This buyer's guide has been created to help you make the right equipment choices as you embark on your underwater photographic journey. It is based on years of experience and learning using the equipment on this site (we don’t stock anything unless we have tested it!), consultation with manufacturers and suppliers and feedback from users - our customers.
It also complements our unique product configurator to help you build your set-up from the ground up and explore all the options open to you.
When shooting photographs underwater, whether you are a beginner just starting out or a seasoned professional, there are five equipment essentials to consider when building or adding to your set-up:
Strobes work in a similar way to a land-based flash but are generally more powerful to compensate for the absorption of light by the water between you and the subject.
Lights (powerful underwater torch) are an essential requirement if you prefer to shoot video footage or are diving at night.
For DLSR/Mirrorless housings, the tray and grip are most often already integrated into the housing design.
OTHER TYPES OF LIGHTS:
Deciding what equipment is right for you is largely a matter of personal choice based on several important factors - what camera you have or are considering, your ability and capability, will it be photo – video or both that you want to pursue and (this is a big one) how much you want to invest in it.
Like many lifestyle activities, underwater photography is investment heavy – you need to have the right equipment to be able to do it. Unlike golf and even scuba diving, it is rare that you can rent the right equipment! Like any investment, get the appropriate gear and care for itwell. It will last many years and with an acceptable return on investment.
Our best advice, whether you are starting small, upgrading from an existing set-up or adding accessories to what you have, the key is to FUTURE PROOF your purchases. Think forward in time and understand if your purchase is for the longorshorter-term. If new into this hobby, start small with compact camera and a housing for it. Build from it.
Unless you start with the very best equipment money can buy, an upgrade at some point in the future is inevitable, for two key reasons:
- Once the underwater photography (UWP) bug has bitten you, there is no cure!
- The pace of technological development, particularly with cameras, is unrelenting with popular models areconstantly being replaced almost on a yearly basis or even shorter.
Whether you already have an existing camera or are looking to acquire something new, there are several important questions to ask yourself before jumping in the deep end:
- Your comfort zone – how much input do you want on the results of your pictures? Is a bigger, more complicated camera where you have control over all the variables right for you?
- Do you prefer the smaller and simpler ‘point and shoot’ approach?
- Do you take the middle ground and go for a Mirrorless camera? HINT: The best and most expensive equipment doesn't guarantee the best pictures – you are the biggest variable of them all so choose a camera you feel comfortable with.
- If you already have a camera, is there an available underwater housing for it? Is the camera model likely to be phased out or replaced in the future? (making it harder to come by parts and servicing)
- Size matters – compact camera or DSLR? The bigger the camera, the larger and heavier the housing and set-up. While your rig may weigh next to nothing when submerged, the same isn't true out of the water (think excess baggage fees for those out of town dive trips).
It is a very personal decision, but the following advice may help you make up your mind:
Compact CamerasMuch smaller than their larger DLSR / Mirrorless counterparts, a compact camera like the Olympus TG, Sony RX and Canon G series are good entry-level cameras to test your underwater shooting skills.
With the ever-increasing pace of camera software development, 'point and shoot' photography has advanced to a whole new level with an ‘underwater’ setting which compensates for the light/color loss while taking pictures at depth. For the manual enthusiast, most also have a manual setting giving you complete or partial control on the camera's functions – ISO, aperture, shutter speed, focus etc.
Cameras are reasonably priced and represent good value; camera housings can vary from around $200 for a non-serviceable (OEM) polycarbonate case to $1,000+ for the aluminum option.
For convenience / practicality and flexibility, a compact camera with housing is a sound investment – there is a reason why many professionals shoot with both compact and high-end DSLR/ Mirrorless rigs. A huge advantage would be the ability to attach/remove a wet lens while on the dive. Switching from macro to wide angle on the go while underwater is just downright amazing!
- Ability to change wet lenses at will to move from macro to wide angle set-up while underwater.
- Ease of maintenance – fewer O-rings to grease, quicker and easier to clean, service friendly.
- Camera functionality continues to improve with many compacts now including HD video capability as standard.
- Small means light and portable – great for storage and avoiding excess baggage fees on those out-of-town trips.
- Use housing and camera for snorkeling and family beach occasions.
- Compact cameras have their limitations – shutter lag or delay is an issue for those split-timing action shots (e.g., yawning fish).
- Wet lenses have come a long way with a range of available products from macro through to wide and fisheye lenses, but the rendition of color and definition is a tad lowervs that of a DSLR / Mirrorless equivalent.
