with underwater photography started in 2001, with a
housing for my old Olympus C3000 camera purchased from
Matthew Endo of Mars Scuba. However, as I was doing
mostly deep tech stuff in those days, I rarely got to
use the camera as much as I wanted to – and when
I did, I found the shutter lag to be extremely frustrating.
I probably had the best collection of fish tail photos
on the planet! When the housing broke on a liveaboard
trip to the Maldives, I didn’t bother to get it
Then last year, I decided to get myself
a decent intermediate setup for underwater photography,
with two goals in mind: one was to start taking underwater
photos again and the second was to build up to a housing
and strobes for one of my DSLRs. Given the plethora
of choices available, I think the only way to make a
“right” purchase is to know exactly what
one wants out of the camera system - I figured I could
use this starter setup for a while to discover my own
shooting preferences and approach, so that I could make
a more informed purchase later: what body to house,
how many strobes to get, what size/power of the strobes,
what lenses and ports, and so on. Also, I wanted to
learn underwater photography while constrained by equipment
- this would force me to develop my own skils, instea
of relying on automation (while I am a big fan of automation,
I think the photographer needs to be in charge).
The goal of this article is to describe
my experiences with my underwater setup. which should
be help others get an idea on what to expect, what sort
of pictures they can get and what sort of problems they’ll
encounter with this and similar systems. Also, while
I am a fairly experienced diver (instructor, 2000-odd
dives including the Dorea, trimix certified, etc), most
of my photography has been land-based, and I have a
strong preference for SLRs. These factors play an important
role in my evaluation of this set-up.
I decided to build my system around
the Canon S70, for one main reason: it was the only
compact camera at the time which had a combination of
a quality sensor with relatively low inherent noise,
a good lens, a relatively wide focal length (28mm on
the wide end) and RAW capabilities. As such, it integrated
into my existing RAW-driven workflow without any problems.
My other option was to get a housing
for the G6, but ultimately, the wide angle of the S70
sealed the deal for me.
I got the matching Canon housing,
WP-DC40, rated to 40m, to go with this camera. There
are add-on macro and wide-angle lenses also available
for this camera; however, I didn not get them initially,
wanting to see if the camera was fundamentally compatible
with my own shooting style and interests.
I am not going to go into a detailed
review of the S70 – for that, DPReview
or other sites are your best bet. However, to summarize,
the S70 is a compact P&S with a sliding clamshell
cover and a zoom lens that goes from 28mm to 107mm or
something like that. It has a full set of manual controls,
although they are mostly buried in menus, and uses a
very highly-regarded 7.1 megapixel sensor.
My initial plan was to get an Ikelite
strobe. However, while browsing the Scubaboard
photography forums, I came across a reference to the
Sunpak G-Flash – a fully manual flash which was
triggered by the camera’s onboard flash. The guide
number was quite powerful, although the recharge time
was quite high. The angle of coverage wasn’t specified
– more on this later.
The strobe came with its own arm as
well, and for the price, this appeared to be the steal
of the century. Given how much electronics and wizardry
can be packed into an eTTL/iTTL flash these days, the
cost of some underwater strobes borders on outrageous.
I understand that these strobes are made in small quantity
by small, dedicated manufacturers – however, I
cannot help but wonder what the economies of scale would
be if a manufacturer were to start mass-producing them.
Certainly, the market for underwater photography seems
to be growing daily – there are more people diving,
and the costs of a starter kit are quite reasonable
these days. A lower-cost strobe would more than justify
itself in volume sales, in my opinion.
But I digress. The factor listed above
swung the deal in the favor of the G-Flash. A slave
flash was something I could always use, either underwater
or topside, so there was no downside to picking this
strobe up. Besides, it kept the price down - not a bad
idea for what was going to be an intermediate setup
set-up - initial impressions
It seemed as though getting started with this rig was
permanently jinxed. First I had some problems with the
courier company, which meant that delivery was delayed
by almost 3 weeks. Then, the day I got it, one of my
advanced open water students wanted to take some photos.
