don’t even consider cropping the picture. I wanted to take NatGeo quality photos and that requires a decent camera and decent lenses. Which I already owned. I don’t want to downplay the little point and shoot, it has taken some great photos shown below, however, the success rate is very low, probably 1 in a 100.

So, I tried using a underwater bag, which I affectionately called, the “glorified condom” but it had its problems. It was very buoyant and I was always fighting it in the water. Control of the dials, buttons and shutter was difficult when the camera was on the water’s surface. Once underwater, control was impossible because the water pressure just made the plastic bag compress over all the camera’s dials. The “brand name” version of this device is pretty expensive new (~$400 AUD) but I picked one up used on eBay for about $100. Anyway, I would only recommend using one of these if you want to take photos from above the water’s surface, such as peering into rockpools or taking photos in a swimming pool. I’d rate its success rate even lower than the Olympus TG-4 when swimming around in the water. When I could stand in the shallows, I managed to take a few images that I was happy with.

I was resigned to the fact that I needed a proper underwater housing. However, if I wanted to get started straightaway with the equipment I already had, I’d need to upgrade the camera as well. I deferred. I couldn’t justify the cost of spending thousands of dollars on a new camera body, housing and lens ports. What if I didn’t like the photos? What if I didn’t use the housing? What if I was disappointed with the photos? What if…? What if…?

Well, after 10 years of patience (or delays/excuses/procrastination/avoidance…), a used and cheap underwater camera housing to fit my trusty Canon 40D camera turned up on eBay (I set an eBay alert up years ago, and this was the first time it went off). It was an Ikelite 200FL (model: 6870.50) and the eBay listing’s photos and description said it was in good working order with an asking price of $400. I took the plunge and made an offer of $400! They accepted my first offer (I was super keen to get it so I didn’t bother asking if they’d sell it to me for less)! I couldn’t believe it!

The eBay listing. (The seller’s rating wasn’t that poor when I originally purchased the housing.)

(I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t explain this other side story in this long journey. When the eBay listing did come up, I told my partner about it and how I’d never seen a suitable housing listed for a decent price, and then asked her, “Should I get it?”. She justifiably exclaimed, “What!”, and then proceeded with, “You’re constantly saying you’ve always wanted one and now you’re dithering!”. I promptly placed my bid.)

An added bonus about this housing is that it suits both a Canon 40D and a Canon 50D. The 50D was released a few years later and has a larger sensor and a better LCD. All the controls are in the same location for the two models. 50D’s (and 40D’s) are available very cheap (~$300) on eBay nowadays but I think they are still very capable cameras. So, being in a mood for spending some money, I bought a used 50D as well because I wanted more resolution and the LCD on the 40D is pretty low resolution (I use the LCD a lot for focusing when taking terrestrial macro photos).

Well, the housing arrived and I got an added bonus; a lens port was included. No mention of lens port in the description or in the photos. Winning!

The housing looked good overall. No big scratches or major damage or cracks. It had definitely been used because there was corrosion on some of the parts but it looked OK. There were hints and suggestions that there may have been water inside the housing at some point, but having had no experience with these things, I thought it might have been water droplets that had gotten inside when the case had been opened up.

I did some minor servicing myself. Checked all the seals I could access, cleaned and added some silicone grease to the control shafts. Then I immersed it empty in the laundry tub for a few hours. No leaks! Good start.

However, 1 foot of water head is very different to 20 metres of water head (or the 60 metre water depth it is rated for).

So 2 weekends ago, I took it out for a preliminary Baptism. I took it snorkeling with me empty and took it down to about 4 or 5 metres. I did this several times and whilst underwater I manipulated all the controls. No leaks. Not a definitive test because of the limited depth, short dive duration underwater and limited manipulations of the controls but my reassurance increased that this little diamond in the rough wasn’t going to flood.

