All posts by denzille

A keen amateur photographer on a tight budget.

Shooting in Mozambique (but real men hunt with cameras)

Personally, I prefer my shooting to be of the non-lethal kind.  When I saw the photos of Cecil the Lion, shot last year in the run-up to my own African adventure, I couldn’t help but think he would have looked much more majestic standing in his natural habitat, as opposed to lying dead at the feet of his killer.   I resolved immediately to try and photograph as much wildlife as I could when visiting Mozambique in September.  I was both delighted and frustrated. Delighted by all of the animals, the big sky and the natural environment I saw.  Frustrated by those animals I missed (some of which were WAY UP THERE on the list of must sees) and by the lack of investment the country puts into rebuilding its beautiful habitats.

So – what can you see?

Quite a lot, actually.  If you go looking for the “big five” you are likely to be disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong – there are quite a few elephants (though I didn’t see any), and it is possible to see lions if very lucky, but the local rhino have pretty much all been killed, and it would be better for the surviving ones to stay away.  The territory is wrong for buffalo and you can have all of my teeth if you ever see a leopard.

That said, there are plenty of beautiful, majestic, wild and very “African” animals to keep your attention.  Their habitat is different to your average wildlife program and it makes the photography a real challenge.

Zebra amonst the trees
Zebra amongst the trees. When seen like this, rather than on the planes, their camouflage makes perfect sense. Autofocus is pretty hopeless though!
African Warthog
African Warthog approaching for a drink in the midday sun.

As well as any number of large animals that you can see on the land – it is the sky and the water you want to focus on for real excitement, from above – the large African eagle…

African Fish Eagle
African Fish Eagle

… to the tiny Malachite Kingfisher.

African Malachite Kingfisher
African Malachite Kingfisher

At or in the water, the mighty Hippo…

Hippopotamuses (hippopotami) - it's a family affair
Hippopotamuses (hippopotami) – it’s a family affair

…to the (also) tiny green handed horned ghost crab

Green handed horned ghost crab
Green handed horned ghost crab

And after all that – there is the sea and all that is in it or on it.

Bazaruto two mile reef
Bazaruto two mile reef
Migrating humpbacks off Tofo beach
Migrating humpbacks off Tofo beach

How could I possibly have been disappointed or frustrated with all this (and more)? Well – I never saw a whale shark, and I never captured the humpbacks under the water.  The manta ray I saw was in the distance, and my photos of reef sharks didn’t work. What a hard life!!

The sky at night was rubbish too…

Sunset over Limpopo

Milky Way

Looking back, I’m not sure why I came back!  I really must get back to Africa soon…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

So bridge cameras now have 80x optical zooms, but what does an equivalent DSLR setup look like?

In late 2014, Nikon pulled off a coup in the digital bridge camera market, by announcing the Nikon Coolpix P900 – a fixed lens camera with an astonishing 83X optical zoom range (4.3-357 mm –  which is equivalent to that of 24-2000mm on a 35 mm camera).

Nikon Coolpix P900 (Nikon stock product shot)
Nikon Coolpix P900 (Nikon stock product shot)

For several years, people had assumed bridge cameras were on their way out because they would not be able to compete with cheaper Digital SLRs and Compact System Cameras; but with the new generation of superzoom ranges, the bridge camera has come of age.  For convenience when travelling, it is easy to see the appeal of such a versatile zoom range accompanied by many DSLR type controls and features. This is doubly true when you consider the cost of such a camera may be less than the cost of a single lens of equivalent maximum focal length for a DSLR.  So can a DSLR still, really compete?

Can and how would you achieve a similar zoom range in a DSLR? Can you beat it? What would it look like, and how much would it cost?

There have been several excellent reviews of the Nikon and I would recommend Photography Life as the one with the nicest test shots. There is also a youtube video by Lothar Lenz (below) which demonstrates the full range of the zoom.


Given these reviews are already out there – I thought it would be useful to ask, can and how would you achieve a similar zoom range in a DSLR? Can you beat it? What would it look like, and how much would it cost?

As you know, this website is called Shooting on a Shoestring and generally the focus of the blog is budget photography. I should therefore say straight up, that you will almost certainly not be able to achieve such a huge range of focal lengths in a DSLR with equivalent features (autofocus, image stabilization etc.) for the same cost as the Nikon (less than £500 as of August 2015).  I do, however, want to focus on the cheapest way of achieving top quality results.