When we got back, the clamshell of my S70 started malfunctioning,
and the camera would power off automatically. Another
month went by till I finally got the camera back from
repairs. It was finally time to start shooting.
In terms of set-up, the housing is
a breeze to work with. Lightly lube the O-ring, slip
the camera in and close the latch. The latch has a sliding
lock that you have to release before it will open –
this prevents tragic accidents underwater. The housing
also comes with a built-in diffuser for the onboard
flash – I put it on and left it in place.
The Sunpak arm attaches quite easily
to the tripod screw on the base of the housing. However,
attaching the flash head took a bit of effort: the concept
was simple enough (align the slots on the strobe base
and arm, and insert a bolt through them), but actually
pushing the bolt through both the slots took a little
bit of fidgeting and a lot of swearing. This is definitely
not a strobe that can be easily disassembled in the
water (or in the presence of children).
The arm is decent enough for a freebie,
but has a fairly limited range of movements. Precise
positioning is not going to happen with this rig. In
practice, this was not a huge problem for my initial
test shots, but I can see it becoming an issue at some
point. You could always remove the arm from the base
of the housing and position it manually, but that isn't
fun, is it? People who are getting this rig for long-term
use should consider investing in better arm systems.
With the strobe attached, the setup
is only slighlty negatively buoyant in the water and
is quite easy to lug around.
For shooting underwater, my plan was
to use the external strobe to expose the subject, and
use underexposure to darken the background. The onboard
flash was weakened – its job was to trigger the
Sunpak, not provide any illumination. Accordingly, I
set the camera to Aperture Priority mode, with an exposure
compensation of -2 and a Flash Exposure Compensation
of -2 as well.
I expected the hardest part of using
the camera would be getting used to the manual strobe.
However, in practice, that turned out to be quite easy.
On any given dive, 1 test shot was all that it took
to figure out how much power I needed; and very soon,
I was able to intuitively figure out the power setting
needed for any given shot.
The coverage of the strobe was an
issue. As mentioned earlier, it has a high guide number
but a relatively low angle of coverage. The first time
I used it, I did not attach the supplied diffuser on
the strobe head – this resulted in visibly uneven
coverage in the photos. The next time, I attached the
diffuser and that made the resulting lighting a lot
more even. Of course, this comes at the cost of output
power, but since underwater subjects are close enough,
the strobe still had enough output to illuminate the
Overall, the system worked quite well
given its design limitations – the camera never
failed to trigger the strobe, and the resultant lighting
was quite capable of producing high quality results
in the right conditions.
This camera does an excellent job
when it comes to shooting reefscapes and shots of stationary
or slow moving objects. The flash really lets you control
the lighting in a manner that was completely unexpected
and very welcome for such a cheap item. And Canon’s
excellent sensor and RAW really let you extract a lot
of detail from the images.
Close-ups are aso handled well - in
fact, this is where the camera is at its strongest.
The flash provides good illumination, the zoom range
of the lens lets you frame the scene precisely and the
results are sharpest.
However, there are quite a few issues
I have with this setup.
Not wide enough – 28mm is ok, but not really
wide enough for really impressive reefscapes; within
its limitations, it does a really good job, but there
are times when you want to go wider, especially if you
want to create depth in the image. That is not the fault
of the system, of course… however, it is a limitation
for the user. The wide angle lens add-on is something
that should fix this limitation, though – and
given how competently the camera performs for reefscapes,
it appears to be worthwhile purchase.
Shutter lag – while the shutter lag is
better than on the Olympus C3000, it is still not good
enough to capture the decisive moment. Trying to get
perfectly aligned poses of fish, for example, is an
exercise in frustration.
