Methodology in Choosing a Photo Camera Housing
If you’re reading this article, then you probably already have the underwater photography bug and are seriously considering choosing a photo camera housing.
No doubt you’ve seen some incredible underwater photos in dive magazines or had a go at underwater photography and are eager for more.
Having your own camera and underwater housing is essential for really getting to grips with your new hobby, but there is such an enormous range of options available on the market today – how do you choose?
We’ll help you focus on the important decisions, so that you can make an informed decision on which type of camera and underwater housing to choose. We’ll also include some tips and tricks so you can start to enjoy your new hobby straight away.
Underwater imaging is considered to be an especially challenging area of photography and to get the most out of your purchase, you should learn, at least, some of the basic underwater photography techniques, which you can then work on and improve.
Once you have a little experience under your belt, you’ll be in a much better position to make an informed decision on the features of a camera and underwater housing set-up that are most important to you.
Choosing a Camera
The 3 main options for underwater photography are digital point and shoot cameras, high-end compact digital cameras with full manual controls, and digital SLRs (single lens reflex cameras). These different options decide how much control you will have when shooting your images and they also differ greatly in price, ease of use and portability.
- Digital Point & Shoot Cameras are affordable, simply to use, lightweight (good for travel), often have good video functionality built in, but produce images of limited quality and variety.
- High-End Compact Digital Cameras are still fairly affordable, often have full manual controls and higher quality sensors and can be accessorised with a variety of external lenses, which can be changed during a dive, giving you total flexibility in your choice of shot-type. A fantastic range of images become possible with this setup and many underwater photographers choose this setup over a digital SLR setup for it’s lens changing flexibility and lighter weight.
- Digital SLR Cameras give, without a doubt, the highest image quality, and sit, very definitely, at the expensive end of the scale. Whilst the initial camera body purchase may fit within your budget, you shouldn’t under-estimate the additional cost (and weight) of lenses and underwater housings for both the camera and each of your lenses. With almost instant focusing and shutter triggering, not to mention the greater range of photographic effects that can be achieved, a digital SLR camera system certainly offers the best potential for the highest quality images. However, with a digital SLR system, you must choose your lens before you start each dive as you’re unable to switch lenses underwater.
What kind of images do you plan to capture?
So first things first, you need to think about what you want to use the camera for – and this in turn will help you to determine the kind of camera and underwater housing system that best suits you. Your budget may then become a limiting factor, or you may decide to purchase slowly to build up to the perfect system for you.
Digital Point & Shoot Cameras
If you simply want to take a few snapshots from your dive holiday and are not so interested in learning the finer points of underwater photography, then a point & shoot model, such as; Sea & Sea 1200 HD, Sony Cybershot, Canon A490 or Canon IXUS should suffice.
These models offer a good selection of manual controls or an ‘underwater scene’ setting, if you’re not ready to go manual at first, and have HD video functionality built in.
They’re light-weight and travel-friendly and are usually quicker and easier to set up than bulkier models, which may make the difference in you actually using it, rather then leaving it behind.
There is no point in spending a huge amount of money on top-end models if you are not going to get the use out of the functions you’ve paid for.
High-End Compact Digital Cameras
If you’re interested in learning a little more about underwater photography and want manual controls at your disposal to improve your image making skills, then there are some great consumer digital cameras available on the market.
Models which offer full manual controls, such as the Sea & Sea DX-2G, Canon G-series or Canon S95, are still relatively inexpensive, but allow you to develop your skills and adjust vital settings like manual white balance, shutter speed and aperture as your confidence grows. This can also be a good way to see if a digital SLR might become a future option for you.
The ability to add-on wet lenses and external strobes makes these cameras extremely versatile and able to capture underwater images to rival those from a digital SLR camera.
Digital SLR Cameras
Finally, if you really want to splash out and are seriously interested in taking very high quality images for entry into competitions or for publication, then you’ll need to look at Digital SLR models.
Digital SLR cameras offer the finest digital image quality and have a choice of much higher quality, interchangeable, lenses, higher quality sensors, a more accurate view of the image you’re shooting and virtually no delay between pressing the button and exposing your image.
Digital SLRs are a great deal more expensive than a compact camera, and the price of the housing can mount up quite quickly, once you factor in ports for different lenses and external strobes and lights – but if you’re really serious about underwater photography, you will become quickly dissatisfied with anything less.
How many Megapixels?
Once you’ve chosen the type of camera that fits your needs, an important area to consider is the number of megapixels to go for.
A normal photo of a decent quality, to post on Facebook, print for a family album, use as a screensaver or play as a slideshow on a TV, for example, needs to be around 5-6 megapixels. If you’ll be producing larger images, such as posters, or plan to take photos that can be entered into competitions or submitted to magazines, then you should be looking at a model with an absolute minimum of 8 megapixels.
