Friday, July 1, 2011

Check Your Screws and Other Gotchas (updated Jan 6, 2017)

Traveling is extremely hard on photo and computer gear.  There’s vibration from airplanes, rolling camera bags and luggage carts.  And, if you don't pack properly and/or get forced to check your camera bag, you run the risk of baggage handlers tossing your bags down luggage chutes or onto conveyor belts, and then jamming them into any free cargo hold space (aka on the side of heavy suitcases where things can shift in flight - ouch).  If you're too trusting and hand your luggage over to hotel porters, you run the risk of fragile gear being placed at the bottom of a stack of duffel/suitcases; or, on top of the pile where it's sure to topple to the floor when entering elevators.  Plus if you're a wildlife photographer, there's the weeks on end of driving around on unpaved bumpy roads and dried up river beds littered with potholes, not to mention the sudden stops from yee-haw maverick drivers. 

As a result, screws get loose or stuck, cameras disengage from lenses - and gear becomes inoperable or cumbersome to use.  Worst case, the image that you thought was sharp is in reality a "what was I thinking shot?" when viewed on a large monitor in decent light.  

A frequent problem: one or more screws on the camera lens mount plate gets loose (even if it doesn't appear that way to the naked eye).  This results in a camera connection problem (an error code)  or metal shavings littering the camera mirror.  This is easily fixed by tightening the four screws on the mount. I prefer to check and tighten these screws before a major trip.  Why?  Because, a slightly loose screw can crack underneath the plate (meaning another trip to Canon service); and, worst yet - cause frustrating error 99's while on a trip aka the camera won't function.

Important: Canon screws use the Japanese Phillips or JIS standard.  Canon screw are not compatible with non-Japanese Phillips screwdrivers and can be stripped if the screw is on tight (has to do with blade angles).  As a result, I use Japanese screwdrivers (a handle plus separate blades in size 2.0 and 2.5 made by XPT) which I purchased in 2005 from Curt Fargo at  XPT blades are very strong and the removable handle makes it easy to pack in a nylon business card case for lightweight travel.  Micro-tools specializes in fix-it tools - i.e., for camera repair centers including Canon, jewelers/beaders and manufacturers, etc. - so you can find other handy tools on their site as well.  Curt no longer carries XPT, so contact him to get his latest JIS brand recommendation.

Technically not a screw, but something even more important to monitor is the latch that connects your camera body to the lens.  When traveling on bumpy roads, the camera latch often un-does itself and the camera gets separated from the lens causing various degrees of damage.  I've seen everything from cracked LCDs,  metal/plastic shavings inside of the mirror box (from banging around inside of lens/camera cases), cameras falling off onto vehicle floors; and cameras falling off onto stone flooring.  So, check it once, check it twice and check it three times. 

So, how to we mitigate this issue?  I'm still looking for a solid answer but have been told that dust getting onto the pin on the latch is part of the cause and that cleaning the pin with a Q-tip could help.  Or, perhaps latch pins get bent or weak over time?  In the meantime, I try to avoid the problem by strapping my gear tightly against the seat and seat back via my dry bag and strap method (see "How to Shoot From a Safari Land Rover" post).  

I like the BlackRapid camera sling strap for shorter lenses when doing casual/street photography.  However, the single mount carabiner screw needs to be checked frequently as it gets loose/comes apart from vibration.  As a precaution, I add  BlackRapid LockStar ABS Cover for Connecter to all of my straps.  And when I need to be extra safe - i.e., when shooting in water - I add SunwayFoto Arca screw knob clamps.  For super-telephoto lenses, I still prefer having two points of contact and use strong but space saving UP straps

Carry spares: Tiny screws get chewed up easily; i.e., the ones inside Canon's battery chamber covering the small reset battery.  Other "might need" screws include: 1)  lens plate stop screws (prevents longs lenses from sliding off) and 2) the tripod/monopod bolt.  Better safe than sorry.  

Recycle: if you ever toss an outdated or broken piece of gear -  i.e., an off camera flash cord or flash, etc. - save those precious tiny screws, rubber caps and port covers for future emergencies.  And, don't forget to recycle straps, dividers, pouches, cords and toggles from retired camera and computer bags.  

Just Do it: A wobbly piece of gear - even a miniscule vibration - could mean a missed home run print (the image that looked sharp in camera - but wasn't).  So, my humble but serious advice is to check and tighten every screw in your gear bag - eyeglasses and hard drives included -  before you depart.  

Preventing Gotchas: 
  • Arca-swiss clamps screws get loose, gimbal heads get stuck on tripods and tripods splay to much and crack -  and, I witnessed all of this on one group trip.  So, tighten before you go and carry your fix-it tools.
  • Rubber feet tend to fall off of monopods/tripods, so I typically secure them with semi-permanent glue.  I like using 4th Generation Designs' Gum Drops because they're one-time use; i.e., I don't have to worry about tubes drying out.  Plus, they're travel friendly.
  • The single bolt that secures the top plate on Gitzo tripods can get loose causing bodies with long telephoto lenses to go crashing to the ground.  If you're forgetful about checking the bolt often or adding loctite to the threads, then mitigate potential problems by installing a Gitzo Safe-Lock plate.    
  • The tripod mount ring on long telephoto lenses can get sticky due to loose internal screws, making it difficult or impossible to rotate the camera.  Users can take the ring apart albeit it can by dicey if you don't use the right Japanese phillips tools.  Send your lens in for repair when it becomes too cumbersome; or, just do what this user did. 
  • Flashes can become erratic due to hot shoe/off shoe cord screws getting loose (located underneath the plate).  I've been able to fix this problem by following this guide  To mitigate hot shoe scratches and potential issues, I like using Nikon BS-1 hot shoe covers on my Canon bodies (only $3).  This cover also fits the hot shoe on Canon/Panasonic point & shoot cameras as well.
  • Most bizarre experience:  a friend came running to me in distress with a 500mm lens in her arms with the lens mount plate dangling down.  One screw had already fallen out and the other 3 screws were hanging by a thread.  We were half way around the world; and, fortunately, the repair strike team got the lens back together.  A one minute check/tighten could have prevented this potential trip disaster.
  • Lens latches, lens hood screws and teleconverters are another thing to check before a trip.  It's a royal pain to have a teleconverter stuck on camera throughout a trip - not to mention having a long lens fall off a body - or to have a lens hood stuck on a long telephoto when you're ready to fly home. 

