Underwater Photography

Life in the under-anemone: Because looking isn’t actually seeing

Posted by | PADI underwater naturalist, The Incredible Showcase, Underwater Naturaliast Course, Underwater Photography | No Comments

It was sometime around the second week of March when something special had taken place, a big change, in the lives of a pair of false clownfish.

Living at about five meters deep over at Nemo’s reef, with beige-coloured tentacles and a pinkish-purple base, sat a magnificent sea anemone. Everything in the anemone appeared to be much the same, the fish couple who lived with it were busy cleaning out the anemone, lapping up its dying tentacles and parasites, while the anemone stood firmly guarding the couple from harm. The anemonefish were constantly swimming through the anemone’s tentacles, as was usual, to help it breathe. The anemone took what the anemonefish pooped and the fish ate what the anemone pooped. Business as usual! And yet something was markedly different in this anemone home.

There was something going on in one corner of the anemone that kept taking the fish pair back there. Was somebody hurt? Were they hiding a stash of food?

No… it was babies!

Attached to a cleared patch of rock under the tentacles of the anemone were hundreds of pairs of eyes on the tops of alien-like bodies, swaying gently in the current. In addition to protecting the anemone and themselves, the anemonefish must now protect their offspring.

They looked to be quite old already, which could only mean that they had been laid about a week before. It would be just a few more days before full moon would approach and larval fish would emerge. This meant focussed and dedicated work for the devoted father who was responsible for their care. While the female continued to take care of the anemone and daily duties, he concentrated on the babies, vigorously fanning the water with his fins, oxygenating, cleaning and doing everything required to make sure they survive. Both parents were invested.

A clownfish once hatched will have to live out its plankton phase until it is ready to find and settle into an anemone of its own and take on the forces of the underwater universe.

As dive professionals we sometimes think twice before talking about certain animals in our pre-dive briefings because we feel divers might find them too common or ordinary to be specifically mentioned. As we grow in dive experience, there is a natural tendency to create a hierarchy of coolness that we set for the marine life that is out there and the animals that we wish to see. Novelty, rarity and massiveness are definitely key factors in how high up in the list animals are positioned, and those that are seen often enough are further down, closer to the more ‘beginner diver stuff’.

There is definitely an appeal is seeing manta rays, sharks and turtles. They are enigmatic, extraordinary and closer to extinction than a damselfish. This extraordinary nature of the marine world, however, does not end here. There are so many phenomenal animals, interactions and communities that occur so commonly, we often fail to really see them entirely. And the loss is ours.

No two reefs or animals or behaviours are exactly the same when seen twice, even the most ordinary of things. That is just how dynamic the ocean truly is. Now you might ask- if there is so much beauty and wonder in the ordinary, why is it that we don’t see it? Perhaps we aren’t looking carefully enough. Perhaps we do not know what to look for. There is no special skill or talent required to do so. The secret is curiosity and patience. Wait, observe and soon, the animals will let you into their extraordinary world.

Text: Chetana Babburjung Purushotham |  Video: Umeed Mistry

Dining etiquette for an Octopus | The Incredibles Showcase

Posted by | Blogs, PADI underwater naturalist, The Incredible Showcase, Underwater Naturaliast Course, Underwater Photography | No Comments

How do octopus eat their prey

How do octopus eat their prey

Dining etiquette for an octopus: Dig in with all hands!

Nemo’s reef is a fantastic place to spend hours watching these animals just,be. We follow them quietly, as they go about doing their daily things around the shallows of Nemo’s. That alone is one lifetime of diving right there! People often make the mistake of getting way too close to an octopus. Sure, it is sitting there in its crevice, changing colour in response to divers and that is rather cool! But what would be even cooler and perhaps much less disruptive for the octopus, is if we were to curb the excitement and give the animal enough space to get back to its life. This can in fact be plenty times more extraordinary a sight to behold than a tense octopus hiding in a hole! Here we see a young octopus that frequents the ‘first barrel sponge rocks’ area at Nemo’s reef. All of us have met this octopus over the past few weeks and she/he is now very comfortable around divers. When we first saw it, a diver was ten inches away from it with a camera, as it hid inside a crevice, perhaps thinking to itself – Hurry up mister, I’m starving and you’re in my way. As soon as said mister left the scene, the octopus was on the move! We suppose one can identity an octopus with a ravenous appetite by how thoroughly it inspects each rock, tickling every crevice simultaneously with every arm. Note how it expands each arm, turning its entire body in to a large web-like umbrella to trap any molluscs, crustaceans or tiny fish that get flushed out during its invasion.Once prey is in hand, an octopus might crush it, pry it open, or drill a hole in it, drain in some toxins or simply slurp it up, depending on the nature of its catch. Owing to its highly efficient, powerful and thorough hunting technique, an octopus on the hunt is almost always surrounded by a mob of other fish-a mix of allies and competitors possibly. Here we see a few juvenile groupers, wrasses, goatfishes and a tiny cloud of exasperated damsels. Isn’t this simply fascinating?

