Underwater Photography and Videography

Underwater Photography and Videography from The Scuba Doctor

Underwater photography and videography has undergone an explosion in popularity with the introduction of digital cameras and underwater camera housings, plus underwater strobes and lights to fit them. Because results can be seen, evaluated and adjusted immediately, underwater imaging has transformed from a specialised vocation practiced by the knowledgeable few to a hobby that just about any diver can and should enjoy. Glance around a dive boat today, and chances are that half the divers aboard will be carrying equipment to document their dives and share them with friends back home.

How Underwater Cameras Work

Both still and video underwater cameras work in a manner quite similar to their conventional, dry-land cameras. In fact, the vast majority of the cameras used by divers today are conventional cameras… but they have been placed in a waterproof housing to allow them to function and focus underwater. So most of the procedures for using a camera underwater are pretty much the same as when using the same camera on dry land.

Colour is the one thing that is very different. Water absorbs light fairly quickly, and it absorbs the red end of the spectrum (the colours that you see in the outermost arcs of most rainbows) first. So after you've gone just a few yards underwater, reds are no longer visible to the camera — they appear to be brown or black on the final image. Go a bit deeper and oranges become a greenish tan. And at depth, everything appears to be various shades of a muted blue-violet. The other colours are still there, and your brain can discern them, but the camera can no longer produce them on the final image.

Because the light from a flash has to travel, at most, a few feet through the water, it can restore the full spectrum of colours to underwater photo images. With video cameras, lights may be added to do the same thing. Or, for wide-angle scenes, the appearance of a larger spectrum of colour can be created by using a reddish-orange color-correcting filter in front of the camera's lens.

Which Kind of Camera is Best?

Which camera you use will be largely dependent on three things:

  • The types of images you wish to shoot
  • The relative level of your diving skills
  • Your photography or videography budget

For instance, macro photography, in which you shoot images of smaller subjects (such as clownfish or shrimp), can be done successfully with fairly GoPro and compact cameras (or cameras and housings) equipped with the sort of lower-power strobes that are usually included in camera packages.

Similarly, underwater video can be shot to home video quality standards using only a GoPro or similar action camera, a compact video camera, and an housing designed for that video camera, and a colour correcting filter.

Most newer divers have much more fun getting good results with simpler equipment that is easier for a newer diver to use and buoyancy control is less critical. The underwater images you bring back from your trip will amaze your friends.

If, on the other hand, you are already an experienced diver who understands the ins-and-outs of digital cameras and intermediate photography or videography, an investment in professional-quality gear might be just what's needed to take your photos or video to the next level.

Experienced underwater photographers know that water absorbs light quickly, so camera to subject distances that can be handled with a simple on-camera flash topside will usually require extremely powerful strobes underwater. Most professionals also use two or more strobes, because a single strobe can create unnatural looking shadows. And in order to keep from illuminating sand or specks in suspension in the water (known as 'backscatter'), more advanced photographers place their strobes on long, articulated arms, so the subject can be lit from both sides rather then head-on (this keeps the water between the camera and the lens from being lit up by the strobes).

Indeed, some photography, such as the over-under shots you often see on the covers of dive magazines, involve very specialised gear — a camera with a split filter over the lens, an extremely wide dome port made of water-shedding mineral glass, and more.

So while professional calibre set-ups can produce professional looking results in the right hands, it's worth noting that using such gear requires both the know-how to operate the equipment, and the advanced dive skills to maneuver a fairly bulky camera rig underwater without damaging the equipment or the environment.

Budget also comes into play here, as the gear used by professionals naturally costs more. As an example, you can purchase a complete point-and-shoot compact camera package — camera, housing, and close-up strobe — and spend considerably less than you would to acquire just one of the two strobes most pros carry, or just the dome port that a pro usually has on his or her camera housing.

Whatever your level of participation in underwater photography or videography, this is a great activity while diving and has the added advantage of being able to bring back the view to your friends and family.

Digital Still Photography Cameras

Overall, there are only a few basic types of digital still cameras:

  • Compact or Point-and-Shoot cameras: These have a built-in lens and show you a live preview of what you are shooting on a little built-in screen on the back.
  • Mirrorless and Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras: These accept a variety of different lenses, and while the image you just shot still shows up on a screen on the back, they are generally set so you compose your shot by looking through a viewfinder.

But even among basic types, you'll find a lot of sub-categories. Plus many divers opt to use the photo mode of Action Video Cameras like the GoPro models.

Ultra Compact Point-and-Shoot cameras are typically small enough to be carried in a shirt pocket. They have a live screen on back instead of a viewfinder, and are usually set up to operate primarily in an 'automatic' mode — you just compose the picture and press the button. Flashes on this type of camera are usually built-in. This type of camera is very popular with divers who have a smaller photo budget, or who want to be able to take pictures without hauling lots of gear (the camera, housing and strobe typically all fit into a fairly small space).