For emergency fixes in the field, pack the right wrenches and screwdrivers.  This is much easier said then done because:
  • Every product series has it’s own set of screws (i.e. Gitzo tripods); and
  •  A given piece of gear may use different screws; i.e., even if the screws look the same at first glance, they may require a different size L wrench.
  • Never assume that someone else will have what you need aka Murphy's Law.
  • Adding insult to injury, all of these wrenches along with spare screws/bolts start to add up in weight when every ounce is critical while flying.  So, what does a prepared, weight conscious photographer do?  Although it’s a pain, I’ve resorted to adding neon colored gaffer’s tape to every L wrench and labeling it by manufacturer and model. Then, I only carry what’s needed for a given trip.  It’s a 3 minute sorting process once everything is properly labeled.  
  • Pack the tool baggie last in checked luggage - I often switch out gear at the last minute because I'm always overweight.  And, I hate carrying unnecessary tools (extra weight) half way around the world and back.  So, my tool baggies always goes into my safari day kit at the very last moment.
  • The beauty of colored gaffers/electrical tape - In addition to labeling tools as mentioned above, it helps to get my tools returned to me when borrowed (happens on every trip).  I buy gaffers and electrical tape at identi-tape and tapebrothers 
  • Unpacking workflow - bundle tools, cables and cords back with devices and support products after returning from trips so that you won't accidently forgot a given wrench or cable on the next trip.
  • Cool little pliers - There’s another bolt that’s always hard to tighten or un-tighten in the field; i.e., on the F-2 Wimberley macro arm or the Gitzo monopod foot, etc.  This requires that I carry my own pair of pliers; especially, in 3rd world countries unless I'm willing to wait 30 minutes or more for camp staff to run around looking for the right sized tool (Leatherman multi-tool pliers aren't large enough).  Fortunately, a good friend took pity after seeing my 6 -7 oz. pliers and bought me a small pair of channel lock pliers, the GV6 by Vise-Grip.  Channel pliers are adjustable and very lightweight; and, can be found at hardware stores.  
  • Handy rubber bumpers - stick them on your camera shutter buttons and remote cable buttons for cold weather shooting; i.e., easier to feel with gloves and mitts.  Note: attach bumpers in room temperatures or else they fall off.  Bumpers are also great attached to the bottom of portable hard drives and laptops (using velcro). This helps with air circulation and keeps drives cooler.  
Okay, enough said about screws. 10 minutes spent upfront can be a trip and major stress saver. 

Packing for Remote Places - Preventing Stress
  • If a card is downloading image files slower than similar cards, you might want to replace it or use it last.  
  • If your camera battery seems warm to the touch after charging you might want to replace it or use it last.
  • If your portable battery seems warmer to the touch, yada, yada.
  • Use a AA/AAA battery tester and make sure that all devices and clocks have fresh batteries installed.  
  • Carry spare 2025 and 2032 batteries - or others as needed - for cameras, headlamps, loupes and flashlights, etc.
  • Always pack spare cables/chargers 'cause things tend to break, get lost or fried.

How to Fix Canon Error 99 Action Steps
Added 1.24.12
  • Turn off and remove/replace the battery.
  • Turn off and remove/replace the lens.
  • Turn off and remove the compact flash card, then try shooting to clear.
  • Clean camera and lens contacts with an eraser (a very light touch).
  • Tighten the lens mount screws.
  • Change settings and C.fns back to default including all micro-adjustments.
  • Do a hard reset by removing the main battery and the small battery inside the battery compartment for at least 30 minutes.   
  • In high humidity or moisture areas, try opening the battery door and dry out the contacts, etc. with zorb-it or rice in a plastic bag overnight.
  • Also, someone mentioned removing both batteries and hitting the shutter button while latching the battery cover.  Sounds strange, but whatever. 
  • If all else fails, send the camera in for repair.
How to Fix a Stuck Lens Pin
  • Take something like a nail file or nail and press on the pin while jiggling to see if it snaps out.
How to Remove a Stuck Filter
  • Grab a rubber jar remover and use even pressure.
How to Remove a Stuck Tripod Screw from a Gimbal or Ballhead
  • Add a 2nd nut and do a reverse turn with a 2nd wrench to loosen.  Note: this may damage the screw, so always carry a spare.
  • Prevention: remember to tighten the tripod end of the screw before adding a ballhead, etc. 
How to Prevent Getting Gimbals/Ballheads Stuck on Tripods
  • Un-screw and reattach frequently to insure that threads are tight and not damaged, especially when there are extreme temperature swings and lots of bumpy roads.