Going Down Below
Not all dives are created equal. Many divers just want to dive a shallow reef while others would rather strap on double tanks and explore a shipwreck in 300 feet of water. Other divers want to discover what is inside an underwater cave. The kind of diving you do will determine the camera and housing system you should use. The other question is: what are you using the photos for?
The person sharing underwater snapshots with their non-diving friends requires different equipment than the photographer looking to exhibit in art galleries, give talks at dive shows and get published in magazines. In the last article, we talked about equipment for working at the surface, as well as shooting while diving with point-and-shoot cameras in Fantasea housings. Now we are going to talk about other imaging options for scuba divers.
There are many good housings for your SLR that are rated to 200’ (60m). But what if you are a technical diver doing extreme still photography in 300’ (100m) of water? Aquatica (right) is your best bet, with aluminum housing bodies that are rated to 300’ (100m) of water, right off the shelf. The housing will not flood if you go deeper—but the controls might lock up. So if you are an extreme deep freak, Aquatica will install extra strong springs that will allow the housing to function down to 425’ (130m).
Besides the ability to go deep, Aquatica housings have many features for the serious underwater photographer. The housings are available with dual Nikonos bulkheads or Ikelite bulkheads wired for manual or TTL control. Many Aquatica housings with the dual Nikonos bulkheads have a circuit board inside the housing, as for example the housing for the Nikon D700. By throwing different switches on the circuit board, you can have both bulkheads wired for manual flash control, or have just one of the bulkheads wired for TTL flash control.
No matter which TTL setup you choose when using Aquatica housings, you will need the proper TTL adapter with compatible flashes. For dual flashes you will also need a dual sync cord. Aquatica also offers TTL exposure on some housings through a fiber optic cable connection, such as the housing for the Canon 7D. Once considered a way to connect flash to consumer point-and-shoot cameras without a hot shoe, fiber optics have proven themselves to be a reliable way to sync your flash units. Besides the SLR housings for Nikon and Canon cameras, Aquatica produces optical glass and acrylic ports, TLC strobe arms, the Aqua View viewfinder as well as other accessories, and a housing for video cameras.
For working with point-and-shoot cameras as well as SLRs and video, Ikelite is a good choice. Ikelite has been producing underwater imaging equipment since 1962, when Ike Brigham invented the first o-ring sealed underwater light to incorporate a sealed beam bulb. For point-and-shoot cameras, Ikelite housings have the features divers need, including the ability to use auxiliary lenses, control of all camera functions and a 200' (60m) depth rating. The Canon PowerShot S90 along with the Ikelite housing (left) is an A-1 combination for doing underwater imaging with a small camera. The camera features manual exposure control and shoots RAW files. These are beneficial features for shooting serious underwater photos.
Ikelite produces housings for popular SLRs such as the Nikon D5000, and Canon 5D Mark II, but also for cameras such as the Olympus E620 that other manufacturers ignore. One of the best features of Ikelite SLR housings is TTL flash control with options, but without an adapter, when using Ikelite flashes. The circuitry includes exposure compensation, and manual power settings are operated by simply pushing a button or rotating a dial on the back of the housing. For more information on Ikelite, take a look at The Ikelite Story.
Nimar is another manufacturer of SLR housings that support TTL flash control when using Nimar flash units. Nimar produces one flash for use with Nikon cameras and another for Canon. Other flashes can be used with the housings, but in manual mode only. Nimar housings are well known in Europe, but new to the US. B&H is the first retailer to carry this quality product. The housings are designed and manufactured in Italy and are very reasonably priced. Nimar is one of the few manufacturers that includes a lens port with the housing. The included flat port has zoom control for the standard kit lens that comes with the camera. The kit lens is not ideal for underwater work, but this is a good way to get started. Other optical glass and acrylic ports are available for a range of wide-angle and macro lenses. This is the only housing at this price point that includes a moisture alarm as well as a focus light. Nimar housings are rated down to 200’ (60m), have complete camera control and have a positive bayonet port mount. This makes Nimar a good choice at any price. Nimar has housings for economical cameras, too, from the Canon Rebel T1i (above) up to high-end SLRs such as the Nikon D300s and Canon 5D Mark II. At the moment all Nimar SLR housings are constructed from polycarbonate, but we should be seeing an aluminum housing for the Nikon D700 with more advanced features in the near feature.
Last, but not least, we have Sea & Sea for SLR housings. This Japanese company has been making housings, flashes and cameras for many years. Everything this company makes is built with precision. Their MDX housing series (left) are manufactured from a solid block of aluminum alloy and are available for high-end Nikon and Canon cameras including the Nikon D3, the D3x, and the Nikon D300s. Most are rated down to 200’ (60m), but the one for the Canon 7D is rated to 330’ (100m). All the housings have two Nikonos bulkheads, one is wired for use with a TTL adapter and the other is wired for manual flash control. The housing for the 7D, D300s and a few other MDX housings also feature fiber optic cable ports. The Sea & Sea RDX housing series is an economical polycarbonate housing for more consumer-priced SLR cameras including the Nikon D60/ D40. These housings have many of the same features as the MDX housings for much less money. Unlike the MDX housings, handles are not included but can be purchased separately, or a camera tray can be used to attach your flashes.
For divers desiring a compact camera, the Sea & Sea DX-2G or DX-1G might be the camera for you. These two cameras are packaged with the camera and housing together. Both are very small, easy to use and produce great images. The DX-2G has manual exposure controls and can shoot RAW at a reasonable speed. The DX-1G has many of the same features, but it shoots RAW so slowly that I would only shoot JPG files with this camera.
The diver who wants a reasonably priced, small and reliable camera should look at the Sealife DC1200. This is a 12-megapixel camera packaged with a housing. The camera features a new design with five thumb-operated piano keys, along with the large shutter button that extends forward with a fingertip-control lever that allows scrolling through menus or zooming in and out without releasing your grip from the camera. This new design allows you much more camera control even while wearing gloves. When shooting underwater without flash, the camera has four underwater white balance settings: blue ocean water shallower than 25' (8m), blue ocean water deeper than 25' (8m), green fresh water shallower than 25' (8m) and green water deeper than 25' (8m). When shooting with an external flash, the camera features a simple auto mode, as well as a manual mode that gives you complete control over the aperture and shutter speed. With the Spy mode feature you can set the camera to take photos automatically, from 3 seconds to 60-minute intervals. By setting the camera on a tripod and swimming away, you can photograph very shy creatures. The lens port allows use of the Sealife wide-angle lens that increases the angle of view of the camera lens by 50%. This camera really has an amazing number of features for its price range.
Which housing is best for you? Consider what you want to accomplish on your dive, weigh all the different options, and pick your system. Now it is time to grab your camera system and Go Down Below!
If you have any questions about the gear we've mentioned here, and more, or if you care to relate any experiences you've had diving with any of these cameras or housings, we'd love to hear from you. Just use the comment boxes below, before—or after—your dive.