Building a system for underwater photography

Posted by Vandit Kalia |

So you want to put together a high-quality system for underwater photography, but are deterred by the prices. You are not alone.
Equipment cost used to be one of the biggest deterrents in underwater photography. While the cost of a complete, versatile system capable of handling most underwater subjects is still extremely high, the high quality offered by compact camersa means that it is possible to build up a long-term system in small, more affordable steps. Spreading out this cost brings a high-quality system within the reach of most people.
The purpose of this article is to provide a roadmap for putting together an underwater system in a step-by-step manner. Given the mind-boggling array of products, lack of any standards and various compatibility issues, this step can be a minefield for most people. I personally spent several months reading various forums in order to truly grasp my choices and make an educated choice. Hopefully, this article will accelerate your learning curve somewhat, by telling you what to look for.
And while this method lacks the instant gratification of buying everything at once, there is one important benefit – by adding one component at a time, the photographer has a chance to master each component. This is conceptually an easier way to master underwater photography, rather than trying to deal with many variables all at once.

Step 1 – Select the correct compact camera & housing
Polycarbonate housings are available for most housings made by Canon & Olympus. Fuji, Sony, Nikon, Panasonic and others also have housings available for quite a few of their cameras – these are either manufacturer housings selling at around $200 (give or take) or third-party housings made by companies like Ikelite and Fantasea. So you certainly have no dearth of choices. Therefore, first thing to do is to narrow down your list of choices.
The biggest mistake people make at this point is they buy a housing for the camera that they have, or they select a camera and then buy a housing for it. For someone with the stated goal of putting together a system, this is the wrong way to go about things. The camera and housing must be considered together when deciding what to buy.
Start by forgetting camera brands. Focus, instead on 2 criteria when it comes to the camera: responsiveness (ie, combination of focus lag and shutter lag) and availability of RAW. Image quality of most cameras – with a few exceptions – is good enough to not make a huge difference, but avoid ultrazooms and such anyway. A lot of people prefer JPEGs but for underwater use, you really do want the benefit of shooting RAW – the ability to adjust color temperature is essential for underwater photography and if you have to do some tonal corrections, the greater bit depth of RAW f iles is very handy. And no, changing color temperature on 8-bit JPEGs is NOT the same thing. Trust me on this one. Shoot RAW + JPEG if you have to, but keep the RAW files.
Now, look at the housing. Here, ignore brand or resistance to flooding. All housings work on the same principle (use of an O-ring to make a seal) and so require the same level of care & are more or less equally prone to flooding. Instead, what you care about is whether or not the housing can accept add-on (or wet) wideangle or macro lenses. This is because most compact cameras are neither wide enough nor offer high-enough magnifications by themselves – the use of add-on lenses greatly increases the ability of the cameras in these 2 areas. You won’t be buying these lenses yet, but it you will need this later.
Once you apply all these factors, you are going to have a much smaller list. You can then sort from this list based on ergonomics, other usage (top-sides shooting), price, color, or whatever.
Congrats. Now get this gear wet. Check out my 10 tips to improve your underwater photography, and learn to use your camera.

Step 2 – Add a strobe
Ok, if you have read my article with the 10 tips, you will notice that I listed some cheap strobes. The bad news is that as far as you are concerned, cheap strobes are out. You may buy one as a stop-gap measure but that is a detour along this fine path that we are taking. As far as system-building goes, you are going to buy a good quality strobe.
If you see your end-game being a housed DSLR system (read DSLR or Compacts before jumping to an answer – also try renting a housed DSLR or playing with one in the water first before reaching a conclusion), then you will need to buy strobes which can be triggered with a sync cable – essentially, a cord that transmits firing info to the strobe. If you are happy with a compact system, then you can get by with a strobe that is optically fired only. If you are not sure, spend $100 extra and go with a strobe that accepts sync cords. It is possible to use a strobe without a cable connection with a DSLR – you will, however, need a second strobe in that case, one that does accept cables. Then you can set the cable-challenged strobe to work in “slave” mode (it goes off when the other strobe goes off).
Realistically, there are 3 brands you will be looking at now – Inon, Sea&Sea&Ikelite.
Ikelite is one of the most popular underwater brands. The two main things going for them are: (1) they offer true TTL when used with an Ike DSLR housing and (2) Ikes have great customer service. In all other areas, they cost more than comparably-specced strobes from Inon&Sea&Sea, atleast here in Asia ( US prices for Inon&Sea+Sea are quite higher and Ike prices tend to be lower). TTL may appear to be a good draw, but IMO, it should not be a deciding factor. Optical TTL is very reliable and once you get to a housed DSLR, manual strobes are actually surprisingly easy to use. IMO, TTL or lack thereof should be a tie-breaker, not a primary selection criteria. If you are considering Ikelite, go with the more expensive DS125s, not the DS51s, which are not very powerful.
The other two contenders are Inon&Sea&Sea. At the time of writing, the main models are D2000/D2000S and Z240 (Inon), and YS-110 & YS-250 (Sea&Sea). The last S+S strobes costs a fair bit more but is the most powerful of the lot. The D2000/D2000S are slave-fired only, which rules them out if you are looking at a DSLR rig as your end goal. Other than that, all these models offer a full array of settings and controls (manual, slave, optical TTL, pre-flash compatibility, etc).
At this point, you may also want to get an optical cable, which allows your camera’s built-in flash to trigger the external strobe and allows optical TTL.
Also, also invest in a decent pair of arms for your strobe. Ultra-Light Control Systems (ULCS) and Technical Lighting Control (TLC) make good arms using standard 1″ balls at each end. They are pricey, but will last you a while. Save money – buy used.
Now that you have a strobe, experiment with using the strobe, angles and power. Shoot in both TTL and manual mode, and you’ll soon realize that manual isn’t too tough either.