DSLR CamerasThe word 'professional' is what immediately springs to most people’s minds when describing the DSLR cameras (or to be accurate Digital Single Lens Reflex) because of its size and the capability to change the camera lens to capture the kind of images you prefer. Note that, the lenses that we normally recommend are not the kit lenses that come with the camera. That is also another expense!
More than that, DSLRcameras offerfull control that allows you to manually and individually control each function of the camera to achieve the results you want. Creating or establishing your own 'style' of imagery. This level of control opens a whole new world of potential but also complex to the uninitiated. Probably the most noticeable difference between the full-sizedvs compact camera is the absence of shutter lag on the big rigs.
This type of camera typically has a camera body (which pairs to an underwater housing) and a lens (which pairs to an appropriate port). Unlike the compact camera that can be fitted with a wet lens, this requires to decide before the dive whether it will be wide or macro dives. Lenses cannot be changed underwater with these types. For the experienced ones, the capability to shoot both wide and macro with these rigs, will entail a lot of investment. That means, two sets everything or have a back-up compact for those moments that you cannot miss!
Cameras in this category vary in price but expect to pay around $800 for a base model, with a kit lens, and many thousands for something at the higher end. Underwater housings start at $1,400 (without port).
- Zero shutter lag.
- Shoots both Photo and Video in HD - HD video output is far superior than footage you can shoot on a compact camera.
- Wider range of available lenses such as Fisheye, macro or micro lenses.
- Full control of all camera functions giving you much greater ownership of the end results – great pictures!
- Larger camera sensors translate into much greater detail and color rendition.
- Price – camera and housing/port combination is more expensive.
- Ability to change from wide to macro and vice-versa is not possible. Wet macro lenses may be added to a macro land lens to enhance magnification.
- Total gear set-up is bulky and heavy
- Pre-dive set and post dive cleaning is more intensive – more O-rings to grease, more items to clean and higher service costs.
MIRRORLESS CAMERASUsed to be the new kids on the block, but now they are driving the technology where these camera types have amazing quality output both in photo and video modes. They have capabilitiesthat sometimes surpass some DSLRs.
Think of them as a crossbreed between the DSLR and the compact. Pioneered originally by Panasonic and Olympus where manufacturers like Sony and Canon are now catching up so there are lots of choices.
Why crossbreed? Essentially, the intent here is to take the compact camera’s size and weight + marry it with the replaceable lens functionality of the DSLR with the big rig’s quality output. The fact that Mirrorless and micro four-thirds cameras are built to an industry agreed specification or at least the use of an adapter, allows interchanging of lenses between brand platforms.
Image quality nowadays is close to or sometimes even better than a DSLR. For those who prefer using the LCD screen as a viewfinder, this is standard now in this platform.
Camera prices vary by brand and functionality so shop around. Housings for cameras in this category are in the $1,200 range for a polymer housing and upwards for the aluminum counterparts.
- Almost zero shutter lag.
- Shoots both Photo and Video in HD.
- DSLR-type functionality and camera control with DSLR ability to use replaceable lenses.
- Lower investment cost than DSLR set up if selecting the entry level types paired with a polymer housing, less bulk, lighter.
- Higher investment cost than compact camera but results may justify the expense.
- Some lenses and port combinations will allow use of wet lenses on both macro and wide angle. Ask us to verify.
- Larger, heavier set up than compact.
- Maintenance regime and service requirements like DSLR.
Other Camera Options
Other cameras?This is a new section to consider camera options that just did not exist a year ago, specifically the increasing use of higher functioning smart phones like iPhone, Android and action video cameras like the Go Pro Hero range and others.
They deserve mentioning here driven by the increasing demand by enthusiast with an active lifestyle who want a go-anywhere combination photo /video camera but are not necessarily looking for professional-grade underwater outputs.
If this is you then our best advice is to do your research – find out what housings are available to complement your camera choice or simply reach out to us.
If you have already reached this section, then chances are you have already decided on which camera you want to take underwater. Your choice of underwater housing will be determined (and constrained) initially by your choice of camera as not all cameras have available housings.
The purpose of this section is to help you understand the differences in housing types so you can make an informed decision. As with choosing a camera, there are many things to consider – what type of photography you wish to pursue, how often you intend to dive, what strobes/lighting you are considering and, of course, how much you want to spend.
Polycarbonate (Plastic) Vs. Aluminum HousingsWe are frequently asked about the difference between a polycarbonate (hard plastic) vs an aluminum housing (apart from the different materials).
Aluminum housings are generally machined from a solid metal block, that has greater structural integrity. This allows multiple holes closer together which will mimic or have similar control configuration on the housing vs that of the camera.
