Snorkel or Scuba vacation? Time for an underwater housing! (WARNING - Addictive!)
posted Saturday, August 1, 2015 at 4:19 PM EDT
Do you have a vacation trip planned, with an opportunity to go snorkeling or scuba diving? You don't have to be an accomplished diver; if you're a decent swimmer, a lot of resorts offer on-the-spot classes that will having you diving in no time. And you can have a blast snorkeling, even without extensive training: The gear is very affordable (and can often be rented locally for even less), and online tips, tutorials and beginners guides abound. (Note - if you're in the tropics, with warm water, you don't need a wetsuit, as one of the videos linked above suggests.)
For many of our readers, photography ranges from a life-long passion to a full blown compulsion. Likewise, if you've spent much time diving in the undersea world, you know it's an incredibly compelling place to roam around. It's only natural, then, that the combination of photography and diving would be an intriguing proposition for any adventurous photographer who hasn't tried it yet.
There are two basic paths you can take to capture photos in the undersea world, namely either dedicated waterproof cameras or traditional cameras that require a waterproof housing. Since most of you reading this are already aware of the first category, I'll concentrate primarily on housings for this article. In addition to housing models made for non-waterproof cameras, there are also housings made for some waterproof models as well, for times when you want to dive deeper than your model is rated to go. While there are a number of third-party manufacturers of housings, only a few manufacturers offer a full array for their own cameras, with Olympus currently offering the largest selection of manufacturer-made models. They recently invited a few well-known, world-class dive photographers to Key Largo, Florida, to try out several of their latest housing offerings, and let your faithful reviewer with no previous housing experience ride along as the "token newbie".
To any of you who have yet to try this out, I can say that even as a mere dive photography novice, it's nothing short of a breathtaking and mesmerizing experience. The often extensive travel required to get to your destination, by flight, shuttle and boat trip, along with all the rigmarole with gear and logistics, and then the first awkward moments spent on the surface getting your initial bearings... all of these become instantaneously worth the effort as soon as you descend the depths and capture the first of many wonders. Yes, you've seen them in other people's images, but capturing your own unique undersea photos and video to share with the world is an almost indescribable experience.
But, my camera is already waterproof!
If you own an underwater camera and feel that an underwater housing may be overkill, there are a few important things to consider. First, and perhaps the least written about, is that a housing feels more secure when below the surface than a small camera. (Trust me on this!) The reasons are several, but first and foremost the housing provides a more stable hold and offers up a really big shutter button! If you've yet to dive, this may not seem like a big deal, but when you're rolling around in the current down there, the larger frame and shutter button are very welcome additions indeed. And of course there aren't any weight issues to consider for the most part, so it's really a whole different world. Should should you drop your rig, the housing will sink more slowly due to its bulk than a camera, and be far easier to spot down below. (Wrist straps are critical accessories in the ocean, folks!)
Yet another reason is that resort scuba diving courses often allow you to descend further than most waterproof models are rated to go, for instance to view a shipwreck some 80 feet down. If something like that is on the agenda, you'll need the housing to be able to achieve such depths. And lastly, it's one added layer of protection for your camera in a world that can be hostile if you're not careful - protection from everything from barnacles to barracudas' teeth! (Don't worry, they look a lot scarier than they are.) I doubt I'd bother with a housing to shoot in my local pool, but even for a clear lake and certainly out in the ocean, a housing is simply a better option than the camera alone, for both the improved ergonomics and the added protection they offer.
The first concern I had when invited along for this trip was how much external control I'd have, but that concern was allayed almost immediately. The short answer is that, at least for the models I was using (housings for the Olympus E-M1, E-M5 II and TG-4) you lose virtually no control at all. The buttons and knobs are all accounted for save for one or two here or there, but everything you're generally accustomed to needing in the way of external controls is available, and often in a larger and more convenient way, to suit the underwater environment. A good example is the control dials on the OM-D body housings - they're large and ultra-easy to turn, even with gloves on!
One caveat: some of the buttons are shifted, due to the precise technicalities required to activate them, so even if you're familiar with your camera on dry land, you'll need to re-task your fingers to the new coordinates. For instance, on the Olympus housings, the "OK" button is no longer center-mast, but instead is in the 2:00 position. I made a myriad mistakes in settings before getting used to this, so I strongly advise playing around with the housing before you dive. I didn't much have that luxury on this trip, and our first day on the water was really choppy, so was a bit of a bear getting the hang of the button-swap. But just a few minutes practice top-side will have you good to go once you dive.
