Diving into Underwater Cameras

Underwater camera rigs can be quite diverse and range greatly in price

Underwater camera rigs can be quite diverse and range greatly in price

This article is a bit of a departure from the typical reef aquarium topics I cover. Photography is a big part of Tidal Gardens, and sometimes we like to take the camera underwater.

To do that, we need an underwater camera rig. A rig consists of the camera itself, an underwater housing, and accessories such as strobes or video lights. The build of the camera rig is going to depend a great deal on how hardcore you want to get. Camera rigs can range from action cameras such as a GoPro to $50,000 RED cinema cameras.

I haven’t taken my cinema camera underwater, but my first underwater rig was a robust unit built around a small Panasonic camera. The underwater housing was an overbuilt block of aluminum. It is overkill for the shallow reef dives I enjoy, but it makes sense for divers that plan to go deeper.

The problem with such a high-end housing is that it is custom made to fit a specific camera. Nice housings are also expensive. Some are much more expensive than their intended camera. When newer cameras come out, the new camera most likely won’t fit the old housing. Underwater housings are like a tailored suit for a specific camera. You are stuck with the same camera forever if you want to continue using that housing.

Bull shark being filmed with an underwater camera rig

What I’ve done to offset this is to buy small action cameras and sell them once I have done a few dives with them. New models come out every year, and, living in Ohio, I don’t always get to dive each year. They also tend to have great resale value. It’s possible to sell my old action camera back and skip two to three generations of action cams before I’m back in the ocean.

The plus side is I have a current action cam when I finally make it to the ocean. The downside is I don’t always have an underwater camera handy for shooting in my tanks at home.

Having said that, upgrading is a personal choice. The cameras themselves work fine even if they are not the latest and greatest. In fact, most people won’t even be able to tell the difference in the video output from one camera to the other. The perceived need to upgrade has more to do with me as a consumer than the quality of the images I am capturing. What can I say? I like new toys!

Risks of shooting underwater

Underwater videography has its fair share of risks as well. Diving is a dangerous activity, and fiddling with a camera while doing it adds even more risk. I would recommend being a certified diver before taking cameras underwater. There is a lot to pay attention to while diving. Besides, the dive company often brings their own photographer who can take footage for you.

Underwater camera footage of a coral reef

The second risk is the equipment itself. You must be willing to sacrifice the camera to deal with an emergency. A diver might be fighting for his life, and at that point you have to be willing to lose the camera to free up both hands.

A third equipment-related risk is that the housing may fail and the camera gets ruined. Even the best-engineered housings are not immune to user error. A little bit of debris on the o-rings can cause a leak, especially under pressure. If a leak were to happen, there is a good chance the camera is toast. Corrosion tends to spread, and over time the damage will make it unusable. No warranty service covers this type of damage. Also, the cost of repairing a camera often is more than the camera itself. Long story short, a flooded camera is a dead camera.

Camera buying guide

There are camera features I look for that make life much easier underwater.

Continuous autofocus and good low light performance are two of the keys features you want to look for when choosing a camera for your underwater setup

Continuous autofocus and good low light performance are two of the keys features you want to look for when choosing a camera for your underwater setup

The first feature is continuous autofocus. Continuous autofocus is helpful when the photographer moves the camera. The autofocus system continues to try to lock onto a subject. The best implementation I have seen is Canon’s dual pixel autofocus system. Manually focusing a lens is not horrible on dry land, but it is a different story in the water. First, it is difficult to see the viewfinder or back display because of glare and your mask. This makes composition and focus checking difficult. Second, the mechanisms on the underwater housing to manually focus are often a bit clunky. It’s enough to make the whole experience awkward enough to miss the shot.

The second feature I look for is low light performance. The ocean drops light levels as you descend. Low light challenges a camera’s image quality and auto-focus abilities. The key to great low-light performance is a combination of a fast lens capable of large apertures and high ISO performance by the sensor. The best reviews I’ve seen are YouTube reviews where they show how the image quality falls off in different light conditions.

This brings us to the topic of lighting. A camera’s low-light performance can be offset by bringing our own lights. More importantly, lights bring back color. The water column removes longer wavelength light such as the reds and yellows. Once you descend below 30 feet, pretty much the only colors visible are blue and black. By bringing down underwater video lights, you can see the brilliant colors of the reef again. Good video lights, unfortunately, are not cheap. In fact, the best ones are more expensive than cameras and housings put together.

Off-camera lighting helps bring back color lost at depth and combat poor low-light performance

Off-camera lighting helps bring back color lost at depth and combat poor low-light performance

Conclusion

Underwater video is a lot of fun, and I hope to continue to do more with it in the future. Hopefully this article gave some insight into what goes into underwater photography and videography. Tell us about your experiences with underwater shooting in the comment section below.

Photo and video credit: Than Thein/Tidal Gardens

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About Than Thein

Than Thein is the owner of Tidal Gardens and Advanced Reef Aquarium. Than's love for all things underwater began early on when dogs and cats were strictly off limits, but a fish tank? Sure! What started with a 10-gallon goldfish tank eventually turned into a 5,000-gallon greenhouse coral propagation system. In addition to coral aquaculture, Than's other hobbies include scuba diving and underwater photography and videography.

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