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Tuesday, January 30, 2007 

Getting Started in Underwater Photography

I’ll be writing a monthly column for Northwest Dive News on underwater photography, one of the most popular activities in diving today . I’ll be concentrating on cold-water dive photography which has it's own set of skills and equipment. Tips, tricks, gear and local dive sites, I’ll try to touch on them all and more.

I’ll re-print them here monthly in my blog, with a little more room for explanations and photos.

Your Experience Level and Guarding Against Task-Loading
Before we "dive" in, lets do a quick review of dive skills and experience necessary for your safety and the protection of the natural environment that you want to photograph. You need to have excellent buoyancy skills with intuitive, well-practiced, abilities as a diver to get into dive photography. I feel that it takes most new divers between 50-100 cold-water dives, because you will be adding a lot of task-loading and additional skills.

Not having this experience can result in damaging a reef, or more dangerously, an unsafe situation for you. You should feel that diving is intuitive to you and not have to think about it too much.

That doesn't mean that you can't buy your camera and become just as intuitive with your camera skills while you gain diving experience. It's a little tough to read a manual when you're 60 feet under water, so knowing your camera well really helps.

A hidden danger to a dive photographer, particularly in cold-water, is task loading beyond your experience level, or what the diving conditions can dictate. If in doubt, leave the camera topside, explore and shoot another time. Dive safety and protection of the underwater environment must come first!

Getting Started
Diver-photographers are faced with a bewildering assortment of cameras and options when it comes to buying a camera. Digital camera technology seems to change every day. Rather than just buying something that looks cool, or that a salesman recommends, I’d suggest a more methodical approach.

  • What do you want to do with your photos?
    Use them on a website or in emails? Print snapshots, or large wall-prints? Maybe see your work published?
  • How much do you want to grow your system? Are you starting out with a digicam and thinking about growing into a DSLR system later, or is your use more casual, capturing a few shots from a dive trip for fun?
  • Where are you going to be shooting? Tropical or cold water? Working controls with gloves on, strong strobes and having durable equipment is important here in the Pacific Northwest. In tropical waters a lighter, smaller system may work fine for you and be easier to pack and carry.
  • What do you like to shoot?Macro? Fish-portraits, maybe a close up of your buddy? Or do you want to “shoot up the reef” and do wide-angle shots?
  • Do you want a camera for above-water, as well as underwater, use? How well supported is it, can it take good top-side photos as well?
  • How much are you planning on upgrading in the near future?What strobes will it connect to? External lenses and other add-ons? Can they be used with other cameras and systems?
    And, oh yeah, how much are you able to spend? This is not a cheap hobby, and you pretty much get what you pay for.

My Recommendations
I generally recommend a camera and housing as opposed to an amphibious camera, or dedicated camera/housing solution. Canon, Olympus, Fuji and Nikon build an amazing amount of cameras and many can be used very successfully underwater in a housing. The competition between these companies means that their feature-sets and technical advances are changing much faster than dedicated underwater cameras. Plus, there are more housings, external equipment and third-party solutions available, that can be moved to an upgraded system later. Simply put, they are a better value and can be used well above water too.

There are some very good, dedicated amphibious cameras; some have good controls and a sharp lens. They are smaller to carry and simpler to use, but you'll be at the higher price range to get the control and quality you want. I think housed systems offer more quality for less money.

My company Optical Ocean, is an authorized dealer for Fantasea Line underwater photography products, which makes housings for Nikon CoolPix digicams and DSLR housings for Nikon, Canon and Olympus. I really like the CoolPix P3 and the Nikon D80 or Canon xTi 400 for underwater use.

Make sure whatever camera you buy, that you have as much manual control as possible. Why? Because most automatic camera features are not designed for the low light conditions you find underwater. Also with an external strobe, you’ll need to use manual or aperture/shutter priority modes to adjust your strobe exposure.

Whatever camera you have, my best advice is to get out there and shoot! Practice does make perfect!

Next Column: 5 Tips for Better UW photos

It would be interesting to hear your view on using a better (3 chip) UW video setup for doing stills as well. Most of the better cameras can at least do 3mp stills. Also, what about using video lights with P&S digicams instead of the Nanoflash units?
- Rob

I agree with your fist tip. Make sure you get a quality camera and housing and not an amphibious unit. I equate it to those all-in-one fax/copier/scanners. Sure it does everything you need just fine, but it doesn't do one thing exceptionally well. Getting a quality digital camera with a quality housing that allows for other modular attachments (such as a wide angle lens or strobe arm) will ensure your happiness with an underwater rig.
My Underwater Photography Tips

I wouldn't agree with that. For starters a camera with any control is good. My first camera was Sea&Sea MX-10, an analog amphibious camera. It was cheap, had aperture control, changeable lens (macro + wide angle) and an external strobe. This was enough to get some decent pictures. If you buy a professional digital camera you'll be overwhelmed by the number of options. For beginners the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle should be applied whenever possible. I learned a lot using my MX-10, and now I'm planning to buy a digital camera with housing.

I notice you do not mention Panasonic offerings. I have used a TZ3 and a TZ7 in dedicated Panasonic enclosures with great satisfaction up to now. THe fact that they get to 25mm seems to me unmatched by most if not all companies you mention, and the Leica lenses are great. The zoom gets to 250 or 300mm equivalent, not necessarily useful underwater but great out of it. And the latest TZ10 also has full manual control, which I miss on the TZ7. so are there any problems I miss?
I am considering the 10bar offering in your shop for the moment I change the TZ7, particularly because of the underwater exchangeable wide angle dome. what it the quality with the TZ10? What angle does it cover at the 25mm setting? Anything better available?

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About Jack

  • Adventurer, diver, sailor, photographer, writer and sometimes graphic designer. Proprietor of Optical Ocean Sales, LLC. Enjoy the blog, check back and please leave comments!
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