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Underwater Photography Primer

by Philip Greenspun, June 1999 (updated January 2007)



Underwater photography combines the challenges of (1) trying to make an aesthetic statement that hasn't been made by thousands of photographers who've dedicated decades of their life to the craft, with (2) trying to stay alive.

The easiest way

Get into submarine. Get out camera. Point. Shoot. Here are some examples from a 800' dive in the Cayman Islands.

Stern of the Kirk Pride, wrecked off Grand Cayman

The second easiest way

Couple Snorkeling.  Caribbean.

Snorkeling is much simpler than SCUBA diving. The key to snorkeling is to remember that the human body will always float. It just doesn't float high enough that you can breathe easily. However, if you add a few inches of extension to your mouth, your natural floating position will be more than sufficient for breathing. You can thus stay in the water for 8 hours without exerting any energy and wait for interesting subjects to drift or swim underneath.

Nude snorkeling, officially prohibited in St. Lucia.

If you're staying near the surface, you don't need a camera that can handle the pressure of deep water. A compact digital camera that has been augmented for snorkeling will work fine. Typically these cameras are specified waterproof to 10' but will work a little deeper as well. A good example is the Olympus Stylus 720SW, (compare prices).

How did it work in the old film days? If you can find a Nikon Action Touch, you might be surprised at how good it was. This camera has a very high quality 35/2.8 lens and autofocus above water. Underwater, you set the subject distance with a convenient dial. There is a nice big switch that turns the built-in flash on or off.

The Action Touch sold for about $150 in the late 1980s, after which Nikon took it off the market and no company ever made a similar camera. The Japanese concluded that nobody is intelligent enough to focus a camera manually. All the cheap underwater cameras introduced after the Action Touch were fixed focus underwater and came with lower quality lenses.

Most film photographers would use slide film despite its attendant narrow exposure tolerance. This may have been because prints can never convey the drama and brilliant colors of the underwater world.

Here are some snapshots from an old Nikon Action Touch:

Sunset off St. Lucia coast Underwater at Tobago Keys Underwater at Anse Chastanet, St. Lucia Underwater at Anse Chastanet, St. Lucia Professional stingray guy feeding stingray in Stingray City, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands Philip feeding stingray in Stingray City, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

Note that an "underwater-lite" camera ends up being a great camera for rafting, kayaking, heavy rain, or any other time when you need a high quality waterproof camera but don't need high pressure resistance.

The bad thing about snorkeling is that nearly all of your photos will end up having a "looking down" perspective. Here are a couple from Hawaii (taken with the Nikonos V, described below):

Seat turtle.  Hawaii Eagle Ray.  Underwater in Hawaii.

The hard (case) way

Strap some tanks, ideally filled with Nitrox, on your back and dive. Many compact digital cameras, notably the popular Canon line, are marketed with accessory underwater housings. These rigid plastic cases typically cost around $160 and are designed for use at all recreational SCUBA depths, i.e., down to 130' underwater. A housed camera is never as easy to use as a camera designed specifically for use underwater, so if you are mostly going to be using a camera at snorkel depths, you are better off with a camera from the preceding section.

The hard way

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

What if a compact digital camera is not an adequate tool for the job? You can put any standard camera into a plastic bag. A plastic bag?!? Not just any plastic bag. A thick German plastic bag made by ewa-marine with a metal screw-down zip-loc top. These ewa guys make plastic bags for cameras of all sizes with various combinations of lenses and flashes.

We have tested some ewa-marine bags here at photo.net. To our amazement, they did not leak. However, we were never been able to use them successfully. The last time we tried the ewa bag was on a liveaboard trip to the Great Barrier Reef. The bag was stuffed with a Nikon 8008, SB-24 flash, and 60mm macro lens. As soon as I got to about 30 feet underwater, the bag was pressing up against the camera to the point that the controls were inoperable. The AF drive wasn't strong enough to rack the lens out against the pressure of the bag. The few snapshots produced in this matter were of substandard quality and, with a 20mm lens, there was pronounced vignetting from the housing (example at right).

Why Wide-angle Lenses Are Important

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Now that we're deep underwater, let's talk about fundamentals rather than gear for a moment. One fundamental fact is that water magnifies. Thus you end up needing a wider angle lens than you thought. A 20mm lens on a full-frame digital SLR or 35mm film camera is not especially wide for underwater use.

If you have a longer lens, why not just back up? The problem with backing up underwater is that water tends to absorb red and yellow light. The more water between your subject and your lens, the bluer your subject will be. If your light source is on-camera (i.e., if you are using a flash), every extra foot of water between you and the subject addings two feet worth of bluing (one as the light goes from the flash to the subject and one on the way back to the lens).

Underwater photographers are thus very fond of very wide lenses and very powerful flashes.

Back to the Gear: the Rigid Housing System

If we don't like the plastic bag idea, what about going back to the rigid plastic housing idea that works so well for digital point and shoot cameras? We would need a housing custom-designed to enclose a digital SLR body. Then we would need some kind of extension matched to any particular lens that we might mount to that body. Then we would need some way of extending the enclosure to surround an attached electronic flash. Maybe we would want to have an off-camera flash connected via an underwater cord. Sound complex? It is, but it works and is the kind of system that most professional underwater photographers use. The oldest and most popular brand of underwater housing is Ikelite.

The Classic Nikonos System

For several decades, Nikon produced a line of flexible cameras that were inherently waterproof and pressure resistant. The most popular model was the Nikonos V. This was a rugged little rubber-coated body that took interchangeable lenses in 15, 20, 28, 35 (standard lens; works above water too), and 80mm lengths. The camera gave you aperture-priority or manual exposure control with center-weighted TTL metering. Optics and image quality are excellent. It was a real camera that you could take into the shower or down on any SCUBA dive.

Beach Shower.  Hawaii

The Nikonos V had a fairly unfriendly user interface for a camera that was designed for people breathing a limited air supply. To focus, you flip the camera over and stare at the front. Then you turn a dial until the correct distance is indicated. Then you flip the camera back over and take your picture.

