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Underwater Camera Buying Help

Underwater Camera Buying Help from The Scuba Doctor

There are plenty of things that need to be considered when buying an underwater camera. Here we try to help by guiding you through the many things to consider.

When to Buy

Photography and Videography with a point-and-shoot camera is easy. It's a great way to bring back the fun of diving to your friends and lets you remember the experience for years to come.

However, in the beginning, diving is hard enough as it is. Keeping yourself in a fairly neutral horizontal position, keeping distance from corals and citters, minding your air, noticing your dive buddy and more. Thatís already plenty to handle. If you add a camera to that equation too early, something has to give and you might be risking yourself, others or the delicate marine life around you.

  • If you have just finished your Open Water, and only have 5-10 dives, practice a bit more before taking a camera with you. Trust us on that one.
  • If you already have 20-50 dives, you might consider a simple action camera like a GoPro which won't require changing many settings underwater.
  • For those of you with 50+ dives, who are feeling fairly confident with your buoyancy skills, you can consider a Compact Camera, maybe one strobe or video light.
  • We suggest you shouldn't consider a DSLR or Mirrorless camera before you have done 80-100 dives and have mastered your buoyancy skills.

That being said, these numbers are quite arbitrary. Each diver their own personal learning curve. Try not to over-estimate your diving skills. Even if you have no trouble in pool-like conditions and perfect visibility, you might find it harder when currents are involved, poor visibility, gear malfunctions and other unexpected things which may occur underwater.

Crucial Things To Know Before Starting Out With Underwater Photography/Videography

1. KISS Principle — Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Many of the amazing underwater photos you've seen, can be taken with a simple compact camera, housing and one light. Compact cameras today are very high quality, so they produce great image quality both above and under the water. Quite often people think they need a big fancy camera, two lights, lenses and more accessories, but when starting out it's actually easier and better to start simple. Overwhelming yourself with gear right from the beginning is a recipe for failure, or at least a steep and painful learning curve.

If you're that type of person that wants to purchase once and get it over with, that's fine. But when going on your first dives with the camera, don't take everything at once! Keep it simple and take just your camera, housing and one light. Practice with that until you get the hang of it, then add more stuff.

2. Having a GoPro does NOT make you an underwater photographer!

While a GoPro is a great all-around imaging tool, and can probably capture some amazing scenes while being compact and travel friendly, it lacks a lot of features that underwater photographers need. In other words, it's not a "real camera".

The main feature it lacks is the ability to trigger a flash (aka strobe). Since it cannot trigger a flash, it will always be difficult to get true, bright, vivid colours in your underwater photos.

Second, your lens is fixed to a fisheye/wide angle field of view. You cannot shoot true macro, you cannot zoom in for a nice fish portrait with blurry background and you really can't control much other than simply pressing the shutter button.

However, having a GoPro Can Make You An Underwater Videographer!

Video is very different from photography in many ways. You don't need to trigger strobes, editing, capturing the right moment, holding the camera steady and composing is what it's all about and you can produce some really impressive videos with just your GoPro. The GoPro is an amazing camera, but not for underwater photos. For videos? Absolutely!

3. A Strobe/Light Is The Most Important Accessory!

The best thing you can get for your underwater photos is a strobe. The best thing you can get for your underwater videos is a video light. When we go underwater, colours are lost. They are gone. The lightwaves don't reach and they get absorbed in the water, never to be seen again. This means you cannot bring them back with White Balance, Filters or any other tricks.

The only way to bring back the natural colours underwater is by introducing new, artificial light! In the form of a strobe or video light. Since video lights are still far weaker than strobes and cannot freeze motion, strobes are really the only way to go for photography!

Triggering a strobe is easy — usually you use the camera's built in flash (aka pop-up flash) to send the signal via a fibre optic cable to the input of the strobe. Any camera that has a flash can trigger a strobe.

Leaving budget for a strobe or video light is more important, in our opinion, than getting a better camera, assuming your budget is limited (and it always is). If you are really just a beginner, then having TTL (auto flash) is useful, but you might quickly grow out of TTL so it does make sense to have a strobe that has manual output as well. Not crucial though.

Some might say that they prefer using a video light (aka constant light). That's fine, but remember that a strobe is 5-10 times stronger than your average video light, and strobes help you freeze motion. So for photos, strobes are always much more useful and most importantly — it's easier to get good photos with a strobe than with a video light! That said, just to add another option, there are now some video lights that incorporate a strobe like function.

