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Beginner, trying to figure out how to make the best use of a limited budget


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#1 Barmaglot

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Posted 30 March 2017 - 01:24 PM

Last month, after taking my AOWD on Koh Tao in Thailand, I took PADI underwater photography specialty with a rented camera (Panasonic DMC-FX35) and instantly fell in love, so now I'm looking to put together my own setup for when I return to Koh Tao (and likely Ao Nang) sometime next year, or go down to Eilat this autumn.

 

My target budget is $1000 - I can stretch it a bit, but not too much. Seeing as how even the old, small FX35 in the hands of a complete beginner took some decent photos, with the singular exception of being excruciatingly slow to focus, my criteria for building my own rig are:

 

  • Fast autofocus, first and foremost - basically, I want to shoot fish heads rather than tails :)
  • Ease of handling - I have a total of 22 dives in my logbook, so I'm not up to wrestling with a huge DSLR.
  • Good performance in natural light - neither my budget nor my diving skills are sufficient to handle those multi-armed monsters the pros are carrying.
  • Flexibility - as an amateur, I don't really know what I'm going to encounter on any given dive, so the ability to switch between wide-angle for a school of fish or a whale shark, to macro for some small critter would be quite nice.
  • An upgrade path - a year or five down the road, I might decide that my skills have grown into my equipment and that I want more; if that happens, I would rather add to my equipment than replace and throw away.
  • Usability as a general purpose vacation camera - this is fairly low on my list, as overall, my phone (Lumia 950) takes good enough pics; the only thing it really lacks is proper zoom, but a weather-sealed zoom camera to take on hikes for wildlife photos would be a nice bonus capability.

I have no problem with buying used gear - the local market (Israel) is fairly small, but I get somewhat regular work trips to USA which I use to buy electronics at bargain prices (and smuggle them past customs).

 

Obviously, on my budget, the big-name housings like Nauticam are right out and I'm pretty much restricted to Meikon.

 

After reading, and reading and reading some more, I have narrowed down my list to the following options:

 

Sony RX100 Mark V - as I understand it, the addition of phase-detection to contrast-detection autofocus makes it considerably faster to lock onto a subject than the previous RX100 models, which plays into my #1 selection criteria. It's also tiny, making for a relatively small housing that is easy to swim with, and it's said to take great video. However, it costs at least $750-800 used, and after adding a housing ($150 or so), there is almost nothing left of my budget for lights or other accessories. The small size would make it easy to pocket topside, but the limited zoom reach is not quite optimal for wildlife, and with the camera not being weather-sealed, I wouldn't want to get caught in a rain with it. Being a fixed-lens compact, the upgrade path is limited, but I think it would be sufficient for an amateur - I would be able to eventually add proper lights, plus a wide-angle wet dome and/or a macro diopter, and with the camera being so small, I'm guessing it'll still be easier to handle than a DSLR even with a lighting rig attached.

 

Olympus OM-D E-M1 - a few years old by now, but reviews indicate excellent low-light autofocus performance and good control layout. Looking on eBay, it seems possible to find a used body for not much over $400, and with the Meikon housing being also around $150, this leaves me some $400-450 for lens(es) and accessories. The fixed port on the housing is large enough to accommodate the rather bulky 12-40mm f/2.8 lens, so most other lens choices (excepting the big telephoto ones and fish-eye of course) should also fit. The full weather-sealing, on both the camera and the lens, should give me some extra peace of mind both on dives (in case the housing has a small leak that isn't a full-on flood - and Meikon housings have a leak detector, so it may be possible to abort the dive and save the camera in such a scenario) and on hikes (in case of sudden rain). The sensor has somewhat fewer pixels than RX100, but with the overall sensor area being significantly larger, it should result in lower noise during low light conditions, plus of course there's the choice of more powerful lenses.

 

Regarding lens choice - 12-40mm looks like a very good general-purpose lens, and it can be found under $500 used which would fit my budget, but exhaust it completely, leaving no room for even a focus light, although on the upside, it might be fast enough to make do without one. Oddly, I've seen mentions that it is not considered a popular choice for underwater use - is it because that in this price range, underwater photographers move into dedicated lenses (macro/fish-eye) over general-purpose ones, or is it something else?

 

The 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 lens is a great deal cheaper - I can see eBay listings where it sold for under a hundred - leaving room in my budget for a proper light, or maybe a wet dome. I could even get a 40-150mm zoom lens for topside use, as those seem to be available for relative peanuts ($50 or less) used. The 12-50mm lens appears to have a dedicated macro mode, but reading the reviews and forum discussions, it appears to be impossible to engage underwater, as it requires manipulating the focus ring on the lens itself; however, the full zoom range seems to be available from the camera's controls, and since it does not extend forward when zooming, there is no danger of it bumping into the port - am I understanding this correctly? Obviously it won't produce the same photos as the more expensive 12-40mm under the same lighting conditions, but being that much cheaper, I should be able to pair it with something like a single YS-01 strobe, and maybe a cheap video light on the cold shoe to aid focusing - how would it compare to 12-40mm given those advantages?

