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Michele is a 2011 inductee into the Woman Divers Hall of Fame.  Much of her imagery has appeared in national and international publications. Matt Weiss is the owner, publisher and editor-in-chief of DivePhotoGuide.com, a leading underwater photography media publication with over 50,000 worldwide monthly readers.

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Selecting Your First Underwater Camera

When buying a camera, think about the available housings.

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So, you have decided you want try your hand at underwater photography. That's great! Now you need to choose the right camera.


Choosing the right underwater camera is no simple task, as there is no “best” camera, only the right camera for your personal needs and budget.  Fortunately, in recent years, there has been an influx of camera models, and an option exists for photographers at every level.


We should start by stating that other than a few waterproof cameras that are limited to depths of 30 feet and a few dedicated models made by SeaLife, there are no actual “underwater cameras.”  To take photographs underwater, you will need to purchase a waterproof housing that fits your above-water camera model.  These housings are either proprietary models built by the camera maker, or more often than not are made by a third-party manufacturer.  Therefore, when you hear the term “underwater camera,” it’s usually an umbrella term that refers to both the camera and housing.


Deciding which camera and housing system is right for you depends on what you are looking to get out of it. The more you want from your images, the more options you will need from the camera.  The first step in selecting your camera is prioritizing which features are important to you. Keep in mind, when doing your assessment of camera features, not all of them are important underwater. The guide below will help you learn about the criteria required in your decision-making process to help you determine which system is right for you.


Compact or DSLR?


If you are a seasoned photographer with a DSLR, it is very likely there will be at least one type of housing for your camera. With DSLRs, one of the biggest factors is the lenses you choose, as not all are suitable for underwater use. That is a topic in itself, to be discussed in its entirety at another point.


If you are new to photography in general and need to purchase a camera, you will likely be looking for a compact camera.  Today’s line of compact cameras are more than capable of taking impressive underwater images, and they come without the extra bulk and expense of SLRs. With that said, this guide will mainly be geared towards those looking to purchase a compact camera.


When selecting a compact camera you will want to look at three main factors:

  • Features
  • Size and Weight
  • Budget



The key is to find the right combination of the three to fit your personal preferences. Some photographers prefer to sacrifice some less-used features in order to keep the overall weight, size or cost of the system at a minimum. Others demand the most features, and are less concerned about other factors.  


Before you try and decide what features are most important to you, it’s imperative to have a basic understanding of underwater photography, and therefore we highly recommend reading “The Top 10 Fundamentals of Underwater Photography” before diving into this guide.

 

Some compact cameras, such as this Sea Life D1400 ($499 at Adorama) are optimized for underwater use.


Underwater Cameras: The Important Features


Perhaps the hardest part of selecting your first camera is trying to figure out what you want to get out of your photography.  Is your goal to get a few underwater snapshots to show Mom and Dad, or are you trying to create award-winning images? The more you want from your images, the more you will demand of your equipment.


Even though manufacturers are continually creating smaller cameras with more features, there is usually a compromise, so you will be faced with a decision of what level compact to settle on. Let’s take a look at the most important features.

Some compact cameras are available in kits including an underwater housing, such as this Nikon P7700 and matching Ikelite housing.


Housing Options


Before you start looking at any camera to use underwater, check and make sure that there is a suitable housing available for it.  If the camera you are looking at does not have a housing, it is simply not a viable option. Almost all SLRs made by Nikon and Canon will have at least one housing option, while there are very limited offerings for Sony and other brands.  


The popular, higher-end compacts will usually have at least one housing option as well, and many will have multiple choices.  Usually one option will be a very simple, inexpensive bare-bones model made by the manufacturer, and the other will be a more robust model with better access to the camera's controls made by a third-party manufacturer.


The camera models that are often ignored by housing manufacturers are those designed to be “ultra-zooms.” While these models are great for land, zooms are not as practical underwater, as zooming breaks the number one mantra of underwater photography: Get close to the subject.

 

This Sea & Sea MDX-5DMKIII underwater housing is designed for the Canon 5D Mark III. Its external knobs and controls exactly parallel those on the camera.


Manual Controls


The single biggest decision you will have to make when deciding which camera to purchase is whether you will be shooting in manual mode or not. While auto mode works well when shooting on land, it is far less effective underwater, because it was programed for air and not sea. Because of this, it is advisable to take the time to learn manual controls. 


Even if you don’t want to learn manual controls now, you should know that underwater photographers are a different breed of photographer.  Even if it’s not your original intention to become obsessed with the hobby, most people that take a camera underwater will eventually become an enthusiast and will demand more from their images than they ever thought they would. 

 

Many cameras, like the Canon S120, the Canon G16 (above), Olympus X-Z2, the Panasonic LX-7 not only offer manual controls, but are designed so that it’s easy to adjust settings, without the need to go into confusing menu systems, making shooting in manual mode much more efficient.


That said, if the technical stuff is simply too much to handle right now, then shooting in auto mode is certainly better than nothing, and there are plenty of people who enjoy a lifetime of fun underwater imaging without ever learning manual controls.
 