Also, some beginner photographers get better results initially with video lights than with stobes. This is because they are shooting in a "What You see Is What You Get" mode. When using a strobe they don't see the results, and the impact of the extra lighting and backscatter, until after the shot has been taken. Our advice? If you want to get serious about yout underwater photo taking, learn to use a strobe.

4. Buoyancy Control Is The Key To Great Underwater Photography!

It's not photography knowledge. It's not your camera or your strobe. It's not where you dive. It's all about buoyancy control!

When you completed your Open Water course your buoyancy control was bad. It would have improved a little when you went diving more. Eventually you got to a level where you thought you had pretty good buoyancy control and you were even proud of it. Then you tried diving with a camera!

Taking photos underwater requires buoyancy control at an entirely different level. Your goal is to reach the point where you can shoot a macro photo of a tiny blenny, without touching the reef, while swimming against the current. And get the eyes in focus!

Until you reach that level, we recommend you actively work on your buoyancy skills, by taking lessons, starting each dive with 5 minutes of buoyancy exercises, constantly trimming your weights as needed and being mindful about how you use your fins, your lungs and your entire body while diving.

Great buoyancy skills will allow you to get closer to subjects which is the key to great underwater photos. It will allow you to position yourself in the right place for that eye level shot, while making sure you're not harming the reef or kicking up sand. It will make your shots sharper, ensure you get proper focus, allow you to free your mind for photo taking considerations and most importantly — make your dive a whole lot more fun!

We're not saying you should hold off buying a camera until you have 1000 dives under your weight belt. We are saying that when you get a camera, regardless of your current buoyancy skills, be in a constant mode of improving. Always strive to be better with your buoyancy control, more stable, more in control, ask for tips from your instructors, apply those tips and practice during the dives.

Please take a look out our guide to good Buoyancy Control and trim.

5. Use a Black Skirt Diving Mask!

Clear skirts on diving and snorkelling masks are popular because they minimise the claustrophobic feeling some people get when they wear a mask. Nevertheless, clear skirts actually interfere with vision. Extraneous light entering through the clear skirt makes it more difficult for the eye to focus and causes reflections that obscure vision. Demonstrate this by looking out a window from a lighted room at twilight. You will see better by cupping your hands around your eyes as you press your face to the window.

For these reasons, knowledgeable divers, especially underwater photographers and videographers seeking the best possible vision, prefer masks with black skirts. And we do too!

6. Taking a Course Dramatically Improves Your Skills!

Going on even just 2-3 private dives with a good UW photo instructor, or taking a photo workshop, is equivalent to countless hours of learning yourself and dozens of regular dives trying to figure it out on your own.

Underwater photography is hard! Sure you can snap some photos for fun or get a lucky shot once in a while without knowing squat, but doing it right isn't easy. Having someone show you the basics and put you on the right track is insanely helpful.

The thing is that most regular diving, is a group of divers jumping in the water, rushing across a dive site while actively swimming above the reef or around a wreck, pausing only for a couple of seconds at best. Also, they would want to see ALL the sites so you almost never return to the same dive sites.

"Photography" diving on the other hand, could be spending one whole hour in one spot (current allowing) and trying to get the best shot out of a single subject, or at least staying with a subject for a good 10 minutes until you're happy with how it came out. It often means returning to the same dive site twice or more, so that you already know what to expect, which angle is best, how to position your strobe and you can get the perfect shot much faster.

This method exponentially improves your photography skills as opposed to regular group dives.

Since you already plan to invest quite a bit of money in your camera gear, and the trips you plan to go on to use this gear will be expensive, you might as well invest a few hundred dollars in a proper online course, or plan your next dive trip as an underwater photo workshop.

Starting Out With Underwater Photography and Videography

Whether you begin with a point-and-shoot compact camera (as many divers do), or with something more sophisticated may be determined by what sort of topside photographer you are, and what sort of cameras you already own. If you already have a current-model, premium SLR and you know how to use it well, then you'll probably be happiest shopping for a housing, ports, strobes, arm and tray designed to work with that camera. But if you are just starting out — or if you are a traveling diver for whom space is at a premium — you may want to look at packages or equipment sets that include the underwater camera (or camera and housing) and a strobe or strobes.

Photography can be as simple or as sophisticated as you like it. Lots of traveling divers purchase one-use film cameras in housings through their local dive centre or destination dive centre, just to make sure they record their trip.

