SCUBA Photography Gear 101 | Getting started with SCUBA photography

Exploring the mysteries of the oceans during a SCUBA diving excursion is most of all an experience that only less than 1% of the human population has ever dived in.  Be it the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of ocean that famed director James Cameron recently explored; the ships and aircraft lost at sea, but brought into a new light by National Geographic’s own David Doubilet; to recreational SCUBA divers enjoying the remarkable beauty of their local coral reefs and the many species that call it home.  

99% of the world maybe afraid or not have the opportunity to take the plunge to see what is in the blue.  It’s because of underwater photographers that people can see what is normally hidden in the sea; the beauty, the mystery, and the human influence; bringing inspiration and action to those on land.

If you’re a SCUBA diver who is on the fence of purchasing an underwater camera system for your diving adventure — due to either the expense and/or photography experience. Let this guide steer you in the right direction to bringing another level of entertainment to your next dive!

Choosing the right camera for your budget

When it comes to underwater cameras there are two important parts to consider – the underwater case and the camera.  The underwater case, of course, protects your camera from getting wet when you submerge your device underwater. You want to make sure about its underwater depth rating because there are underwater cases that range from 100 meters (328 feet) to a dismal 1 meter (3 feet).  High-end camera housings have more bells and whistles (and audible noises for water detection) to keep your expensive camera as safe as possible, but take note that each camera housing is tailored for the camera you decide to bring with you below the water surface.

This leads to the next point — cameras.  There are many forms and types of “cameras” you may decide to bring with you on your next trip.  You have your high-end cameras such as Nikon, Canon, and Sony, to action cameras like GoPro, or even your smartphone that’s with you all the time.  

With the more expensive cameras, you will be looking to buy an expensive camera housing to go with it (average price is $3000 and higher), but you will be spending on a camera that has greater functionality (low-light, interchangeable lenses, better exposure results and quality, unique settings).  Fortunately, an alternative to such a camera setup is the SeaLife camera series. The SeaLife Reefmaster Mini Elite (retail $315) is a great starter kit for underwater use only.

If you’re looking for something smaller and can be used in more ways than one — GoPro HERO model cameras (retail $400-$500) is another great alternative. The nice thing about GoPro action cameras is the included hardshell case is waterproof rated to 40 meters (131 feet).

And then there is your smartphone. Apple iPhone users have the best option in underwater protection thanks to Watershot housings.  The company has hardshell cases ranging from the iPhone 4 to the latest iPhone 6 Plus that allow your phone to be submerged to 60 meters (197 feet).  Another option for any smartphone protection is resealable bags. There are a lot of different brands available, however, one that is most moderately priced is the SEA TO SUMMIT TPU Guide Waterproof Case (retail $30).  It’s rated for 10 meters (33 feet) for one hour. This type of casing is the cheapest solution; however, you do put more risk on your device due to the limitations of the protection of the bag.

There is always a chance of catastrophic failure when you’re in the water — the ocean can be an unforgiving place to be.  Always make sure you’ve done the proper pre-dive procedures for your camera and housing to make sure you increase the odds of its survivability underwater.  Did you lube your O-rings? Is the camera seated properly in the housing? Did you check to ensure that there is no hair or sand on the O-rings? Is the latch locked and secure?

Practice above water

Before you take that risk in submerging your camera — how comfortable are you with it already?

Learn the functions and locations of each button on your camera as each type and model will have a different configuration.  It’s important to know where your shutter and video record, aperture and shutter speed dials, white balance, and ISO are located.  These are the controls that you’ll be using a lot both above and underwater. Also, scroll through the menu and learn what options are only available in the menu that does not have a physical button.

Now, do all that but with the camera in its underwater housing.  When using an underwater housing, you’ll notice a significant heft compared to just having the camera by itself.  Also, because of the design of some underwater houses compared to the actual camera some options might be different. Was there a change in button configuration? Did the underwater housing cause a function not to be accessible?  Are you able to easily scroll the menu setting?

It’s good practice to learn how to use your camera in its underwater housing on land to learn how it functions properly.  It’s especially important if you are planning on having night dives as you won’t be able to see what you’re pressing in the dark.


Test your underwater housing

I recommend before you take your camera on to its first SCUBA dive is to test if the underwater housing doesn’t have any manufacturer defects.  

First, remove your camera out of the underwater housing (if you haven’t done so already) and place some tissue inside the underwater housing and then close it.  Second, submerge your underwater housing into a large bucket of water; you might need to add some weight to the top of the housing to keep it submerged. Finally, wait an hour or so and evaluate if water has leaked into your underwater housing.  The tissues inside should not be damp if the underwater housing were properly sealed by manufacturer standards.

If you did get a leak — verify your O-rings are seated correctly, lubricated properly, and debris-free.  Redo the tissue and water bucket test and wait again for new results. If the leak continues to be persistent its best to contact the manufacturer and receive advice on how to exchange or receive a refund on the defected underwater housing.

By performing this at-home test you save yourself from the stress of your camera becoming destroyed underwater.

Capturing the moment

After becoming familiar with your camera; practicing above land and the relief it didn’t flood during your testing; your next step is literally to take the plunge with it in open water and begin capturing the marvelous experience of the underwater world. Imagine photographs you’ve seen and thought “Hey, that’s a great photo!” and use those images as reference to how you would want to capture the moments you see underwater.  Think of the composition — does the placement of your subject feel stronger if it was framed closer to show emotion or farther away with more of the environment to tell the story of the moment? How does the natural light from above change the mood of the scene if you changed angles?

Have fun!

It takes a lot of practice and a lot of work to learn how to use your camera and to take excellent photos. Keep practicing and have fun with it, and share your photos with friends!

Lisa Swank is a PADI Divemaster and one of the founders of Null Gravity LLC.  She enjoys hiking, camping, SCUBA diving (duh!), and taking along her camera to photograph the moments she discovers on her adventures.


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