 

There is also the option of 60mm macro lens, which, going by dimensions, should also fit the port, but it's expensive and limiting to a certain kind of photos, so I think that one belongs on the upgrade path rather than initial purchase.

 

The port on the Meikon housing for E-M1 appears to not have a native capability to accept 67mm attachments, but I came across this post showing it being used with a wet dome using a clamp/flip adapter. However, Meikon website lists this adapter as compatible only with Canon DSLR housings, so I'm somewhat confused - is that just a listing oversight, or do their Canon DSLR and Olympus E-M1 ports differ in outside diameter? To add to the confusion, Aliexpress lists this adapter ($34) as compatible with 600D/650D/700D, while this one ($85) is listed as compatible with all those and other models, including the E-M1 - are they not the same thing?

 

Given a choice between a moderately powerful light to aid focusing and maybe some video (like this one) and a wet dome lens, which one is the more useful accessory, overall? I understand it's an apples-and-oranges comparison, and ideally (likely eventually) I will get both, but which one is a better initial investment?

 

I have also considered Sony A5100/A6000/A6300, but have taken them off my list of prospective choices as their auto-focus capability, while excellent in bright light, is said to drop off dramatically in dimmer underwater conditions, nor are their lenses weather-sealed.



#2 diver dave1

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Posted 02 April 2017 - 07:56 PM

How about a Canon GX9 and Fantasea housing?  You can get both new for under $1000.  Adding a strobe, tray, cable, etc would be your path for upgrading first.  You can add wet lenses for better macro and wide angle later if desired but you can have some degree of macro and wide angle with the camera as is.  If you stretch a bit, maybe you get to a used strobe now.  The GX9 Mark II is out so the GX9 price is dropping.

The GX9 Mark II and housing are also at your $1000 budget but then there is nothing left to plan for lighting.

If you are patient, you might find people selling their GX9 to upgrade but that will be less certain on timing.

 

Just some more food for thought.

And welcome to the addition.


Nauticam D7000, Inon Z-240's, 60 micro, 105 micro, Tokina 10-17

www.shiningseastudio.com


#3 diver dave1

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Posted 02 April 2017 - 08:11 PM

Remember to budget for software.  You are likely going to want Lightroom.  You can lease it or buy it, which is a different can of worms for a different discussion.


Nauticam D7000, Inon Z-240's, 60 micro, 105 micro, Tokina 10-17

www.shiningseastudio.com


#4 Barmaglot

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Posted 02 April 2017 - 11:05 PM

How about a Canon GX9 and Fantasea housing?  You can get both new for under $1000.  Adding a strobe, tray, cable, etc would be your path for upgrading first.  You can add wet lenses for better macro and wide angle later if desired but you can have some degree of macro and wide angle with the camera as is.  If you stretch a bit, maybe you get to a used strobe now.  The GX9 Mark II is out so the GX9 price is dropping.

The GX9 Mark II and housing are also at your $1000 budget but then there is nothing left to plan for lighting.

If you are patient, you might find people selling their GX9 to upgrade but that will be less certain on timing.

 

Just some more food for thought.

And welcome to the addition.

 

What are the advantages of G9X(II) over Sony RX100 IV or V, besides the cost? Reviews seem to be complaining about image quality, general performance, auto-focus performance, etc, plus it's touchscreen-driven, which becomes unavailable underwater.

 

Remember to budget for software.  You are likely going to want Lightroom.  You can lease it or buy it, which is a different can of worms for a different discussion.

 

Between Paint.NET and Raw Therapee, I think I can make do with free alternatives for my basic needs.



#5 bear35

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Posted 08 April 2017 - 09:30 PM

The problem you have there is you are probably not going to find what you want for your budget. 

Your list of requirements was pointing my suggestion towards a four thirds setup, however for $1000 dollars you would be very lucky to buy a camera and lenses for that let alone ports and strobe/strobes.

My advice would be to decide what sort of pictures you plan to take mostly. If it is macro Canon do some great compact options with the advantage of wet lenses for wide and macro.

Think about the conditions you will be diving in.... If you need a focus light. I only tend to use one if it at night or conditions make it seem that is night! More important are strobes!

I am not sure of the housing you have mentioned but be wary of going down the cheap route.... You are in a very unforgiving environment and even when care is taken they can take a beating in rough conditions.

Most people have a similar decision to make but there is not one easy answer (other than wait longer to save more!) to achieve what you want for the budget you have.