Tendency to fog up – after a few activations,
the camera’s flash causes leads to heat build-up
inside the body and this leads to fogging on the internal
element of the port. I assume some dessicants can fix
it, but I didn’t have any on stock, and since
I was in the Andaman Islands at the time I was taking
these photos, I wasn’t able to get any either.
Funnily, other people who use housed digicams don’t
seem to have this same problem to the same extent as
me. What gives?
Slow recycle time of the strobe – for low
power settings such as macro shots, the strobe is ready
to go after a few seconds. However, for wide angle scenics
and fishscapes, it takes a frustrating 9-12 seconds
to recycle (albeit on lousy batteries – my NiMH
charger stopped working, and I was using alkalines for
Hard to judge focus – I find it very hard
to get proper focus confirmation. Visually, the green
square lighting up doesn’t do much in the water
– it is hard to tell if it is flashing yellow
or flashing green. I generally have the AF beep switched
off, as I find it really distracting, but I may have
to switch it back on.
Most of these I can live with, as
they are part and parcel of the design limitations of
this sort of a setup; for example the shot above could
have been more impressive if taken with a wide-angle
adapter lens added on to the housing. However, the slow
shutter lag really drives me up the wall. I'm used to
the hair trigger of my 1D Mk2, so perhaps I am over-reacting,
but the S70 is definitely not as responsive as some
of the other digicams out there. This shutter lag makes
taking fish portraits much harder. Yes, it is possible
to get good fish photos, but your percentage of keepers
will be a lot lower with this camera than with an SLR,
or even when compared to other, more responsive digicams.
Macro was one area where, surprisingly,
I did not get very good results initially. Inexpensive,
quality macro photography is a forte of compact digicams,
but underwater, it was really hard to get the focus
right with this camera. A large part of this stemmed
from my own lack of familiarity with this camera's macro
capabilities and some of it came from the problems with
visual focus confirmation described earlier. The result
was a lot of out of focus macro shots.
You might be wondering why I am moaning
about visual focus confirmation, when it is a simple
matter of turning on the audio beeps. Well, one reason
is that I hate the beeping – it is distracting
and bothers not only me, but potentially, others around
me as well. Another is that I am conditioned to using
my eyes to compose and assess focus; changing things
around throws off my own rhythm and makes me focus on
the technical side when I’d rather be fully immersed
in the aesthetics of what I am shooting.
However, this is a limitation that
can be overcome with practice, and I don’t think
it is fair to grade down the setup because it doesn’t
conform to my ergonomic expectations, which are based
on years of using SLRs. I merely point it out here so
that people know that getting good macro results will
require some work on their part. Also, there is a macro
add-on lens that can be added to the setup in order
to get closer.
Overall, this is a fairly competent
package, especially for the price. Once users get accustomed
to working with this setup, they should be able to shoot
a wide variety of subjects on the same dive –
ranging from macros to close-ups to reefscapes. Fish
portraits can be taken as well with the proper level
of attention and patience, although a large percentage
of these are going to record shots, rather than publishable
or portfolio grade images.
I was impressed enough by the potential
shown by the 28mm wide angle that I am going to order
a wide angle add-on lens, in order to get true wide
angle landscapes. Even when I have a housed DSLR as
my main rig, I expect to continue using this setup for
However, if you on't already own a
set-up, perhaps the Fuji E900 might be a better choice
- has RAW, 9 megapixels and goes up to 32mm wide. If
RAW is not important to you, then an S80 might be a
better choice – more responsive thanks to its
DIGIC-II processing, it should offer a significantly
lower response time, which would be more helpful with
fishscapes. Also, if you are investing in this setup
for a longer term than me, consider getting a better
arm system to go with the housing.
I am going to take this rig out next
week in order to photograph mantas and turtles. My goal
is to see if it is possible to compensate for the shutter
lag, either by use of manual pre-focus and hyperfocal
focusing or simply by getting used to the camera. I
have ordered an Inon macro adapter, and will add an
update on macro later.
Got a comment?
Do email me and let me know.