Nikon fixed all of this with their Nikonos RS SLR, introduced with great fanfare in 1992. From the feature list, it looked basically like a water- and pressure-proof Nikon land SLR. Everything was automatic if you wanted it to be, the viewfinder offered super high eye relief (since the user was presumed to be wearing a SCUBA mask). There was an amazing 20-35 zoom lens and a tempting macro lens.

Warts? The Nikonos RS was priced at approximately $10,000 for a system, much more than a housed SLR. The camera would flood and require expensive repairs, which Nikon invariably blamed on user carelessness, despite the fact that these same people had been using the Nikonos V for many years with no problems. One photo.net reader who sold his said that what he hated most was the lack of neutral buoyancy: "I would hand the camera to my wife and then have to adjust my BC; I don't want a camera that becomes part of my weight system."

Nikon discontinued the RS system in 1996.

Nikonos V Gallery

Here are some snapshots from Hawaii with a Nikonos V and the standard 35mm lens.

In the water.  Off Hawaii. In the water.  Off Hawaii.

Kauai.  Hawaii. Kauai.  Hawaii. Wounded on the coral.  Hawaii.

Feeding fish.  Underwater in Hawaii. Snorkeling.  Hawaii.

Underwater in Hawaii. Underwater in Hawaii.

Underwater in Hawaii. Underwater in Hawaii.

Underwater in Hawaii. Fish underneath the Captain Cook Monument.  Kealakekua Bay.  Big Island. Hawaii.

Is it all worth it?

Underwater at Tobago Keys

One of the best moments of my life was snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii. This is the bay where Captain Cook was worshipped as a God and subsequently stabbed to death by Hawaiians in 1779. I was about 1/2-mile out in the bay, drifting and look down at three reef sharks, each about six feet in length. They swam off suddenly and I looked up to see that a school of dolphins, perhaps 60 in number, had entered the bay. They were 200 yards away and I started swimming toward them. By the time I'd moved 10 yards, the school was all the way down at the other end of the bay (1/2 mile in the distance).

I gave up.

To my immense joy, the dolphins started coming back. They were heading straight toward me, occasionally one would leap but mostly I just saw 20 dorsal fins out of the water at a time (the other dolphins swimming underneath). My joy eventually turned to fear when I thought that perhaps a direct encounter with 60 bottle-nosed animals traveling at 30 miles-per-hour would not be pleasant. At the last minute, when the dolphins were no more than 15 feet away, they dove about 10 feet underwater and swam directly underneath. Some of them rolled on their sides to get a better look up at me. I snapped their picture with a Nikonos V.

When I got the images back, I found that the dolphins were only faintly visible on film. My eyes had adjusted to the blue light, but the film did not. The contrast between dolphin and water, dramatic to my eye, was very subtle.

Dolphins in Kealakekua Bay.  Big Island. Hawaii. Dolphins in Kealakekua Bay.  Big Island. Hawaii. Dolphins in Kealakekua Bay.  Big Island. Hawaii.

Must you have a camera with you?

If you want to be a great photographer, the general rule is that you should carry a camera at all times. Competing with Christopher Newbert or Norbert Wu is a tall order, however. These guys go into the water every day year after year and wait.

It is difficult to take decent photos on land. It is difficult to go down underwater with tanks on your back and get back to the boat or beach alive. Don't feel compelled to combine these activities, especially if you're going on a dive that is challenging for you. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the underwater scene while you're privileged to be on vacation and underwater.

More


Text and images copyright Philip Greenspun.

Article revised January 2007.

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



Matthew Endo , July 22, 1998; 08:17 P.M.

At last! A page on u/w photography! It is interesting to see a 99 and 44/100 percent land photographer's view on this subject.

The fact of the matter remains that the lens is the most important part of u/w photography. The Nikonos V is a good camera, but with the standard 35mm lens it is useless. A good lens (at around $1600) is the 15mm wide angle.

If you are serious about getting good photos u/w, you will need a housed system. Yes, a Nikon F90s/N90x with an Ikelite/Subal/Nexus/or one of the many other housing manufacturers. This is a clear cut situation where yes, Nikon wins over Canon, although in Japan there are many housings for the Rebel G (New Kiss) body.

Whereas all the serious land photographers are arguing about ballheads for their tripods, u/w photographers are debating the merits of synch cords for their strobes and dome ports for the housings. Come over to the uw-photo mailing list to see for yourself.

For the casual photographer, the best solution seems to be the Ikelite Aquashot 3e housing which accepts the Fuji Endeavor APS camera. Dave Read has an excellent resource page at http://www.ph.utexas.edu/~read/aquashot/aquashot.html and Ike of Ikelite frequently posts on uw-photo. His customer service is equalled by none.

Most of us have enough problems with land photos as it is. My advice to would-be u/w photographers is this: Before you start trying to take photos underwater, make sure your buoyancy skills are near perfect. I have seen many divers crashing into the reef, destroying corals and trying to take photos while flailing around. Please become a good diver first before you start to compound the difficulty of your dives with carrying a camera around and trying to take pictures while hovering motionless over a reef.

A good place to start would be by taking an introductory course such as the U/W photographer specialty or even a full week course on a liveaboard with a pro like Jim Church.

See you all underwater.

Quang-Tuan Luong , September 07, 1998; 03:10 A.M.

As a novice diver I didn't find that staying alive (or even close to neutrally buoyant) was a big problem. However, I found that getting more than a few acceptable pictures per roll was one. In my case, I think it is because I was mostly trying to do wide-angle pics with a 15 lens on the Nikonos, and this is basically manual (the ttl didn't seem to expose properly a non-centered background) fill-in with part of the backlit (pictures taken looking down are usually less sucessful) subject at close-up distance. I am not sure this would be that easy even on the surface. Besides you have to estimate distances modified by water, orient the flash, and you can't pop out a flashmeter ! I am wondering if with a modern housed camera, af, and auto fill-in it is not much easier.

Douglas Cummings , November 09, 1998; 01:08 A.M.

Let me suggest that UW Photography requires such anal attention to equipment that a good idea is to buy from someone who actually knows the equipment: ABSea Photo ocean@primenet.com Next to LAX. This is not like getting an N90 w/ a 180mm and SB24.B&H will not help you here. I'm not an owner nor related to him.

Alon Coppens , November 20, 1998; 07:49 P.M.

