DSLR or Compact – which is best for underwater use?

A general assumption seems to be that DSLRs are a natural upgrade to compact cameras for underwater photography. This is reinforced by the fact that every underwater pro you see is lugging $10,000-plus rigs, leading to the natural belief that you cannot really do much with something that costs a tenth of these rigs. Occasionally, you do see some posts in forums defending the compact camera, but a lot of these posts tend to be driven by user bias – a common tendency among all of us to justify our own decisions – rather than an objective analysis of the pros and cons of each system.
The purpose of this article is to give you a balanced view and provide you with the benefits and disadvantages of each system. I can safely say that I am free of bias, because I own & shoot with both a housed DSLR system as well as a compact camera setup (and my present compact camera system was purchased after I got the DSLR system).
Before we get into this discussion, let us separate 2 terms which are often used interchangably: quality and usability. Quality, as far as I am concerned, refers to the technical merits of the image – sharpness, contrast, low-noise and ability to produce large prints. Usability [not the best choice of words, I admit… but let’s stick with it for now], on the other hand, refers to how well a system is suited to specific shooting situations – such as low vis, wideangle, macro or any particular composition or effect that you, the photographer, want to achieve.
First, let’s start with DSLRs. There is a reason why pros are lugging around those megabuck rigs – they provide results that are superior to those of compact cameras, and do so consistently.
As far as quality goes, the images from a DSLR tend to have greater dynamic range and be more suitable for up-sizing for large prints (even when you compare to RAW files from a compact camera). Lower noise means that you can use higher ISOs, useful under certain conditions. And of course, the bigger sensors of DSLRs allow greater control over depth of field. However, the quality difference, while present, is fairly small; not everyone will find it a compelling reason for paying the enormous difference in price, especially if they don’t make large prints or sell to stock agencies.
Usability, however, is a different thing altogether. The main benefit of housed DSLRs is that, whatever choice of subject you choose, they will provide a better solution than compacts. If you want to shoot macro, you have more set-up choices and you are more easily able to achieve high magnifications with a DSLR. If you want to shoot wide-angle, you can get stunning, ultra-wide fields of view with some of the current ultra-wideangle lenses out there. If you want to shoot fish portraits, you get auto focus speeed and responsiveness that cannot be matched by any compact camera out there.
At this point, I can see some people about to send me an angry email, listing portfolios of excellent images taken with a compact camera. Please note – I am not saying that compact cameras do not produce good images. In fact, I happily cede that under some circumstances, compact cameras can produce images that are on par with DSLR images. However, DSLRs will produce higher-quality images in a wider variety of circumstances than compacts. That is a fact, pure and simple.
However, that does not mean that everyone who can afford a housed DSLR should get one. Far from it. Remember – your camera system is merely a tool, and as with all tools, you don’t want the one with the best set of specifications, but the one which is best suited to your needs and requirements.
While it is true that DSLRs offer better performance across a broader spectrum of shooting opportunities, there is a cost to be paid – primarily, in the amount of effort required to realize this improved performance and the loss of flexibility when it comes to handling other shooting opportunities that may crop up.
For starters, a housed DSLR rig *demands* your attention. It controls how you pack for a trip. It controls your entire dive (when you are underwater with a housed DSLR, you are doing photography and nothing else). The extra bulk and drag of the rig will challenge your situational awareness and diving skills – especially buoyancy – even in calm conditions, let alone currents. And that’s not all. The system requires you to give it attention in the morning before you get on the dive boat, and cuddle with it when you return, checking and lubing O-rings, testing connections and washing/rinsing the controls. In fact, it is very much like adding a girlfriend, without the sex to make up for the trouble (so on second thoughts, perhaps it is like adding a wife…).
A DSLR also limits your choice underwater – you have to select one lens, and are stuck with it for the entire dive. The best results from shooting a DSLR come from the extreme wide angle and dedicated macro lenses, so you can only shoot one of these two subjects on a given dive. This committment can be quite painful sometimes: for example, I had the doubtful privilege of diving with a macro lens while a whale shark cruised by a few meters below me. My friend got some great shots with his compact, while I steadfastly denied that the whale shark had existed.
Now, not everyone considers this loss of flexibility to be a tradeoff. My whale shark incident notwithstanding, I find that I get the best shots when I decide what I want to shoot and spend the entire dive working my choice of subject(s), rather than running around trying to shoot whatever I see. If that means I miss a few shots, so be it… the ones I do get tend to be better.
To get best results with this mindset, however, requires investing time and effort on the images. You *have* to devote some time to setup and to get the perfect shot… you cant just swoop in, take a couple of shots and swoop off to your next subject (not if you want good photos, anyway). You also need to master the technicalities of exposure & lighting – especially the lighting. And you need to deal with that dreaded optical viewfinder for critical focus. All of this means spending a lot of time on each subject. For example, I recently spend 75 minutes shooting the ghost pipefish below, and I am still not particularly thrilled with this shot.