Video credit: Chetana Purushotham

My Underwater Rig

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Posted by Vandit Kalia |

Generally speaking, I find most “my gear” sections to be an exercise in stroking one’s ego. However, I’ve realized that with the appropriate information, this section can be useful when it comes to helping prospective buyers make a decision as to what to buy.
So here is my equipment list, along with a reason why I chose what I did.

  • Canon 20D – I am already a Canon user, with a wide array of lenses for my wildlife and nature photography work. I had initially contemplated going with Nikon, but ultimately, Canon won out. With the release of the Tokina 10-17 fisheye and the Sigma 4.5 & 10mm fisheyes, as well as high-quality 10-22/10-20 lenses by Canon and Sigma, the big reason to go with Nikon – viz, the availability of wideangle and fisheyes – is no longer valid. Either system works well.
  • Aquatica A20 housing – I initially was looking at an Ikelite housing because of its lower price and build-in TTL capabilities. However, after speaking to various people about usability and ergonomics, I settled on Aquatica. I was also considering Sea&Sea, but the cost of accessories for Aquatica is quite reasonable and S&S did not have a housing for the 20D, which I already owned (nor was I ready to downgrade to a Rebel body). I have been very happy with the Aquatica- my only niggle with it is that the camera has some play, and occasionally, moves itself out of alignment with the zoom lever. Tilting the body usually fixes this. On the other hand, the housing is robust – it recently fell 3 feet onto concrete, with camera and lens inside. The lens broke, but the housing and dome port survived intact. One additional plus of the Aquatica system is that you only need 2 ports – an 8″ dome port and a flat port. These, plus extension rings, cover virtually all the lenses you will use underwater – and Aquatica has support for new lenses pretty much soon after they hit the market.
  • Inon45 degree finder – I just had this finder custom-installed on the housing. It provides a 100% view of the camera’s viewfinder, and because it is angled at 45 degrees, makes it easier to get a lower perspective. I am still getting used to it but will post additional comments once I do.
  • Canon 100/2.8 USM macro – generally, people recommend 50-60mm as the main macro lens. I use the 100/2.8 because I already owned it. It is hard to shoot fish portraits with this lens, as it is too long (especially on a 1.6 crop body), but for macro, I find the increased working distance very useful. Were I starting out, I’d probably get the 60m macro instead.
  • Sigma 10-20 WA – my first wideangle lens. Sharp, great field of view and quick AF. Comparing reviews and images, I didn’t see any reason to pay extra for the Canon 10-22. Still don’t. It is a Sigma EX and built like a tank, to boot.
  • Tokina 10-17 Fisheye – a great, innovative lens, providing 180 degree diagonal coverage at its widest setting. This is my lens of choice for dynamic WA and CFWA shooting. I recently did an album cover for a musician using this lens. For big fish, I’d prefer the Sigma, however, as you have to get VERY close with this lens to get a full frame shot.
  • Sigma 17-70 zoom – this is my “exploratory” lens, which I take for shooting fish portaits or when I am not sure what I will see. I have to admit, I prefer the mental focus that comes from selecting a more specialized lens, and since most of my diving is done here in the Andamans where I know the reefs inside out, I rarely take this lens into the water. This would be a good travel lens, however – I really regret leaving it behind while in Sipadan.
  • Macromate 2X macro adapter – I just ordered this from Backscatter in California. It is a wet lens that attaches to the flat port of my housing and provides a 2x magnification. As my 100/2.8 macro already goes to life-size, this lets me shoot at twice lifesize (add in the crop factor and I get a field of view equivalent to a 3 times lifesize lens on a regular 35mm camera!).
  • 2x Inon Z240 strobes – I found Inons to offer the best balance in price/performance. They recharge quickly, run on standard AAs, have lots of power and all the controls one can wish for in a strobe. And they are small, and so easy to pack. What’s not to like? I have been using them in Manual mode so far, but am thinking of installing a Heinrich’s E-TTL board, simply because I have one and would like the option to use TTL if I want. The Z240s are supposed to be fully compatible with this board.
  • Stix buoyancy arms – I had originally gotten TLC arms (which are more or less the same as ULCS arms), but my rig was painfully heavy in the water with this setup. I replaced them with Stix arms and floats, and now my rig is very nicely balanced. On lands, the arms wobble a bit but undewater, where it matters, they stay in place until I move them around. Very strongly recommended – all metal-housing owners should get these.