I recently purchased a Minolta Vectis Zoom for kayaking. Sure it's a lot heavier than the disposables I've been using - it doesn't float so I can't just toss it to a friend - but I took it for granted that some genuine optics and a true zoom would improve my snapshots and maybe turn some into true photos. So far, I think the disposables actually have a slight edge in picture quality!

Tom Skiba , February 26, 1999; 01:29 P.M.

A quick hint for setting up a Nikonos....mount the lens upside down....then rather than having to flip the camera completely over to read the scale and set the distance you can just look down onto the top of the lens and set it.....saves a couple of seconds and is alot less distracting to the u/w life than waving you system around in front of them...tom

Elaine Jobin , June 05, 1999; 04:35 P.M.

Underwater photography is completely different from land photography. There are no tripods (at least not usually), objects underwater are not where they appear to be or the size they appear to be, you work within limits of a tank of air and one roll of film per dive. To become proficient at underwater photography requires hundreds of underwater hours, good scuba skills, and usually a large investment in scuba trips, scuba gear, and photo gear. Avid underwater photographers usually start with a disposable camera or an inexpensive point and shoot of almost any variety - then they move up to either a Sea & Sea Motormarine or Nikonos V. The Nikonos V has for many years been the standard of the industry. Housed cameras are popular amoung serious photographers primarily because their close up and macro capabilities surpass the Nikonos V. I can't believe you could pooh pooh the Nikonos V simply because it has 'inconvenient controls'. With practice you learn to use them by feel, not by `flipping the camera over'. That camera is probably the standard of the indurstry and can do amazing things in the underwater environment. I am sure with time something higher tech will come along, but in the mean time, give the note to this camera that it deserves. I have seen many talented land photographers become talented underwater photographers in just a short period of time - once they master some basic scuba skills. The first choice of these individuals when they stop renting and start buying is almost always the Nikonos V.

Michael Donis , June 30, 1999; 05:13 A.M.

I've been a SCUBA instructor for just over 5 years now, diving for 9 years, while having an interest in photography all my life and I can tell you something about underwater photography -- it's not as easy as it looks. There are so many factors from natural light absorption, diffraction from particulate, lack of stability from current and not being able to rest on something without harming it (and possibly you!), restricted constraints from air to film on a given dive, and many more that a successful underwater photographer must overcome for just a few successful shots.

One thing that I feel is crucial is the photographer's diving skills. He/she/they must be comfortable in the water under a variety of conditions and positions before they can distract themselves by taking pictures. It still amazes me how my air consumption skyrockets as I try to line up shots. The most important skill for any diver is buoyancy control -- the ability to comfortably hold his depth in the water at a given depth (while rising and sinking a few inches as breathing occurs).

I've done most of my southern diving in areas of current, including Cozumel, where you very often you don't get a second shot of something as you drift. One trick I found useful while coasting across the bottom at about 3 or more knots is to preset your focusing distance before hand. As you drift, you may be lucky to come around a coral head to find a barracuda or something else worth taking a snap in the range you just set. Very often, one shot is all you ever get. If you do get the chance to stop or slow down for a few shots, by all means, take three but if the current is pulling you along so stopping will tire you or harm the coral, try pre-setting your camera.

As for housing an AF for underwater photos, I don't believe that is possible due to light absorption properties of water. As reds and soon the yellows are absorbed in the first 5 to 10 feet of water, the camera's autofocus system will have difficulty focusing on anything. Even in macro ranges, there may not be enough light getting to the sensors to properly activate the AF system. Then, if the water is turbid, the AF gets even worse. Maybe someday

Please remember -- don't touch the coral, they are macroscopic organisms -- even "lightly" with your finger is like you being "lightly touched" with by with the weight of a small house.

Charles Mackay , September 11, 1999; 11:24 A.M.

I started serious photography under water, then moved topside. It's no easier dry.

The Nikonos V ended up as my main tool, with a 20mm UW Nikkor as I couldn't afford the 15mm, together with Ikelite 150 on TTL. I also used an OM2 in Ikelite housing, though less successfully and it was bulkier. The Ikelite housings are less costly than the fancy ones and work well.

Aquatica seems to make nice housings for Nikon / Canon -- if I were doing it over again, this plus a Nikon F3 with the big screen sportsfinder and 20mm lens would be a top choice. Forget AF as it is all wide angle or macro anyway, plus there are complex lighting problems as noted above.

All this stuff will leak if you are not super careful about O-rings, maintenance, washing in fresh H20, etc. It is expensive or impossible to fix once flooded. Count on losing stuff to occasional disaster.

Being a good diver with bouyancy control is very helpful. (Consider wearing wetsuit pants so your legs don't sink.) Gently lowering the whole camera rig off the side tethered to a line and picking it up after you enter the water is also handy, reverse the same procedure exiting the water. Just remember to haul it in after the dive ;-).

Dan Carey , September 14, 1999; 07:20 P.M.

Underwater photography isn't for everyone. However, lots of people really enjoy it as a hobby, artform or profession. Other's couldn't be bothered with all the equipment hassles and would rather spend their time looking at cool stuff. Nothing wrong with that, but eventually somebody asks, after a dive trip, "what did you see?" and then there is no substitute for photography. A Nik5 and 35mm lens? Many outstanding images have been created with less than that. Of course, a wide lens has lots of advantages underwater. The depth of field is really useful with a manual focus camera and getting close to the subject often results in better color rendition since water absorbs red light so much more quickly than the rest of the spectrum. How about a disposable camera in a housing? Nothing wrong with that. The Fuji Endeavor in an Ikelite housing is a great tool for U/W, without taking a second mortgage out on the ol' homested. A housed SLR? Nice, flexible system. Autofocus. A parallax-free viewfinder. All kinds of lenses at a fraction of what the few available Nikonos lenses cost. Complex and bulky, but attractive nonetheless.

Howie Wong , September 30, 1999; 03:41 A.M.

