Underwater Photography

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At B&H we stock a number of cameras designed specifically for use underwater, and most of them are relatively easy to use. We also stock a selection of rugged, waterproof point-and-shoot cameras that can be used―depending on the make and model―down to 30-plus feet below the surface of the water. For casual shooters, or for those who want to purchase a one-time solution, we also carry a selection of disposable cameras that can be used underwater.

On my next vacation I would like to take underwater pictures. Can I use a “regular” camera, or do I need a special type of camera?

In a word, yes, you can take pictures underwater with your current camera, or purchase a separate camera specifically designed for taking underwater photographs.

At B&H we stock a number of cameras designed specifically for use underwater, and most of them are relatively easy to use. We also stock a selection of rugged, waterproof point-and-shoot cameras that can be used―depending on the make and model―down to 30-plus feet below the surface of the water. For casual shooters, or for those who want to purchase a one-time solution, we also carry a selection of disposable cameras that can be used underwater.

If I want to use a “regular” camera underwater, what do I need?

If you want to use a regular camera underwater, you need to purchase an underwater housing. These housings are available in a number of configurations, depending on the type of camera you own, and how deep you plan to dive.

For snorkeling or diving in shallow water there is a variety of options including soft, waterproof pouches that resemble heavy-duty zip-lock bags with glass lens portals. These soft housings are made out of vinyl or similar pliable materials, are relatively inexpensive, and depending on the model, can go as deep as 30-plus feet (9m) underwater.

Note: Many soft underwater housings have glass lens portals that attach to the filter threads of your camera lens. Before purchasing any housing that attaches to your camera lens make sure the housing includes adapter rings that are compatible with the filter threads of the lens you plan on using.

There are also a number of polycarbonate hard-shell housings that can be used at deeper depths, some as far as 200’ (60m) below the waves, but we suggest a few shallower practice dives before heading that far down.

Are these underwater housings made for all cameras or are they dedicated for use with specific cameras?

 A great majority of soft housings are generic and can be used with any camera that you can fit in them. These soft housings are available for point-and-shoot digicams, compact DSLRs and pro DSLRs. A few models also allow the use of longer focal length lenses and speed lights.

Conversely, almost all of the hard-shell housings are dedicated for use with specific camera models, due to the fact that positioning of the camera controls is of the utmost importance, compared to the more flexible soft housings.

Are the dedicated housings better or easier to use compared to generic housings?

Generally speaking, the dedicated housings are easier to use simply because they are specifically designed to grant optimal access to your camera’s exposure and function controls. The generic housings may not line up in a way that allows for easy access to your camera’s control buttons.

Can you use cameras designed for underwater photography on land?

In most cases, yes. Check the owner’s manual, which is frequently available online.

Can these cameras also shoot underwater video?

Yup.

Can I use point-and-shoot cameras underwater?

There are many underwater housings made for point-and-shoot cameras, both simple, generic housings as well as dedicated housings. There are also a number of “rugged” point-and-shoot cameras that can be used anywhere from 6 to 30 or more feet underwater without the need for an external housing. Many of these cameras also feature an “underwater mode” that compensates for the blue color cast common to underwater photographs.

Note: Make sure you turn off the camera’s flash when shooting in Underwater mode to avoid the reddish cast that will result from mixing the flash’s daylight white balance with the Underwater mode’s blue-canceling light balance. This feature will work best in shallower water; as you go deeper, light dissipates quickly and flash becomes more necessary for proper illumination.

Do I need to use flash when taking pictures underwater?

Even in the clearest of water, light levels drop off dramatically as you descend under the waves. In addition to light loss, the white balance of the ambient light levels become progressively blue as you descend, which greatly diminishes the vivid colors you’re trying to capture in the first place. For these reasons, you’ll want to use flash if you plan on taking pictures at depths deeper than 5-6’ below the surface of the water and want to maintain true color fidelity.

Can I use my camera’s built-in flash underwater?

If your camera is in an underwater housing there’s a chance the camera’s flash will bounce off the inside of the housing, causing unwanted flare, which can wreak havoc with your exposure and saturation levels. In these cases it’s best to turn off your camera’s flash, and in its stead, use an external flash to light your subjects.

Another problem common to built-in camera flashes is “backscatter,” which happens when the camera flash illuminates small particles floating in front of the lens when shooting in cloudy water, or when you inadvertently kick up bottom sand while framing your shot. Backscatter usually manifests itself in the form of blurry, overexposed white blobs that obliterate whatever it is you’re trying to photograph.

To get around backscatter problems, most divers rely on accessory flashes mounted on articulated arms and positioned off to one or both sides of the camera. By lighting floating particles from the side, the effects of backscatter are greatly reduced.