Step 3 – Add wet lenses
Inon makes wet lenses and adapters to fit a wide variety of compact camera housings. So do other manufacturers, including Sea+Sea. Depending on what you like to shoot, you may want to add a macro lens and a wideangle adapter. These will improve the usability of your system and allow you to shoot more expansive wide-angles and also achieve greater magnification.
Inon also sells a dome adapter which improves the field of view of the regular wide-angle adapter. If you plan to stick to a compact-based system, this would be a nice addition to have. If you are planning to upgrade to a DSLR fairly soon, you may be able to make do without it. If yoy are keeping the compact system for a while, get the dome adapter as well.
These wet lenses aren’t cheap – but when you upgrade to a DSLR, you can recover most of your costs by selling them. You can also look for used wet lenses on the Internet.
Now go learn to use these lenses and see the improvement in your photographs afforded by them.

Step 4 – Add a second strobe
Note: You can flip steps 4 and 5, depending on how you want to spend the money.
Once you have some wet lenses – especially the wide angle adapter – you may want to experiment with more creative lighting. A second strobe allows you greater leeway in placement and shadow management. Well worth having.
I am a big fan of using 2 identical strobes. Different strobes, even within the same manufacturer’s line, often have varying color temperatures and probably varying recharge times. That complicates your picture-taking process. Keep It Simple.
Now you can really enjoy creative freedom – sidelighting, backlighting (rim-lighting) and ability to manage shadows. The learning process here is very long and a lot of fun…. enjoy!

Step 5 – Get a housed DSLR (and there was great rejoicing)
Now that you have put everything together, and you are hooked to underwater photography, and you find that it is your system – and not your abilities – that are holding you back, you are ready for a Monstrous Box from Hell. And your strobes and arms, which you have already purchased, will fit right into this system.
If you already have a DSLR, the choice is easy – find a housing for it. If you are shooting with a 1-series Canon or Nikon D2/D3, you may want to consider a cheaper, second body. Remember the guideline with underwater housings – it is not a question of “if” you are going to flood, it is a question of “when”

– and given that, it is better to flood (read: FUBAR) a relatively inexpensive body as opposed to a top-end body, especially if you don’t have insurance coverage where you live.
If you don’t have a DSLR, first start by selecting a housing. Yes, it is actually better to put the cart before the horse in this case. Housings vary tremendously in price and ergonomics, and not every manufacturer covers every brand. If you don’t have an SLR, then it is best to find the right housing, and then purchase a body that fits into it.
So what goes into finding the right housing? Three things: (1) ergonomics of the housing, which is the single biggest thing you are looking for (2) availability of ports and compatibility with various lenses and (3) price.
Let’s start with ergonomics – this means how heavy your housing is in the water, how much drag it produces, how easily it lets you access the various controls and anything and everything related to usage. Dont ignore any annoying quirks, no matter how trivial. Perhaps it is a chore to install the body or perhaps aligning the zoom gears is a hassle. Right now, you are thinking, it saves me $XXX, I can live with it. A few months down the road, you will be cursing it, I guarantee you. Given how much you have spent already, a littie more is inconsequential. Get it right the first time. Sell your compact, your housing and your wet-lenses, if you want to raise the money.
Availability of ports and compatibility with various lenses is another factor to consider. I use an Aquatica system and what got me attracted to them is the fact that they use only 2 ports – a big dome for wideangle, and a flat port for close-ups. All lenses can be used with these 2 ports using spacing rings. That means less gear for me to carry when I travel. Most big brands offer solutions for all the common underwater lenses: ultra-wideangle zooms, fisheyes, standard zooms and macro lenses. However, some newer brands don’t have that compatibility (or it may be coming soon but isn’t here yet). So check first.
All this means that you should get expert advice from a reliable dealer, and if possible, try to touch and feel the equiment before making a decision.
A closely linked step to picking a housing is deciding on lenses. You will need at minimum 2 lenses: macro, a good choice for a first lens because it is relatively easy to get good results with it and ultra-wideangle – something giving a field of view of a 20mm lens (in 35mm terms) at the very minimum – 16mm is even better. You may also want to add a standard zoom – either your kit lens or a third-party 17-XX zoom – for general purpose shooting.
For macro, your choices are the 50mm macro (moderately ok, but offers only 1:2 magnification), 60mm (1:1 and useful for fish portraits as well) and 100mm macro (better for shooting exclusively macro, but not so useful for other shooting). For wideangle, consider a 10-20 zoom, the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye, or the recently announced Sigma 4.5 and 10mm fisheyes. Note that I am using the Canon system as a reference, but Nikon and other brands will all have similar or equivalent lenses in their arsenal.
Also note that while I have presented the purchase criteria in a linear fashion, it really isn’t a linear process. All the factors work together. Once you have picked your lenses, evaluate your housing choice & port options in light of these options. If your heart is dead-set on a particular lens which is not supported by your selected housing, then you may want to re-think your choice of housings. If, on the other hand, that housing really gets you going, consider an alternative lens. Do some research here.
Once you have all this information, you are ready to purchase your housing. Congrats. Your journey is complete*. Go forth and shoot.
*Of course I am lying like a cheap rug when I say that your journey is complete. Now you are entering the world of customized housings, focus lights, add-on diopters, etc. Say goodby to savings. But it is a great ride, nonetheless!