Compact cameras are a type of point-and-shoot that generally offer more photo modes. Usually such cameras also have more zoom-lens range, and the strobe is apt to be pop-up style.

Advanced point-and-shoot cameras may have viewfinders, offer manual shooting modes as well as automatic, aperture-priority and shutter-priority, and often have a 'hot shoe' to which an external flash or strobe cord can be connected. Some advanced point-and-shoots allow you to change lenses, and these are referred to in the photo trade as 'prosumer' cameras, because they have attributes of both professional and consumer gear.

Mirrorless and DSLRs allow you to change lenses and compose through a viewfinder, but are set up to favour photographers who are still most comfortable with automatic shooting settings and on-camera flash.

Professional DSLRs have interchangeable lenses, can use and control external strobes through a technology called 'through the lens metering' (TTL), and are set up so the photographer can exercise as much control over the photographic process as he or she desires.

Digital Still Photography Housings

There are some excellent point-and-shoot cameras which are dedicated underwater cameras requiring no housing. These camera setups make photography very easy because they are compact and have everything the new photographer needs to get started as well as to get good results. However, many of these cameras are only rated to shallow depths and thus are reliable for swimming, snorkelling and shallow diving.

Underwater camera housings are also available for many Action, Compact, Mirrorless and DSLR cameras. These housings keep the camera dry while allowing access to controls. Housings are made for specific camera models. For Mirrorless and DSLR cameras with interchangeable lenses, different ports are used with the housing to accommodate the different lenses.

Some underwater housings are rated to suit recreational diving depth limits of 30 to 40 metres. Other are rated to the deeper depths explored by technical divers.

Digital Still Photography Lighting

External Underwater Strobes generally fall into two categories: slave strobes, which fire when the built-in flash on the camera fires (a fiber-optic cord is often used to channel the light from camera to strobe), and TTL strobes, which connect to the camera via a cord, and in which the duration and power of the strobe's flash can be controlled by a microchip in the camera.

Our most popular underwater strobes are:

Sea & Sea YS-03 Underwater TTL Strobe Package Sea & Sea YS-03 Underwater TTL Strobe Package
RRP: $545, Our Price: $490, You Save $55 (10%).
This is an excellent example of a single strobe setup for use with any compact camera with a pre-flash and that has a TTL flash exposure function.

Sea & Sea YS-D2 Underwater DS-TTL Strobe Sea & Sea YS-D2 Underwater DS-TTL Strobe
RRP: $999, Our Price: $899, You Save $100 (10%).
This strobe has an Audible Confirmation providing TTL confirmation and ready light confirmation. It features a rear glowing panel with easy to read controls. It's simply the most versatile underwater strobe available today.

Many beginner, or more casual, photo takers get more consistent results with photo Focus Lights, or even Video Lights. Thus they get to see what they are going to shoot and can adjust their position to eliminate problems. Strobe users only get to see their image after they take it and then have to adjust to eliminate things like backscatter.

The strobes and other lights are arranged with strobe arms that usually attach to a Camera Tray on which the housing is mounted. The more budget conscious tend to choose flexible arm systems. The more advanced image takers tend to use adjustable fixed arm systems.

The addition of a Camera Tray makes it easier for the diver by keeping all the camera equipment together. They also make it easier to produce more stable images.

Please look at the full range of Strobes and Focus Lights, plus Arms, Tray and Mounts, available in our online dive shop.

Digital Video Cameras

Gone are the days of struggling with complicated video camcorders recording onto film, tapes and even hard drives. Today's digital video cameras typically record onto various format storage cards and the results are easily transferred to a computer for editing. Some even support doing so wirelessly.

Most of the current digital photo cameras also have the ability to shoot video. Vice versa, most digital video cameras can also shoot still photos. So your options are vast.

Small pocket sized 'action' cameras, like the GoPro, are extremely popular with divers wanting to record the dive, or its highlights, with video. They offer great clarity and vibrant colours in a very small package.

Many divers simply use the video modes of their digital compact or SLR cameras to shoot video. Others prefer to opt for dedicated digital video cameras.

Video Camera Housings

While there are some video cameras that are waterproof to shallow depths, generally the depth rating is such that they should only be used for swimming, snorkelling and shallow underwater adventures. To dive to recreational depth limits of 30 to 40 metres, most scuba divers will require an underwater Camera Housing, which like still camera housings, are made to fit specific camera models. There are also housings available for technical divers to use at much greater depth limits.

Underwater Video Lights

When shooting video inside caverns or shipwrecks, or when shooting backlighted subjects, external video lighting is used. But for most basic amateur underwater video situations, no lights are necessary — just a colour correcting filter to restore the red end of the spectrum to your underwater scenes.

