CAMERA & VIDEO
Underwater photography has undergone an explosion in popularity with the introduction of digital cameras, video camcorders, and housings, strobes and lights to fit them. Because results can be seen, evaluated and adjusted immediately, underwater imaging has transformed from a specialized vocation practiced by the knowledgeable few to a hobby that just about any diver can and should enjoy. Glance around a dive boat today, and chances are that half the divers aboard will be carrying equipment to document their dives and share them with friends back home.
How Underwater Cameras Work
Both still and video underwater cameras work in a manner quite similar to their conventional, dry-land cameras. In fact, the vast majority of the cameras used by divers today are conventional cameras … but they have been placed in a waterproof housing to allow them to function and focus underwater. So most of the procedures for using a camera underwater are pretty much the same as when using the same camera on dry land.
Color is the one thing that is very different. Water absorbs light fairly quickly, and it absorbs the red end of the spectrum (the colors that you see in the outermost arcs of most rainbows) first. So after you’ve gone just a few yards underwater, reds are no longer visible to the camera – they appear to be brown or black on the final image. Go a bit deeper and oranges become a greenish tan. And at depth, everything appears to be various shades of a muted blue-violet. The other colors are still there, and your brain can discern them, but the camera can no longer produce them on the final image.
Because the light from a flash has to travel, at most, a few feet through the water, it can restore the full spectrum of colors to underwater images. With video cameras, lights may be added to do the same thing. Or, for wide-angle scenes, the appearance of a larger spectrum of color can be created by using a reddish-orange color-correcting filter in front of the camera’s lens.
Which Kind is Best?
Which camera you use will be largely dependent on three things:
- The types of images you wish to shoot
- The relative level of your diving skills
- Your photography or videography budget
For instance, macro photography, in which you shoot images of smaller subjects (such as clownfish or shrimp), can be done successfully with fairly compact cameras (or cameras and housings) equipped with the sort of lower-power strobes that are usually included in camera packages.
Similarly, underwater video can be shot to home-video quality standards using only a compact video camera, a housing designed for that video camera, and a color-correcting filter.
Most newer divers have much more fun getting good results with simpler equipment that is easier for a newer diver to use. The underwater images you bring back from your trip will amaze your friends.
If, on the other hand, you are already an experienced diver who understands the ins-and-outs of digital cameras and intermediate photography, an investment in professional-quality gear might be just what’s needed to take your photography or video to the next level.
Experienced underwater photographers know that water absorbs light quickly, so camera-to-subject distances that can be handled with a simple on-camera flash topside will usually require extremely powerful strobes underwater. Most professionals also use two or more strobes, because a single strobe can create unnatural-looking shadows. And in order to keep from illuminating sand or specks in suspension in the water (known as “backscatter“), more advanced photographers place their strobes on long, articulated arms, so the subject can be lit from both sides rather then head-on (this keeps the water between the camera and the lens from being lit up by the strobes).
Indeed, some photography, such as the over-under shots you often see on the covers of dive magazines, involve very specialized gear – a camera with a split filter over the lens, an extremely wide dome port made of water-shedding mineral glass, and more.
So while professional-caliber set-ups can produce professional-looking results in the right hands, it’s worth noting that using such gear requires both the know-how to operate the equipment, and the advanced dive skills to maneuver a fairly bulky camera rig underwater without damaging the equipment or the environment.
Budget also comes into play here, as the gear used by professionals naturally costs more. As an example, you can purchase a complete point-and-shoot camera package – camera, housing, and close-up strobe – and spend considerably less than you would to acquire just one of the two strobes most pros carry, or just the dome port that a pro usually has on his or her camera housing.
Whatever your level of participation in underwater photography or videography, this is a great activity while diving and has the added advantage of being able to bring back the view to your friends and family.
Types of Cameras
Digital Still Photography
Overall, there are two basic types of digital still cameras: Point-and-shoot cameras have a built-in lens and show you a live preview of what you are shooting on a little built-in screen on the back, while single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras accept a variety of different lenses, and – while the image you just shot still shows up on a screen on the back – are generally set so you compose your shot by looking through a viewfinder. But even among these two basic types, you’ll find a lot of sub-categories.
Ultra-compact point-and-shoot cameras are typically small enough to be carried in a shirt pocket. They have a live screen on back instead of a viewfinder, and are usually set up to operate primarily in an “automatic” mode – you just compose the picture and press the button. Flashes on this type of camera are usually built-in. This type of camera is very popular with divers who have a smaller photo budget, or who want to be able to take pictures without hauling lots of gear (the camera, housing and strobe typically all fit into a fairly small space).
Compact cameras are a type of point-and-shoot that generally offer more photo modes. Usually such cameras also have more zoom-lens range, and the strobe is apt to be pop-up style.
Advanced point-and-shoot cameras may have viewfinders, offer manual shooting modes as well as automatic, aperture-priority and shutter-priority, and often have a “hot shoe” to which an external flash or strobe cord can be connected. Some advanced point-and-shoots allow you to change lenses, and these are referred to in the photo trade as “prosumer” cameras, because they have attributes of both professional and consumer gear.
