ITS TIME TO GET TOOLED UP FOR UNDERWATER DIGITAL, and its a jungle out there. The camera manufacturers punch out new models so fast that they hardly have time to write manuals for them. Worse, diving photographers are faced with having to select entire systems from scratch: camera, underwater housing, external flash, close-up lenses, flash arms and so on.Next month: Time to get wet
The analogue camera was invented back in 1839 and has reached a state of near-perfection. Progress has almost come to a standstill. Many underwater photographers still cherish their Nikonos amphibious cameras, for example, and the original model celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
Modern digital cameras may never get to see their second anniversary. With technical development lightning-fast, its essential to plan carefully and ask yourself what you really need and how good you want to become. Its either that or get burned.
Every major camera manufacturer has 10-15 models on the market. Each model is usually upgraded and improved a couple of times before being replaced by something even better. Hang in there while we help you limit the possibilities.
Cost and quality are clearly related, but there is little point in buying equipment so advanced that you will never use more than a fraction of its features. Good pictures are not created with money. Results depend on your own creativity, your feeling for composition and colour - and a lot of luck and persistence.
On the other hand, buying a camera that lacks features you later need is a nuisance, so buy the best you can afford. Those gadgets you think you will never need, you may just want one day.
One of the most common mistakes with digital gadgets, whether cameras, MP3-players or laptops, is to go on waiting for something better to turn up.
Youll never win that particular race. Buy now and resign yourself to the fact that tomorrow, or next year, an even better performer at a lower price will be along. You have to start some time.
Were going to describe three different kinds of users, in terms of needs and level of ambition. Which kind are you
You feel you can get the shots you need using the cheapest of digital cameras in a plastic housing, or even a soft plastic bag. You dont want to spend much time preparing and tuning your gear. Perhaps this is your first camera, and youre not even sure whether youll enjoy underwater photography.
You prefer to keep the camera in your BC-pocket, or attached to a D-ring. Photography is not the primary goal on your dives, and you want to bring it out only when you find something exciting.
Your pictures are mainly to be viewed on a computer screen. You may want to email them to your friends, or post them on your home page, so you wont need a high-resolution camera - 2 to 3 megapixels will do.
You can produce colour print-outs on a home printer, and any outstanding shots can be printed at a photo-shop.
Its a plus for you if the camera is simple, with a limited number of settings. You just want to set it to auto, point and shoot. You will use it mainly at shallow depths, as photos taken deeper will look a bit washed-out, but you can live with that. Youre taking documents of record, and will be happy with the sort of quality found in your family album.
The underwater housing needs to be small and easily cared for. A lens with a fixed focal length or a short zoom range is a sensible choice. Accessory wide-angle lenses are usually not available. Such cameras/housings cost300-500.
You itch to shoot close-ups of tiny creatures, but you also want to capture underwater scenery and full-length images of divers, so you dont want your equipment to limit your creativity. You can handle features such as manual white balance, and you want as many settings as possible, accessible through external controls on the housing.
Cameras in this price range are of sufficiently high quality to be fitted with an external flash. This brings out the natural colours, and allows you to use the camera at more than snorkelling depth. An external flash reduces the risk of backscatter, the snowstorm effect of white dots thats almost impossible to avoid using built-in flash.
These cameras usually have a resolution of 3 to 5 megapixels, resulting in photos that satisfy most needs - web publishing, A4 print-outs and colour prints. The image files contain enough information for enhancing and manipulating the captured image - improving colour balance and exposure using computer imaging software. The camera and/or housing can be fitted with close-up or wide-angle lenses.
If you want good wide-angle options, you can either use a dry supplementary wide-angle lens on the camera lens, with a dome port on the housing, or a wet wide-angle lens attached to the outside of the housing.
Image quality depends on the lens components. Glass is superior to plastic, but also more expensive.
Cameras in category 2 come in the500-1000 price range, housing included. Add to that accessories such as wide-angle extensions, close-up lenses and external flashes.
With a bit of training and perseverance you can achieve very good results. This category also offers the widest range of gadgets and accessories in different combinations.
You already have some experience in underwater photography, or at least are familiar with using an SLR (single lens reflex) camera with supplementary lenses on land, and dont want to lower your expectations of image quality.
Ideally you would like as much control under water as with a pro SLR system. This includes manual exposure, a wide range of accessory lenses and getting good shots of anything from tiny sea-creatures in 1:1 scale or larger to ultra-wide-angle wreck shots.
You are used to squandering huge amounts of money on your favourite pastime, but then, you reckon your photos are on a par with those of professional photographers, at least technically.
There are only a few manufacturers in this price range. Biggest and most interesting by far are Nikon, Canon and Fuji. It is possible to get a semi-pro dSLR camera (but without a housing - see next section) for little more than800.
Only one digital amphibious camera is available to date - the dainty little AquaPix from Sea & Sea. All others require an underwater housing. With a housing, you can not only take photos under water but also use your camera in other tricky settings: in pouring rain, when skiing or canoeing, on the beach, or in the boat to or from a dive site.
There are three main types of housings: flexible plastic bags, rigid plastic casings and metal casings.