The Video Lights are arranged with strobe arms that usually attach to a Camera Tray on which the housing is mounted. The more budget conscious tend to choose flexible arm systems. The more advanced image takers tend to use adjustable fixed arm systems.

Using a camera tray helps stabilise your video footage, plus provides a base for your underwater lighting solution. Add your choice of camera adapter mounts and arms for a perfect underwater video or photo lighting system.

Scuba Doctor GoPro Single Video Light Package - Flex Arm Scuba Doctor GoPro Single Video Light Package - Flex Arm
RRP: $247, Our Price: $229, You Save $18 (7%).
This package is the perfect starter light set for shooting video with your GoPro or Compact camera system. With its compact yet powerful 1,000 lumen light, you can start shooting great photos and video footage on day and night dives.

Scuba Doctor GoPro Dual Video Light Package - Flex Arms Scuba Doctor GoPro Dual Video Light Package - Flex Arms
RRP: $1,421, Our Price: $1,339, You Save $82 (6%).
The two powerful 3,000 lumen Tovatec Galaxy II video lights make this package the perfect advanced lighting set for your GoPro Hero7 / Hero6 / Hero5 Super Suit housings, plus earlier model GoPros and most Compact cameras. You can start shooting video like a pro on day and night dives.

Please look at the full range of Underwater Video Lights, plus Arms, Tray and Mounts, available in our online dive shop. We also have Lenses and Filters to improve the colour of your video footage.

Current Popular Camera and Housing Choices

This is a constantaly and rapidly changing product category, but we'll do our best to help you with these recommendations. (Updated: 10 December 2018)

GoPro and Action Cameras:

  • GoPro HERO7 Black
    GoPro HERO7 Black
    The GoPro HERO7 Black
    • The GoPro Super Suit Housing for 60 metres
    • Isotta GoPro HERO7 Housing for 200 metres
  • The Olympus Tough TG-Tracker Action Camera for 30 metres without a housing.
  • The Nikon KeyMission 360 Action Camera for 30 metres without a housing.

Compact Cameras:

  • Olympus TG-5 Tough Camera
    Olympus TG-5 Tough Camera
    Olympus TG-5 Tough
    • Olympus PT-058 Underwater Housing for 45 metres
    • Isotta TG-5 Underwater Housing for 100 metres
  • Panasonic LX10
  • Canon G7XII
    • Isotta G7XII Underwater Housing for 100 metres
  • Sony RX100 VI
    • Isotta Sony RX100 Underwater Housing for 100 metres

Mirrorless Cameras:

  • Panasonic GH5
    • Isotta GH5 Underwater Housing for 100 metres
  • Olympus OM-D E-M1 II
    • Olympus PT-EP14 Underwater Housing for 60 metres
    • Sea & Sea MCX-EM 5 Mark II Housing for Olympus OM-D-E-M5 Mark II (available as special order S&S-06177)
    • Isotta OM-D E-M1 II Underwater Housing for 100 metres
  • Sony a6500
    • Sea & Sea MDX-A6300 Housing for 75 metres (available as special order)
  • Sony a7R III
    • Isotta Sony a7 III & a7R III Underwater Housing for 100 metres

DSLR Cameras:

  • Canon 1DX II
  • Canon 5D IV
    • Sea & Sea MDX-5DMKIV Underwater Housing for 100 metres (available as special order S&S-06181)
    • Isotta Sony 5D IV Underwater Housing for 100 metres
  • Nikon D500
    • Sea & Sea MDX-D500 Underwater Housing for 100 metres
    • Isotta D500 Underwater Housing for 100 metres
  • Nikon D850
    • Sea & Sea MDX-D850 Underwater Housing for 100 metres (available as special order S&S-06187)
    • Isotta D850 Underwater Housing for 100 metres

Pro Video Cameras:

  • Panasonic GH5
    • Isotta GH5 Underwater Housing for 100 metres
  • Canon 1DX II
  • Red Epic Dragon Weapon

Please Note: The Scuba Doctor does not sell any of the above cameras. You'll find then at competitive prices in specialist camera retailers. We have available dive housings to suit some of these cameras. Most importantly, we have available the camera trays, arms and mounting options to enable you to create a brilliant underwater camera setup.

Isotta camera housings and accessories are available in Australia from Down Under Aquatic Imaging.

When to Buy

Photography and Videography with a point-and-shoot camera is easy, and might become one of the first things you want to do after certification. 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.

Whether you begin with a point-and-shoot 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.

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 suppiers.

Camera 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. Most modern camera gear is actually amazingly rugged, but you'll feel better knowing that you are taking care of it!

The Scuba Doctor Service and Repairs

Deep down I'm a really nice guy.
It's only on the surface when the problems start.

— Old diver's proverb