Can you achieve an 83x optical range in a DSLR?

Well… Obviously yes.  Though not with a single lens.  You will not, therefore, be able to smoothly zoom from the widest angle to the longest tele-focal distance.  Indeed, the expense of very wide angle zoom lenses and very long telephoto zoom lenses is such that you may want to consider fixed focal length lenses at the extreme. For some examples, you can check out some older and cheaper ideas here.  However it is important to have a decent range of zoom to be practical.  So, having considered the challenge, I have come up with a realistic 100x focal length range of lenses for a DSLR setup, giving excellent image quality for less than £1,000.

Having considered the challenge, I have come up with a realistic 100x focal length range DSLR setup giving excellent image quality for less than £1,000.

Let’s start at the wide end: Opteka / Kelda 6.5mm fisheye.  I love fisheye lenses and I was really keen to include one in this challenge because the Nikon bridge camera cannot achieve true optical fisheye effects.  On my Cannon DSLR (with a 1.6x crop factor), this lens gives an equivalent focal length of 10.5mm, much wider than the 24mm offered by Nikon.  True, this lens is manual focus only, but fisheyes offer such a massive depth of field, even at wide apertures, it really causes no problem at all.  I picked mine up on ebay back in January (2015) for £120.

Kelda 6.5mm Confirmation
Kelda 6.5mm Confirmation for £120

This lens is a favourite of mine for wide star-field shots and creating odd viewpoints:

Hesperia Hotel under the stars, single exposure, Lanzarote
Hesperia Hotel under the stars, single exposure, Lanzarote

Stepping things up a bit, to really compete with a bridge camera, it’s important to have a versatile lens with a wide zoom range – so a budget super-zoom seems appropriate.  In this case, I have plumped for the Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM. Note – this is the older version dating back to 2009 (not marked macro) for budget constraint reasons.  This lens is an image-stabilized, autofocus lens, which feels sturdy in the hand. It has a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 27-375mm, so is a reasonable wide-angle at the short end and still a good everyday telephoto at the long end.  Second hand, you can pick them up for around £150. I bought mine in London Camera Exchange on the Strand for that price, but to demonstrate the point, here is one on ebay today (for £174 including delivery).

Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM on ebay - 25th August 2015
Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM on ebay – 25th August 2015

This lens is one which I carry with me nearly all the time, as, while image quality is not as good as a prime lens, or even some smaller range zooms, it is still very respectable and it covers a vast array of different situations.  Alternatives would include the more expensive Tamron 16-300mm or the similarly priced Tamron 18-270mm lens.

You can then couple this with the Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD, which is now readily available on ebay for less than £600. This gives a zoom range equivalent 240-960mm on a full-frame camera.

Tamron 150-600mm, now available for less than £600 easily.
Tamron 150-600mm, now available for less than £600 easily.

Alternatives here, include the cheaper Sigma 150-500mm, which frankly, is not such a good lens, and the Sigma 150-600mm, which is nearly identical to the Tamron in spec and handling, but as it is a slightly newer model, it still tends to be a tad more expensive.

So what results can you get with these two in combination?

Knole dear park, on a miserable rainy day, shot handheld at 18mm...
Knole deer park, on a miserable rainy day, shot using the Sigma lens, handheld at 18mm (equivalent to 27mm for a full frame camera)…
And the highlighted red section, zoomed at 600mm (also handheld) using the Tamron.
And the highlighted red section, zoomed at 600mm (also handheld) using the Tamron. This is equivalent to 960mm on a full frame camera.

These photos were taken in far from ideal conditions, but they clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of the Tamron’s image stabilization and sharpness at a wide aperture, as well as the fact it can definitely be used handheld.

“The full range of lenses on cameras? You’d better buy a bigger bag.”

So – having come up with a 100x zoom range for less than £1000 – can you beat even that?  Well, yes. Quite easily actually. You might be surprised that the Tamron lens can quite easily be paired with a simple 2x teleconverter (around £100 if you look hard) and still be very effective.  True – it won’t allow you to autofocus any more but the manual focus on the Tamron lens is very smooth and easy to use with practice.

