Picking the Right Camera for your underwater camera system
In the last episode we talked about using cell phones and Point and Shoot cameras. In this episode we’ll talk about the pros and cons of mirrorless and SLR cameras.
Mirrorless SLR for Scuba Diving
Welcome to Part 2 of our “Underwater Photography Series Blog”! In Part 1, we talked about Smart Phones & Point-and-Shoot Camera Systems. Now onto bigger… better, (maybe)… and more expensive options.
The mirror less SLR system is the latest entry into the world of digital cameras. Because they don’t need the bulky mirror and prism system used in the conventional SLR, they are lighter and more compact. The result for the scuba diver is a much less bulky system that is easier when travelling and a housing that is usually less expense than the larger DSLR housings. With prices ranging from $500- $2000, mirror less cameras span the spectrum from entry level to prosumer. A lot of cameras have the same chip sizes as in the larger mirrored SLR systems from APS to Full Frame although perhaps the most common chip size in this range is the Four Thirds system created by Olympus. This chip produces a crop factor of 2. One advantage of this system is that it is an open standard that means that more lens choices are available from a variety of manufacturers.
The Olympus E-PL5 pictured here is a 16MP 4/3 camera that retails for around $400. An underwater housing for the camera, also from Olympus, sells for about $ 700.
My friend Robin Bateman took these pictures of a Grey Angelfish and a batfish using an Olympus E-PL5 camera.
With almost all of the cameras in this category, you have the option of saving the image in either JPEG or RAW formats or both. In addition you have full control over shutter speed, aperture and film speed as well as the ability to change lenses to suit the type of picture you want to take.
Because there is no mirror, you cannot look through the viewfinder and see the live image as you can in a regular DSLR. Instead, depending on the camera, you can either see a preview of the image on the back of the camera as shown here or, on some cameras, through an external viewfinder (EVF). This is less important underwater, but in bright conditions it can be difficult to see the image shown on the back of the camera and it is easier to look through the EVF.
Older mirror less cameras used to suffer from slower autofocus compared to their mirrored cousins. This is because the mirrored systems use the light from the mirror to autofocus using a phase detection system. The mirror less camera was forced to use a contrast detection method of autofocus that is slower. More
recent higher end mirror less cameras have now incorporated some phase detection pixels into the image sensor to provide better autofocus capability. Mirror less cameras also generally take better video than a mirrored SLR because the mirrored camera cannot refocus when the mirror is up, as it is when taking a video.
The first mirror less cameras that can operate underwater without a housing are now being released. This Nikon AW-1 is waterproof down to 50ft without any other external protection and retails for about $750. The “Big Winner” in the new digital technology in our opinion is the scuba diver. As you can see with this Nikon, new innovations are creating smaller camera configurations which are easier to cart around while scuba diving!
If you want the biggest, badest underwater photo system on the dive boat, then this is the choice for you. When you put your rig in the camera bucket, there’s no room for anyone else’s puny point and shoot! Without doubt these are the largest of your underwater camera system choices. But with that size, comes ultimate flexibility. Mirrored DSLRs have by far the most choice of lenses as well as an incredible number of choices of underwater housings. Almost every setting you can imagine is customizable to suit your particular needs. Shutter speeds can be as high as 1/4000 sec and an ISO range of 64 -51200 is possible. With this amount of flexibility, the only limitations are you imagination – and your pocket book! A full frame 36MP camera can cost $3,300 for the body alone. Add in a 10-24mm lens for $800, put it in a Nauticam housing for another $3000 and add a dome port for $1000, and soon, your piggy bank is looking pretty empty!
Luckily, there are other choices for the budget conscious scuba diver. A Nikon D7000, 16 MP AP-S body retails for around $550. An Ikelite housing has a list price of $1,800 and a 60mm lens will cost about $500. In addition, once you take the plunge, as your experience grows, so can your camera system. You can start small and grow your system as your experience and finances allow.
Another good choice for the beginner, is to look out for used equipment. Although you probably won’t be able to get the latest models, you can get set up relatively economically with good equipment for around $1000. A good place to look for used underwater camera gear is wet pixel.com’s classified section. Now it’s time to consider Key Largo diving with a camera in your hand!
At Sea Dwellers Dive Center of Key Largo photographers we have noticed an increase in divers with Cameras over the last several years. But more importantly, we are seeing better photographs! We believe this can be attributed to the new & constantly improving technology, as well as the fact that there has simply never been more quality photographic options available for scuba diving!
Instructor David Jefferiss
Sea Dwellers Dive Center of Key Largo
Key Largo Diving Blog