Crafting Underwater Images with a Smartphone

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For underwater photographers, the demands of shooting are huge: travel costs, lugging all that equipment, finding a suitable locale—the list goes on. But those demands might soon change, thanks to WeFine, a company in Shenzhen, China, that has partnered with Dive+ and Kraken Sports to produce a specialized Smart Housing that fits almost every Bluetooth-enabled smartphone on the market. The Smart Housing works in tandem with the Dive+ app to control manual/autoexposure and focus, color temperature, zoom, exposure compensation, and it even controls ISO.

To test the housing and application, we chose two locations: Isla de Mujeres, in Mexico, for Whale Sharks, and three destinations in the Philippines, to capture the amazing biodiversity of Puerto Galera, Anilao, and Dumaguete. In Mexico, all the in-water work was captured by free diving and that meant no lights or strobes. Under normal conditions, every shot taken with a phone would render many shades of blue, but using the Dive+ App, the lost reds are replaced and, as you can see below, the images are stellar.

Whale sharks are an amazingly majestic and benign species, and the ability to get up close to them meant using a wide-angle lens that is available as a screw-on wet-lens adapter. The possibilities are limitless, but I recommend doing a multi-day excursion with a well-established operator so you can maximize your time in the water. The trip out to the site takes about an hour and a half, depending on the boat and sea conditions, but the experience is so worth the effort. By the way, it may appear to be snowing underwater, but this is really fish roe, which is a tasty buffet for the sharks are in the area!

For the scuba portion of this test expedition, I moved to the Philippines, where biodiversity is literally off the charts. I was sponsored by three different resorts in my favorite locations, Puerto Galera at Marco Vincent, Anilao with Anilao Photo Academy and, in Dumaguete, at Atlantis Dive Resort.

Diving these locations day and night is an imagist’s dream and, though they share many of the same species, no two dives are alike. From Puerto Galera, there is also the chance to dive the Verde Islands, a true bucket-list location, and these locations really put the Smart Case and Dive+ App to the test on hour-plus dives.

Ease of Setup

The first thing you notice is the ease of setup and operation. It only takes about five minutes to build the rig and install the phone but, first, you must open the App and use the camera to link the housing by scanning a bar code. Another benefit of this program is that the built-in dive computer function with compass and GPS monitors and logs all your dives automatically, and provides a map of the location. The computer is programmable too, so diving mixed gas is easily adjusted.

The downside here is the lack of a comprehensive operator manual, so a lot of experimentation with it on land is a good idea. This will also familiarize you with the full functionality of the setup. Its controls that are very easy to access, with the same hand used for the shutter release. The trigger is top mounted, large, and requires just the right amount of pressure to allow staging your shots without accidentally triggering the shutter. The menus are in color and easy to read, and all the buttons are reachable while still keeping your finger on the trigger, thumb and first (or index) finger.

Kraken Sports Smart Housing
Kraken Sports Smart Housing

Since the App offers far more control than the phones offer outside the housing, you can take your time and really dial-in the images so they look exactly the way you want them to. The down side is the lack of access to the slow-motion and time-lapse functions, but the developers are working on that and free updates to the program are frequent as they work out bugs and fixes, as well as adding more functions.

A note here: the program does crash because it is in a constant Beta phase, but WeFine has now worked out a sequence of steps that allow the operator to re-start and launch it without having to surface and reset the housing, a functionality not available when I shot this, in December 2018.

Ports and Operation

There are a number of ports available and, for these shoots, I used the wide angle and +13 macro ports, as well as the camera’s electronic zoom. The zoom operates in steps from the housing controls, so smooth zooming is not possible.

The manual focus and exposure functions give the photographer a lot of latitude for depth-of-field control and composition, and the ability to adjust color temperature provides the creativity we all adore of the shots we compose in our mind’s eye.

This App also allows for ISO adjustment ranging up to 720, so you have some control over light sensitivity, as well, and all the functions can be used in auto or manual modes.

Closing Comments

This housing and the use of cell phones to create underwater images is a true step in the right direction for so many more divers. Now everyone with a phone can capture the world beneath the waves we all love and that is, perhaps, the greatest benefit; saving the sea one image at a time.

At this point in time, shooters won’t see the results obtained from cameras in the $2,000 - $10,000 range, but the day is coming when these devices may even surpass the quality to which we have all become accustomed. The cost savings is a factor, and traveling with one suitcase and a carry-on is a wonderful experience, and the light weight also adds to the ease of shooting in the challenging conditions we all face, not to mention much less arm fatigue on long dives. It is a bit negative, but not so much that compensation is necessary. The down side here is no control of strobes, so continuous lighting is required. With lights, my rig cost just under $2,000, also a huge savings on the cost of cameras and housings. Give it a shot—you won’t be disappointed.

If you have any questions or comments, or underwater smartphone photos, share them with us in the Comments section, below.

Be sure to check back on B&H Explora for more of Adventure Week—and don't forget to follow B&H on Twitter @BHPhotoVideo for up-to-the-minute #adventureweek news.

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