Functions and Manual Settings
In addition to the size of the images, the functions available to you on a specific model are very important for underwater photography.
The ability to manually set the white balance is extremely useful. Setting the white balance, quite simply, means telling the camera what colour is white in different lighting conditions. Once the camera knows this, then it can adjust its balance so that all your colours look great. This is important when you are photographing in shallow water and want to make use of the natural light.
Light functions very differently underwater than it does on land. Having the ability to set your shutter speed and aperture manually will greatly improve your photographic potential. As you gain experience in shooting photos underwater, you can start to experiment with different manual settings to improve the quality and variety of your images.
Macro photography is very popular among divers as small critters make fascinating subjects.
If you think you’ll have a go at shooting macro subjects, it’s useful to have a camera that has a small minimum focus distance that will allow you to focus manually. A good minimum focus distance for a compact underwater camera system is around 2 – 5cm.
A wide-angle or fish-eye lens, allows you to get in close to your underwater subjects, yet still fit them in the frame. Even if you’re not ready to invest in a digital SLR camera with changeable lenses, it is often possible to buy an external, or ‘wet’, lens to extend the scope of an underwater compact camera system.
Choosing an Underwater Housing
Once you’ve chosen your camera, there is the actual housing to think about. Most popular consumer camera models have a housing supplied by the manufacturer. These housings are great as they are lightweight and fairly cheap. Their downside is that they are not the strongest, most reliable models on the market and are much more liable to flooding than more expensive housings so you will have to be extra careful when handling them.
Generally, the better the camera, the more housing options you will have available. For popular Digital SLRs, there are a wide range of housings available, such as Ikelite, Hugyfort, Nauticam, Aquatica, Subal, Aquatech or Sea&Sea which offer extra strength, reliability and functionality.
The second aspect of an underwater housing that’s important to check, is the available controls. There is little point buying a camera which allows you to control shutter speed, aperture, white balance and focus, only to find that these options are not accessible through the housing.
Having all the controls available to you is by far the best option, but if this is not a realistic option within your budget, make sure the key controls that are important to you are available.
Choosing accessories for you camera system and underwater housing setup, is another area you may wish to think about when budgeting for your purchase and drawing up a possible shortlist.
The two most useful accessories are strobes (or lights) and lenses. If you’re going to get serious about underwater photography then you’ll need to consider both. You may want to consider looking at accessories that will still be useable and of high enough quality that they will work, even if you upgrade your camera and housing setup, or your budget may dictate that you start small and upgrade as you need to.
Strobes are important underwater as they give you greater flash control, enable you to light your subject better and allow you to provide lighting at a different angle to your camera lens. This means much less backscatter or reflected particles in your shot and will result in a much better image.
However, they are not so easy to use for the beginner and can lead to initial frustration. So unless you’re confident, it may be better to go for a housing model that allows you to attach a strobe, but hold back on buying one until you have more experience.
A Wide Angle lens is the most versatile, all-round lens that you can use in the largest range underwater photography situations. A wide-angle lens is great for larger subjects and allows you to get closer while still fitting the subject into the frame.
A Macro lens allows you to focus sharply on the very small. Buying both can get expensive.
If you are going for a consumer digital camera, it may be best to stick with the standard lens to begin with, but again purchase a housing that allows you to add lenses later.
If you are purchasing a Digital SLR, then you must choose a lens for the camera and the corresponding port for the housing before you can take the camera underwater.
To begin with, a wide angle lens is probably the better choice as it is more generally useful, plus macro photography takes a lot of skill and great buoyancy, which will only come with time and practice.
So, by this simple thought process, you can narrow down your options and focus your attention on a smaller range of cameras that are suitable for you and the housing that best suits your needs. At this stage, you’ll almost certainly be left with a few options though, so how do you narrow this down to just one camera and housing?
How do you know if you’re making the right decision?
Firstly, if you’re purchasing the equipment from a reputable dealer, they should give you honest advice on the strengths and weaknesses of individual models. Ask around a few different shops and concentrate on the quality of advice, rather than just the price.
Secondly, internet forums are a great place to receive advice or learn of other people’s experiences with a particular camera or housing.
There are also a huge range of useful websites with a wealth of information and forum topics, both for cameras and specifically for underwater photography.
Things to consider are; whether the camera has been on the market long enough to have a good track record; if they are considered reliable; if you can access all the controls you need underwater; if they are considered to shoot good colours; and if they have any glitches or small design faults.
By following this process and finding the answers to these questions, you will be able to get an excellent idea of which camera and underwater housing is right for you – ensuring that you avoid any expensive mistakes and enjoy your new hobby from the word go!