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Related FAQs: Underwater Photography, Underwater Photography 2, Above-water Photography, Digital Photography, Aquatic Videography

Related Articles: Underwater Photography: Taking Worthwhile Pictures Sub-Aqua  by Bob Fenner Above Water Photography, Reviews on: Norbert Wu's How to Photograph Underwater, Helix Camera (and books)

Beginning/Basic Underwater Photography/Videography

By Bob Fenner

Melanopus Clown, H. crispa anemone, Fiji

Of the great joys of exploring as a snorkeler/diver, the making and sharing of images is my greatest. Years back, hunting for abalone, spear-fishing, collecting shells and more for ornament were higher priority activities, but in a world with diminishing resources and too many humans, how much better it is to be able to record and disperse visuals of below water environments; leaving the life there for others to experience in person.

            I like to state that humans are visually-oriented organisms. That if we were dogs, we might well have such a periodical as “Play Dog” magazine; with blank pages replete with smells smeared on them. “What a babe!” a canine might think. People as the clever monkeys we are, reach for the colored fruit (in season) and for visual stimuli in all things.

            Join me here in this brief introduction exploring the basics of what it takes to make underwater images.


Housings First?

            It might strike you as odd, as in unusual, to not start discussing cameras first; following up with housings, but… within the choices of consumer rigs, the cost, function and utility of what goes around the camera (if anything!) is more important these years. Take a look; Single-Lens Reflex or Compact Digital are lay-peoples A-B choices for above and below water use; with functionally not much difference in features, quality of images (yes) within reason amongst either group. A MUCH larger array of choice exists in housings; for DSLRs, most costing more than the camera body they’re engineered to house. Also, considering that you must use the options and functionality of your housing to get to what your camera inside can do drives home the importance of this tool.

            First off, a housing needs to be functional… leak-proof, strong in terms of impact resistance, and entail “actuators” that not only allow you to turn on/off, up/down, higher/lower settings on the enclosed camera, but are “kinesiologically” pleasing.

No Leaky Please!  Thank goodness (and engineers); housings are MUCH less prone to allow water in then just a few years back. Better castings, O-rings, lube, fittings period account for far less-often dunked cameras. This being stated, I would gladly devote an hour or two presenting my ideas on “the discipline of O-rings” themselves; as their (mis) application is the principal source of woe and loss for underwater photographers. DO read up and PRACTICE removing, cleaning the race/s, cleaning the rings, lubricating them and properly replacing them. Valuable time well spent.

            And O-rings alone aren’t the only source of potential to probable leakage. Closures that impinge on the rings must be checked for sand, hair and other obstructions, lest they allow a bridge of water to pass into the housing. Related are the various through puts like sync cord ports, mechanical controller through – puts with their O-rings, many of which are NOT user-friendly. Again, practice and knowing which are to be pulled out when loading the camera, all to be “pushed in” before dunking your rig.

An example Compact Digital housing with thankfully only one user-friendly O-ring. The port is sealed on the front, the batteries within the camera, and the connections to external strobes are optical.


            Ports for full size SLR rigs are removable, inter-changeable, to allow for lenses of different lengths. Their O-rings and securing mechanisms are another possible weak link. READ their manuals carefully, and EACH time you’re getting into the water, check to make sure the port, possible extension are locked in all the way.

            The above being stated, just how often should you take out and clean your O-rings, the races, surfaces they fit against? Well; at least every trip, but for me, not every dive, day or time I open the housing. There is reason in having a few days go by twixt O-ring manipulation; there just being more likelihood of twisting, leaving part of the ring un-lubed, or introducing hair, sand… In a week’s trip, I might re-do the rings once or twice.      

Impact Resistance: My usual joke here regarding the sturdiness of UW housings and plane crashes; though our bodies would be reduced to less than thumb sized pieces, likely UW housings would get slightly scratched. They’re really tough; even the cast plastic ones; let alone the computer cut aluminum bodied models.