Likewise, if you already have a GoPro or similar action camera, or video capable compact camera, all you probably need to take it underwater is an appropriate housing. But take a hard look at your camera first as the technology in this field changes so quickly that, if your camera is more than three years old, you might be happier buying an all new setup (camera and housing both), as you'll have all the latest features and image quality developments.

What To Buy

Smart Phone Housing Set-Up

The smartphone has been said to make "everyone a photographer." Well, now that might also come true, even for deeper underwater photography and videography. Some people get started by taking a phone camera down when snorkelling and try it out just for fun. We've seen some incredible snorkelling shots — great natural sunlight at work, and some cool fish and other animals that hang out in shallow water.

However, it's clearly a risk to use your main phone in an underwater environment. Also, many of the early underwater cases for the phones are rather lightweight, and not meant to take down below about 3 to 9 metres (10-30 feet), max. Not good enough for typical recreational scuba diving depths.

If you want to start slow and easy with a smartphone, just be aware of these limitations. Perhaps use an older, backup phone as the camera, so you don't ruin your main phone.

That said, there are now very high-quality and trustworthy marine-grade diving smart-phone housings on the market now, and surely more to come. Keep an eye out for good brands that create phone housings that truly stand up to the pressure of deeper water, and are used more and more for bonafide underwater photography.

This could be a great user-friendly and economical option — but do make sure to protect your phone with the right high-quality marine housing.

Kraken Universal Smart Phone Underwater Housing Pro Kraken Universal Smart Phone Underwater Housing Pro
RRP: $658, Our Price: $638, You Save $20 (3%).
This universal smartphone housing includes a temperature and depth sensor, plus has an adjustable shim system allowing you to fit most popular smartphones on the market into it. It also has a vacuum port system built-in! No longer worry about if your seal is safe. Simply give a couple pulls on the vacuum pump (included) and the housing will let you know that it has a vacuum and is safe to dive.

Action Cameras

GoPro HERO9 Black
GoPro HERO9 Black Action Camera
Action cameras like the GoPro are small, simple cameras, designed to withstand various conditions including wet environments, capturing a wide angle of view with pretty decent quality. They usually have very few buttons and controls, for ease of use while performing an extreme or less than extreme diving diving activity.

These cameras are mostly recommended for videos since focus is infinite, resolution is great (Full 1080 HD to 4K) and you can turn them on and forget about them.

Shooting stills is possible, but with a few limitations:

  1. You can't zoom in. All of your shots are extra-wide fisheye shots and your subject might look a bit small in the frame.
  2. You can't connect an external flash unit, since you have no way of triggering it.
  3. Low light will most likely cause a blurry photo.
  4. You can't control focus. It's basically infinite.

Keeping these limitations in mind will help you avoid bad photos when using an action cameras.

Action Cameras are great for beginner divers since they are very simple to use, and can even be mounted on your mask / BCD / Tank for handsfree shooting. They are awesome for creating souvenirs, sharing with your friends and documenting cool marine life that you saw. However, keep in mind that you probably won't be able to produce contest winning imagery with these.

Compact Cameras

Olympus Tough TG-6 Camera
Olympus Tough TG-6 Camera
Compact cameras are currently the most widespread choice for underwater photography. The latest technological advancements for the past few years have shot the compact quality to the sky. Small cameras which can fit in your pocket can produce outstanding imagery while keeping the housings small and the complete package very travel friendly.

This is probably the best choice for most divers looking to enter the world of underwater photography, thanks to their versatility. You can use them on complete Auto Mode or even UW Mode if they support that, getting pretty decent shots without putting too much thought into it. With the same cameras, you can switch to Manual mode, shoot RAW, add strobes, video lights and wet lenses, producing contest quality shots and high quality videos.

Compact bundles, including camera and underwater housing, start at reasonable prices with cheap manufacturer housings, but can get more expensive when high-quality housing. They are compatible with a huge array of add-ons and accessories, such as macro lenses, wide angle lenses, filters, video lights and strobes mounted on many types of arms and trays. Each add-on opening a whole new world of imagery and creative options. This is really a system you can grow with.

DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras

These are the big guns. The serious cameras for people who dare call themselves Underwater Photographers or Videographers.

