Elph death #1 -- kerplunk

edited February 2006 in Lessons Learned
This is a reprint of a post from 2003 on my WWW site. I figured Elph death #2 deserved the context of Elph death #1.

A couple of weeks ago Claudia and I were out for an afternoon picnic. We stopped by China Camp to check on the Shrimp Junk Project, a wooden boat building venture underway there. After a pleasant lunch on a shady beach I set about trying to photograph the construction of this full-scale reconstruction of a hard-working San Francisco Bay Area fishing boat. The Shrimp Junk is being built by the Small Craft Department of San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, in conjunction with China Camp State Park. Such were the winds that I didn't think I would actually get the camera aloft. The breeze was languid and the flying site was on the leeward side of a sharp 50 meter ridge. Even if I did succeed in getting a kite aloft, the shadiness of the construction site did not bode well for good photographs. The working room between hillside and bay waters was narrow. The boat building project itself was snuggled below the physical obstructions of a large Eucalyptus tree and power line. Finally, the visual scene near the boat was chaotic with varied ground cover and dappled light. The situation was starting to look like a tough puzzle to crack and I became increasingly challenged by notions of pulling it off.


To set the scene, this is the north-facing beach at China Camps State Park. Winds at 200 feet up were coming directly from the south (Canon Digital Elph, from an earlier trip in May 2003).

I first tried the Sutton 30 and it wouldn't even keep itself in the air for more than 20 seconds. At the ground, winds appeared intermittently flowing parallel to the shore from east to west. I switched to the Rokkaku and coaxed it up to cleaner air. There I found a slight breeze flowing to the north -- directly offshore - but with occasional swings in azimuth of up to 60 degrees (an indicator of instability in velocity as well as direction). The Rokkaku flew well enough at 200 feet up but without capacity to lift much besides line.

It was time to wait and see what developed. The offshore direction of the wind really had me interested because it would allow me to back the camera rig underneath the Eucalyptus tree to get close shots of the boat. If the wind became stronger I might find myself in good position to take some interesting photos. No such luck.

While waiting for reasonable wind I rigged the camera cradle and attached it to the line. The sun was setting with ambient light becoming warm albeit splotchy, and still there was little wind. I took to the technique of walking the camera upwind -- all 50 feet available to me before reaching the waterline -- and then running it back to the boat. This gave me enough lift to take one or two low shots, sometimes more. See:


Then, wonder of wonders, the wind filled in a bit. I was able to fly the camera out away from the boat project, out to the water's edge, and then out over the water. I would guess I got the camera 200 feet or so past the water's edge. Lift was marginal but I was confident that a rapid inhauling of line could return the camera rig to dry land in the event of a lapse. I had been in this situation before and the Kevin Shannon Rokkaku comes down fairly smoothly.

As my brain shifted focus from kite flying to photographing the wind went soft. I started inhauling line, slowly at first with an optimistic view that the slight breeze would return. But then I retrieved line more rapidly as the camera cradle continued to settle toward the Bay's salty water. Soon I dropped the transmitter and started inhauling line at maximum speed. KAPers are constantly pondering casual physics approximations. In this case kite's drag and lift (feel) verses rates of line intake and camera descent (visual) suggested the cradle would reach dry ground safely but without too much of a margin. This was going to work .. and then, as though pulled out of a magician's hat, a family of four adults and as many children appeared on the beach downwind 50 feet away. They had emerged from behind a beach shack on my left.

The group walked a few paces from my left to my right and stopped exactly between me and the camera rig rushing toward the shore. There, I imagine, they stood wondering "what the heck is that thing coming toward us"? Try as I might I could not get the camera cradle to climb. I could not move backward due to the ridge and Eucalyptus. I could not move laterally due to the aforementioned shack on the left and a tree on the right. The spectators, one with a child on his shoulders, stood their ground as though defending the shoreline. In a fraction of a second the decision was made. I couldn't risk banging someone in the head so I quit pulling in the line.


While the decision was unpleasant it was also easy to make - there was too much risk trying to maneuver the head height camera rig through a group of heads.

I stepped quickly to the shore since I could not actually see the water's edge. Perhaps the camera had just made it to dry ground. No such luck. I retrieved the cradle with a lovely drape of iridescent seaweed from about 10 feet out in water one foot deep. After all the years of entertaining the question "So how many cameras have you lost"? with a jaunty "None to date, but I am due"? it appeared I was going to have to come up with a new line.

