Tips and tricks: 
Direct Sunlight caused 990 failure
by Ken Bowles

The present story is also extensively reported on Ken's webpage. Click here to contact him if necessary.

About a month ago, Lou and I were halfway through a birding trip in the desert area of California near the Salton Sea.  We were spending the day at a remote nature reserve that requires hiking close to a mile from the parking lot to reach the nearest point of the reserve.
I had just taken several shots in the sequence showing the male Kestrel on the TV tower high over the ranger's residence. My next effort to photograph a different bird was a total failure - the 990 camera's shutter mechanism had completely frozen!!  That was the end of photography for that trip.  Though I had taken well over 6000 photos with the camera, I had never done anything that would have shaken the camera violently (never dropped, hit with a heavy object, etc ...). 

In my initial communications with Nikon's Digital Camera Repair center in Torrance, California, I was told that the camera had suffered some unknown "trauma" to internal parts. Nikon presumed that I was at fault, and required that I pay their fee ($203 + $10 shipping & handling) to get the repaired camera back.  I interpreted what I was told to mean that Nikon judged that I had dropped the camera, or otherwise shaken it violently. Though I knew that nothing like this had happened while the camera was in my possession, I ultimately agreed to pay the charge.

Several weeks later, I had returned home, and had received the repaired camera back from Nikon's Digital Camera Repair center in Torrance, California.  I resumed taking bird and wildflower pictures, with the camera working faultlessly.  Then ten days ago, while Lou & I were enjoying this year's amazing display of wildflowers (plus lots of birds) in southern Arizona, the 990 camera's shutter mechanism froze shut again in roughly the same manner.

This time, I contacted Nikon's Manager of Customer-Relations at Torrance, and arranged to hand carry the camera to the repair center (as a means to ensure that no shaking during shipping could cause any modification of internal indications of the reasons for the failure). It seemed likely that my 990 camera had contained some internal defect that was not found on the initial repair episode, and I wanted to discuss the matter directly with Nikon's manager.  He now has been very helpful in facilitating enough communications with the technicians (who actually do the repairs) to make it clear that both failures had been caused by optical damage from direct sunlight !!  Both failures were indeed my fault, and I've been able to duplicate the conditions described below (in a manner not involving risk to a camera).

Though the "forensic" evidence is a bit difficult to interpret, it seems that I had allowed direct sunlight to focus sharply in such a way as to deliver intense heat and light causing damage to two different parts of the camera.  (See the page describing the arrangement of Ken's scope and camera to interpret the following.)  I fear that others who are using a Coolpix camera with a high quality spotting scope may be vulnerable to the same kinds of damage.  To understand, you need to know just a little about how I've been using my setup.

Because birds tend to move frequently, I routinely carry the Scope + Camera + Tripod combination completely assembled (while walking from place to place along trails in the countryside).  To make this less awkward, I bring the tripod legs together so that the combination can be carried with one hand (with the legs roughly horizontal).  This permits avoiding contact with branches and other obstacles along the trails so as to avoid physical contact between those obstacles and camera or scope. 

Optics Module Damage

The most convenient position for holding this combination while walking has the 77mm large lens of the scope facing upwards. Near mid-day, this walking position occasionally leads to the scope pointing directly at the sun, although for only brief intervals in any given incident. Nikon found that the internal damage to the camera's optical module was entirely consistent with a sudden short burst of heat and light energy entering the module.  I feel very foolish for not having recognized the need to protect the camera by placing a lens cover on the scope whenever walking (in presence of direct sunlight).  Both instances when my 990 shutter mechanism froze occurred at times consistent with this explanation!!

Attentive readers will note that I've been taking bird pictures using the Coolpix cameras attached to spotting scopes for almost two years.  Why have I suffered this catastropic failure in the camera twice over a short period, when no similar damage occurred earlier during the two year period.  Ironically, the answer seems to be that the optics of the Leica APO Televid scope are so much better than the optics of the older B&L Discoverer scope!!

LCD Damage

The other damage apparently caused by sunlight has been to the camera's LCD monitor.  For reasons explained elsewhere in these notes, I leave the loupe used as viewfinder permanently attached over the LCD screen.  In both cases of camera failure, there were sharp spots inside the edges of the glass of the LCD screen.  (The external appearance of these spots was similar to what one sees when a small pebble strikes the windshield of a car, such as when driving too fast on an unpaved road.)  

I wasn't aware of the presence of these spots until I removed the loupe in preparation for sending the camera to Nikon's repair center.  As a result, it is more difficult to say exactly when the LCD was burned - presumably by direct sunlight focussed by the lens of the loupe.  However, the Nikon repair technicians were able to duplicate the kind of LCD spot damage found on my camera using another 990 kept at their center for testing purposes.  In both cases, they found a coating of recent smoke damage inside the LCD in the immediate vicinity of the sharply focussed spots. 

I've now used Coolpix cameras (first a 950, later the 990) for two years, and have taken well over 20,000 photos between the two. The great majority of those photos were taken in the presence of direct sunlight.  With both the 950 and the 990 I did notice small unfocussed orange blotches appeared widely distributed over the main display area of the LCD.  These blotches were never severe enough to impact normal use of the camera while using the LCD almost exclusively for viewfinding and image composition.  However, the severely damaged LCD spots were at the edges of the LCD glass plate, and thus not easy to notice within the view afforded by the loupe's lens.

It seems most likely that the LCD damage has occurred during periods (often many minutes long) while I've left the Camera + Scope + Tripod combination in a "resting" position while waiting for birds in the nearby area to make an appearance suitable for photos.  In many cases those intervals have occurred at places where direct sunlight illuminated the camera + loupe. Undoubtedly, some of those cases have resulted in the loupe lens focussing sunlight in hot spots somewhere on the LCD.  Obviously I need to keep a lens cover on the loupe lens when not actually peering through the camera - scope combination while preparing to take a photograph. The good news from my testing is that the intensely focussed sunlight occurs only when the loupe lens is pointing almost directly toward the Sun (within roughly 20 degrees).  The sharpest focus of these spots occurs near the edge of the Peak 4X Loupe - not in the center.

Those Pesky Lens Covers

The use of lens covers requires discipline, and takes extra time.  But as noted, I've been very foolish not to use them.  In fact, I routinely use the Leica scope with the sun-shade tube extended as a way to avoid sun glare in my photos.  You will find that the large lens cover supplied by Leica with the Televid scopes does not fit the sun-shade tube.  I've had to fashion an informal sun shade for the Televid scope using a short length of paper tubing that exactly fits within the opening of the scope's sun-shade opening.  This paper tubing is of the kind commonly used for mailing rolled-up maps and similar large sheets of paper, and it comes with a tightly fitting plastic end piece.

The Peak 4X Loupe is supplied with a lens cover.  I've used one layer of masking tape inside the edge of this lens cover to make it stick tightly to the Loupe when walking around. 

I've placed small strips of Velcro tape just under the aluminum tray on which the camera and scope are mounted (and attached to the tripod). When actually taking photos, the two lens covers will be kept within easy reach by attaching to the Velcro strips.

Back to the TIPS