Canon EOS 1DX Mark III DSLR Camera
Canon EOS 1DX Mark III DSLR Camera
DSLR Cameras, also known as interchangeable lens cameras, which have lately been reduced in size to become Mirrorless Cameras, are capable of producing the best quality photos and videos in the industry. High quality optics, advanced settings and large sensors help the photographer achieve top quality both above and of course under the water.

Since these cameras are naturally bigger, the housings which accommodate them tend to be bulkier, pricey, and not suitable for everyone. When taking an interchangeable lens camera underwater, you will need to deal with interchangeable ports, extensions and gears, making the process more complicated and more prone to human error and leakage. The advanced settings allow more things to be changed underwater, which requires good diving skills to focus on camera operation without endangering yourself and others.

The great things about them of course, is that you will be able to produce amazing images and videos, take sharp macro shots and colourful vivid wide angle shots, as well as production quality videos. As a bonus, you will also be the envy of all the divers around you, which is always great.

Olympus PEN E-PL10 Mirrorless Camera
Olympus PEN E-PL10 Mirrorless Camera
When choosing such a system, it's usually best to choose the housing first, and only then the camera body and lenses, since the housing is usually the larger investment in such a purchase.

Mirrorless systems usually lower the cost a bit, since the housings are smaller and less expensive, but other than that it's very similar to DSLR systems.

Dedicated Video Cameras

Panasonic Lumix DC-S1 Full Frame Mirrorless Camera
Panasonic Lumix DC-S1 Full Frame Mirrorless Camera
If you are oriented towards video, with the intention of concentrating only on that type of photography underwater, you may consider a dedicated camcorder or video camera with a video housing.

Camcorders underwater are almost obsolete today with the majority of videographers these days would use a compact, mirrorless, DSLR or Cine camera systems.

Please see Best Underwater Cameras and Housings for our picks of the best cameras in the above categories for capturing underwater memories.

How to Buy

Oftentimes underwater camera gear is available through camera shops but, unless the shop has a dedicated underwater imaging department staffed by knowledgeable professionals, you are not as likely to encounter the hands-on know-how that you'll find in a dive centre with a underwater imagery knowledgeable staff.

A dive shop like The Scuba Doctor is probably your best bet when it comes to shopping for underwater camera packages. The staff is familiar with the product and they also know how it works and how easy it is to handle underwater.

For more advanced camera gear, our staff at The Scuba Doctor is equipped to not only sell you the gear but to explain to you (or even show you) how to use it. We also have access to the specialist knowledge of the experts in various brands of underwater cameras, lights and accessories at our suppliers.

Underwater Camera and Housing Maintenance

Camera housings, underwater cameras and strobes should be left connected and set up while on the dive boat, and rinsed in clear water and kept moist (so salt crystals do not form on it) after each dive. At the end of the day, before breaking down your camera gear, soak and then rinse it in warm water (the bath tub or a deep sink are good places to do this). Many dive boats have camera rinse facilities that allow you to soak your camera gear after a dive.

Consult you owner's manual to see which O-rings on your camera should be lubricated between dives with silicone grease. Avoid setting camera gear down in gritty environments or on sandy beaches, and be sure all O-rings and seals are clean and free of sand, hair or lint before closing equipment back up.

While minor scratches on the outside of a lens port typically have little effect on image quality (the water 'fills them in'), you could use port covers to protect ports and lenses between dives. And you should either carry your camera gear onto airplanes, or pack it in rugged, foam-padded cases. Take a look at our range of Underwater Camera Bags for protecting you gear. Most modern camera gear is actually amazingly rugged, but you'll feel better knowing that you are taking care of it!

Please also read our guide to Camera Housing Maintenance.

Tether Your Camera Setup To You
Sterling Leisure Stainless Steel Reef Hook and Camera Lanyard Sterling Leisure Stainless Steel Reef Hook and Camera Lanyard
RRP: $49, Our Price: $44, You Save $5 (10%).
It's easy while tending to another task, to drop your camera and housing during a dive. You'll go back, but often you won't find it. Prevent that from happening by using one of these quality camera lanyards.

Use a Carry Handle
Hyperion Carry Rope Lanyard for Tray Handles Hyperion Carry Rope Lanyard for Tray Handles
RRP: $39, Our Price: $37, You Save $2 (5%).
This camera lanyard allows you to lift up and carry the housing in a safe way while traveling or on a boat. It attaches easily to the housing handles or tray thanks to two sturdy stainless steel swivel bolt snaps.


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