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By Vandit Kalia
May 2006

My experience 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 fixed.

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.

The camera

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.

The flash

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 only.

Using the 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 whole scene.

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 this test).

• 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 traveling.

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.


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