Underwater Photography 1: Picking a Camera

PADI Deep Specialty Course
January 26, 2018
February 1, 2018
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This fish wants you to photograph him!

Well, here you are. A new underwater photographer. That’s what you decided you will be. Maybe you have seen some cool underwater shots which won a nature photography competition, or you have admired the prints of underwater photos in Salaya’s guest apartments or penthouses. Maybe your dive buddy takes underwater pictures. You decided you want to pursue this art form too!

Good decision! In the next few weeks I’ll walk you through the necessary steps which will take you to the point at which you can take quality photographs of interesting marine animals, without harming them, and without flooding your camera. The very first step, quite obviously, is to pick the right camera.

There is quite a lot of technical advice on the internet when it comes to camera performance. Digital photography review always gives excellent, no-nonsense, engineering-ish reviews of cameras, their sensors and their lenses. If you plan to purchase any type of camera, make sure to read dpreview first! This review by the folks at Backscatter gives a very good overview of newer digital cameras for underwater photography. The competent people at Bluewater Photo also have a lot to say about the best new compact cameras, mirrorless cameras and dSLRs for underwater photography.

But what is somehow missing is the wisdom to guide you towards the camera that’s right for you. How do all these technical details translate into answering the question of “what camera should I buy?”.

At this point, you have to ask yourself two questions: Firstly, how much do I know about photography? Do I think f-stop is a move in cricket? Do you think that shutter speed describes how fast your neighborhood rock band plays their guitars? Then you might want to opt for a simpler camera at first. If you are well versed in taking pictures, just not underwater pictures, then you could aim a bit higher. You will have things to learn, but you will be comfortable with a more complicated camera, even if you are new to using it underwater. It’s not a good idea to learn to photograph, AND to learn photographing while diving at the same time.

Then, you have to ask yourself: How many Euros live in my bank account? How many dollars populate my wallet? Do I swim in Pesos? If you are ok to spend some money on an underwater camera setup but maybe not all that much, you might want to go with a simpler, and cheaper camera first. Bigger is usually better, yes, but for many types of shots modern small cameras are doing amazingly well.

Only if you are a competent photographer (on land only, so far), with enough $$ to spare should you go for an advanced system right away.

So, let me present two camera systems which I can recommend for an underwater photo newbie: one is a quality point & shoot camera, relatively affordable and easy to use, the other one a mirrorless camera system, a bit more pricey, a bit more complicated to use. They both happen to be Olympus systems; I don’t have s sponsorship contract with Olympus or any of the sellers I recommend (yet, hehe)! The point & shoot system is the successor system to a camera I used this summer, the TG4, look here:

Protoreaster nodosus

The mirror-less system is the successor to the camera I am currently mainly using, for shots like this one:

Porcellain Crab

System 1: Olympus TG5

This is an exciting camera! This is a powerful point & shoot camera, with an excellent macro mode. It’s possible to use this camera with an external strobe, or a system which re-routes the light from the internal strobe in a circular fashion, around the lens. Such a way of aiming the strobe light is ideal for macro photography.

A major strong point about this camera is that it is water-proof to 10 meters without a housing. The camera body itself is water-sealed. You should still get a housing for your TG5 – 10 meters is not very deep, if you are actually scuba diving as opposed to snorkeling or swimming. It’s still great to have this sealed camera body: in case you have a slight leak at, let’s say, 20 meters, a bit of water will not destroy your camera.

An interesting point you might notice is that with 12 megapixels the TG5 has less such pixels than the TG4 (which had 16). But: 12 megapixel is still ample, unless you want to print your images on very large posters, and the sensor size is the same between both cameras. As a consequence each pixel is larger, and hence the camera does really well in low light. Note: pixel number is important, but by far not the only factor which determines the quality of a camera. 12 megpixel on a large sensor are better than 14 megapixel on a puny one.

Bluewater Photo lets you order this camera plus housing plus ring strobe in one package. If you are in the Philippines, Splash in Manila is a good source for all things underwater photo.

System 2: Olympus E-M1 II

This is an absolute ace camera. I love my E-M1 I, and the technical improvements Olympus has made from the I to the II are promising.

I would certainly get the 60 mm macro lens with this camera – this is an excellent camera for shooting macro. another thing I love about my E-M1 I is how well it does as a film camera – I assume the II will do even better.

The dSLRs (those really big cameras, where a mirror flips up when you press the shutter) are still a tad better than mirror-less cameras like the E-M1 II, but for many types of photography, the mirrorless cameras have almost caught up. And: the smaller size is a significant advantage if you need to fit a housing around your camera, and drag it through the ocean with you.

For this camera you will need to get an external strobe. There is a built-in flash in this camera, but that does not give you enough power, and you can’t move it around. It’s a necessity to be able to move your strobe for many types of shots, we’ll get to that in a future post.

The Sea & Sea YS-D2J Strobe is excellent. I am using an Inon z240 strobe, which is small, powerful and recharges quickly. I could recommend it – if it was still available. Inon has discontinued it and is now making the z330 – definitely highly recommended from all I read.

To mount the strobe onto your camera, you need a base and some posts.

Bluewater Photo offers this camera in a nice package.

I hope you like my tips. These camera systems are what I would get if I was in the market for one right now. Next week: What do all those pesky buttons on your new camera even do?

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