EwaMarine makes underwater bags for cameras. They are cheap and very easy to use. You simply manipulate the camera as usual by pushing its buttons through the bag. There are no couplings or O-rings.
These flexible housings are excellent for use in shallow water, or on land in wet or muddy environments.
Rigid plastic casings are usually transparent, so you can see the camera and any leaks show up immediately.
They are usually slightly cheaperthan metal and there is usually a wider choice, as it is easier for manufacturers to modify a pre-existing model with new controls and couplings.
Plastic wont corrode, though it is easily scratched. The casings also tend to be a bit larger and clumsier than metal. Most rigid plastic casings can be used to about 30m, some to 40m or more.
Metal casings are available only for the best-selling models of top brands. Sometimes theres even a waiting list, as makers struggle to keep up with demand.
These casings, usually of aluminium, are robust and very compact, as metal can be die-cast around the camera, whereas a rigid plastic casing tends to look like a square box. Most metal housings can be used to depths well beyond the reach of recreational divers.
Expect a metal housing to cost at least as much as the camera - perhaps twice as much. For category 3 cameras, a first-class example can be really expensive, because they are made in relatively small numbers.
In category 1, the camera makers are generally the only source of housings, with only one or a few from which to choose for any particular model.
They are almost always plastic and rated to 20 or 30m. Sometimes the housing is included in the price.
Buying camera and housing at the same time is a good idea, as you can be sure that they are compatible. So go for package deals, especially in category 1.
In the mid-range you have more options, as plastic or metal housings are also offered by independent specialists - even though designing new housings is risky for them, as they can rarely be sure that the camera in question will become popular enough.
Housings for category 3 cameras are almost always made from metal, or a combination of plastic and metal. Camera manufacturers tend to leave these housings to the specialists.
By now, category 1 users are more or less ready to jump in and start shooting. The rest of you should read on.
Last month we argued that the key to good underwater photos is an external flash, as it brings out the natural colours in your photos where water filters out sunlight.
External flash can, however, be tricky to use, and can cause disappointment. Happily, some clever solutions to the problem have been developed.
First job is to connect camera and flashgun. The flash should fire at the exact moment when the cameras shutter opens, and its power should be controlled by the cameras TTL (through the lens) system. There are two kinds of connections. Several cameras in the more expensive category are fitted with a flash shoe, but this clearly wont work once the camera is in a housing. Instead, you attach a connector to the flash shoe, with a cable that connects to the external flash through a coupling in the housing.
Where the camera doesnt have a flash shoe, you can, in theory, allow the built-in flash to trigger the external flash.
However, In most digital cameras the built-in flash fires one or more pre-flashes, fast pulses of light used for calculating the intensity of the main flash.
It is therefore possible for the pre-flashes to trigger the external slave flash prematurely, so that it has already fired when the camera shutter opens - perhaps only 100 milliseconds later.
Thats why ordinary underwater flashguns cannot be used as slave flashes with cameras without a flash shoe.
The solution is to use one of the new digital flashguns from, among others, Sea & Sea (YS-90DX and YS25AUTO), Ikelite (DS-50 and DS125), Inon (Z-220 and D-180) or Epoque (ES-150DS).
These work in slightly different ways, but the basic idea is to set a threshold value for the photo-cell sensitivity.
The cell is not activated until the built-in flash fires its principal flash for exposure, so digital flashguns can be programmed to ignore the cameras pre-flashes. This elegant solution can be used with more or less any digital camera with a built-in flash.
As a substitute for, or in addition to, a flashgun, the power of an ordinary dive light should not be underestimated, though it needs to be fairly powerful.
For close-ups, you can obtain interesting effects with a hand-held lamp if you move it around while keeping an eye on the cameras LCD-display.
At arms length
A flashgun should be mounted on some kind of arm to hold it in the right position and at the right angle for the camera.
Sometimes this device comes with the flash, in other cases it is an optional extra. If the flashgun is easily detached so that it can be hand-held, you gain in flexibility.
For wide-angle photography, you may need at least two flashguns to light a large subject. This calls for advanced arm systems.
Some specialist flash-arm manufacturers, such as Ultralight, also make special fittings for connecting camera and arm, enabling you to rotate the camera by 90 without changing the position of the flashguns.
This means that you can switch back and forth between landscape and portrait orientation without having to adjust the flashguns.
Fixed-lens cameras - for practical purposes, all except the dSLR systems - can benefit from the use of supplementary lenses.
Most digital cameras already have excellent close-up features, which makes a wide-angle lens the most interesting supplementary lens for underwater photography.
In underwater photography you must keep the distance between subject and lens as small as possible, in an effort to eliminate the water in between.
This is where the wide-angle comes in, as you can stay near your subject and still capture it all in one shot.
Wide-angle lenses are usually fitted directly to the cameras lens, and are dedicated for use with a specific camera model. The underwater housing has to be fitted with a spherical dome port compatible with the wide-angle lens.
We have avoided discussing too many specific makes and models of camera and accessories here, because if we had this article would have been obsolete before it was printed!
Visit your local photo-shop and dive shop, but mainly we suggest using the Internet as a resource in making your initial choice of hardware.
Try www. digideep.com and its sister site www.wetpixels.com, as well as www.dpreview. com and www.uwpmag.com.