Underwater Photography

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October 18, 2008

There are a number of methods available to take underwater pictures of plants, fish & other underwater wildlife. Although at first glance it appears to be place for the professional photographer, point & shoot digital cameras that are capable of being used as deep as 200′ are available.

The first step is deciding how serious you are about taking underwater pictures.  If you are a diver or spend hours in the water it may be worth investing in a underwater housing for a DSLR.  The problem?  A good case will cost as much or more than the camera.  A bad case will destroy your camera.  Obviously, a good case is necessary, however as an example, a case for the Nikon D300 runs around $1500.00.  On top of that, the built in flash is unusable when the camera is in the case, so unless you are working in very shallow water, you will need to add a $500 – $1000.00 underwater strobe system. Again, this approach is only for those that are very serious about underwater photography.  Although underwater housings are available for rent, before putting your DSLR & favorite lens into one you really want to know how well it has been treated in the past. Another possibility – although still expensive, DSLRs in waterproof housings complete with flash systems are sometimes available for rent in popular dive areas.  Rather than taking a chance with your own camera in a rented housing, you might consider renting the entire package. 

For the rest of us, the simplest and least expensive solution is to revert back to film. For $12.95 you can purchase a 27 shot camera loaded with Kodak Max film that is good to a depth of 50′.  No flash, but an inexpensive solution for a one shot photo session. If you want flash, for $23.00 you can purchase a 35mm point & shoot camera good to a depth of 17′. The flash is not all that powerful – don’t expect to shoot more than a foot or two away from your subject.

If you are diving more than a few feet, flash or other camera mounted lighting is almost a requirement.  Even in very clear water, just down to 30 feet or so results in less than 25% of the surface light.  What’s more, the water does not filter out colors evenly.  Your warm colors – reds, orange & yellows are the first to go – without camera mounted lighting everything shifts to blue.

For those that want more control over your camera, Nikon still makes an underwater 35mm camera, the Nikonos V. Although not inexpensive at $319.00, it can be used at depths up to 165′, and has adjustable shutter speeds, a variety of lenses & flash units and other accessories.  The price is for the body – lenses are extra.

Film is certainly the least expensive way to go, however many of us have moved to the digital age & no longer keep paper prints, don’t want to file negatives or slides, etc.  The solution may be a digital underwater camera. Although more expensive than the simple film point & shoot cameras, they can also be used as a general purpose camera out of the water.  They have the advantage that they are an all weather camera; you don’t need to worry about using them in the rain, snow, or even shooting in the surf.

Like all digital cameras, there is a wide range of available devices. NexTag lists digital underwater cameras ranging from as little as $39.95 to $2500.00 or more. There are lots of choices.

Some links to dpreview’s information about specific waterproof point & shoot cameras capable of operating in shallow water you might take a look at:

If you plan to dive more than a couple of feet, you might look at point & shoot cameras such as the DC800 from Sea Life that is specifically built for diving.  It can also be used for normal photographs, but includes settings to color correct for diving conditions, is good for depths up to 200′, and can be used with external underwater flash units. All that adds to the cost – around $500.00, but it is still less than the cost of a housing for other cameras that can be used at 200′. Some sample images shot with the DC800 are available at their website.

By the way, if you want to shoot video underwater, there are both housings for cameras you may already own, or, like the specialized point & shoot underwater cameras, there are underwater camcorders.  Do a Google Search for “Underwater Camcorder” to find what is available.

So, the next time you are excited about something you see while snorkeling, take along a camera so you can show others!

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  460. After having a variety of underwater housings for various digital cameras, I have become a fan of the Pentax Optio (W30) series of underwater-weather proof cameras. For those of us that snorkel they are a perfect choice. A single camera without a bulky external housing can be taken up to 10 feet underwater. No preparation or set up is necessary. All of the cameras features can be used underwater – such as the LCD screen. Camera housing obscure LCD screens making them almost useless whereas these cameras make pointing and shooting easy underwater. AND the video feature works also so movies with sound can be made underwater. When you step out of the water, wash off the camera and continue shooting. These cameras are very reasonably priced especially since they will replace the usual small point and shoot camera. A truly dual purpose camera which works well in both environments.

  461. Stefan

    Chris you’re right. I can tell you that when I get on the dive boat I feel I missed things, but when I get home and watch the video I relive it over again. I also never got that feeling with my camera.

  462. Thanks for the blog post!

    I take a LOT of pictures. And I do a LOT of diving (just went today!) But I refuse to get into underwater photography … it seems to take over! Underwater photographers I know spend SOO much money on equipment, and they tend to sit in one spot underwater, just trying to get that perfect photo. I love looking at their pictures, but when I’m diving, I want to explore and experience.

    I have snapped a few underwater photos with the throwaway cameras … what a great option just to save a couple memories. And, now the Olympus 1030 is on our Christmas list!

  463. Stefan

    great blog. One thing you didn’t say is that when you buy a case for a particular camera, that case is only good for that camera. not the brand but the camera.
    I have the Bonica HD Snapper video camera. go to bonicadive.com it comes with 2 layers of protection the first is good to 12 feet and the other is good down to 180 feet. I just started to use it and I’m very happy with it.
    If anybody on rv.net comes to South Florida and wants a dive partner look me up.