There are basically only two types of underwater phtography worth investing time and money for. Firstly the amphibious camera of which only the Nikonos V and the sea and sea motor marine II approach giving acceptable results. The advantage or disadvantage is that both cameras are basically what you would call manual. You have to set the focus distance yourself, the aperture and onthe MMII the exposure. This is fine for those land based photographers who learned from the basics but not for those who jumped into the F5 arena and used P mode all the time (sad yuppies). Having said that the Nikonos V is the industry standard amphibious camera and NOTHING can beat its 15mm wide angle lens.(not even housed 15mm)However, macro shots with the Nik V are a bit of a pain as you can not tell if the subject is in focus or not. The next step is to use a housed SLR. Nikon dominates this arena 100 to 1 at least! There are a number of manufacturers who do do housings for canon (INON, Sea and Sea) but these generally are for the cheap machines such as the Kiss (rebel i believe in the US) which doesn;t even have auto-focus tracking. Try photographing a darting clown fish without this feature! The best housings on the market are Nexus, Subal, Aquatica, Inon and Sea and Sea. Don't even think about using an Ikelite housing. Yes, they are very cheap but they are rubbish. I don't know anyone who is happy with them. Most people end up with rubber bands strategically placed because the shutter is so hard to control! My solution to the myriad of housings is to have a F90X with 105mm macro or 60mmmacro housed in a Sea and Sea housing with a Nik V screwed on top with a 15mm lens. Thus i can take macro and wide angle on the same dive. It works a treat! Hope this is of interest.

Herman Hiel , October 14, 1999; 07:58 A.M.

Before considering what equipment to use, I would suggest getting an u/w photography course. My girlfriend finally followed my suggestion and took the Padi u/w course; the quality of her pictures has improved dramatically; she now understand better the limitations of her gear and might refrain from taking a pic if she knows it won't turn out OK. The 100$ cost of the course is a small investment, considering the cost of all the pics one has to throw out ... For myself, although being an avid topside wildlife amateur, I prefer to enjoy the dives without having to worry about handling the gear. Maybe one day ...

Han Liu , April 16, 2000; 01:54 A.M.

The Kodak one time use waterproof camera worked great on my scuba trip. We took the camera all the way down to 100 feet and it did not leak. However, it will not work below about 13 feet of water. It did not work when we were diving deep, but once after we went up about 13 feet it worked again. The camera is under twenty dollars. It's a very worthy investment on diving trips.

Kendall Gelner , April 26, 2000; 03:30 P.M.

I just recently went on my first ocean dive (my forth open water dive ever) with an underwater camera, and I must first of all agree with the other comments that if you are new to diving you should wait until your buoyancy skills are under control before you take out a camera. I didn't do too badly, but the worst problem was a huge increase in air consumption that meant I was surfacing ten minutes before everyone else had to. The next few trips I take I'll stick to topside photos.

However, I took an option that I have not seen mentioned here - I rented an underwater camera (in my case the Nikonos V). That's a wonderful choice if you just want to try underwater photography to see if you like it before you spend a LOT of money on equipment. In my case I didn't have many good pictures but I had a handful (out of seven rolls of film) that convinced me I will make the attempt again someday.

You can rent cameras from just about any SCUBA shop, in my case it was about $100 for a ten day rental.

I have to agree with Philip in disliking the Nikonos V for having to adjust the aperture on the front of the camera so the shot would be properly focused. I think that slight errors in this department ended up making a few shots that would have been really wonderful turn out slightly fuzzy and thus disappointing. If you do rent a camera, try and rent one with some sort of autofocusing!

Also, be very attentive to the seals on the camera. I had no trouble with camera flooding over the course of four days diving, as I made sure to very carefully inspect and relubricate the o-rings on the camera every time I opened it up. It takes a lot of care to keep a camera healthy in deep water, so that might be something to think about before you buy or rent a camera - are you willing to put the kind of time you need to for proper equipment maintenance?

william Reese , October 04, 2000; 11:33 A.M.

HELLO UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHERS,

I am quite sure that there are many ways to approach U/W photography and mine is but one. I have about 25 years experience with this and have recently made it my No. 1 professional pursuit. My work has been feted by Dr. Sylvia Earle and I have recently been awarded one of the Juror's awards in the prestigious Ellipse Gallery Photo Show in Arlington, VA. I believe that my success is based on several factors as listed below:

1) Take lots of photos. Dive all day. dive into the night. Fight off that urge to quaff a beer when the sun sets and wait for the most spectacular creatures to emerge from their dens. Lighting is also easier after pesky surface light is gone.

2) Dont give up. It takes a while to figure out what your doing.

3) Always take a spare everything. U/W stuff breaks, leaks and corrodes. You will always need a backup especially if you are a long way from civilization.

4) Go to the really great dive locations. Although this is an aspect of how much money you have, it really is worth it. Nothing is more boring than a picture of a rock.

Happy hunting

Image Attachment: IMG0015.gif

John Moran , November 05, 2000; 06:10 P.M.

I read this page about two years ago for the first time, having forver been excited by the possibility of taking photographs underwater. If there is anything I could offer to supplement this, I'd say that everyone has their preferences and their pocketbooks. I settled for an Ikelite underwater camera housing w/100a substrobe. I took it underwater for the first time in Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia. The visibility was poor, and there was a rough surge on the black stone beach. I loaded two rolls of E100VS, one roll of Ektapress, one roll of Ilford Delta 400, and one roll of EBX100 on our four dives and one snorkelling excursion. I maxed out at around 100 feet off of the wall, did the wreck in the day and at night, and thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. The manual control I had and versitality of the lenses and filters of a full-range SLR system, made the N70 and ikelite housing the perfect choice. I used a sigma zoom 28-80mm with +4 filter and sigma 80mm 1:2 macro with +7 filter. After I got the hang of the system, positioning of the strobe, and boyouncy control (the housing is already nearly neutral so not much problem there), I let loose. The only real problems I encountered were with exiting the water on the night dive onto the beach over the stone beach, in the surge. The housing and strobe are large enough that they throw you off balance out of water. I managed to thoroughly slice up my legs and arms, and get a nasty gash accorss my stobe. Luckily the thing is built like a tank and it still works perfectly. I got my slides and prints developed the next week. I was very happy with the results. Follow URL to photo from first dive. I got some more successful ones later, and am ever improving with time, but I figure this is a pretty good score for a first camera/dive.

URL:http://www.photo.net/photodb/photo.tcl?photo_id=82739

It's a bad scan, the actual image is sharper than it appears here.