Generally speaking, I am very happy with my setup. A smaller rig such as Seatool or Hugyfot would be nice for traveling and in reducing drag, but given my struggles to get this rig to be neutrally buoyant, I am not sure whether the loss of buoyancy would be worth it or no. And for sure, this benefit is not worth paying $2000 extra. As of now, I have no intention of upgrading or considering another housing.

  • Canon G6 – I used this camera because I had it lying around. It used to be my compact topsides shooter until I replaced it with a Panasonic LX1, at which point it was laid-off. Now it is gainfully employed again. The G6 (and its brother, the Canon S70) have, IMO, one of the best sensors used in compact cameras – the classic 7.1MP Canon chip. However, this is a somewhat sluggish camera when it comes to shutter lag. Were I doing it again, I’d get a Canon G9 or a Fuji E900 or similar.
  • Ikelite TTL housing – the only show in town for this body. I got a decent deal on one used.
  • TLC arms – left over when I replaced the arms of my DSLR rig. They work well with the buoyant housing.
  • Sea&Sea YS-110 strobe – I wanted a small, compact and relatively inexpensive system. That ruled out paying extra for the Z240s (besides, I can always use my current pair if need be). The Sea&Sea YS-110 offers more power and wider beam than the Inon D2000/2000S strobes and was a good buy for this setup.
  • Inon WA and Macro add-on lenses – the 35mm wide end of the G6 is pitifully useless for any kind of wide-angle work. The Inon wide-angle wet lens gives it a respectable wide angle, which can be used for serious work. The G6 already has very good close-focus capabilities, and the macro lens makes it that much better. Neither lens comes close to matching the performance of a dedicated WA lens on a DSLR, but it is good enough. I plan to add a dome adapter to the WA, which would give DSLR-equivalent wide angle coverage. At that point, I will also need a second strobe, I guess.

This system is small and easy to carry around – and it provides high-quality results if shot within its limitations. This is the system I take with me when I am traveling and plan to mix diving with other activities (for dedicated dive holidays, the housed DSLR rig is still my tool of choice).

  • Olympus C3000 and Olympus housing – this was my first digital camera and housing, purchased back in 2001. Terrible shutter lag, but still a lot of fun to play with (did I mention it was my first digital camera)? Sadly, the housing fell out of my daypack while I was boarding a flight en route to a Maldives liveaboard, and broke. RIP.
  • Canon S70 with DC-WP40 housing – this is actually our shop rig, but I’ve sold a magazine cover and a couple of articles using photos taken with this camera/housing and an el-cheapo $200 Sunpak G-Flash strobe. An excellent performer, especially given its price.

10 Tips to Improve Your Underwater Photos

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Posted by Vandit Kalia |

Virtually every other day, I burn CDs for people who have rented out an underwater camera from us and who hope to have good images to share with their friends and family. However, often the results don’t match expectations. P&S cameras are very well suited to delivering crisp, well-exposed snapshots in the hands of even the most inexperienced photographer, which is what most users want from them anyway. However, take them underwater and suddenly, all those exciting colors and fish end up as brownish-grey blobs of indeterminate focus.
A frequent comment I hear from people is “this small camera simply cannot deliver the same results as that big rig of yours” – till I show them some shots that I have on file, taken with compact cameras.
There really is no magic here. Compact cameras are indeed less flexible than more complex, multi-strobe setups with specialized lenses and ports. However, used within their limits, they are perfectly capable of providing shots that are good enough to share with your friends.
Here are 10 tips, in no particular order, which should help you achieve a noticeable improvement in your images:

1. Get close: If anything, this has to be the rule #1 of underwater photography. Get close. How close? Within 1-2 feet for high-quality images (in tropical waters; less if you dive in green soup), but at most no more than 3-4 feet. Any more than that, and don’t bother shooting unless your subject is very large. A good test is that the subject should occupy atleast 25-30% of your LCD screen.
Why is that? Even the clearest of water has particles which will affect sharpnesss and contrast. Also, the more the distance between you and your subject, the longer the path travelled by the light from your camera’s flash, which means more loss of reds. Moral: minimze the water column.

