Five Oceans, Five Cameras
Buying Guide: Underwater Imaging
There’s a natural evolution that occurs once you start SCUBA diving. First you learn to breathe underwater. Then you blow half your annual income buying dive gear. The other half goes toward booking airline tickets to small Pacific atolls and Caribbean islands. Finally, you buy an underwater camera rig. After all, it’s almost impossible to convey the magic of that alien subsea world to landlubbers back at the water cooler in words alone. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then one taken underwater is worth twice that.
Nowadays, there are many options for underwater photography and videography available to the avid diver and occasional vacation snorkeler alike. Whether you want a cheap action camera you can take to Stingray City or a full-on SLR rig with which to dive the Andrea Doria, there’s something out there for you. These five underwater imaging options — everything from custom-machined metal housings to cameras that don’t need a housing at all — will serve you well on your next dive trip.
Nauticam NA-RX100 with Sony RX100
Sony’s RX100 made the GP 100 last year, and for good reason: it may be the most capable point-and-shoot available, with a huge sensor, great low-light capabilities, and plenty of manual controls for OCD shooters. It is the perfect adventure camera—rugged and compact, with near SLR-level photos and without the bulk.
Nauticam’s NA-RX100 ($950) is, as the name suggests, designed to fit the RX100 perfectly. Its black machined aluminum body wraps around the camera like a tailored suit of armor but is still lightweight and compact for travel and streamlined diving. All buttons and controls match up perfectly and are usable even when wearing bulky neoprene gloves. An internally threaded port makes adding wide-angle or fisheye lenses a cinch. Perhaps most importantly, the internal sensor sounds an audible alarm if moisture is detected inside the case so you can head for the surface before your camera is ruined. The housing itself is a bit smooth, without much in the way of grips, so we suggest coupling it with a tray and handle.
Ikelite with Canon EOS 5D MkIII
Canon’s big daddy 5D is the go-to SLR for countless professional shooters. Its massive sensor, video capabilities and Canon’s quiver of excellent lenses deliver perfect images time after time. But when you are laying out 10 grand on your camera and lenses, it doesn’t leave a lot in the budget for your underwater kit. Ikelite understands that and has been an affordable choice for underwater photographers since the 1960s when company founder Ike Brigham developed an innovative watertight clamping system that is still used by many camera housing manufacturers today.
The Ikelite 5D housing ($1,600) may not be as sexy as those black metal housings, but the build quality is top notch and the clear polycarbonate material allows a view inside, where moisture can be detected early to avoid disaster. A 200-foot depth rating, integrated rubber handles and TTL-strobe compatibility round out the features. The sliding rods and buttons are a bit clunky, but if they keep the price down, we won’t complain.
GoPro HERO3+ Black Edition
Everyone’s favorite adventure camera works as well underwater as it does on a surfboard or bike helmet. Tiny, lightweight and rugged when paired with its ubiquitous composite case, the GoPro HERO3+ ($399) allows for “set it and forget it” ease of shooting, which is what you want if you’re facing down a tiger shark or swimming against a stiff current. Still, video and timelapse shooting modes and a range of field-of-view angles (from narrow to fisheye, which we like underwater) give you plenty of options. There are some downsides: controls and the menu system are clunky — the stiff buttons and tiny screen can be maddening when you want to set something; battery life can be shockingly short, especially in cold water; low light capability is still, well, abysmal. But for a compact, idiot-proof camera that you can tuck in your BCD pocket on a dive, the GoPro is tough to beat.
At some point, after you’ve been shooting underwater for a while, you’re going to start thinking about lighting. Water filters out color, leaving images gray and flat. Night dives, wreck dives and deep dives are dark and a high ISO will only go so far. A good strobe or two will make all the difference. Make sure you get long mounting arms for versatile light placement and minimal backscatter. Also look for TTL compatibility for best exposure. Most cameras will sync the flash using a fiber optic cable, so look for a camera housing that has a bulkhead for cable attachment.
Light & Motion GoBe Action Camera Kit
Light & Motion is a company with a bit of a split personality. On one hand, they build nuclear-intensity headlamps and dive lights that outshine everything else out there, except maybe the sun. On the other side, they’ve long been known as makers of high-end underwater video housings. The new GoBe lighting system shows what happens when the dive guys and the lighting guys work together.
Conceived as a one-stop lighting solution for everything from camping and mountain biking to diving, the GoBe consists of a modular hand torch that can be configured to wear on a helmet, carried in the hand or mounted on a camera tray for underwater lighting. In fact, as part of its Action Camera Kit ($679), Light & Motion includes a small tray meant to hold a GoPro or another action camera and two flexible arms. Strobe or flood lights can be mixed and matched depending on what your video goals are. We chose the 700 Flood for the most lumens (700!) and fewer hotspots. Since underwater lights get very hot, the GoBe lights have an innovative cooling channel that allows air or water to circulate around the light to keep it cool.
Underwater photographers and design wonks alike speak in reverent hushed tones when the topic of the Nikonos comes up. That’s because Nikon’s groundbreaking underwater camera from the 1960s was not only a legendary piece of kit but a design icon with its orange grips and oversized buttons and dials; nevermind that it required constant maintenance and leaked often. Most of the great underwater images from those old National Geographic magazines were shot with a Nikonos. Its demise at the dawn of the digital age is still mourned by many.
Fortunately, Nikon is back in the underwater camera business — sort of. The new AW1 ($1,000) is the first interchangeable lens mirrorless camera on the market that is waterproof, shockproof and freezeproof. While it’s only rated to 50 feet deep, that’s plenty for shallow coral reef shooting where the light is great and fish life is prolific. Tuck a second lens into your BCD pocket and you can swap on the fly. Furthermore, the AW1 shoots a blazing 15 frames per second, can record HD video at 1080p and has a big sensor that spits out 16-megapixel images — all of which will make you forget the Nikonos. Almost.