ghost-pipefish

For a lot of people, the housed DSLR is too demanding a tool – be it in terms of travel restrictions, pre/post dive maintenance or in-water demands on both diving skills and photographic commitment. While I have listed a lot of the benefits of a housed DSLR system, I must reiterate that you are going to realize those benefits only if you are going to become an underwater photographer (with all the commitments it entails), not a diver who takes photos.
So ask yourself:
Are you willing to dedicate the entire dive to the pursuit of good images, to the exclusion of everything else?
Are you willing to spend an entire dive in one patch, getting the lighting, exposure and composition just right?
Are you willing to spend significant time before and after each dive on your gear?
Are you able to manage the extra drag of a housed system?
Are your buoyancy skills perfect enough to allow precise composition through the viewfinder? And before you answer “yes” here, let me point out that despite having 2600+ dives, I still struggle sometimes with maintaining my placement just so, especially if there is even a mildest of currents
Are you willing to spend time in learning the technical elements of photography and your system?
Will you dive often enough to master your equipment? Will you keep diving often enough to retain this mastery?
Do you have $5000 plus to spend?
If you anwer “no” to one or more of these questions, you may get better results with a compact system. And you will not be alone, nor should you feel that you are condemned to photographic hell.
Most hobbyist shooters would prefer to capture everything a dive throws at them, and not just be restricted to either macro or wideangle – in fact, unless they are shooting for stock or for publication, most people would gladly trade off some small loss of quality for the greater freedom in choice of subjects. This is a big plus in favor of compact cameras. Certainly, I would have had some very nice whale shark photos on file if I were shooting with a compact housing on that particular day.
Another factor to keep in mind is that intermediate photographers or divers may actually get better results from a compact camera. It is easier to get working TTL flash with compact cameras, using a fiber-optic cable, than with housed DSLRs. A small compact housing is easier to manouver in the water, which makes innovative composition easier and less demanding of pin-point buoyancy control. The greater depth-of-field of the lenses mean that they are more forgiving of minor focussing errors. Composing through an LCD is also much, much easier than peering through a tiny viewfinder at the end of the housing. And in challenging conditions, it is often simply safer to be diving with a small camera than a big monstrous Box From Hell.

The trick with every tool is to understand its capabilities and limitations, and use it accordingly. Here is a photo taken by me in 2001 with an Olympus C3000 digital camera, one of the first compact cameras for which housings were available:

coral grouper

This photo was taken at medium compression/resolution, with the camera lens zoomed in, auto white balance and on-board flash.
The shot below was taken with a Canon S70 and a $200 strobe (the Sunpak G-Flash, which was actually switched off for this shot):

diver-descending

Both these images have been sold and published.
The takeaway from this whole article is that (a) it is possible to get high-quality shots from compact cameras, provided you use them appropriately and (b) depending upon your intended usage, photo skills and dive skills, a DSLR may not be the right tool for you.
If you are willing to invest the time and effort, both before/after the dive and during the dive, in getting fewer but better quality images, then a housed DSLR is right for you.
If you do not want to go through all that effort, but want something easier to use and handle, then consider a compact. Today’s compacts will certainly yield very high-quality images, suitable for printing and displaying on a wall.
If you think you are ready for a housed DSLR but the price tag is too much, consider building your system step-by-step. It may take some time, but you will develop your skills and get some very good images along the way.