Amateur SLRs allow you to change lenses and compose through a viewfinder, but are set up to favor photographers who are still most comfortable with automatic shooting settings and on-camera flash.
Professional SLRs have interchangeable lenses, can use and control external strobes through a technology called “through the lens metering” (TTL), and are set up so the photographer can exercise as much control over the photographic process as he or she desires.
There are some excellent point-and-shoot cameras which are dedicated underwater cameras requiring no housing. These camera setups make photography very easy because they are compact and have everything the new photographer needs to get started as well as to get good results. Underwater camera housings are also available for many point and shoot cameras. These housings keep the camera dry while allowing access to controls. Housings are made for specific camera models and, in the case of cameras with interchangeable lenses, different ports are used with the housing to accommodate the different lenses.
External underwater strobes generally fall into two categories: slave strobes, which fire when the built-in flash on the camera fires (a fiber-optic cord is often used to channel the light from camera to strobe), and TTL strobes, which connect to the camera via a cord, and in which the duration and power of the strobe’s flash can be controlled by a microchip in the camera. The strobes are positioned with strobe arms that usually attach to a camera tray on which the housing is mounted. The addition of a tray makes it easier for the diver by keeping all the camera equipment together.
Video camcorders are generally grouped according to the media with which they shoot:
Cameras that use videotape come in a variety of formats. VHS and VHS-C are older formats, no longer used in compact camcorders, while 8mm, MiniDV and Digital8 camcorders use newer, smaller tape formats. MiniDV is extremely popular because it offers great clarity and vibrant colors in a very small package.
DVD camcorders record directly onto a DVD disk that can then be inserted into a computer for editing. One advantage of this sort of camcorder is that the recording media is both easy-to-carry and inexpensive.
Camcorders with built-in hard drives need no external media whatsoever and are easily downloaded to a computer for editing or copied directly to a hard disk.
Camcorder housings, like still camera housings, are made to fit specific camera models. When shooting video inside caverns or shipwrecks, or when shooting backlighted subjects, external lighting is used. But for most basic amateur underwater video situations, no lights are necessary – just a color-correcting filter to restore the red end of the spectrum to your underwater scenes.
When to Buy
Photography with a point-and-shoot camera is easy, and might become one of the first things you want to do after certification. Diving with a point-and-shoot camera may even be permitted by your instructor as you complete your certification dives. Photography is a great way to bring back the fun of diving to your friends and lets you remember the experience for years to come.
Whether you begin with a point-and-shoot camera (as many divers do) or with something more sophisticated may be determined by what sort of topside photographer you are, and what sort of cameras you already own. If you already have a current-model, premium SLR and you know how to use it well, then you’ll probably be happiest shopping for a housing, ports, strobes, arm and tray designed to work with that camera. But if you are just starting out – or if you are a traveling diver for whom space is at a premium – you may want to look at packages or equipment sets that include the underwater camera (or camera and housing) and a strobe or strobes. Photography can be as simple or as sophisticated as you like it. Lots of traveling divers purchase one-use film cameras in housings through their local dive center or destination dive center, just to make sure they record their trip.
Likewise, if you already have a very new camcorder, all you probably need to take it underwater is an appropriate housing. But take a hard look at your camcorder first; the technology in this field changes so quickly that, if your camcorder is more than three years old, you might be happier buying all-new (camcorder and housing both), as you’ll have all the latest features.
How to Buy
Particularly if you are just starting out, your local dive retailer is probably your best bet when it comes to shopping for camera packages, simply because the staff there is familiar with the product and they also know how it works and how easy it is to handle underwater.
For more advanced camera gear, you may need to look for a dive retailer that has (or is affiliated with) an underwater photo center, and some dive destinations are known for having such centers. The advantage here is that the staff is equipped to not only sell you the gear but to explain to you (or even show you) how to use it.
Oftentimes underwater camera gear is also available through camera shops but, unless the shop has a dedicated underwater imaging department staffed by knowledgeable professionals, you are not as likely to encounter the hands-on know-how that you’ll find in a dive center with an underwater photo center.
Camera housings, underwater cameras and strobes should be left connected and set up while on the dive boat, and rinsed in clear water and kept moist (so salt crystals do not form on it) after each dive. At the end of the day, before breaking down your camera gear, soak and then rinse it in warm water (the bath tub or a deep sink are good places to do this). Many dive boats have camera rinse facilities that allow you to soak your camera gear after a dive.
Consult you owner’s manual to see which O-rings on your camera should be lubricated between dives with silicone grease. Avoid setting camera gear down in gritty environments or on sandy beaches, and be sure all O-rings and seals are clean and free of sand, hair or lint before closing equipment back up.
While minor scratches on the outside of a lens port typically have little effect on image quality (the water “fills them in”), you could use port covers to protect ports and lenses between dives. And you should either carry your camera gear onto airplanes, or pack it in rugged, foam-padded cases. Most modern camera gear is actually amazingly rugged, but you’ll feel better knowing that you are taking care of it!