Polycarbonate housing access points that are drilled too close together stand the risk of weakening the plastic, causing cracking and increasing the risk of your housing being flooded while submerged. However, this does not necessarily diminish your ability to use all the camera’s functions and settings – on polycarbonate housings manufacturers have found innovative ways to reposition on some of the housing controls.
The biggest difference, unsurprisingly, is in cost. Polycarbonate housings, for obvious reasons, are lower in price at an average of 50%. They perform the same way as their aluminum counterparts. The same can be true for compact and mirrorless cameras but we willexercise caution if this applies to when a polycarbonate housing is chosen as not all are created equal.
Many of the polycarbonate housings available for compact cameras are what is termed OEM – Original Equipment Manufacturer – branded, e.g., a housing marketed and sold by Brand X for a same Brand X compact camera. You may also hear of OEM housings being referred to as ‘disposable’. This is because, for the most part, they have a life expectancy of just 1-2 years and are not serviceable. There are no parts available in the market to replace O-rings, levers, dials and switches.However, with prices for an OEM housing starting at around $200, they may suit someone venturing into the deep for the first time or a diver who is not sure whether the underwater imaging is for them in the longer term. In any event, an upgrade is inevitable!
The alternative to an OEM housing is a polycarbonate housing produced by a professional housing manufacturer like Ikelite. Ikelite housings are made using thicker plastic to increase structural integrity, are fully serviceable and can be repaired if the worst should happen.
PortsFor a DSLR / Mirrorless housing you will also need to purchase one or more ports, made by the same manufacturer of your chosen housing to ensure compatibility. Your choice of port is largely determined by which lens you intend to shoot with underwater but there are other factors to consider also:
Dome Port or Flat Port?A Dome Port is most effective when using a wide-angle lens (less than 35mm) for several important reasons.
- The glass or acrylic dome allows you to eliminate the magnification effect caused by refraction of light through a flat port, thereby retaining the full imagery width of your camera lens.
- Color and sharpness are better with a wide-angle lens as you can get closer to your subject (but not too close as you may scratch the front of the dome!)
However, it is possible to take high quality macro images using a Dome Port, so it is mostly a matter of personal choice or, more frequently, budget. If you can only afford one port, then a Dome Port (using a 60mm lens) is likely to prove more flexible than a Flat Port for shooting both macro and wide, but you also may need a port extension to fit a longer lens inside and optimize the focal length to ensure sharp images.
Acrylic ports are cheaper than glass ports, but a glass port is more resistant to scratches and will give sharper images. However, if you scratch a glass dome it is permanent,and repair is expensive (so remember to purchase a neoprene dome cover to protect the port when it is not being used). Scratches to acrylic domes can be removed for those not so deep ones.
Other Housing ConsiderationsThere are several other items you should consider before shortlisting your housing options:
- Strobe/ Lighting choice – you will need to decide at this stage whether you will be triggering your strobes to fire using a fiber optic connection or if you will use the TTL capability (we will discuss this further at Chapter 5: Which Strobes?). The important consideration here is to check that your preferred housing will support your preferred strobe(s).
- Lens Compatibility – check that your preferred housing will support your choice(s) of lens for your DSLR, or Mirrorless camera and an appropriate lens gear is available for focus and/or zoom functionality. If you are using a non-mainstream lens (Tokina, Sigma, Rokinon, etc.), check also that the manufacturer supports that lens-type.
What Lenses should I buy for a DSLR camera?The ideal rig set would be to have at least two lenses – one each for macro and wide angle. In a perfect world, we would all want all the lenses available!
As a minimum we recommend you start with a 50-60mm macro lens and a medium wide lens (20mm or up). Where possible, we advise you to avoid using a kit lens (the one that comes with the camera) – as these are frequently lower quality vs that of the lenses we recommend. Although, there are some exceptions to this rule, ask us for more information.
If you are buying a new camera, try negotiating a package that includes the lens you want in place of the kit lens. Alternatively, purchase the camera body only and then the lens(es) that you want.
For Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras, based on our experience, we recommend the following lenses:
- Subject smaller than 2in - use Nikon 60mm 2.8D or G
- Subject larger than 2in - use Nikon 105mm 2.8D or G
- Coral, reef shots, larger marine life – use Nikon 12-24mm, 17-35mm, 20mm, 24mm
- Super Wide (Fisheye)
- Use Nikon 10.5mm and 16mm, Tokina 10-17mm
- Subject smaller than 2in - use Canon 60mm 2.8
- Subject larger than 2in - use Canon 100mm 2.8
- Coral, reef shots, larger marine life – use Canon 10-22mm, 17-40mm, 16-35mm, 20mm or 24mm
- Super Wide (Fisheye)
- Use Canon 15mm and 14mm, Tokina 10-17mm
Your choice of strobes is, to a large extent, a function of the choices you have already made for your camera and housing – not all strobes are compatible with all housings and cameras. However, as we have identified, your housing choice to some extent depends on what strobes you want to add to your set up.
