For someone just starting underwater photography it is difficult to choose the right option among all those possibilities from point and shoot with internal flash up to SLR cameras with huge strobes.
Fellow divers often ask me which camera I am using for underwater photography and which one I would recommend. I am no expert but I love underwater photography. I am happy with the camera set-up I have right now but I also talk a lot with other divers about their system. I use a high-end compact in a Nauticam housing with a strong but compact strobe and three wet-lenses (my camera set-up)
Here some thoughts about where to start underwater photography;
What do you want to achieve?
When you just start to take underwater pictures you most probably just want some memories of creatures you’ve seen and something you can show to your friends. At least that was my intention when I bought the first underwater housing. Then a very simple point and shoot camera might be enough.
Especially for starting I would not recommend big set-ups. I have seen so many photographers struggling with their cameras. The outcome of a compact which can be hold steady is definitely better that from a SLR which isn’t handled properly. Plus are overwhelmed divers more likely to destroy coral or stirring up sand with their fins.
Another reason for taking underwater photos is to be able later to figure out after the dive which creature you’ve seen. Comparing the photos with images in fish books or post them in an online community helps to determine what exact species you’ve seen. Also to do this a more basic set-up is sufficient.
Where to start
In my opinion if you want to start shooting pictures underwater a housing for the compact camera you already own is a good option. It will give you the option to take decent pictures without too much to think about. You can use it as a point and shoot. Many cameras come with an underwater mode which adapts the white balance to make sure your pictures won’t end up being just blue or green.
Another option to do this is a red filter which are available for many underwater housings. There might be no housing for your camera, so if you buy a new one make sure housings are available. The compacts that are very good for underwater photography are Canon PowerShot G16 and G7XII, the Sony Cyber-shot RX100MV or the Olympus TG-4. I have friends who are using these or I had a chance to try them myself.
In case you are more interested in shooting videos then the GoPro HERO5 Black is an excellent choice. The quality of the videos is outstanding for the size and price of this little champion. I still bring my GoPro to many of my dives, just as a back-up.
For most compact cameras the manufacturer offers housings that cost anywhere from around $ 300 to $ 600. In addition there are companies that produce housings for different brands. These are usually of a higher quality, but will also cost more.
You will find housings for all different types of cameras as well if you want to take the photography to the next level with an SLR or a mirrorless camera. These companies offer lenses, strobes and mounting as well.
Below a short overview over the housings of the most popular manufacturers of underwater housings, including the price the housing would cost for my camera:
Ikelite is an inexpensive option. They basically produce standard plastic boxes in different sizes and add the buttons you need for your specific camera. Therefore the housing is bigger in many cases than the ones designed for one specific camera and not all camera functions are accessible. These housings are cheaper than the aluminium alternatives. The housing for the Sony RX100 II costs $ 400 and this specific housing allows to use all camera functions.
This is the one I am using now. All their housings are specifically produced for one camera to make sure they are compact and all camera functions can be accessed. They are more expensive but they work very smoothly and are durable. The housings do have mounts to use for wet lenses. For the Sony RX100 II one costs $ 950.
The Recsea housings are similar to the Nauticam ones. The material used is aluminium; however for the camera I have, the housing is smaller and lighter than the other two. This housing also allows the use of all buttons of the camera. The only functionality missing is the mount for the wet lenses. For the Sony RX100 II one costs $ 900
There are other manufacturers around which might offer alternatives for your camera. Just google it or check out the Mozaik Underwater Camera online shop.
The next step after getting an underwater housing is to take care of the lighting. The housings of the camera producer normally come with a diffuser for the internal flash. With this it is possible to get decent shots at close but not too close distances.
In order to get better shots with amazing colors it is necessary to get video lights or strobes. If you are more interested in shooting video it makes sense to get one or two video lights. For photography it is recommendable to get strobes.
I use a single strobe and I find it sufficient most of the time. I have never used two strobes although maybe I would change my mind if I would try it. Two strobes help to avoid backscatter and to light the subject better (less shadows), however it is much more difficult to set the lights to the right position and the system is getting bulkier again.
Wet Lenses / diopter
Then you can add wet lenses. I love my wide angle wet lens to take pictures of scenery and big animals like sharks. You get much better light when you can go closer to the subject and therefore having less water with particles between it and your camera.
If you want to take pictures of tiny animals you need a macro wet lens (diopter). These are available in different strengths. To start with a 5+ lens makes sense. They are now available up to 16+ like the Aquako IV I am using. This also makes is more difficult to get the subject into focus. Due to the very narrow depth of field only slight movements are enough to get a blurry picture or the wrong part of the image is in focus.
And if 16+ is not enough it is possible to stack several diopters together, at the moment I am using aquako IV stuck with a 10+.
Go get a housing for your camera or a new camera, a good one but without accessories and go diving. Practice. Make sure you get your buoyancy right and practice. When you do feel confident with your camera start adding strobes and lenses and practice more. It’s all about the practice.
Like you can see the improved pictures of the commensal shrimp above. This is not just about improving cameras but mostly improving my skills over the last years.
Not only the photography skills but also your positioning and especially your buoyancy while taking pictures. With the proper finning techniques and good buoyancy control you will be stable enough to take pictures. Please do not lay flat on the ground in order to be stable to take a shot.
Did you get your camera? Already practicing? Let me know how it is going in the comment section below