Sink or swim – the key to success under water

Perhaps you’re one of those people who watched Jaws and has decided it still isn’t safe to get back in the water, or perhaps, like me, you watched it and thought “wow that’s cool!”

If the latter is the case, you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface.  And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see (whether it’s your friends and family playing in a pool, a crab, a brightly coloured fish or jaws).  So how do you do it, and how much will it cost?$

“you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface.  And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see…”

As ever, it will cost as much as you want to spend.

It’s clear that for the very best, super-sharp and well exposed images at depth, you will need an expensive camera with high ISO (light sensitivity) capabilities.  This may be a custom designed underwater camera or a specialist, dedicated underwater housing for a DSLR.  This, though, is the realm of the scuba diver, and nearer the surface (down to around 10m) you can get by with some pretty cheap and basic gear:

Underwater shooting with zero preparation

If you’re not a regular scuba diver, the times when you’re most likely to want to take photos under water are when you’re on holiday.  You might be by the sea in Cornwall, or in the Mediterranean or on the Pacific coast.  Wherever the sea is, there is the desire to jump in it and boat on it.

However, most cameras are not waterproof. Take it from someone who knows, you don’t want to take a decent camera out, even on a boat, without protection if you want it to come back working.  Ideally, you want to think about this before you go away, so that you can get a waterproof camera or some sort of housing.   The great news is, though, even if you forget, nearly all beach resorts and shops sell disposable waterproof cameras. Some of them can even be reused!

Waterproof disposable camera
A waterproof disposable camera – everyone’s friend on holiday.

This wouldn’t be a very helpful website, though, if I just said “buy a disposable camera” and everything will be alright.  If you want to get the best from your photos, things aren’t quite that simple.

The first thing to point out, is that disposable cameras aren’t that cheap.  True, to buy they’re cheaper than a digital camera, but they still tend to be over £10 and are only single use (or you will at least need to buy film to reload them) and you have to pay to get your  photos developed.

Here are a few pointers on getting the best results and best value for money:

  • So long as it works, there’s not much point worrying about brand – cheap ones tend to work just as well as more expensive ones.  They are all fixed focus and generally don’t have a flash.
  • Check the speed of the film in the camera – it’s unusual to find ISO 1600, but 800 and 400 are both common. 800 is much more useful, particularly in the sea (swimming pools tend to be better lit with higher visibility).
  • If you can get a re-loadable / re-usable one, do.  They tend to be about the same price, and you can choose to load 1600 film after the first use.  They’re also more environmentally friendly.  Make sure you’re careful with the rubber seals though.  These cameras really are cheap and low quality and not built to last!
  • Pay extra when you get your film developed for a CD with JPGs on it.  It’s only a couple of quid and is really useful because you can then get the best from your photos with some careful post-processing (see below).  If you have a negative film scanner, or know someone who does, this is just as good.
  • Always check the “use by” date.  Chemical film has a shelf life, which is a lot shorter in hot countries.  You may well find that these cameras have sat around for years in which case the film will have degraded.  If you can, get something (nearly) in date!
  • Try to remember that the ideal distance from your subject is 1m to 3m, because this is how the lens is normally set.  Trying extreme close-ups is a waste of time!
  • It’s more about the effect than image quality…

So what photos can you get?  – Well, I’m not going to lie, it’s hit and miss. Here are a few examples that (with a little care) have worked out quite well:

Fish in Thailand
Fish in Thailand – Thailand is one of the easiest place to go fish spotting, as they’re literally everywhere, and near the surface where the light is good.
Snorkelling...
These cameras are great for the snap shots of family and friends that simply aren’t possible without waterproofing.
A blue fish in Thailand
If you dive down deeper, you can still get some decent shots down a few metres, so long as there’s still some light. Close-ups are a lost cause, though.

I think we can all agree – the image quality here isn’t great, but it’s great for a personal memory.  However, these have all had their brightness, contrast and most importantly their white balance adjusted.

Disposable cameras in the sea will all have a blue colour cast which needs to be corrected or it can make a photo really disappointing.  This can be done in several free or inexpensive software programs (such as GIMP or PhotoScape) – but only if you have a digital copy of the image.

Underwater digital photos on a tight budget?

So – let’s look at options when you have had a bit of time to plan.  Just how cheaply can you take photos underwater?

Aqua bag - a cheap underwater sealed bag (with a £7 second hand camera)
Aqua bag – a cheap underwater sealed bag (with a £7 second hand camera)

Just about the cheapest way, is to use an underwater camera bag.  There are loads on Ebay and Amazon – and here is one I bought earlier this year for about £3 (including P&P).

I don’t know about you, but I would be very dubious of sticking an expensive camera in one of these and just diving into the sea.  The problem is, there’s not really a good way to test them without putting something electric in them and going for a long swim…  (If it doesn’t work, I accept no responsibility…)

Because I was worried, I bought a cheap second hand camera for £7.  It’s 7.2 MP and has since become a firm favourite.  I’ve dived with it several times and it still works!  At £10 in total this is cheaper than a disposable camera. BUT – the results can be disappointing.

The key problems are:

  • The plastic “pouch” over the lens is not flat or perfectly clear, which plays havoc with the cameras auto-focus.  Since manual focus is impossible with most cheap cameras, this is a real issue.
  • Using the cameras controls / buttons can be very difficult.
  • The bag is not well insulated, so your camera will get cold quickly, spoiling battery life.

You can get fairly good results by ensuring that the camera lens is right up against the plastic lens window.  Alternatively, you can buy a more expensive bag with a solid plastic, or better, glass, window – which if right against the lens will solve many of these problems.  The issues with battery life and accessing controls will remain the same, though.

Camera bag selfie.  a digital camera in a camera bag will get a better exposure, but focus will be a real.
Camera bag selfie. a digital camera in a camera bag will get a better exposure, but focus will be a real issue.
Alex Denny
However, if you upgrade to a bag with a proper solid glass (or good quality rigid plastic) lens window, focus and image quality get a lot better!!

A “proper” waterproof compact camera

Of course, there are a whole range of custom-designed waterproof cameras out there, and after years of being prohibitively expensive, costs of some have now come down to below £100 in many cases (though well known brands are still more expensive).  In truth, these cameras don’t tend to stand up well against similarly priced regular (i.e. not waterproof) cameras on dry land.  Image quality and optical zoom both tend to be limited. But in the water they are generally much better than other cheap options.

Again, you will want to make sure that you know how to edit your photos once taken.  A lack of light and poor white balance are classic trouble-makers with these cheap cameras, though you would be amazed the level of detail you retrieve…

Fish before and after
Before and After – A carp in poor visibility in a lake in Kent. A lot of detail can be retrieved using GIMP or Photoshop.

A key point about dedicated underwater cameras is that they have autofocus mechanisms that will work, and a quirk of underwater photography is that water is magnifying (so you can get better close-up shots).

If you get close enough... then a dedicated underwater camera is likely to expose and focus better (even if it's a cheap model).
If you get close enough… then a dedicated underwater camera is likely to expose and focus better (even if it’s a cheap model).

As a final thought (though not strictly underwater) – if you have a waterproof camera with you and quick reflexes, you may one day get a picture like this.

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