How to Get Started in Underwater Digital Photography

Reprinted from the Houston Underwater Photographic Society newsletter.
Do not reproduce without author's written consent.

November 1, 2002 - In last month's column, I talked about some reasons to give underwater digital photography a try. This month, I'd like to cover what it takes to get started as a digital shooter - whether you have an existing film setup, or are trying underwater photography for the first time. Obviously, I won't be able to cover every system out there, so I will focus on two popular cameras and available housings. Finally, I will wrap up this column with a cost estimate for an entry-level system.

TTL vs Manual: The first thing you will need to decide is whether you need TTL flash metering for your setup. If you are an experienced film shooter, and you are comfortable using a strobe in manual to achieve proper exposure, then you may not need TTL. If you are new to underwater photography, then I would recommend a system that can perform TTL. This way, you will have one less thing to worry about underwater, you will get a higher proportion of "good" shots, and you can always opt to shoot your strobe(s) in manual later. The reason I bring up this point is that there are only a limited number of digital cameras that can do TTL flash underwater. This brings us to the next choice - the camera.

Open water shots, or highly reflective subjects can "trick" the TTL system

Camera: A three megapixel (or higher) digital camera is the best way to get started. The Olympus 3040 and the Nikon Coolpix 995 are both good choices and fall between $400 and $500. The shots from these two cameras have high enough resolution to print nice looking 8x10's. The difference between the two is that the Nikon can focus down to ¾ of an inch for macro and also has a socket to attach a TTL external flash.

Housing: Olympus actually makes a housing for the 3040 called the PT-010. This housing is made of clear polycarbonate and can accommodate the 3030, 3040, and 4040 cameras. It is only depth rated to 100 feet, and it does not accommodate a TTL sync cord, but it comes at a very low price. This is where the "TTL vs Manual" strobe decision becomes important. With the PT series of housings, you are limited to using a slave strobe or a strobe with a TTL slave sensor to "mimic" the camera's internal flash. An additional tray and arm is necessary to the PT housing with a strobe. Ikelite also makes a housing for the Olympus line of cameras that is more robust and comes with a try and handles.
There are currently two housing choices for the Coolpix 995, one by Ikelite and one by Aquatica. The latter is an aluminum housing, and positions the camera's LCD screen at a 45 degree angle, otherwise they have the same functionality. Both of these housings have a bulkhead for connecting a TTL sync cord. In keeping with my "digital philosophy" my suggestion is to buy the least expensive housing that provides the functions you want - it will probably only be good for two years.

The Ikelite housing for the Coolpix 5000

Existing Equipment - Strobes: If you already have a Nikon or one of the Ikelite TTL Substrobes, then you will probably want to get the Coolpix camera - the Olympus camera will not be easy to use with your existing equipment.. If you are starting from scratch and need to purchase a strobe, the Olympus camera will be the more economical way to go, since the housing is cheaper. Two popular strobes for use with the Olympus cameras are the Sea and Sea YS90 DX or the Ikelite DS-125. Both of these strobes will also work well with the Coolpix.

A shot taken using dual strobes for even and pleasing lighting

Memory Cards: No matter which camera you choose, you will need at least one memory card. A 128 Megabyte Smartmedia (for Olympus) or Compact Flash (for the Nikon) card will cost between 50 and 80 dollars. A card this size can hold roughly 80 full resolution pictures. Compact flash comes in sizes up to 1 gigabyte while the Smartmedia is currently limited in size to 128 megabytes.

A 256 Meg CF card and an IBM Microdrive
(the two most popular storage media)

Cost Estimate: For this column, costs are based on prices from some of the larger mail-order companies and are rounded off to the nearest $50 or so.

Camera $500
Housing $750
Strobe $450
Sync Cord $60
Memory $50
Total: $1,810
Camera $500
Housing $250
Strobe $450
Memory $50
Total: $1,250

Whatever system you choose, entry level digital photography will be a new and exciting challenge. If you feel like it's time for a change and you want to learn something new, then you can't go wrong with either the Olympus or the Nikon setup.

To discuss underwater housings and digital cameras with other wetpixel readers, check out our message forums.