Nowayears camera manufacturers offer their own housings for their popular compact SLR models. Here’s the 056 for Olympus’ TG3 and 4 mounted on an available tray and arms set.


            This being stated, you DO want to protect your housing from uneven forces and particularly the knobs, dials… actuators… and glass ports from outside damage. Best to transport them sans camera bodies inside fins, clothing, wetsuits/booties/hoods in sturdy luggage:

Hard and soft-sided luggage will do for transporting your photo gear; here are two pix of housings in first a hard-sided Samsonite carry on, and a larger “dive bag” before fitting in all else, with booties and wet suit at the nose, fins and clothing on other sides.


The very worst “source of mortality” of UW rigs is…. Where? Dive/rinse buckets on board boats and liveaboards. Honestly, it amazes me the number of times I encounter everyone’s gear tossed willy nilly in a rocking bucket of freshwater. The only worse, added to injury is when folks have the ignorance or audacity to rinse their defogger spritzed masks in said entanglements; dissolving O-ring lubricant in the process!  

Lastly or at least secondarily; yes, housings should be attractive; they should look nice… And they do!


Cameras: General to Specific Selection Considerations:

Years back in the analog/film camera days I at times served as a judge at underwater photo contests, aka shoot-outs. As with most “deciders” I was decidedly unwelcome by some folks who contrived that their photos were better than others; largely based on the size and comparative expense of their rigs. At times, newish divers with “throw away”, one-use cheapy cameras would and still do shoot better pix than high end DSLR outfits of several thousand dollars… Why? Could be “luck” to some extent, but more often than not, folks who TAKE THEIR TIME, and KNOW about the life history of their subjects… shoot better. My point here is that though there are some differences twixt high/low end compact digital and Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras, the MOST IMPORTANT feature is whatever gear you have that you get out and (actually) use it. Are some makes, models of cameras inherently better than others? Yes… but, the degree of better/worse is more like the varying qualities of gasolines; than gas, water and olive oil.

            Compact Digital Cameras:

            Scoff if you will, the technology in these miniscule marvels exceeds that which took humans to and back from the moon… and for a few measly hundred dollars. CD cameras have gotten so good that a few friends have recently written books on their use.

            Other than taking images of such high quality that they’re hard to discern from SLRs, CD Cameras are of lower cost; smaller in size and hence more popular; in turn having housings that are less expensive.  All modern CD shoot in RAW formats; many are waterproof to some nominal depth (though I’d only use them in a housing); and as far as “extras” go… not much more to invest.

            Nowayears there’s not quite so much delay time twixt actuating the shutter release and the actual taking of the image, but there are vast differences in viewfinders. Many makes/models either don’t have them; or utilize electronic rendering rather than a view that approximates what the camera sees.

A (Compact Digital) Sony RX 100 Mark II and accompanying Nauticam housing


            (Digital) Single Lens Reflex Cameras:

            DSLRs are “better” cameras than compacts due to their differing feature of switchable lenses of higher quality, and usually more advanced (greater acuity and color richness) electronics, most notably principal sensors. Compared with Compact Digitals, SLRs are heavier, larger, and more expensive… as are their housings. And VERY often SLR folks will find themselves investing in external strobes (flashes)… along with sync cords, arms, trays… for a few thou more.

A (Digital) Single Lens Reflex Camera: Nikon d700 and accompanying Aquatica housing



Comparing Some Compact Digital and Single Lens Reflex Camera Characteristics:


Compact Digitals

Single Lens Reflex Cameras


Olympus TG4

GoPro Hero4 Ag

Nikon D700

Canon 7D, MII

Apprx. Cost *  $



About 1,100**


Apprx. Housing. Cost





Camera Weight

0.54 lbs.

0.181 lbs.

2.37 lbs.

1.81 lbs.

Housing Weight

0.94 lbs.

0.21 oz.

