Before we send budding underwater photographers fleeing over the costs of putting together an underwater photography kit, we offer a couple of items that are free: used dryer sheets and heavy duty rubber bands. What to do with these comes later.
Assembling an underwater photography kit requires time, patience, research, and a review of finances and goals. Is the goal to capture memories of dives to share with family and friends? Is the goal to become a photographer who makes money with his photos? Goal number one should be a new photographer’s priority.
It takes years of practice and an artistic eye to become a commercial photographer along with a substantial financial investment. As with many endeavors, it is much better to start ‘small’ and work up and as skill levels increase, upgrade equipment.
The first item in the underwater photography kit is a camera. With the advent of digital cameras the choice of cameras has greatly expanded as has the price range. That said, not every digital camera can be used in a hard-shell housing so, when considering a camera, make sure there is a compatible housing.
What kind of camera? Here’s where finances come into play. There are many choices in the less expensive, non-DSLR (digital single lens reflex) category including compact digital cameras, bridge cameras – that are basically high-end compact cameras with a few features found in DSLR cameras yet without interchangeable lenses – and the newer MILC (mirror-less interchangeable lens cameras) which are smaller than DSLR cameras but without TTL (through the lens) technology found in DSLR cameras. Note: If selecting a non-DSLR camera choose one with built-in underwater photo settings as well as a macro setting.
The second category is the DSLRs with interchangeable lenses offering a much wider range of photo possibilities, fully manual as well as automatic functions, and larger sensors for much better performance in low-light situations. DSLRs with their TTL technology allow the photographer to see exactly what the lens is seeing because he is looking directly through the lens.
Once a camera is chosen, the next step is choosing the housing. First and foremost, it must be a housing designed specifically for the camera it will be protecting and it should allow access to all the camera’s functions. Hard-shell housings are made from a variety of materials including polycarbonates, PVC, and anodized aluminum. Some camera manufacturers carry brand specific housings and there are housing manufacturers that make housings for a variety of camera brands.
If choosing a camera with interchangeable lenses, keep in mind that along with the housing, lens ports must be purchased to accommodate the various lenses. The depth of the port must accommodate the length of the lens.
Next is the photographer’s source of lighting, the underwater strobe. While both non-DSLR and DSLR cameras have built-in flash units those units will not provide enough light for underwater photography. Remember your basic dive class! The deeper one goes the less light and color so strobes are necessary.
Along with a strobe, or strobes – two are better than one; the photo kit must include a tray and handles. The housing attaches to the tray, the strobes attach to the handles. Strobes introduce the problem of back scatter. Back scatter occurs when suspended particles reflect light back into the lens. The resulting photos are speckled.
To help eliminate back scatter and diffuse ‘hot spots’ (too much light on a subject) the strobe power should be adjustable and the kit should include diffusers. Commercial diffusers are generally opaque plastic attachments that snap onto the strobe to mute the flash. Unfortunately, most are lost eventually and that’s where the dryer sheets and rubber bands come in. Used dryer sheets make excellent diffusers. Simply lay a sheet across the face of the strobe and secure with a rubber band.
How to protect the photo gear? Underwater photographers know not to enter the water from a boat holding their cameras. Instead, they have someone on the boat hand them their cameras once they are in the water. Next, they attach the housing to their BCs with a strong coil lanyard and descend slowly while checking for leaks.
As for transporting the kit, a hard case with foam inserts is the only safe way. Soft-sided luggage, back packs, and duffle bags do not provide protection from baggage handlers or taxi and bus drivers.
Wondering about costs? The choice of camera will set the cost basis; however, there are kits available starting at $1,000 or less that will provide a new photographer wow photos to show friends and family. Do some research and next time we will cover the basics of shooting photos underwater.
Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.