Taking photos with an empty housing 🙂

OK, so enough babying this thing, time for a proper Baptism. Time to take it SCUBA diving empty. I’d excitedly told the guys in the diveshop about my find and they were keen to test it out too. They made the wise suggestion of wrapping a weight in bubble wrap and putting it in the housing so I wasn’t fighting the thing for the whole dive. And they thoroughly inspected the back o-ring seal too – making sure there were no pieces of human hair stuck between the o-ring and the housing’s surface.

Today’s dive location – right in the very centre of this photo – Blue Devil Cave at Bass Point.

2 metres, 5 metres, 10 metres, 15 metres, 20 metres and no flooding! Dive duration was about 35 mins (there were a couple of problems with the group I went with. Lost fin, loose tank, 20bar remaining) but during that time I gave all the controls a thorough manipulation whilst waiting for the dive group to get sorted.

Getting out of the water without a housing can be a bit of a bastard at times and the day’s choppy water made getting out with the housing even more challenging. However, I and the housing survived.

I got back to the laydown area and took my gear off and wiped down the housing with my towel. Fingers crossed there was no water inside.

There were drops! Several drops inside and some pooling of water in one corner! Damn!

I got everything home and then gave it a good rinse with fresh water, toweled it dry to see where the water was coming from.

Water appeared to be coming from a few locations. There was what looked like tiny condensation drops near the focus/zoom ring controller. Near the buckles, there looked to be tracks of water. The underside of some push buttons looked damp also.

What each of these suspicious locations had in common was visible corrosion of the metal hardware. There was a crusty blue build up (my guess is copper chloride (hydrous). I reckon the hardware is brass that has been nickel plated). I had noticed this corrosion before but dismissed it as a problem because these pieces of hardware are internal to the housing. My old theory for the corrosion was that the previous owner was careless and had gotten some salty water inside when removing a camera but this looks wrong. Perhaps the seals for these components are shot?

I decided to give it an overhaul myself. What’s the worst I could do? I wasn’t going to be putting a camera and expensive lens inside it whilst it leaked. I began with the worst looking offenders, the buckles, where the water was figuratively, “streaming in”. Two 1/4 inch nuts and spring washers hold each buckle in place. Once the buckle was removed, the mounting studs which pass through the case could be pressed out. Each stud has two small o-rings and there was a decent build up of corrosion on the studs.

Not wanting to damage the o-rings by trying to removing them from the studs, I immersed the studs (with o-rings still in place), nuts and spring washers in a 50-50 mix of warm water and CLR (referring to the SDS for this product, the main constituents are lactic acid, gluconic acid and lauramine oxide [a surfactant]). Immediately, the corrosion started bubbling away and after a few minutes immersion and a quick scrub with a brush, everything was thoroughly rinsed with fresh water and dried.

The holes which the mounting studs pass through were given a good clean with a cotton bud. The holes through the plastic (polycarbonate I think) is very smooth, I don’t think these holes have been drilled but actually cast in the mold, so cleaning these holes was easy and any remaining corrosion easily seen.

Holes for the mounting studs were given a good clean as well

Each of the o-rings looked to be in good condition. They felt soft and there were no signs of brittleness or cracking.

A small amount of silicone grease (designed for use with sealing o-rings and plastic surfaces) was placed on the mounting studs to grease the internal diameter of the o-rings. Then a small amount of grease rubbed over the o-rings’ outer diameter.

Then, everything was re-assembled (the stainless steel buckles were given a quick bath in the CLR mix to remove some tea-staining, but this was purely cosmetic) with care given making sure the o-rings didn’t get pinched or torn as the studs were pushed back into place.

The grease made insertion much easier – the force required to push them back in was much less than the force I had to apply to remove the studs. Perhaps the original grease had washed off? Allowing salt water to get trapped between o-rings and then slowly corrode the shaft which caused a build up of corrosion which forced its way between the shaft and o-ring allowing water to track through and into the housing? I reckon, the corrosion has permanently damaged the components. The corrosion has lifted off the nickle plated and I expect in future that the corrosion will return. Anyway, onwards!