To help guide you in making the right choice, we are going to have to get a little more technical.
Housing/Strobe Connection:At higher end level, to light your underwater photographs (which you will need to do if you are diving at depths greater than 30ft/10m or where natural light is poor) you will need one or two strobes that are fired through the camera when you press the ‘capture’ button. In this mode, the strobes are commonly referred to as slave strobes because they do what the camera tells them or at least just trigger them. The signal to fire the strobes can be sent from the camera via several different methods:
TTL via fiber optic cable – in this method, the strobe power is determined by the camera, which will measure the available light through the camera lens (TTL) and fire the internal camera flash at the appropriate intensity to light the subject. The light from the flash will travel thru the fiber optic cable to the strobe, which will fire with the same power intensity as the camera flash.
This set up will most typically apply to use of a compact camera with internal flash and a housing that is either transparent or has an optical window with a fiber optic cable connector. Your strobe must have a TTL setting (to allow it to interpret the light being read from the camera).
TTL via electronic sync cord – more common with DSLR camera/housing combinations (but available for some compacts), this method relies on a cable inside the housing that connects the camera (via the hot shoe) to an electronic bulkhead on the outside of the housing into which the cable from the strobe is connected.
Using this method, the strobes have a direct electronic connection to the camera (versus fiber optic which transmits the 'light' signal from the camera via the housing connector to the strobes). As above, your strobes must have a TTL setting, and you may also need to purchase a TTL converter (translator) for your camera.
- Manual via fiber optic – the difference between this method and (1) above is that the intensity of the strobe is controlled on the strobe manually and not pre-determined by the light reading taken through the lens by the camera.
- Manual via electronic sync cord – as above, the intensity of the strobe flash is managed manually using the power adjustment on the strobe and not through the camera.
Having decided upon your preferred method to trigger the strobe to fire, there are several other considerations before making a final choice:
Guide Number (GN) or Power/IntensityAll strobes are marked with a Guide Number (GN), which identifies the distance, in feet/meters, the light from the strobe can reach on maximum setting. Unfortunately, the GN is determined using readings taken if the strobe is fired at the surface and not when it is underwater. Water is much denser than air and will absorb light at a much faster rate. A simple mental calculation to work out which strobe will suit you more is explained below.
The following example of GN may help:
Strobe with GN 20 = 20 meters distance fired on land at ISO100
To equate to UW distance, we advise divide by 5 = 4m distance UW at ISO100
In our example, four meters distance signifies the distance the light will reach when the strobe is fired underwater at full power. It does not mean that a subject which is at four meters away will be perfectly lighted. In our experience, we suggest that for a strobe that can reach four meters’ distance, the subject should be at least at two meters away. Remember – close is good, closer is better!
Recycle SpeedThe recycle speed is the time taken by the strobe to recharge itself between shots. Anything slower than 2 seconds is too slow to take multiple shots of a subject (like a yawning fish). Get the strobe that has the fastest recycling time that your budget allows.
Angle of LightGet the strobe with the widest possible angle of light to give you the most shooting options. You can narrow a wide beam by using a snoot, but you can’t make a narrow beam of light wider than what diffusers can do.
Power SourceMost of the smaller strobes are powered by AA batteries (disposable or rechargeable) whereas their bigger counterparts will more often use proprietary batteries which are more expensive if buying spares or to replace.
Size and weightThere are obvious considerations about storage and travel, but you will want to achieve close to neutral balance with your rigunderwater. This provides ease of maneuvering your rig. A smaller housing with large strobes could cause your rig to become top heavy. Rig will constantly pullyou forwardand not pleasant for your arms/shoulders when diving for at least an hour.
Some final comments on strobes:Currently, strobe manufacturers now have TTL slave capability, also referred to as STTL (Inon models S2000, D2000, D200, Z240& Z330) or DS-TTL (Sea & Sea models YS01-02-03, YS110 Alpha& YSD1-D2-D3). These strobes will fire when they detect the internal flash of a camera or another strobe, the intensity of which has been determined from the TTL light reading by the camera and transmitted via fiber optic cable to the strobe.