Anyway, thanks Phil, and always take size and weight out of water into consideration. The nikonos sure wins over there, though I'd still stick with a housing aby day.

Ken Byrne , November 22, 2000; 12:20 P.M.

I've been into photography for 22 years, diving for around 18 years and into underwater photography for the last 4 years. I was happy with F stops and shutter speeds and totally at ease underwater. Underwater photography was going to be a breeze. Image my surprise when my bouyancy control went to pieces and my air consumption doubled. After a couple of dives I started to relax and now I feel uncomfortable diving without a camera.

I started with a Nik V and it is a great camera but it does require extension tubes , a close up kit or a wide angle lens to get the best out of it. With macro kit focus is fixed and set before you get in the water, you can pre aim the strobe as well. This is definitely the best way to get some good shots in the bag when you are first starting out. The disadvantage is that you use a framer, a set of goal posts that your subject has to sit in. Most fish are just not happy with this set up. With a wide angle lens lighting is much more difficult but the depth of field is huge so again accurate focussing isn't a huge problem.

I've now moved on to a Nikon F60 in an Ikelite housing. I've seen it suggested in this forum that AF will not work underwater. Sorry but it works a treat on most subjects. It does struggle with low contrast subjects in murky waters but even here in the UK it's rare that I can't get it to focus. I've also read a post that states that the Ike housing is no good. I have to disagree. I'm sure it's not the slickest housing to use but it does the job. The shutter release is spot on and the ports are as good as any others I've seen. I'm quite pleased to have saved money on the housing to spend on extra ports and lenses.

How does the housed camera compare to the trusty Nik V. For macro work it's superb. I am not stuck with one magnification, selected before getting in the water and I've no framer to scare the fish. For wide angle it's closer to call but through the lens viewing wins the day in my book. You also have the capability to use zoom lenses with the housed camera.

Ken Aaron , January 14, 2001; 02:02 A.M.

I just wanted to give my 2 cents worth about a previous equipment comment (you all have covered the bigger issues very well!). A previous comment about autofocus systems within a housing just isn't true. Autofocus works extremely well underwater. Color absorption has nothing to do with the autofocus system, it focuses based on contrast. I've been doing u/w photography for about 8 years and have had a housing for my N90s for 3+years. The only time I've had problems with the autofocus was when it was just too dark (can and does happen on dry land) AND I did not have my spotting light mounted on my housing. The spotting light is a flashlight which allows you to see your subject in less than ideal lighting conditions and also provides enough light for autofocus to work. At night I use it as my dive light. During daylight hours I estimate that I've had to use the spotting light maybe 5% of the time.

Just wanted to clear this up.

Bob Benzinger , May 25, 2001; 09:41 P.M.

A few points that haven't yet been covered, or could use some clarification:

Housed Cameras: Focusing a housed camera is completely different depending on whether you are using a dome port or a flat port. A flat port reduces the included angle of the lens, but focuses just like a regular lens. A 35mm lens is more or less equivalent to a 50, etc. Most u/w photographers use a flat port ONLY for macro work. A dome port, on the other hand, does not affect the included angle of the lens, i.e. a 20mm lens under a dome port covers the same 94 degrees or whatever that it does on land. HOWEVER, the lens focuses not on the subject, but on a "virtual image" projected on the dome port. The virtual image is much closer than the real image, so you are using the close focusing capabilities of the lens even if the subject is a hundred feet away (not that you are likely to get a picture at that distance anyway). So, to use a dome port you need a lens with excellent close focusing capabilities, or a screw-in closeup lens, or an extension tube. Many underwater photographers like the 24mm Nikkor because of its excellent sharpness at extremely close focus. BTW, depth of field is very high with a dome port, you hardly ever have to refocus the virtual image. I used to use a 24mm on a Nikon FE inside an old compact Tussey housing and was quite pleased with the handling and the results.

Strobes and backscatter: Perhaps the biggest problem in using a strobe underwater is backscatter, the reflection of light off tiny particles suspended in the water. This problem is at its worst if the axis of the strobe is close to the lens, just like redeye above water. The solution is to move the strobe at least two feet from the axis of the lens and at a fairly sharp angle, e.g. aiming down and from the side at the subject. This is why advanced u/w photographers are seen with rigs that look like a spider crab. Some photographers don't even bother attaching the strobe to the camera (except for the synch cable). They just handhold the strobe on a long arm.

This is getting long, I think I will cover a couple of other issues in another post.

Bob Benzinger , May 25, 2001; 10:31 P.M.

A few points on the Nikonos:

You don't need a housing to get professional results. Lots of pros use the Nikonos for most of their underwater shooting. The 20mm lens will get you lots of good wideangle shots. The 15 is better, but if you can't afford it, don't sweat it. The 28 is useful for longer shots of medium-sized fish. Forget the 35mm lens except with the closeup kit or macro tubes. It is, however, handy for rafting, kayaking, skiing, etc. There is also an above-water-only 28mm that is no longer made. The Nikonos shines for macro and closeup work where you can set up a fixed focus, aperture, and strobe power.

Models of the Nikonos:

Nikonos V: This is the current model. Having been around since the 1980's, it is the only Nikonos many newer divers and photographers have ever seen. It is not, however, the only option.

Advantages: Auto exposure. TTL flash. Bigger viewfinder than older models. Better sealing than the Nikonos IV (but not as good as the Nikonos III). Slightly faster flash synch speed than Nikonos III. Conventional loading and handling, i.e. you don't have to take it apart to load it.

Disadvantages: If it leaks, you have a very expensive paperweight - and every underwater photographer floods a camera sooner or later. Most flooded Nikonos V's blow out the electronics beyond repair. I got a couple of milliliters of water in one once and it was gone. Nikonos guru Bob Warkentin makes desk pen sets out of flooded Nikonos V's - and he makes a lot of them. Another minor disadvantage is that you can't mount the old version of the 15mm on a Nikonos V - the rear element interferes with the TTL exposure sensor. This really isn't much of an issue anymore - if you're enough of a dinosaur to use an old-style 15, you've probably got several Nikonos III bodies to put it on!