Next I gave each of the rotary controls a thorough repair. This involved removing the knob’s set screw, removing the knob from the control shaft, sliding the control shaft out of the gland and then unscrewing the gland from the housing.

This was a good opportunity to learn how the sealing between the gland and the control shaft had been done. Ikelite has used, “x-rings” instead of o-rings. It took a bit of searching to find what these were called (eventually I found their name detailed in the housing’s instruction manual 🙂 ) and they’re nifty little pieces. They have four sealing surfaces and it looks like they can also act as wipers preventing debris getting inside.

All of the control knob components were given a clean in the CLR to remove the surface corrosion before being rinsed clean and dried. Replacing the x-ring back within the gland was a bit of a pain. Once the x-rings are greased, they’re slippery little bastards. I had to partially insert the control shaft back into the gland and use it as a stopper when pushing the x-ring into the hole and then into its seat. Sorry no photos of this process, but once I did work out how to reinstall them it was pretty straightforward to do all they other controllers.

Each of the push buttons were closely inspected. Of the 16 push buttons, only 2 looked problematic; the AF point selector, and the LCD illuminate button. These two push buttons are slightly different. The AF-point push button in mounted in the backplate of the housing and there is a counterbored hole which an o-ring sits in. The LCD illuminate push button has a machined seat which holds the o-ring and push button shaft. They’re essentially the same and the push button shaft is retained with an e-clip. The instruction manual says that e-clips should be replaced if they are ever removed. I didn’t have any new ones, so I reused mine – living life on the edge 🙂 – hopefully this doesn’t cause a catastrophic failure and flood my camera.

Photos of the AF-point push button disassembly below.

Once given a clean, it was obvious the corrosion has caused some damage to the control shaft’s surface. The o-ring and control shaft was lightly greased and the o-ring seated into the counterbore. Looking closely at all the other buttons, only the o-ring’s outer diameter seals to the housing and not the bottom surface as well. The stainless steel washer doesn’t provide any preloading on the o-ring to push it into its seat which I thought would an improvement.

Cleaning the LCD illuminate push button was a similar process. It was removed for cleaning because there was corrosion on the metal hardware inside the housing – perhaps water was tracking through the o-ring seal between it and the housing.

For this button, I think the water was tracking between the housing and the gland’s o-ring. A closer inspection of the housing’s mating surface shows there is a small amount of debris. Whether this was enough to cause problems I don’t know, but there is obvious corrosion around this button’s gland.

Like everything else so far, the push button components were cleaned, dried and re-greased before being reassembled.

To clean the 3 sets of buckles, 6 control knobs and 2 push buttons took about 6 hours of work. Initially things were slow as I started climbing the learning curve for each of the components but it is a fiddly process if you don’t have the patience or the right tools. Once I did get into a rhythm, the process was very enjoyable and therapeutic.

Ready for action after cleaning

Before putting a camera in the housing, I plan to leak test the housing again by taking it down to 20 metres. I’ll post an update to tell you whether it passed or not (hopefully passed).

Hopefully, this will be the start of an opportunity to take some good underwater photos and make some cool accessories for the housing.

Completing this overhaul was an interesting project. I don’t have much experience with pressure seals and seeing how the rotary controls and push buttons work/seal was really interesting. I reckon there is some room for improvement with the push buttons by giving them some preload so they sit completely in their seat, but I’d like to hear from anyone with more experience whether they think this is a good idea or not.

I’m also going to figure out the dimensions of all the o-ring and x-ring seals used and order a bunch of spares because they will be needed at some point.

Another fix that I reckon I’ll need to do in the near future is fix the badly corroded control shaft for the AF-point push button. The nickel plating has completely gone where it seals against the o-ring in the depressed position and I reckon it will be prone to leaking there again. My options for fixing this probably are:

  • See if Ikelite will sell me a new button.
  • Machine a new control shaft but I don’t have a lathe
  • Figure out if I can re-plate the missing nickel plating.

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