Choosing the right camera can be stressful. Understanding which accessories to go with it is challenging for a first-timer. This article is an explainer and it will talk you through all you need to know to make a decent informed choice when purchasing or upgrading your underwater camera system.
The picture above shows the cameras that my partner and I use. A Go Pro Hero 4, a compact Olympus TG4 and a Sony A6300 mirrorless interchangeable lens camera.
When I decided to upgrade from a compact to an interchangeable lens setup I wanted something I could use for both video and stills, that didn't break the bank and had great image quality.
These days high end compact cameras are extremely powerful and you will get more versatility underwater and (in most cases) take better photos than with a DSLR. Unless you are a very comfortable diver, an experienced photographer and you have a fat wallet, a DSLR setup will frustrate you. By the end of the article you will understand why I make this outrageous claim.
Until very recently, most of his photo's were taken with the compact Sony RX 100 using a Fantasea housing. It is hard to tell when he upgraded because all his work is outstanding. His hashtags will tell you what camera he was shooting with.
Using myself as a second example: most of my instagram pics were taken with the pocket sized Canon G16 and without any strobes. I was just using the internal camera flash with a light plastic light diffuser and I sometimes a dive torch to introduce extra light.
Let us take a look at compact camera's vs interchangeable lens setups.
Much easier to use
Cheaper, but still can add up if you want all the bells and whistles
Lighter and take up less room in luggage
Built in zoom allowing you to take both macro and wide angle photos on the same dive
Housings are one sealed unit
You can get away without strobes by using the internal flash with a diffuser
Highly recommended if you are starting out
Less ability to deal with low light
You cannot upgrade to a faster sharper lens
Tend to be good at both video and stills
Bigger sensors, higher pixel counts
Higher quality images
Expensive, heavy and cumbersome
Much steeper learning curve
Housings are hellishly expensive
You will need a different lens port for to fit every lens to buy
You have to decide before you get in the water whether you want to take macro or wide angle photo
You will have to have strobes to get any use out of the setup
Tend to be either/or when it comes to great for video or great for stills
Cost, quality, o-ring seals, functionality (can you use all the buttons on your camera).
Camera brands sometimes have a housing, I know that Canon, Olympus and Sony of examples of this. But be wary of these as they often don't offer full functionality of all your buttons and are often not rated to the depth of other brands who just specialise in manufacturing housings.
I use Fantasea because they are great quality and offer excellent value for their price. They have double 0-ring seals which most housings don't. They are also rated to 60m/196ft - more than I'd ever need as a recreational diver.
Ikelite is another affordable brand.
Nauticam, Sea & Sea, Seacam are reputable industry brands and they make housings for most DSLR/mirrorless cameras but they are often twice the price of the brands listed above.
Some brands allow you to install a vacuum leak detection kit.
If you have not bought your camera yet you may want to consider what housings are available and at what price before buying your camera.
Wet lens can be installed to your housing while you are in the water. There are two types. Diopters (or macro lenses) will magnify macro subjects and wide angle will widen the angle that your lens offers so you can fit more into the frame. They are be installed in the water and you can buy an eye-grabber or lens-caddie which attaches to your strobe arms so they are secure when not in use. Threading them on an off is a pain so try to find to a flip style holder that allows you to
If you want to use strobes or video lights you will need the following:
A tray with handles
Arms (flex or ball and joint)
Connectors - to connect the strobe the arm
Fibre optic cables to fire the strobe / or sync cords
LED strobe trigger
Ball and joints vs flex arms
Flex arms are lighter, cheaper and easier to position in the water. However they cannot be too long or the weight of the light will make them sag. On land they will not hold position and droop. In the water they usually hold shape unless they are too long. If you are shooting in the tropics with amazing viz you will need longer arms to avoid backscatter.
Ball and joints are more expensive, but more durable and they can be tightened to stay in place. Their downside is that you cannot adjust them quickly with one hand. If you want longer arms and you also want to attach extra items like video lights, focus lights, wet lenses - ball and joint arms are they way to go.
Fibre optic cables vs sync cords
You will need one of these to tell your strobes to fire when you hit the shutter
I use fibre optic cables because they are cheaper and safer than sync cords. Sync cords create extra entry points on the housing for leaking to occur.
One of the negatives about fibre optic cables is that you rely on your camera's internal flash recycle time. This was a problem for me because the flash recycle time on my camera was slow and it prevented me from taking a shot when I needed it. This can be overcome by buying an LED strobe trigger which fits on our cameras hot shoe inside the housing. This is an essential piece of kit if you are using strobes with a fibre optic cable.
I'd suggest using colour filters on a Go Pro or if you are not using strobes. Some red filters need to be fitted behind the lens so changing them in the water is impossible. There are some the can be installed in the water and this will give you the flexibility to remove them while diving when you want to introduce light.
A point to note: red filters remove some of the other colour's wave length rather than add red back in. So your pics will be a little darker and you will need to increase ISO, decrease shutter speed or open your aperture.
For this reason I prefer to just shoot in RAW, use strobes and colour correct in Lightroom.