You may recall that just a few weeks prior Scott Haefner posted the story of his first KAP crash on the KAP Discussion Pages. Scott's mishap involved dropping a Nikon CoolPix 5000 in a Kansas fountain during a momentary lapse of wind. The thread of discussion that followed Scott's post was filled with helpful advice regarding a dunking. Armed thus with the knowledge of my peers I immediately removed the camera's battery, wiped it dry and put it in a pocket. I took my seaweed draped rig back to a picnic table with its lens still extended in an motionless grimace. We had a picnic cooler with us and potable water nearby so I took a drinking glass, filled it with fresh water, and submerged the camera therein. This vivid act erased whatever threads of denial the brain harbored. I then striped the camera cradle of servos and receiver and stored them in a fresh water bath. I rinsed the aluminum on the cradle in fresh water, just like a sailing dingy at end of day, and retired it to the cooler as well.

When Claudia and I arrived home about two hours later I put the camera and the remote control components in a running water bath. My hope was to have fresh water replace whatever salt water remained. After 45 minutes or so of rinsing the gear was transferred to our kitchen oven at its lowest setting (135 F). There it sat overnight.

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Views of the S400 once we got home. On the left you can see it swimming in a fresh water bath (kitchen tap running into a mixing bowl) After an hour or so of rinsing the camera and my radio gear similarly rinsed were placed in the oven on a pizza tray (Canon S100 Digital Elph, June 2003).

After getting everything tidied up that Saturday evening I spent a bit of time reflecting on the events of the day. I found myself at peace with what was my first real KAP loss. The principles espoused in Simon Harbord's fine essay on risk had applied. I had gone for the shot but not at the expense of unacceptable risk. It remained clear to me that the dunking was preferable to bonking someone in the head. My choosing to fly the rig in marginal conditions had been a voluntary act and, furthermore, was very much part of what entertains me about KAP -- the puzzle solving challenges of meeting new situations.

The radio gear and servos seemed to function just fine after the rinse and bake. I did use the rebuilding as an opportunity to make a new shutter lever incorporating a spring and reshape the camera shell to avoid inadvertent zooming.

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First images after the resuscitation effort. The camera seemed incapable of adjusting to some lighting conditions and produced visually striking special effects. When a more normative photograph was produced it had exceedingly soft focus and a film grain like effect (Canon S400 Digital Elph, June 2003).

The Elph, while relatively young at three months, had already taken about 9,000 images. I decided to replace it the next day with the goal of being ready to fly by Monday. This goal was met with the first exposures from the newly rebuilt rig and the new S400 realized at the Marin County Fair.


Two days later I deliberately flew the new camera out over water at the Marin County Fair, under the red Rokkaku in light winds - getting back on the horsie so to speak. Actually, in shooting the fair I carefully chose flying spots so that I could keep camera and kite over generally unoccupied areas like the lake or the outlet stream. (Canon S400 Digital Elph (#2), July 2003)

As time progressed the dunked camera seemed to improve. Within a day or so the "special effects" abated and the film grain effects diminished. It is now several weeks later and the camera is fully functioning with two exceptions 1) the focus assist light maintains a weak glow as though current is leaking somewhere and 2) the lens still seems soft (see images below). I have taken the camera somewhat apart to see if I can get to the internal lens surfaces for cleaning but so far the route has eluded me. It is fun to see the innards and I can report (as does Cary Clements) that it is relatively easy to get to the switch contacts for the shutter release when the case is disassembled. The (delicate) soldering of three wires would give you electronic shutter 'half press' and release.

If I make further progress on the repair I will post the news here. If the lens stays soft I will just dedicate to camera to portrait duties.

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Images (non KAP) taken with the dunked Elph on 12 July 2003. Incidentally, the red box is a dandy, diminutive, and quiet computer I built around the Epia M10000 motherboard. The computer fits in a 17 cm cube made of wood.


  • I purchased an ALL Weather Case for my Canon SD400 elph. Aside from some adjustments to the rig and a little extra weight, Do you think the case would diminish the quality of the photos. I plan on flying over the Great Lakes this summer .
    This seems like a possible solution to the worries of dunking the rig.
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