#6 Barmaglot

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Posted 08 April 2017 - 10:34 PM

Most reviews of Meikon housings indicate adequate construction quality - it seems like several years ago, they had some issues, but over time they've improved dramatically. Getting banged is not that worrisome - I tend to take fairly good care of my stuff - and if anything, a 10x difference in price would make me worry less about physical damage, as it would make broken gear that much easier to replace. My main worry about their housing for E-M1 is vignetting at wide angles - the port is designed to allow the 12-40mm lens to extend fully, thus it is long and fairly narrow, and reviews indicate that even with that lens, it starts to vignette around 17mm - if I go with a 12-50mm lens, which has internal zoom, it won't get closer to the front glass as it zooms in, making the effect even worse. It's no big deal for macro, but I suspect that wide angle capability would be even more limited than a compact. If only Olympus PT-EP11 wasn't so damn expensive...



#7 Terrierist

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Posted 26 June 2017 - 06:56 AM

Hi Barmaglot.

 

Like you, I have recently started underwater photography and I received some great advice on this forum that has helped me immensely. Forget taking your camera with you until you have at least 35 dives logged and have your buoyancy so dialled-in that you don't need to think about it. I was full of pish and vinegar and wanted to dive in and capture all the amazing things we see under there, however, after considering the advice of those more experienced I ditched the thought of using a camera until I had my diving up to an acceptable level. 

 

It really is a distraction and can take the fun out of the dives. Once you are totally comfortable, then have a go.

 

All the very best.



#8 romanfever

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Posted 12 September 2017 - 05:05 PM

nice



#9 evildiesel

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Posted 15 September 2017 - 10:56 AM

So Barmaglot, what did you end up going for? I'm in a similar position and wondering what you decided.



#10 Barmaglot

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Posted 16 September 2017 - 04:26 AM

I ended up spending way more than I initially planned :blush:

 

Looking at my shopping list, I got:

 

Sony A6300 with kit lens (used, ebay) - $837.15

Extra battery, SD card, charger, bag (new, B&H) - $146.81

SeaFrogs (Meikon) housing - $253

Meikon wet dome - $99

Tray with two 8" arms and four clamps - $137.25

HowShot M67 magnetic adapter - $52.85

Two lanyards with clips (one for the camera, the other for the dome) - $10.76

Two Archon D36V lights - $469.28

Two 8"/60mm carbon fiber float arms - $72

Two extra clamps - $14.64

Eight Panasonic 18650B cells - $56.57

Nitecore i8 charger - $39.51

 

Total $2188.82, plus I got a Sony 18-200mm LE lens for general-purpose above-water usage for $318 (also used off ebay).

 

Lights, batteries and float arms are still in the mail, so can't comment on them.

 

I haven't yet had a chance to take the housing on a proper dive, but I did take it to the beach a couple times for a little snorkeling, just to make sure it works, which it mostly does :)

 

On the positive side, even though I overspent, it still cost me less than a 'proper' setup from Nauticam et al, it takes pictures, didn't fog up and didn't leak. With a wet dome and tray (no arms or lights) buoyancy in salt water is almost perfectly neutral - left alone, it floats on the surface with just the balls on top of handles showing. I estimate that with lights and arms, it will be slightly negative, but I got this to keep it securely attached to the BCD at all times. The magnetic adapter makes taking the dome off and putting it back on in the water a literal snap, but holds on quite securely when attached.

 

On the negative side, it's quite difficult to use in bright sunlight - the camera's screen washes out completely, while the EVF is only partially visible with a diving mask on and has to be turned on manually through menus - which are basically invisible on the screen. Also, the two dials on top of the camera (mode and aperture) contact the housing's knobs edge-to-edge, which means that the dials rotate in the direction opposite to the housing's knobs - not critical, but annoying, as it makes the markings on the mode knob thoroughly useless.

 

I thought, initially, that the wet dome caused vignetting in corners, possibly due to the magnetic adapter placing the dome a few millimeters further from the port than it's meant to be, but then I realized that I wasn't applying lens correction when processing RAW files with RawTherapee - after I downloaded Adobe LCP, used it to retrieve the lens correction profile for the 16-50mm lens and applied it in RawTherapee, this issue went away, although I'm still learning how to build a proper workflow in that program.

 

With the holidays coming on (Rosh ha-Shana/Sukkot), I think I'll take a few days to go down to Eilat for some proper diving - after that, I hope to post a full review.



#11 evildiesel

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 08:49 AM

Sounds good! Looking forward to seeing the review and any videos or pics you get with this setup. I had looked at the A6300 myself too but here it costs over the 1000 euro without a lens. So I might save a bit on the housing but I already own a Canon 6D. Unfortunately there are no cheap alternative housings for the 6D. It makes sense to try and use what you have already. I'm very happy with it.

 

Glad you got sorted anyway. It seems to me it's gonna be a big money pit getting into any sort of underwater setup!