Nikonos IV: A transitional model, with flip-open back, autoexposure, no manual shutter speeds, and no TTL flash. I cannot imagine why anyone would use this POS except for snorkeling. The sealing is terrible - in an effort to make it easier to load than the early versions, Nikon used a gasket on the back rather than a true compression-type O-ring seal. It is flood-prone, and of course a flood will fry the electronics just like a V. The SB-101 autoflash, an underpowered unit with an external sensor, is if anything even more useless than the camera. This is the Nikkorex of underwater cameras.

Nikonos III: I own six of them, vs. one Nikonos V, so that tells you my opinion. This ancient mariner is all mechanical, all manual and built like a tank. It demands operator skill, not least to load it since you have to take it apart in three pieces. If it is properly maintained and inspected it is the least likely of ALL underwater cameras to flood, and even more important, you can recover from a flood in the field! I once flooded a Nikonos III on an exploratory expedition aboard the old Pacific Nomad in an obscure part of Fiji. I took it apart, cleaned off the back of the lens, and put the rest of the camera in a bucket of clean fresh water. Then I went diving with my other camera. When I got back from the next dive, I took it out of the water, blew it out with an air hose, and put it in the engine room overnight so the heat would dry it out. The next morning I loaded it with film and went diving. It stayed dry and functional for the rest of the trip. I sent it in for overhaul after the trip; I still have the camera and it still works. Try that with your auto-everything wonder!

The Nikonos III has a few disadvantages: It's really old, so service can be an issue. The combined film advance/shutter release takes some getting used to. The tiny viewfinder is useless underwater; you need an accessory finder. You need to get an accessory external meter (expensive) if you want to take pictures with available light. And, of course, being all-manual it is slow to change settings if you suddenly get a photo opportunity that you aren't set up for. The Nikonos III works best with a tray and strobe arm that is set up for the camera and its ancillary meter, add-on trigger, etc. and these old setups can be hard to find in decent condition. Nonetheless, it remains my go-everywhere and do-everything camera.

Nikonos II: There aren't all that many of these left in service. It is similar to the III, but the wind mechanism isn't as strong and there are a couple of other disadvantages. I wouldn't bother; they aren't any cheaper than a III and offer no advantage.

One last point on the Nikonos: there is really only one place to get it serviced. Bob Warkentin in Texas is the master. Nikon USA has a rotten reputation among u/w photographers for slow service and high prices. There is also a lot of buzz that the warranty on a Nikonos doesn't mean much. I personally would never send a Nikonos to Nikon for any reason except a recall (that reminds me, the SB-103 strobes are subject to a safety-related recall). I have ALWAYS gotten my Nikonos work done by Warkentin and it was always first rate, on time, and reasonably priced.

Aaron Taylor , January 23, 2002; 01:13 P.M.

Not everyone floats so you may want to check on this before you do something stupid.

Marvin Jones , May 29, 2003; 12:09 A.M.

There's a 3rd option: Freediving. I moved from scuba to freediving several years ago and have not regretted it. I have an underwater web page off of each of my Bonaire and Anguilla web sites: www.jonz.net/Bonaire/ , and www.jonz.net/Anguilla/ . Both sites are a little "long in the tooth" and require updates from numerous visits to these islands since the web sites were first thrown up. 'Til now I've been using an Ikelite AuquaShot housing that uses Fuji (and Kodak) disposable flash cameras. Results are decent -- certainly `ok` for web publishing. I am now moving up to a Nikon Coolpix 2000 with (again) an Ikelite housing. We'll see how that turns out.

Don Williams , June 16, 2003; 08:13 P.M.


Rolleimarin with camera

The Nikon Action Touch is mentioned in the discussion. I have one but have never heard it mentioned by anyone else. I do use it for wet and snow conditions, and as my standard Point and Shoot camers. It's also great for swimmming pool pictures.

I have been a scuba diver since 1947 and have used several camera housings, the first of which I built myself, rated at 300' housing an Argus C4.

My current housing, probably not known to most above-water photographers, is the cadillac of housings, the Rolliemarin IV, which is used with my Rolleiflex 3.5F. This housing has all the camera controls available to the diver and includes the ability to swing close-up lenses and filters into position underwater.

Don Williams La Jolla, CA

Robert Hall , July 04, 2003; 10:01 A.M.

My wife teaches marine science and needs a simple point-and-shoot camera suitable for wet environments. We have gone through about 8 different cameras: three minolta weathermatics (110 film), two minolta 35mm, two canon sure-shots, and a canon elf (aps). The minolta 35mm died way to soon from a leak as did one canon sure-shot. After two years of wrangling canon sent me a replacement. The Elf was good except I don't like aps film (expensive to process) and my wife got her finger in the image on half of the shots. It worked OK for me, however. It was pretty rugged; it survied having me dump an entire bushel of scallops on it as I emptied my catch bag into the wrong box, getting kicked around the floor of a boat, and other such modest abuse. Any such camera requires great care to be sure the seal is clean. You need to carry q-tips in your bag and use them between every film change. Avoid running them under the sink because the pressure is greater than that at 15 feet; just immerse them in a dishpan of clean water to rinse off salt water.

If anyone knows of a good UW camera of this ilk, please advise!

Joseph Liftik , November 15, 2003; 12:52 P.M.

After years of SCUBA diving I concluded that u/w photography can produce interesting views of fish, coral and other unusual underwater creatures. However, the wonder of the underwater experience can seldom be captures on a still frame. Even the best u/w photographers rarely capture the experience. I think this is due to the limitations of the gear in the u/w environment. On the other hand, I found the u/w video is truly capable of conveying what the underwater world is about. For example, I have a 30 second video of an eagle ray dancing right in front of my video camera lens, I put it to music..... no way you can convey this with a still frame. I think that in the underwater medium, it is movement of the subjects that creates the image.

Paul Alford , February 11, 2004; 09:52 A.M.

Don't go out and buy U/W gear, rent it on location. I always rent and have no bother finding outlets where I can do this. In Hurghada there are 5 outlets, Sharm has 7 that I know of. Decent PADI 5* dive centres will most probably have kit to hire, if not at they will point you in the right direction.

If after several dive trips (IMO it will take this many to become accustomed) you feel a need to mve forward in this area, then consider buying gear. I have shot images on over 50 dives now and I'm still ages from even considering buying my own kit.

G D , February 20, 2007; 05:31 P.M.

