While scuba diving Key Largo last week, I noticed there were several divers sporting cameras on the Sea Dweller III. Interestingly, each seemed to have a different camera configuration. In the “old days” of underwater photography, things were simpler in the respect that you had a camera and a housing. And while there were different camera and housing manufacturers, they were more or less similar in their configuration…as well as expensive and somewhat cumbersome by the way!
When it comes to photography, things have certainly changed…
Now scuba divers have more choices. In today’s world there are 4 basic choices of cameras available. These are smart phones, point and shoot cameras, mirror less SLR, and then the DSLR. Each choice involves making tradeoffs between price, performance and portability.
By far the most common camera in the world today and at the lowest end of the cost curve is your smart phone. Before you dive in with your phone in hand, you will need to take a few precautions as most phones are not waterproof so of course you will need a housing. Well today we have plenty of options for this!
You can buy a waterproof housing for most popular models for anywhere from $25 for something that you can use to take a picture while you are snorkeling to $180 for a housing capable of operating at depths of up to 195ft. So why buy anything else? Well, for one reason, you have very limited creative control over the image. The functions of aperture, shutter speed and ISO are not available to you to modify. The second issue is the inability to zoom in or out in the image underwater.
Finally, the sensor size that we talked about in the first chapter is extremely small. So, even though the iPhone 6 for example creates an 8MP image, those pixels are extremely small since the overall chip area is only 28 sq mm. This compares to 864 sq mm for a full frame DSLR chip. 30 times smaller!
Because there is so much less area to get information on, the dynamic range of the image is much less than an image of the same size taken by a larger chip. The other thing is that it reduces the angle of view of the image. The picture on the left shows the amount of an image captured by the sensor using the same lens as the sensor size reduces. The blue rectangle represents the image size on a smaller chip compared to the larger red rectangle on a larger one. This reduction is generally referred to as the “crop factor” of a chip. Normally, you might think that making the image look closer would be an advantage, but as you’ll learn later in this series, that’s not true for the underwater photographer. Water has the effect of making things seem 30% closer than they really are, so the crop factor works against taking anything but tight close-ups.
On the other hand, most phones now have the ability to produce 1080p video. You can see examples of videos shot underwater with an iPhone6 by clicking this link to a previous Key Largo Diving Blog called “A Day of Diving on Molasses Reef”
Once considered the entry-level product for digital cameras, point and shoot cameras have come a long way over the last several years. From a low price of $70 to a high of $2,800 obviously there is a wide range of features available in this product range. At the low end of the price spectrum, the issues of small chip size still apply, although this Sony RX model features a full frame chip as large as any DSLR. None of the cameras in this category give you the ability to change lenses although most have both an optical and a digital zoom capability.
The other variable to consider is shutter lag. This is the time it takes for the camera to take the photo from the time the shutter is pressed. If it takes a long time for the camera to react, you may miss that perfect shot that was taken at the peak of the action. Some more expensive cameras in this category have substantially overcome this problem and advertise shutter lags of below 0.005 of a second.
Most cameras in this category will require an additional housing like this one from Ikelite. This package retails for $380 and includes the camera and the housing.
You can find more details following this link:
Until recently, some water proof point and shoot cameras were available, but they could usually only operate at depths less than 45ft .This year however, Nikon has introduced the AW130, which operates down to 100ft and retails for about $350. This makes it a very flexible tool for the casual underwater photographer who wants to travel light when diving in Key Largo!
Some things to bear in mind when picking a point and shoot camera for underwater use. Unless the camera allows you to store a RAW image, you will have very limited ability to adjust the white balance of the photo after you shoot it. You will need to check to see if you can manually set the white balance before shooting to make sure you get an accurate color reproduction.
Because of the crop factor issues we talked about above, the less expensive point and shoot cameras will not do as well when it comes to wide angle photographs, however, close-up or macro photographs can be every bit as good as those taken by much more expensive camera systems. This Grey Angelfish was taken with a 3MP point and shoot 15 years ago. The reefs and wrecks of Key Largo bekons the scuba diver with his/her camera!
Look for Part 2 of “Picking the Right Camera” soon, and thanks to all!
Sea Dwellers Dive Center of Key Largo