bring your slr underwater!

Anyone who has attempted underwater photography knows how challenging it can be compared to topside photography. Scuba diving is an equipment intensive hobby to begin with - throw in a foreign environment, 360 degrees of floating movement, monitoring depth, time, air supply, and watching your body position over a reef - some might think the last thing you want to deal with is a camera! Photography by itself can also be an equipment intensive hobby - so now you are doubling the gear (and exponentially the expense!) you are hauling around with you.

But for those who have mastered the basic diving skills and want to bring back images of the incredible things they see in this underwater world - nothing quite beats the excitement of bringing back a great image from a great dive trip. For some, a simple point and shoot camera is all they will ever need. For those wanting to grow in their underwater photography and develop it into a true passion, they will eventually invest in a setup like a Nikonos V or a housed SLR. And a driving passion it has to be - the added weight, complexity, post-dive care, underwater photography skills, and of course the expense are not for those casually interested in taking snapshots. You will simply end up frustrated and broke if your heart isn't in this. There must be a willingness to learn and make mistakes. The focus of this article will be on utilizing a housed SLR setup to give you an idea of what is involved in using this type of rig.


We originally started in underwater photography using Nikonos V camera systems. As we already had a passion for photography, it made sense to invest in a system we could grow and learn with. The Nikonos V was put to good use for about 5-6 years and is perfectly capable of allowing you to create world-class images. It was afterall the benchmark and standard system of professionals for many years. However, the Nikonos cameras do have their limitations.

Being a manual focus, rangefinder camera - what you see through the viewfinder is 'close' to what you get. It is a close approximation - and often good enough. The manual focus requires you to judge your subject to camera distance. This requires a good deal of accuracy if you are using lenses with limited depth of field like a 28mm or 35mm. Focusing accuracy is an essential and difficult skill to master. You have to learn how to compensate for the 25% larger / 25% closer magnification you have underwater. Throw in a moving subject like a turtle or a shark, and you have your work cut out for you! The metering, although TTL, did have its quirks when working wide angle and required some adjustments depending on the situation. Macro photography required the use of framers positioned in front of the lens, which made it difficult to approach skittish subjects.

These are some of my own personal frustrations with the camera. There are some advantages compared to other setups. Its compactness and quality of the water contact optics can't be beat. TTL flash was quite good for macro.

The Nikonos V is no longer in production as Nikon also realized the push toward SLR systems, growing popularity of digital. I assume it was a very expensive product line to manufacture and maintain for such a specialized field. You can still find them new at the time of this writing, and it will probably have an immortal life on Ebay. However, it does seem the end of a true legacy.

I eventually made a decision to go to the next level in equipment - a housed SLR. The lure of making accurate compositions through a viewfinder, autofocus, more sophisticated metering, zoom lens options, and macro capabilities eventually became too hard to resist. It is important to remember the gear does not make the image by itself - but it can sure make it a bit more pleasurable! If you are not having fun, then why do it at all?

If you don't have much knowledge of what goes into housing your SLR camera - it can be a daunting task of figuring out what is the best option for you to take. It is a considerable expense to undertake with an entirely new set of terms. You want to make sure you make the right decision for your needs. For me - I decided to house my Nikon F100 in an Aquatica housing. Aquatica has an excellent reputation for reliability and quality - with the expense being moderate when it comes to aluminum-based housings. Their customer service for me has been exceptional.

 

This image is of a basic setup for a housed SLR camera with a single strobe. It probably represents the very minimum of what you need to get started. Below are some descriptions of the numbered items:

 

1) Housing - consisting of two halves of a shell
2) Port (Dome) - which accommodate various lenses
3) SLR camera and lens
4) Strobe (single or double)
5) Strobe Arm, ball jointed

For lenses that have a larger or longer physical size, you may need a port 'extension' - which is basically a spacer between the port and the housing. Dome ports are used for wider angle lenses to offer the field of view, flat ports are used for longer focal lengths and macro lenses. You can generally count on having to buy both a dome port and a flat port if you want the whole range of focal lengths accessible to you.

Another thing to note about dome ports; These ports create an 'apparent image' that you are actually focusing on. For the optics of the Aquatica port, the dome creates a virtual image 12 inches in front of the camera. Therefore, the lens you are using must have a minimum focus distance of 12 inches or less. If it doesn't, you need to use a diopter (typically +3 or +4) attached to the front of the lens to be able to focus properly.