I only encountered one small problem with the housing controls, and that was the mode dial not functioning on a few occasions. The precision required to engineer operation of some of the switches via a housing is nothing short of remarkable, and that particular control just happens to be one of the more intricate ones. Fixing it required that we remove the camera and carefully re-position it in order to be in the exactly correct position within the housing, and that worked out fine. It was no big deal, just something to remember before you dive, to use care when inserting the body into the housing so all the controls will be positioned exactly where they're meant to be. And, of course, it never hurts to check everything before you get wet!
Images by Mary Frances Emmons | ScubaDiving.com
One really cool thing I didn't know beforehand is that many housing models allow for multiple lenses. This was great news to me, as I like to change lenses often for my land-based photography. The E-M5 II housing, for instance, can accommodate no fewer than 8 M.Zuiko lenses, and the divers on this trip were able to take full advantage of that. To be able to shoot with the 9-18mm one minute and then switch to a prime as needed was a welcome feature, beyond what I was expecting.
One common tip you'll see in tutorials is to move slowly, even remain still for a spell, and let the sea creatures become accustomed to you. This is indeed a good recommendation, and you'll be surprised with the results, as compared to chasing after them like a typical tourist. After 5-10 minutes many of them will start to think you belong down there and will let you get closer than you'd otherwise be allowed. Naturally, you'll want to respect their world. This includes being mindful not to touch the delicate coral, and also to remember that bright strobes can actually hurt some undersea eyes, so go easy on them when you can. (Note that while some of the segments in the video at the bottom make it seem like the diver was pursuing the sea turtle in the shot below, the scene was actually very mellow, with he/she seeming very comfortable with the divers.)
Real dive photographers
I'm happy with the images I was able to achieve as a first-timer, especially considering that I didn't have a tank and was only free-diving (taking brief quick dives while snorkeling), but through the generosity of some of my fellow travelers, I'm fortunately able to share with you some images captured by experienced dive photographers, like Mary Frances Emmons of ScubaDiving.com shown above. They really know their stuff, and you'll find below some collections from a few more of them from our Key Largo trip.
And don't miss the video down below, which contains even more images from these excellent photographers. Thanks, everyone!
Bob Hahn | Underwater Photography Classes
Brent Durand | Underwater Photography Guide
Carlos Quilichini | Olympus Technical Representative
Video: still images are only half the housing fun!
Still images capture the moments, while videos capture more of the whole feel of a scene. Each have their place in our artistic and creative worlds, and underwater housings allow for quality in the capture of both. IR's designated "video guy", editor William Brawley helped me put together a compilation of the clips I was able to get with both the TG-4 and the E-M5 II, both shot in housings, along with a few still images from some of the experienced dive photographers peppered in. The one video clip in there that I didn't shoot is the one of the gorgeous nurse shark, captured by Mary Frances Emmons with a TG-4. (I can't imagine I'd have been able to remain as steady as she did for that one... thanks for sharing it with us here!) Keep in mind that all of the video other than Mary Frances' nurse shark segment were just what I managed to capture by diving down from the surface: Being able to stay on the bottom for extended periods definitely helps with the photography, but you can have a ton of fun with just a snorkel, mask, and fins!
Clips from the E-M5 II were shot with it's 5-axis IS enabled, including all the clips that I shot handheld on a rocking boat. This gives you an idea of what you can do with the combo of a housing and quality stabilization. (Believe me, there was a lot of motion on that boat!) And while professional filmmakers are able to employ professional stabilization and underwater propulsion systems, for those of us relying on simple leg power via our fins, it's a huge added benefit to have good IS onboard. (Special thanks to my partner William Brawley for helping in the production of this video. And to the (real) Scuba Diver Girls, Margo and Stephanie [ScubaDiverGirls.com] for lots of encouragement!)
If you're ready for a vastly different landscape and would like to take your photography in a new direction, the undersea world awaits you! All you need in addition to your camera is the right housing, some clear blue water and a sense of adventure. The gentle sea creatures and colorful coral will provide all the subject matter you'll ever need, so grab yourself a housing, some fins and a tank of O2 and get out there!