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.