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 housing manufacturers make equipment for all camera types.
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 Housings
We are frequently asked about the difference between a polycarbonate (hard plastic) aluminum housing (apart from the different materials).
The simple answer is that because they are generally machined from a solid metal block, aluminum housings have a greater structural integrity that allows the manufacturers to drill multiple holes in the case to provide functional access to the control buttons on the camera inside.
With a 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 double up on some of the housing controls.
The biggest difference, unsurprisingly, is in cost. Polycarbonate housings, for obvious reasons, are cheaper and, for DSLR users, perform in the same way as their aluminum counterparts. The same can be true for compact and 4/3rds cameras but we would sound one word of caution if this applies to you and you are considering a polycarbonate housing.
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 Canon for a Canon 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 2-3 years and are unserviceable – 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 photography 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.
For a DSLR 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?
Generally speaking 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 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 so close you scratch the front of the dome!)
A Flat Port is better for macro photography (35mm and larger lens) as it will magnify the image (through the viewfinder) more than a Dome Port, which increases the ability to focus on a particular subject or part of a subject.
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 (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.
Other Housing Considerations
There are several other items you should consider before shortlisting your housing options:
What Lenses should I buy for a DSLR camera?
- 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 Micro 4/3rds camera and the lens gear is available for focus and/or zoom functionality. If you are using a non-Nikon or Canon lens, check also that the manufacturer supports the lens-type.
The ideal arrangement, to give you the most shooting options, would be to have at least two lenses – one each for macro and wide photography. In the perfect world, we would all want all of the lenses available!
As a minimum we recommend you start with a 60mm macro lens and a medium wide lens. Where possible, we advise you to avoid using a kit lens – the one that comes with the camera – as these are frequently lower quality than the specialist lenses. 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