Regardless of whether you shoot with a flash or with ambient light, it’s always a good idea to get as close to your subject as possible to reduce the image-degrading effects of backscatter and white-balance issues. The wider the angle of your lens, the closer you will be able to get to your subjects.

Note: Whether you’re shooting with flash or ambient light, it’s important to shoot tight when taking pictures underwater. Even with the best TTL flash/metering system, the smaller your subject is in the frame, the less reliable your metering will be. As a rule, try to have your subject fill at least 75% of the frame to best ensure accurate exposures.

How far down can I go with my underwater camera?

The sturdiest underwater housings we stock, which are constructed of injection-molded polycarbonate components or solid blocks of aluminum alloy, can be used down to 200’ (60m) below sea level.

Ergonomics

While many cameras can be used underwater, some cameras are easier to use underwater than others. When shopping for a camera or housing for underwater photography, keep in mind that  camera controls can be trickier to use underwater, especially if you’re wearing protective gloves.

So it’s a good idea to choose a camera with larger, easier-to-use control buttons, as well as a larger LCD. If the LCD is a touch screen, that’s even better. And do keep in mind that if the camera you’re interested in purchasing is awkward to use on dry land, it will be that much more difficult to use underwater.

Functionality

Regardless of whether you are shopping for a self-contained underwater camera, or a housing for a regular camera you plan on purchasing (or already own), there are certain functions you should make sure you can easily perform before passing your cash across the counter. Among desirable camera controls and functions are the following:

  • On/Off switch
  • Exposure Mode control (especially manual control!)
  • Shutter speed and aperture control
  • ISO control
  • Focus and exposure lock
  • Image playback and delete
  • Zoom focus check

Note: Because of the variables inherent to establishing optimal exposures when taking underwater photographs with even the best of cameras, if you have the option of shooting RAW files do so, as RAW files afford you a wider range of exposure compensation compared to JPEGs.

Focus Lights

The deeper you dive, the dimmer the light, and you’d be surprised how quickly the light levels drop below the waves. This can make framing photographs difficult. To get around this problem, most divers use focusing lights, which are basically underwater flashlights that can be attached to the camera and/or housing, worn on your wrist, or clipped onto your dive mask. If you plan on shooting below normal snorkeling depth, these dive lights are highly recommended.

Pre-dive Procedures

The last thing you want is water getting inside your housing, especially salt water, which has no mercy on anything it comes into contact with. If you are shooting with a self-contained underwater camera or a point-and-shoot camera designed for use underwater, all you really have to do is make sure batteries and memory cards are properly seated, the battery and memory card doors are securely closed and there isn’t any potato-chip grease on the lens.

If you’re shooting with a camera in an underwater housing, always check for dirt or anything else that might hinder a waterproof seal when the housing is closed. If you are using a housing that requires O-ring grease (most, but not all housings do) make sure it has been applied per the manufacturer’s recommendations, and make sure you’re using the recommended grease.

If you’re using an external accessory flash or any other external accessories, make sure all connections are secure and water-tight.

Lastly, dunk your camera and housing into a bucket of fresh water and see if any bubbles appear. If they do, you’ve got a leak, which means you should immediately open up the housing, dry off your gear, and start over.

The Takeaway

  • There is a variety of cameras designed for taking pictures underwater, including point-and-shoots and disposable cameras.
  • You can take underwater photographs with “regular” point-and-shoot and (D)SLR cameras if you use an underwater housing.
  • Depending on the make and model, point-and-shoot cameras can be used as deep as 30-plus feet below the water’s surface.
  • Professional underwater housings allow you to use your camera as far down as 200’ below the surface of the water.
  • Underwater housings are available as simple, inexpensive zip-lock soft cases, or as more expensive―and far more durable―hard polycarbonate or metal-alloy cases.
  • At B&H, we stock generic as well as dedicated underwater housings.
  • Depending on the make and model, dedicated housings are usually preferable in terms of functionality, compared to generic housings.
  • Almost all underwater housings can be used topside, and almost all regular cameras can be adapted for taking pictures underwater.
  • If a camera can shoot video topside, it can also shoot video underwater.
  • When taking pictures at depths greater than 6-10’, it’s preferable to use flash in order to maintain proper color rendition of your subjects.
  • While you can (usually) use your camera’s built-in flash underwater, it’s preferable to use external accessory flashes to avoid backscatter or kickback caused by the flash reflecting off the inner face of the camera housing.
  • When choosing a camera for underwater photography, make sure you can maintain control of the key camera functions including focus, playback and exposure.
  • A large LCD is preferable for composing and viewing photos taken underwater.
  • A focusing light is something you want to have attached to your camera, wrist or dive mask.