2. Avoid the zoom: Zooming is no substitute for getting close. Keep your camera at its widest setting, then get as close as possible, and then, if need be, zoom to adjust your composition (never as a substitute for physically getting closer).

3. Manual white balance: Learn how to set manual white balance on your camera. Then take a white slate with you underwater and use it to set white balance for that depth. If your depth or lighting changes, adjust the white balance again. This is especially useful for ambient-light shooting. If you are using strobes as your prime source of lighting, then setting AWB to daylight should suffice, as most strobes are daylight-balanced, more or less.

4. Use a strobe: I know, I know… you bought a small compact, and now I am telling you to spend hundreds on a strobe. Well, the sad fact is that really good strobes – the kind you will never outgrow – start at around $500. Inon and Sea&Sea are excellent buys. However, even a small strobe will yield very good results. Epoque makes a decent unit for around $200, as does Sunpak (the G Flash). Sea&Sea, Sealife and Fantasea also have small, inexpensive strobes. These will be the best investment you can make to improve your photos. It is hard to escape the laws of physics, even underwater – strobes are the only way to add back the red that has been absorbed underwater. On-board strobes work ok within limits (clear water and low working distances), but for most flexibility, you’ll want an external strobe.

5. Shoot up: Most people swim slightly angled. The DIR crew swim perfectly horizontally (thereby missing everything in front and above them, which also explains why they dive only caves – not a whole lot more to see on reefs this way). Either way, the cone of view for most people is weighted downwards. Therefore, most people also tend to tend to shoot downwards. This has one problem – your subject and the background both get even illumination. So the subject doesnt stand out. The solution is simple – get low, and shoot upwards or against blue water – and you’ll get a crisply defined subject (you did remember to get close, didn’t you?) against a pleasing blue (or green) background. Now we are talking! Keep in mind that getting low means that there is a good chance that your fins are going to bang into the reef, so please watch your buoyancy and your fins.

6. Spend time on a shot: If you find something interesting, spend time on it. Now, at this stage, you are probably not ready to spend the entire dive on one subject, but you can – hopefully – allocate atleast a few minutes without making your buddy homicidal. This will allow you to explore various shooting angles and compositions. I personally don’t have the divine gift of artistic genius and so have to work for my shots – my first shot is rarely my best. If you are anything like me, the more time you spend, the better results you will get.

7. Start with quick wins: Quick wins are subjects that don’t move much – anemones, clownfish (ok, they move, but within a small area), colorful coral, nudibranches, etc. These will let you apply all the techniques we have covered so far.

8. Stalk fish: Swim towards a fish, and it takes off. Bet it has happened to you. So how does one get close to the subject? I use the same approach to getting close to fish as I do with birds and wildlife.. I move slowly, I exhale slowly and I try to close in at an angle (instead of directly towards the fish). I also bring my camera gear into position before hand and avoid ALL sudden movements. This improves your chances of getting close and taking shots where the fish are still facing you.

9. Improve your buoyancy: Sometimes, the best camera angles require you to put your body in all sorts of awkward positions. In order to achieve this, your buoyancy must be top-notch. It takes time to get here, so keep practising… before long, you’ll be hanging upside down, peeking into an overhang and shooting away to glory. Do remember that your learning curve should not come at the expense of coral – if you are going to practise, do so somewhere where you are not going to break or damage the reef. No photograph is worth damaging the reef.

10. Practise: Sounds like a cliche, but it isn’t. First of all, let me tell you what not to do. Don’t just go on a shooting spree, hoping to find some gems in the shots later. You can spend a 100 dives this way without getting better. What you need to do is spend some time before each dive setting targets for yourself (perhaps take one of the points from this article and work on it), then go shoot according to that plan. Then review your results, figure out your mistakes and then next time, work on avoiding those mistakes. Before long, you will see your photographs improve drastically. Don’t be afraid to experiment or shoot a lot – however, engage your brain before thinking. Don’t just blindly fire away.
And now, because we are great value and big fans of Spinal Tap, we’ll give you 11 tips on a list of 10 Tips to Improve Your Underwater Photos.

11. Post-process: Some people take great pride in presenting their photos exactly as they emerge from the camera. Personally, I don’t see how showing a sub-standard result is anything to brag about. If you are taking photos, then spend some time sprucing up your shots so that they look best. It doesn’t have to take long – a couple of minutes adjusting contrast, color balance and saturation goes a long way. And don’t forget the most important post-processing tool: the trashcan. Not every shot is worth showing.

Building a system for underwater photography

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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!

DSLR or Compact – which is best for underwater use?

Posted by | Underwater Photography | No Comments

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.


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):


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.