7.15 lbs. (Ike)

5.5 lbs. (Ike)






* Camera body only (no lens), ** Out of production 2012

In brief, CDs vs. SLRs: Cost less, as do their housings. Weigh less, as do their housings… can/do shoot a BUNCH of pixels per image, shoot HD video….  Is the higher range of ISO in DSLR vs. CD of use? Meh.


May As Well Mention Strobes/Lighting:

Photography (still and kinetic) is all about controlling light. Yes; and just like parties, BYO is best… providing at least some supplementary light for “fill”, contrast and color, though not absolutely necessary.

Two of the few established Strobe (flash) manufacturers wares below: Ikelite on the left, Inon on the right
Further necessary add-ons include strobe arms, tray, sync cords….



Actual Image-Making; Using Your Gear:

I have a standard spiel I’d like to share with you regarding real application of image gear. This S.O.P. is the same for video or still rigs; and any/all prevailing conditions underwater. In order of operation, given a thorough understanding (presumption) of the function of your camera, housing, lighting AND the behavior of the life you’re viewing, hoping to capture, AND your awareness of your diving skills, conditions…

1)      FIND YOUR SUBJECT: First comes the locating of a probable photo/video subject. Perhaps this is a beautiful subject, specimen, setting…

2)      CONSIDER THE SETTING: Next, consideration of this last; the composition. Unless you’re hoping for a simple organism identification pic; you’ll want to think about how you might shoot in context; perhaps telling a story of tied-in environment, behavior… This may entail getting down to substrate level, or even “shooting upward” a bit. Body and camera/rig placement can be very important.


Think about what you hope to do w/ a given image/composition. Examples below: A fish shot in two dimensions (one plane) for identification purposes. A small aperture (f16) used to blacken the background. Below this a more 3D shot of an encrusting Hydrozoan; telling the story of how it is found attached to hard substrate, and what life is found in association. At bottom: A nudibranch is shown with the camera just slightly above level w/ the substrate; as divers might encounter it.



3)      CHECK YOUR CAMERA SETTINGS! Whatever set up you’re using, you want to be assured that exposure, film speed, aperture…. A personal insight: I use the two right hand dials (on most cameras, housings) for f-stop and exposure… leaving the latter usually at 125th to 200th of a second… and leave all other camera settings “as are” for a given lens, type of intended shooting. Yep; I shoot manual rather than Program or Aperture or Shutter priority. I do almost always avail myself to auto-focus modes (‘cept for longish focal lengths); and set my strobes manually (rarely TTL).

4)      CHECK YOUR LIGHTS! Oh, how many times have I/we encountered folks whose lights were aimed hither and yon… anywhere but at the subject?! You can use just one strobe; mounted above the housing (ala Roger Steene) or another or two just to the side of the port… BUT DO assure they are pointed where they’ll do some good.


How many times have I seen diving photographers with their lights pointed elsewhere making shots? Better to have short connecting arms than longer in these cases. Below; the only time you don’t need to be concerned re your lights, arms… when they’re packed for transport.




5)      SHOOT! And SHOOT AGAIN! Actuate the equivalent of the shutter release… AND LOOK at the subsequent facsimile produced on the devices screen… AND SHOOT AGAIN! Electrons are cheap! Even with retaining the same settings. For some hold-over reasons no doubt, I still manually bracket at least half up and down a stop if there’s enough time, the composition warrants and allows it. Post production; what little I do employ, can/will save the vast majority of partly over and under-lit exposures.


The Big Wrap-Up

Like none other than the Jacques Yves Cousteau, you may go through a hunter phase, shooting fish for food and sport; further developing into a gatherer of shells, explorer of wrecks and more; but I mostly look forward to your becoming a maker of image work. Still and kinetic picture making entails all the former activities: seeking, finding, capturing the grace, symmetry and beauty of underwater worlds; but further leaves them undisturbed; preserved for others appreciation. What’s more, the “goods” of photos and videography are lasting testimonies of our adventuring in easy formats to share in space and time.


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