Finally dipped a finger into Still Photography underwater. Nik V with 35mm lens and 1:1 extension tube as well as Oceanoptics Macro lens. Sea and Sea YS 50 Strobe.

After a long week in the Red Sea my photographs progressed every roll of film. Shooting Kodak Portra 400 VC I got a couple of really great shots. I ran out of film after about 45 minutes so had to think about how much film to shoot and when, balancing tester shots with keepers. 1 roll of slide film still to process, but it was deep, dark and silty.

My Video shots are deffinetly better than the stills, but I do prefer stills: need to work on tripod and second strobe as well as 15mm lens.

I think that digital is deffinetly a better bet than stills for Underwater stuff, particularly a housed Fuji F30 with a Wide angle conversion lens and a couple of strobes - ?900 Having brought all that I know that I would want the housing for my 5D and then i would probably flood it costing another ?900.

You can get my package for about ?270 and about ?375 for the 15mm lens. and this is something that i would still use when i get the housing for the 5D.

I shot a mixture of approaches: Aperture priority, and TTl flash with good results on macro, but underexposed when trying to do a foreground with blue water background. Manual 1/30th f8, 11 ,or 16 with Full flash giving me the best results on negative film. and the aperture priority with full power flash givign good results.

You need two strobes or a fill flash card on macro shots. The YS 50 is not powerfull enough for anything other than macro and close ups. You need really clear viz for Slide film.

I'm still learning, but realy happy to have the Rangefinder, and actually used the 35mm lens out the water with great results.

Lovin the Nikonos V

P.S. if you read the manual and always use fully round O rings you will not flood it.

Remember to go into robot mode when changing film at the end of the dive and before a dive preparing all equipment You have to be extremely attentive to detail.

See R , March 15, 2007; 04:08 A.M.

I've gotta wonder if I would be able to operate my Shen Hao in an Ewa bag, although I am most positive that if I could it would be a miserable experience and with most likely poor results.

Joseph...beyond catching movement with video...also consider macros of colorful invertebrates as well as panoramics to capture the totality of it all in a glance....although largely yes, I agree with you it is hard to really capture...either on still or video.

Bill Van Antwerp , April 07, 2007; 08:36 P.M.

There is a rumor that Cathy Church housed a Sinar for shooting some B&W underwater stuff, forget the EWA unless you are really crazy. For macro, also forget the Nikonos, have you ever tried to get a pygmy seahorse (see my portfolio) or a long nosed hawkfish into a framer and stand still. Wide angle with the Nikonos 15 mm is still awesome, but for macro I think a housed digital SLR is the only way to go.

Bill

Image Attachment: Troy pygmy.jpg

Josef Swaney , July 24, 2007; 11:22 A.M.

I feel compelled to offer a response to Bill's post above. There have been literally millions of great macro photos taken with the Nikonos system, and the vast majority of photographs that were published for a generation were taken with the Nikonos system.

There are several Nikonos options that allow you to photograph skittish macro subjects. My favorite is the Spot Shot by Underwater Photo-Tech. There is a version that works with the Nikonos close-up set and others that work with Helix extension tubes. The converging beams of light do not seem to frighten subjects the way framers do, and they work well to get sharply-focused images.

Some folks take the simple expedient of cutting off one or both framer sides of an extension tube and framer set (or unscrewing the uprights in the case of the Sea&Sea extension tube sets), which also significantly reduces the frustration you might feel when your framer uprights scare your subject just as you are ready to take a shot.

The migration to digital has driven the price of Nikonos systems down significantly, but Nikonos cameras and lenses continue to be capable of producing true professional-quality photographs when used by capable photographers. You can purchase a complete Nikonos system on eBay for less than what a quality housing for a digital SLR camera will cost, have all the equipment serviced (highly recommended!), and be ready to take images that will make superb enlargements and astound your friends with their housed digital compact cameras.

On another front, as noted in a number of posts above, floods happen. There's a saying about underwater photographers--they fall into two groups--those who have flooded something and those who will flood something (often at the most inopportune time). With a Nikonos, the impact of the eventual flood is far less costly than with your housed D200 or (insert your favorite new digital brand/model here), and your normal camera continues to operate properly for the rest of your vacation if you ever do flood a Nikonos.

Joe

Robert Hall , July 25, 2007; 08:27 A.M.

It is a shame that more people do not visit this page. We need quality reviews of the new cameras, Sea&Sea and all the rest.

Jaap Voets , June 03, 2008; 05:32 P.M.

It might be time to heavily revise this page. I think only a few percent of the UW photographers is still using film, the rest has switched to digital.

Basicly because digital has huge advantages. 36 exposures on film versus 8 Gb (let's say 2000 shots) memory cards. Under water there is no way to reload your camera with fresh film. Being able to see what you just shot is a great aid as well. Especially with housed DLR's you are looking through a mask, a housing and then through the viewfinder. Try it on land, hold your eye 5 cm's from the viewfinder, you will quickly notice that composing isn't quite easy that way.

The techniques are ofcourse still the same: get close, get close and get closer, either with a macro or wide angle lens. And make sure to bring a decent flash unit if you want any color besides blue or green in your picture.

Mike Roberts , June 16, 2008; 07:12 P.M.

While I certainly would agree that a Nikonos is capable of incredible uw pix, I don't know if it's the best bet for uw photography anymore. I know many divers that still use 'em but I don't know anyone that has gone to digital and then back to film for uw.

For the price of a complete Nikonos system - additional lenses & strobe included - you can get a Canon G9 with zoom and house it with and Ikelite housing and strobe with Canon ttl and shoot raw images til your batteries die.

Floods? Yep, they happen with all uw systems and it is a real drag to be sure. Ruins a vacation but there is flood insurance.

Dirk Dom , September 22, 2008; 09:44 A.M.

I still use the nikonos V with the 15mm lens. i think the Nikkor 15mm F2.8 UW is still the best underwater lens in the world.

It focuses from 5 inches from the front to infinity, a 92 degree image angle, is absolutely razor sharp, has ultra - high colour saturation and contrast and has no distortions at all.

That's why I haven't switched to digital yet.

But i agree, digital is much easier and more fun to use.

dirk.