Some of the TTL strobes are equipped with an electronic bulkhead that allows direct connection of the strobe to the camera’s hot shoe inside the housing. These strobes include the Inon Z240, 330, Sea & Sea YS110A, YSD1-2-3. Please note that while these strobes are TTL capable they will not fire TTL output when used electronically with a housing that does not have a TTL converter installed.
Of course, there is always an exception to every rule and in this case, it is with Ikelite whose strobes (DS51, DS160 and DS161) will only work in TTL mode when used with an Ikelite housing when connected electronically. To use an Ikelite strobe with a non-Ikelite housing it will be necessary to purchase an Ikelite TTL converter.
Finally, one of the most common questions we are asked about strobes is – one strobe or two?
Most photographers prefer to shoot with two strobes to eliminate or reduce shadows in their imagery. This is common in macro shots where the whole point is to highlight the smallest details of your subject. Dual strobes will eliminate shadows caused by the terrain. Very rarely will you find the small critter you have always wanted to photograph on a flat surface with no coral cover – they are always found in a crevice, camouflagedon a soft coral or half buried in the sand. That said, with practice and perseverance it is possible to achieve great results with a single strobe so, as before, it is entirely a matter of personal choice.
The tough decisions – camera, housing and strobes – are over. The final element of your set up is how to connect it all together, what is termed the control system.
The choices get easier as there are only two systems to choose from – Inon or Ultralight – and neither is compatible with the other. There are five basic components that you will need to build your system:
TrayThe tray is the foundation for your whole rig and can be attached to the underside of your housing through the tripod mounts. For the higher-end DSLR housings, the tray and handles are often integrated with the housing body. For other housings (Ikelite and compact camera housings) a tray is necessary to provide the platform to attach your other equipment.
HandleThe tray will normally include a handle, which serves two purposes – the means to hold your rig while diving and shooting and to provide a connection 'joint' to attach arms which are also connected to the strobes. If you have two strobes you will need two handles, the second of which can be attached to the tray with a tray extender.
ArmsThe arms are the ‘superstructure’ of your rig and give you the means to adjust the position of your strobes to achieve the most favorable lighting for your subject. Generally, two arms will be required for each strobe to create the familiar ‘M’ shape when your rig has been set-up. There are a wide variety of arm-types available to achieve your desired set-up – flotation arms to counterbalance the weight of a housing, short arms, long arms and Titanium arms to reduce the overall weight of your rig.
Clamps & AdaptersSome equipment items (e.g., your strobes) will require a ball-head joint / adapter to be fastened to the ball arms using a clamp. Adapters and clamps have been designed to fit almost any circumstance so please refer to the diagrams for Inon and Ultralight in this chapter to understand the options available to you and how each can be used.
The simple answer to this question is – nothing. Your rig is complete, and you are ready to get wet and start your underwater imagery journey.
However, to enhance your experience there are several accessory items you may want to consider adding to your set up now or in the future:
Wet LensesWet lenses, sometimes also referred to as add-on lenses, are lenses that can be added and removed from your camera set up while underwater to increase and enhance the macro and wide-angle capability of your camera lens (primarily for compacts).
There are several ways to attach a wet lens to your set-up the most common of which is a 67mm threaded mount. There are other quick-adapt or bayonet (twist and click) mount which will require an adapter for your choses housing. Personally, we prefer 67mm threaded lenses, simple and universal.
Inon probably has the most comprehensive range of wet lenses from macro (close-up) stackable lenses for increased magnification, wide angle, fisheye and macro-fisheye. All compatible to the compact housings regardless of brand.
The main things to consider when choosing a wet lens include:
- Know what type of lens you have on your camera – 35mm, 28mm or 24mm – so you can match the appropriate wet lens.
- Check that your housing is compatible with available wet lenses and whether you will need an adapter/mount.
- If in doubt, ask – send us an email or visit the shop and we will be happy to guide you.
SnootsA snoot is essentially a hollow cone that fits over the front of a strobe to narrow the beam of light emitted when the strobe fires. This creates a controlled spotlight effect which separates the macro life from its environment nicely. Popularly used for macro shots really, but it is also possible to use this for wide angle shots.
Focus LightAll cameras, particularly compacts, will have difficulty focusing underwater if the ambient light is poor. To give the camera a helping hand, many divers invest in a focus light or small dive light to be able to light their subjects in order to assist the camera in focusing.
There are a growing number of focus lights available in the market so shop around. Some will have red light function for night dives (does not scare the subject away), auto-shutoff (avoids hot spots) and some even have colored lights to render subjects in a different artful manner.