All of the external knobs and wheels are for controlling the various camera functions. Some housings allow more access to the functions of the camera over others. So it is important to check that your most used functions are accommodated by the housing.

Housings can have quite a few control knobs!

 

As with all underwater equipment - the key to making it waterproof is the o-ring. Housed systems typically have 1 major O-ring between the shell halves, and one or two at the port end. (2 more if you have a port extension) These are considered the 'user accessible' ones. About the same as a Nikonos V. Each one of the controls on the housing and the flash bulkheads are also sealed with one or more o-rings, generally considered 'not user accessible.'

Good O-ring maintenance is the key to avoiding floods. Keep them in good shape and you should have little to worry about. These means keeping them lightly lubricated and free of any hair, lint, salt crystals, or other foreign debris that might prevent a good seal. Use freshwater rinses religiously and you can show no fear when someone asks you that popular question of "Aren't you worried about a flood?" I personally think that the housings today are extremely reliable, and that a leak is caused either by user error or poor maintenance. Having all-risk insurance on your camera is not a bad idea either.

For additional piece of mind, many housings come with, or can be fitted with moisture alarms. These alarms give off visual and audible signals when water is detected inside the housing. These work by having two electrical contacts in the lower portion of the housing. When a short across the contacts occurs due to water, the alarms sound and a red light blinks. This gives you the chance to get to the surface before any extensive flooding takes place. Aquatica makes a nice universal alarm that will fit any housing setup. Below is a shot of how I configured it in my A100 housing;

In addition to the basic components, a few accessories are also helpful in maintaining your housing.


1) Allen Wrenches - a must if your housing uses allen head screws for attachment of handles (Aquatica supplies this with their housings)
2) Q-tips / Cotton Swabs - handy for cleaning o-ring grooves and salt residue under control knobs
3) Scrap credit card - for removing o-rings from grooves
4) Plain toothpaste - recommended for removing scratches from acrylic ports
5) Magnifying glass - useful for inspecting o-ring grooves for hair, debris
6) Spare o-rings - always have them handy
7) TTL cords for single and dual strobe setups

 

Once you get it into the water, a SLR underwater is almost as easy as using the SLR on land. Most systems are slightly negative in buoyancy, allowing you to set it down if you wish. The weight of the system becomes negligible underwater, though the bulk can make it difficult in high current. It is important to have a nice clear view through the viewfinder. Most housings have a magnifier for the eyepiece. Some also offer visibility of the top LCD on the camera. I actually find Aquatica's A100 housing to be a bit difficult to read the LCD in bright conditions. Most of the time I am shooting the camera on full manual or aperture priority and it is nice to be able to double check some of the camera settings via the LCD.

For night dives, you need quite a bit of light from your modeling lights or an auxiliary light for the autofocus to work. Even then it seemed to be sporadic - often cycling the autofocus from near to far. I eventually decided to just use manual focus on night dives. The same can apply for very close macro work. Perhaps I just need a better dive light!

One drawback about a housed system that you'll soon learn on your first dive with it is how unwieldy these things are on land. They are bulky, heavy, and generally a pain to deal with outside of the water. Throw in dual strobes packed with 8 D-cell batteries and you have quite a bit of weight to haul around. This reason alone can discourage many new housing users, so be sure you are willing to deal with this. It is manageable.

You can probably forget about using the boat's onboard rinse bucket due to the size of most housed rigs. Besides, you do not want other cameras crashing into your expensive port. Cameras sloshing around in a group rinse bucket are a disaster waiting to happen. I highly recommend your own independent rinse bag, which can also double as a carrying bag. The soft, collapsible coolers work perfectly. You can usually fill these with fresh water at the dock and use it to carry your camera on board, and they fold flat in your luggage.

There is no doubt that using a housed SLR camera can help improve your images. Certainly composition, lighting, and depth of field are all up to the photographer to manipulate. However, the mechanics of focusing, metering, and the ability to compose through the viewfinder help in reducing the number of images in the trash bin. If you are willing to take on the investment and a bit of bulk, housing your SLR can open up a whole new world of underwater photography.

 

References;
Underwater Photography.com
Ikelite
Martin Edge's book "The Underwater Photographer"

 

 

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