Updated: Jul 3, 2020
I get asked this question a lot and so I thought I'd make a blog post about it. I found it a nightmare trying to understand what everything was when I upgraded from a compact to mirrorless/DSLR type systems. It took me hours on youtube and a few wrong purchases before I got it right (maybe I'm just slow!) At the time I remember wishing that someone would sit me down and explain things from scratch.
The setup I have is as follows:
Sony A6300 with a Fantasea Line housing with a flat port and A6 dome port
Lens: 16-50mm kit lens and the 10-18mm F4
Strobes: 2x YS-250PRO
Big Blue 2700 lumens video light
Fantasea LED trigger
Fantasea UWL-09F wet wide angle lens (This is an awesome wet lens. My only issue is it can flare a bit which someone people might think looks cool.)
A +6 macro wet lens – a cheapy that does the job
Fantasea’s QRS - quick release system so I can switch between wide and macro on the same dive when using the kit lens and stash the spare wet lens on the arm.
I’ve used Fantasea Line as long as I’ve shot underwater, first with a Canon G16 and now with my Sony. I like their reasonable pricing and that the housing is double o-ring sealed and waterproof to 60m. They also provide compatibility with other third party ports to allow you to use an impressive range of lenses. I've never had a leak and only experienced a few very minor issues (half of them user error) which were promptly resolved. It has to be said that in my experience, Fantasea's after sale service has been outstanding. Nothing impressed me more than getting a phone call on a Sunday night by the CEO/founder Howard to help me resolve an issue with one of the buttons. Disclaimer - they have started giving me discounted gear because I post a lot on social media, but that is a recent thing and I'd be frank and tell you if I thought they were subpar. Seriously though, I'm really happy with them 6 years on. Here is a link to where I bought mine in Australia: https://underwater.com.au/
Camera: Sony upgraded their A6300 to the A6500 just after I bought it. The good thing is that the housing fits both cameras if I wanted to upgrade in the future. They solved rolling shutter issues which only matters if you shooting video at the grand prix, and they put stabilisation in the body of the camera. Most of Sony’s lenses have built in-stabilisation so it’s not an issue for me. The other issue they solved was also related to video but I believe the fix wasn’t all that remarkable. If you shoot video for long periods of time (in warm weather) the A6300 overheats and shuts down after about 20mins. The A6500 does the same after about 30mins so not an earth shattering improvement. If you are a wedding videographer this would be an issue, but for underwater I never shoot video continuously, and its often cold down there so I don’t experience a problem in this regard. This was an issue for a lot of land-based users as Sony’s are often used by videographers because their video capability is amazing.
My thoughts: If you also want to use the camera for land use this is a great choice because you can buy additional lenses, ie: zoom and telephoto for wildlife. There are also macro lenses available 30mm, 50mm and 90mm. I have tried both the 30mm and 50mm macro lens but found them them a bit slow at focusing, especially for moving subjects. The 30mm fits into the flat port that takes the kit lens while the 50mm and 90mm require additional purchases (extension rings) to take them underwater. I've heard good things about the 90mm but have yet to try it personally. For macro I've decided to stick with the kit lens and a diopter (wet macro lens).
Sony has some great wide angle lenses that are sharper than the kit lens. The 10-18mm is great option. If you purchase this one you will need to buy a dome port (AUD$600) as it won’t fit in the flat port. However, with kit lens and the UWL09F (AUD$900) wet wide angle lens combo the image is wider and you can crop out corners if you feel that they are not sharp enough.
If you just want a camera for underwater, consider getting the RX100 as it’s a compact with outstanding image and video quality, for both wide great wide and macro and you will save a ton of money. The camera itself is about the same price as the A6300 but the housing for the RX100 through Fantasea is about AUD$800 cheaper and being a compact system you don’t have to buy lenses or ports to house the lenses. It’s a much smaller system which is a bonus when traveling. My camera and setup weighs about 13kg which is a pain on planes, granted the YS250PRO strobes are beasts and their batteries alone look like mini bombs. I got pulled aside and photographed with my passport at customs in Malaysia earlier this month before they let me broad the plane!
Consider getting the newer YS strobes or Inon's if you have the money - they are just as powerful and much smaller. I use the older YS strobes because I got an outrageous discount on them (I got two for half the price of one!), but now I can tell why the guy sold them to me. You need two people to carry them. Prior to my recent Komodo in November 2018, I shot with the YS110a and they are half the size, not as powerful or fast at recharging after they fire, but they did the job. (I’ve still got them as backups). Getting back to the RX100, I’m not sure most people would be able to tell the difference in image quality between this and the A6300. All that said about weight, the A6300 and lenses is still much lighter than DSLR setups.
Other things I like about Sony: it is great for both video and stills. DSRL’s suck at video, esp underwater. They are great at focusing on everything but your subject. Sony pioneered video in still cameras and they are light years ahead. They really are the best mirrorless cameras on the market.
Sony was often criticised for having expensive lenses, but that is a thing of the past. Their prices are more competitive now and their range has improved. They are ahead of other mirrorless manufacturers, aside of the MFT alliance but what you gain on lenses you sacrifice on sensor size and low light capability.
Last tips: read Ran Mor's article on the A6300/A6500 system and all its optional extras. It’s a really helpful review. He is based in Canada and has an online underwater photography store. In fact, his blogs are really useful in general, I often read them.
Also, first look at what your options are with housings and ports. I first bought a Nikon D750 and realised that it would cost me over US$3000 for the housing before I even looked at lens ports, tray, arms, strobes and so I returned it. Once you decide what camera you want, check housing costs before buying it.
Check out David Palfrey on Instagram. He shoots with both the A6500 and the RX100… I can’t tell when he is using which camera. I have to look at his hashtags to work it out. Lee Hankinson also now shoots with the A6500 and his pics are awesome.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to chat further.