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Getting Started with Underwater Photography

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I live over 300 miles from the nearest ocean. I do not scuba dive. I am only on or near ocean water on vacations. As such, I am unwilling to spend thousands of dollars getting set up to do underwater photography. That said, I am interested in it. I would like to have a camera capable of shooting underwater, or at least of getting wet.

You might be in a similar situation. You might want to look at waterproof options for beach vacations. Perhaps you plan to snorkel a little on a trip to the coast. Or maybe you are taking a coastal trip and want to shoot waves. You might just want to protect your camera from the elements. If so, you should know your options for taking cameras underwater.

There are a few different options for you. In fact, there is something of a good, better, and best way to go about underwater or waterproof photography. There is a huge disparity in price among these options though.

Let’s go through them now. This will give you an idea of your options, the costs involved, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

The Expensive Option: Underwater Housings

Most of us will have DSLRs, and the ideal option would be to take that DSLR underwater (safely). After all, we spent a lot of money on that DSLR, and it gets great image quality. The good news is that there is a way you can take your DSLR underwater. You can buy a waterproof housing to fit to virtually any model of DSLR. The housings allow you to take your camera underwater, operate the controls, and take pictures.

So problem solved, right?

Not so fast. These waterproof housings for DSLRs are ridiculously expensive. They frequently cost more than the camera itself! Lest that statement seem like drama or overstatement, here are some options for common DSLRs:

Housings for your underwater camera

Scary, huh? There are some options as low as $350, but I’m not sure about them. Most of them look more like bags than housings.

The upside of this option is that you will get the best pictures of any underwater option available. How could you not? You are using your expensive DSLR. So if you are a diver or otherwise spend a LOT of time in the water, this may be a viable option for you.

If you are not planning on doing a lot of underwater photography, however, the cost of this option is probably going to be prohibitive. Fortunately, there are cheaper options. Let’s move on to them now.

The Cheap Option: Underwater Cameras

The cheapest option is actually to buy a waterproof camera. There are a variety of options available from just about every major camera manufacturer, including Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Fujifilm. Here are some of the options available:

Options for Underwater Camera

Click on the chart to see a full-size pdf of it.

The problem is that they are all compact point and shoots. Even where the camera has reasonable resolution, they have small image sensors so dynamic range and noise are going to be a problem. these cameras are just not made for serious photography.

I have owned more than one waterproof compact camera, and they are fine for casual use. Remember that you will typically be using them on bright sunny days, so low light performance will not be too much of a problem (unless you are deep underwater). There are some issues though, besides the inherent limitations of compacts with small sensors. For example, these cameras will typically have a delay between when you press the shutter button and when the picture is taken. If you are interested in capturing waves or catching wildlife at a decisive moment, that is going to be almost impossible. Further, many of them do not even allow manual control of the camera. You are stuck in the dreaded automatic mode, and the exposure settings are whatever the camera decides. It is almost intolerable to someone who knows how to operate a camera properly.

Underwater camera photo

Taken with a compact underwater camera (Panasonic Lumix TS4)

Until very recently though, these were your options. You could spend a fortune on a housing for your DSLR, or you could spend a couple hundred bucks on a compact camera that was going to frustrate you. Fortunately, this is changing for the better.

The Middle Road: Mirrorless to the Rescue

It appears that underwater photography may be another thing that the mirrorless camera revolution has solved. That is true in two ways.

First, there is a waterproof mirrorless option. It is the Nikon 1 AW 1. It is a plausible option, but is frankly not that great when stacked up against other mirrorless camera options. It has a smaller sensor (1″) than comparable mirrorless cameras and 14 megapixels. When compared to compact options, however, this camera looks much better. It is certainly more capable than the standard point and shoot. It costs $700, making it much more expensive than a compact camera, but a lot less than buying a housing for a DSLR.

Ther is a second, and much better way, that you can do underwater photography with a mirrorless camera. Presumably because of the small size of mirrorless cameras, you can now actually get underwater housings for a reasonable price. They are typically just a few hundred dollars. I just bought one for my Sony a6000 for only $200.

“Ah,” you say, “that might work for you, who has a mirrorless camera, but I do not.” That leads to another option for underwater photography: buy a mirrorless camera and the compatible housing. It will cost you less than buying a DSLR housing alone. For example, you can get a solid mirrorless camera for $500 or less. Then you spend a couple hundred on the housing. Now you have a great underwater camera for about $700. I’m not suggesting that $700 is chump change. It is not. But it beats spending $1,500 on a housing.

The mirrorless camera you buy will be way better than any of the waterproof cameras. There is no comparison. Further, the whole set up cost less than half of just the waterproof housing for a DSL are. If you are interested in underwater photography, there is now a viable option.

What About Rentals?

In other contexts, rentals can be a great way to get the best gear and save some money. If you are headed to the coast for a week, why not rent an underwater housing?

Renting underwater gear doesn’t appear to be much of a bargain. First of all, the top players in the photography rentals market (Lens Rentals and Borrow Lenses) don’t rent underwater housings. Perhaps for that reason, the prices from those that do are quite steep. Expect a four-day rental of a DSLR housing to cost you between $360 and $600. Rentals for mirrorless cameras are less than that, and still less for compacts (but still a few hundred dollars).

Frankly, I’d rather buy a cheap mirrorless camera and a housing than spend that kind of money renting something.

The Final Takeaway for Underwater Cameras

The options I see for underwater photography are to:

  • buy (or rent) an underwater housing for your DSLR ($1,250 – $4,000)
  • buy a waterproof compact camera ($100 – $325),
  • buy an underwater mirrorless camera (the Nikon 1 AW1) ($700),
  • or buy a mirrorless camera and a housing ($700 – $4,000, depending on the model of camera)

Which option you pick is, of course, up to you. It seems to me, however, that the mirrorless options make the most sense.

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