Nikolaus Exeli , November 05, 2008; 04:35 A.M.

a) Concerning your DCS experience: One of the main reasons for DCS is going up too fast, which is very likely to happen to unexperienced unsupervised divers with less than 20 or 30 dives, but that is besides the point.

b) Nitrox? seriously? when you have to concentrate on the camera you also want to pay attention to not descenting below the level of oxygen intoxication, which is likely to happen at 1,6 Bars partial pressure and can start at 1,4.

I'd say the combination of Nitrox with Photography should not be started before the 70th dive. The world is full enough of divers who can not control their buoyancy and devastate 2 square metres of coral reef for one mediocre shot of a coral with the spot where a terrified fish fled from when they took the photo.

P.S.: Sorry for being off topic, but live photographers take better pictures.

See R , November 13, 2008; 01:47 A.M.

I thought that an interesting way "to make an aesthetic statement" was to convert the image to B & W.

Image Attachment: 3376578-md.jpg

See R , November 13, 2008; 02:06 A.M.

Nitrox? seriously? when you have to concentrate on the camera you also want to pay attention to not descenting below the level of oxygen intoxication, which is likely to happen at 1,6 Bars partial pressure and can start at 1,4. I'd say the combination of Nitrox with Photography should not be started before the 70th dive.

This argument becomes completely irrelevant if the dive does not go deeper than what allows for a reasonable chance of oxygen toxicity. So with Nitrox I (EAN 32) if the dive (ocean or lake floor) is not deeper than 130 feet or with Nitrox II (EAN 36) if the dive is not deeper than 100 feet, then it is not possible to exceed 1.6 bars (ATA) of oxygen partial pressure. For example if you dive the HMCS Yukon in San Diego, the bottom of which lies at 100 feet and you use EAN 32, you can't exceed 1.3 ATA, and yet you increase your bottom time.

The world is full enough of divers who can not control their buoyancy and devastate 2 square metres of coral reef for one mediocre shot of a coral with the spot where a terrified fish fled from when they took the photo.

That is a different story--I agree 100%

Mike Roberts , November 14, 2008; 11:25 A.M.

I think if you read DAN stats, you'll see that DCS is more common among experienced divers rather than the newer diver. Also that Nitrox is the safest way to dive - of course you must keep depth limits in mind but most good photo ops are well above 90-100 feet. The only thing wrong with nitrox is the cost.

Again, the Nikonos is a great camera but it isn't capable of a shot like this. This is a full frame shot of a wire coral goby that is less than 1" long.

Image Attachment: fileRTf9H8.jpg

Verity Holworth , December 19, 2008; 10:01 A.M.

wow some great pics.

Andrew Prokos , February 07, 2009; 11:22 A.M.

I have been wanting to get into underwater for years but have never had the time to research it...this page is a good place to start!

Cullen Caston , June 08, 2009; 04:30 P.M.

I love to go diving, and thoroughly enjoy taking pictures while diving. I've even created a web site with a few of my photos on it. Everyone is more than welcome to come check it out and leave comments, or if anyone would like, you can even submit some of your own photos. Underwater Photography

Image Attachment: fileTLGogd.jpg

shayne ancheta , March 07, 2010; 04:30 A.M.

hello all, i want to add my two cents. I am a diver for a living. Now i dont get to go around and look at all the pretty fish. (that is what id like to do though!) I work on the oil platforms and that type of stuff.

Diving is very dangerous........ Sounds like some people on here have some experience with scuba. I have used lots of nikonos and even things like nikon coolpix. I will say being a diver with alot of time in the water, i dont worry about the diving part it sorta like muscle memory now. Point is i guess i never really thought to much about technique. I read alot of great advise in this thread and even learned a thing or two. My general preperation before i go take pics is to grab one or two ikelite 800's. That typically solves any lack of light problem. Backscatter can be a problem if you need to see large pic but of welds and things like that just set aperature and distance and fire away. And try to hold as still as possible. Taking pics u/w is like taking pics dry with light that is always to the point where you need a tripod but you didnt bring one and you never will. Anyway thats is my two cents. goodluck

george sweeney , July 19, 2010; 09:13 A.M.

Just a bit of nostalgia.  I lived in Egypt in 1953-54, and would often go scuba diving at a site south of Suez  where there was an easily accessible coral reef, and a moderate depth of about 30 feet. I wanted to take some underwater photos, and had to devise my own system.

I purchased in the bazaars of Cairo a conventional hot water bottle - rectangular, with a single circular opening. I then had a circular piece of glass cut, the size of the opening, and had a clamp made to hold it on place. Then, I inserted my 35 mm camera inside the bag, by stretching the opening with my fingers. I could then operate the camera by feel through the soft rubber.  I took quite a few good shots this way.

Will Magnussen , October 09, 2010; 04:52 P.M.

This string is completely useless to anyone thinking of shooting underwater. Get a housing for your camera, strobes, learn to dive properly, especially buoyancy, take a trip with a photo pro, spend a lot of time in the water shooting. Except for the wire goby, all the other underwater images on this string are terrible and not anything close to publishing quality.

Charles Tribbey , June 15, 2012; 12:36 P.M.

There definitely needs to be some updating to this thread. I am a land photographer, that has been drawn to the ocean over the last year, since moving to Maui, HI.  I have buoyancy issues, as Im rather large, but that has not stopped me from exploring, shooting underwater while snorkeling.

For equipment I use; Canon G9 in the Canon u/w housing made specifically for the camera. No external flash at this time. I have gotten some great images from this set up, though I wish that it did have a wider angle lens. Thinking of a switch to a Canon60D w/10-22 in a housing. Having the live view, digital screen on the back of the camera (3" LCD), is imperative since  you are having to deal with viewing through a mask, and the water housing. The viewfinder is useless. 

You don't have to deep dive for starters, it's amazing what you can find right near the surface. 

The attached image of the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle was shot near the surface. Turtles can hold their breath about 20 min, so be patient, they will rise to the surface to take a breath. That is when you shoot.

 

Tal Mozaik , September 16, 2013; 06:31 P.M.

Take a look at some examples from Mozaik Underwater Cameras's image gallery.  This gallery consists of images taken by our staff and our customers with various equipment around the world.

Image Attachment: filetzQptX.jpg


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