Hello photographers! Mark and Alex here from Polarr, with Part I, of a three-part series, diving into our misadventures with underwater photography!
Both of us have reasonably extensive dive experience. I’ve been diving since 2010 and Mark was certified mid-2018, but has been doing a lot of diving since. Naturally we soon wanted to try our hand at underwater photography. Mark, as an accomplished photographer, wanted to see how well his above water chops transferred to the underwater realm. On my side, I have next to no real photography experience, aside from the everyday dabbling with my cell-phone camera! With this, we set out with the desire to capture and show off the cool and beautiful sea life in Monterey Bay.
Through the course of this blog-post series, we will be documenting our adventures as we get into underwater photography! In this first post, we will mainly discuss gear; what we chose, passed on, and later\regretted in our first attempt.
The first and most important decision we had to make was what camera to buy. There are three main categories we researched; point-and-shoot, compact, and interchangeable-lens cameras (ILC). All three of these have upsides and downsides.
GEAR TALK: POINT-AND-SHOOT
Point-and-shoot cameras are pretty cheap - this level begins around the $200-$300 range. Aside from the cost, other main upsides of this camera style is its size and ease-of-use. With these cameras, you don’t have to worry about housing. Both Fujifilm and Nikon make cameras rated to 100fsw (feet of salt water), which covers most people’s diving habits. Without complicated settings to worry about, as the name suggests, you just point and shoot!
While the point-and-shoot is the cheapest and simplest option, their drawbacks caused us to go another route. While these cameras are technically good to 100fsw, some reports show these cameras leaking at much shallower depths. Combined with a lack of warranty support from water damage, we were hesitant to go this route. We finally nixed this type off the list due to image quality concerns. These cameras will produce results that are perfectly good for social media, but don’t quite have the output quality Mark and I seek.
GEAR TALK: COMPACT
The second camera gear category concerns the compact market. These are usually not nearly as water-resistant as the first type (point-and-shoot) - most are only rated to 50fsw, instead of 100fsw, which is not usually adequate for most divers. To counteract this limited depth, this kind of camera needs housing. On the upside, Housing can greatly extend the waterproof-ness of a camera - for example, the Olympus housing for their ‘Tough’ line of cameras is rated to 150fsw, well beyond the recreational range! Another advantage of these cameras is the extra accessory support one gains from the housing. Support includes: mounting points for video lights, strobes, handles, etc. The final upside of these cameras lies in their feature set. They have support for setting aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and shooting in RAW. They also have several preset modes specific to certain shooting types, while still having the flexibility to capture high-quality images without the worry of dialing in specific settings.
One disadvantage of compact cameras is their compromise in terms of price and functionality. They hit the midpoint between being a full-fledged ILC camera and a point-and-shoot, while still lacking characteristics from both. In terms of pricing, expect to pay ~$300-$400, with an additional $300-$1200 for the housing depending on the model. As for features, you start to have control over fine-grained settings, but don’t have nearly the flexibility or ease of adjustment found in a full-fledged ILC.
GEAR TALK: ILC
The final category is the ILC (interchangeable-lens camera). ILC cameras are the most expensive but give the most control over image capture. With these, you will use a standard fully-featured camera with added underwater housing and external lights. Quality housings for these cameras will frequently run upwards of $1000, essentially doubling the price of using this camera. In addition to the cost of the housing, external lights are needed to fully utilize this camera’s features (~$200-$300).
Ultimately, the trade-off lies in high cost vs. image quality and level of fidelity of settings. For compacts, you get some control over ISO, shutter speed, etc., but they are buried within the ‘settings’ menus and are difficult to adjust on-the-fly. With most ILC cameras, settings are more exposed, and easier to adjust for the perfect shot.
Taking all these factors into account, we settled on the middle ground, and went with the compact option.
Camera: Olympus Tough TG-6
Housing: Olympus Underwater Housing
Strobe and Arm: Sea & Sea YS-03
Underwater Video Light: Gobe 1000
Lens: Backscatter M52 Wide Angle Air Lens
We chose to use the Olympus Tough TG-6, for two main reasons. First, they offer a superb first-party underwater housing. This housing is very cost effective (~$300 dollars) and allows for the use of all camera controls. Secondly, and more appealingly, this camera has several modes specifically targeted toward underwater photography with their Underwater Snapshot, Underwater Microscope, and Underwater HDR settings. Each of these has an automatic white balance adjustment, allowing for better color capture without the use of a light.
For accessories, we initially thought we could eke by with the built-in flash. (results below)
See that great bright-spot? And the total lack of flash on the bottom image? Not the most ideal when one is trying to capture high quality images! After this foray, I elected to purchase an external strobe flash, which can produce some fantastic results. We’ll talk more about lighting in our next post.
Rounding out our lighting we have an external video light, for much the same reasons as the flash. We won’t get too much into underwater videography in this series, but the potential is ripe for future posts!
Now, you may be asking yourself “Why the focus on flashes and lights?” That is a very good question! For most diving in California, visibility can only be described as not great. On a really exceptional day one may have visibility up to ~60 feet - which is an average day in the tropics! This means, that in order to have enough light to capture quality images, one needs to use an external flash whenever possible. An added benefit is the restoration of colors to the captured image. As you increase your depth, color loss seeps ins; starting with red (between 15 and 30 fsw) and ending with violet (at 110 fsw). While it is possible to restore much of the color through the use of white balance and other editing tools, it’s much more straightforward to restore the color through lights during the capture process.
The final accessory we went with is the Backscatter M52 Wide Angle Air Lens. This lens doesn’t provide an optical zoom, instead it restores the above-water field of view, and allows for wider shots. While this doesn’t expand the FoV as much as the more expensive wet lenses that are on the market, we don’t need to go that wide - see the above comments on Monterey visibility!
And that’s a wrap! Join Mark and I next time as we make our first attempt(s) at real underwater photography, and come learn from our mistakes!