SeaLife camera and housing manufacturer creates cameras strictly for beginner underwater photographers.  They have developed a system called Easy Set-up mode, which walks you through a series of queries that will help the camera select the best settings for your current situation, without you ever having to make any adjustment yourself.  Their Mini SLM2C series are inexpensive, simple cameras that are specifically made for those who just want to snap away without being bothered by advanced menu systems.  Their other line, the DC series SLFDC1200, is more expensive, but in addition to the Easy Set-up mode, they also offer significantly more manual options for the new photographer to grow into.

This Ikelite housing accomodates the Panasonic Lumix LX7, a point-and-shoot camera with a larger sensor.


RAW Format


Another decision you will have to make as underwater photographer is whether you want to shoot in RAW—the more professional image storage format—or JPEG. If you don’t use manual controls, than you definitely won’t be interested in whether your camera can shoot in RAW format. But for those who want to get the most from their images, this can be very important. RAW files are essentially digital negatives—uncompressed files that preserve as much data as possible, which is valuable when editing.  


When shooting in JPEG, a standard image file that all cameras use, your camera will compress the file and add a set of processes that will add sharpness, saturation, contrast and more, which will make your image look nice right out of the camera. However, during this compression a lot of information is lost and can never be salvaged. RAW files don’t process the image at all, which preserves all the data. This allows you to edit the image yourself, to your liking, with more control and subtlety. 


Only a few years ago, compact cameras were only capable of shooting JPEGs, but now almost all the top cameras offer both the option  of capturing images in RAW.


Shutter lag


Compact cameras suffer from an unfortunate and unavoidable issue: shutter lag.  Shutter lag refers to the lag time between when you take a picture, and when the shutter actually opens.  What this means is that what you see on the LCD screen when you hit the shutter button is not necessarily the image you will end up with.  This is particularly frustrating when shooting wildlife,  as you may have perfectly timed an image of an animal displaying some rare behavior that lasted only a split second, only to find your camera too slow to capture it.  Shutter lag time isn’t a camera specification that is often listed, so ask a knowledgeable sales person who has tried many models about the relative lag time of the camera you are interested in.


Video

We are living in the era of cameras that can multitask.  No longer are cameras only capable of taking still photographs, but most of the top models can also capture quality video as well.  If you are just getting started and are torn between whether to shoot video or stills, consider getting a camera model that does both. In order to take quality video underwater, your camera should be capable of setting white balance manually and shooting in 720p.


Manual white balance will help you bring back some of the colors lost in the depths of the ocean so your footage isn’t completely blue.  Additionally, we are now accustomed to viewing HD video, so anything less than 720p will not impress most audiences.  There are no compact cameras commonly used underwater that are capable of shooting full 1080p HD yet, but many are now able to shoot in 720p, which is sufficient for all but the most demanding users.


Size


For anyone planning on taking their underwater camera on vacations to distant locations, size becomes an important factor. Underwater photography can become gear intensive, and that poses problems when traveling.   Already burdened by heavy dive gear and faced with ever-increasing excess baggage fees, keeping a camera system small will be a priority to many underwater photographers. 


Even if baggage space and weight is not a concern, some photographers just don’t want to be bothered by large, cumbersome underwater cameras while diving.  A pocket-sized system that can easily be carried around your fist or tossed in your BCD pocket becomes preferable to a slightly more feature-rich larger model.


Pocket-sized, quality cameras used to not have manual controls or the ability to shoot in RAW, but that all changed with Canon’s S90, which was released in 2009. The S90 had a larger image sensor, and offered many of the same features as bigger models. Today, the S90 successor, the S95 (and the recently announced upgrade, the S100), as well as other models like the Olympus XZ-1 and Panasonic LX-5, are pocket-sized cameras with a full suite of features.


Budgeting: The Camera is Just the Beginning


Many photographers will want to buy the top of the line camera and housing, but are restricted by their budget. It’s crucial to remember that the camera and housing is only the start of your system. Accessories like external lenses and strobes can increase the cost by more than two fold! 


Despite the possible increase in cost, these accessories are really worth budgeting for. This especially holds true for strobes, which will add much more to your images than a slight upgrade in camera model.  If it comes down to getting a slightly lower-end camera and housing in order to budget for strobes, it’s a sacrifice worth taking.


Another important factor to consider when budgeting is the possibility of upgrading your system in the future. You might actually save money in the long run by purchasing a slightly more expensive camera now.  If you buy a small, simpler camera first, and then decide in six months that you desire the features of something a little more complex, then you will have ended up spending more money than had you just bought the more expensive camera in the first place.  So if you think there is a chance you might want the features of a camera like the
Sea Life D1400 somewhere down the road, skip buying the SeaLife Mini and splurge on the more sophisticated model. It’s ultimately a better decision.


Water and Cameras Don’t Mix


At some point in your journey as an underwater photographer, you will undoubtedly run into a famous underwater photographer named Murphy.  That’s right, as any underwater photographer can tell you,  the man who coined Murphy’s Law was clearly an underwater photographer of great renown.


Electronics and water simply aren’t a match made in heaven, and Murphy’s Law is bound to hit at some point.  It’s a good idea get as many backups as possible, so you are prepared when bad luck strikes.


No matter what camera you decide to buy, it’s important to remember that the photographer is the main tool that determines the outcome of an image. Your equipment is only one of the tools to help you achieve your vision, and the final outcome is relies on your being a dedicated photographer.

Additional research by Mason Resnick. Updated July 29, 2014.

What camera system do you use for underwater photography?

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