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.

Backscatter Double Handle GoPro Camera Tray with Flex Arms Backscatter Double Handle GoPro Camera Tray with Flex Arms
RRP: $293, Our Price: $259, You Save $34 (12%).
You might choose to start with a top notch dual handle tray and flex arm option such as this Backscatter package. It will support your GoPro or Compact Camera in style. Then just add one or two of the video light options listed as Related Products. You get to choose how much light you need and how much to invest.

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.

Underwater Colour Correcting Filters

Underwater the camera needs the addition of a red filter to help correct your images from being all blue or all green. Every diver has noticed that the underwater environment is one of the monochromatic hues rather than distinct colours. Depending on your location, objects will take on a blue or green cast at the expense of all things yellow, orange, red, etc. This is because water acts as a filter of red light. The deeper you dive the more the red spectrum is filtered from the ambient light. You can, however, emphasise the existing red light by filtering out the blue spectrum with a red filter of the right hue for the water type and depth.

Hardcore GoPro users discovered that capturing the best underwater colour requires the use of multiple filters. Thus most use a multi-filter system.

Backscatter FLIP7 Three Filter Kit for GoPro Backscatter FLIP7 Three Filter Kit for GoPro
RRP: $166, Our Price: $149, You Save $17 (10%).
This filter kit is supplied with three different colour filters that are optimised for different depth ranges: SHALLOW, DIVE and DEEP Filters. The handy flip system allows for easy switching between two mounted filters, offering the best colour correction for the narrow white balancing band of the GoPro range.

Those wanting to get close up macro imagery need an appropriate solution. For example, a GoPro without corrective optics can only focus to about 30 cm to 60 cm underwater. For macro images an appropriate solution is needed.

Backscatter FLIP7 Pro Package with +15 MacroMate Mini Lens Backscatter FLIP7 Pro Package with +15 MacroMate Mini Lens
RRP: $322, Our Price: $289, You Save $33 (10%).
This filter kit combines a FLIP7 Three Filter Kit with the MacroMate Mini +15 Lens. Thus a GoPro can be used to capture stunning macro images, with you as close as 7 cm to your subject. Plus you have brilliant and easy to use colour correction available. It has never been so easy!

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70% of earth is covered by water. Non diver? I hope you enjoy your 30%.
— Old diver's proverb