The absolute full range of this setup at 6.5mm on the wide end to 1200mm on the long end (nearly a 200x zoom range!) is best shown again, with some photos of the night sky…

Tudeley Church under the stars (shot at 6.5mm)
Tudeley Church under the stars (shot at 6.5mm)
The moon shot with the Tamron 150-600mm at full zoom with a 2x teleconverter
The moon shot with the Tamron 150-600mm at full zoom with a 2x teleconverter

So – quite a wide range of focal lengths there.

But what does this all look like?

The full range of lenses on cameras... You'd better buy a bigger bag.
The full range of lenses on cameras?  You’d better buy a bigger bag.

Conclusion: At the end of the day – there is no denying that a superzoom bridge camera is a pretty nifty bit of kit, and an 83x zoom is still pretty incredible.  Would I buy one?  Perhaps, if I had the cash… But so far I haven’t and I don’t seem to mind one bit.

Snowdonia

Ultimately, as a photographer, it’s not what you take your photos with that matters, but what you take them of.  People get obsessed about the “rules” of photography – getting a perfectly composed image using the rule of thirds with perfect lighting. But a technically perfect photo of a boring subject will still be a boring photo. What I really love are the photos of beautiful, exciting or wild places – of nature and animals – and then, so long as you don’t simply screw it up – the photos will always be interesting.

The great thing is that, to go and get the sort of image I’m talking about – you don’t need to spend any money. You just need to be willing to get up early in the morning, head out into the world and take your camera along…

Snowdon - the way down
Snowdon – the view from (near) the top

Recently, I went on a trip just like that to Snowdonia, in Wales, to climb Mount Snowdon.  True – conditions weren’t ideal for photography (though they were ideal for climbing) with heavy clouds hanging around the peaks; but while the photos won’t win any awards for their perfect blue skies, I do think they show what Snowdon really looks like.

Shrouded in cloud, the peak of Snowdon was NOT the place to take photos...
Shrouded in cloud, the peak of Snowdon was NOT the place to take photos…

The good news was, that as the days went on – conditions got better and better. The bad news was, that was only after we had already climbed Snowdon itself.   The whole area, though, is a stunning landscape to explore.

Sitting on the edge of the world
Sitting on the edge of the world
Snowdonian Valley
Snowdonian Valley

Shooting into the blue… (Lanzarote)

Back in June, I had the opportunity to visit Lanzarote with my girlfriend.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, having not been to the Canaries before, but I did some research and found out that the diving is supposed to be amongst the best in the North Atlantic. I therefore persuaded my girlfriend that it was time for her to learn to dive too – and promptly packed my cameras and gear for a good-old wildlife photography trip…

As you may have seen in some earlier entries on this site – underwater photography is a growing passion of mine, and one that I’m only beginning to get to grips with.  It’s still something which it is possible to make your first inroads into without spending a fortune. Indeed, I picked up one camera at the airport, a Nikon Coolpix S33, for about £70.  This little camera is officially waterproof to 10m, and in the clear waters of Lanzarote, seemed very capable.  I can also say that mine kept the water out to at least 30m, but the pressure stops the buttons working beyond about 12 to 15m.  It makes it ideal for snorkelling and beginner divers though.

Sarpa Salpa fish in the shallows while snorkelling with a Nikon Coolpix S33
Sarpa Salpa fish in the shallows while snorkelling with a Nikon Coolpix S33

Taking photos underwater often causes trouble with light, as there is nearly always a blue cast to images (which can be fixed on a computer fairly easily) – but you also want to try and catch the light the right way.  Hopefully you will be able to get yourself into a position for the light to reflect off the fish or corals, or you can shoot up with the light behind your subject.

The Nikon Coolpix S33 is ideal for snorkelling and use on shallow scuba dives.
The Nikon Coolpix S33 is ideal for snorkelling and use on shallow scuba dives.

When going a little deeper, however, I had a Panasonic DMW-MCTZ35 Lumix Marine Waterproof Case for a TZ35.  This was an excellent combination of a very effective dive house and compact superzoom camera with a specific underwater mode.  The total cost is higher at around £300 or higher – but it’s still relatively cheap for a combination capable of diving to advanced diver depths.

Young baraccudas shot with DMW-MCTZ35E Marine Case and Lumix TZ35 camera
Young baraccudas shot with DMW-MCTZ35E Marine Case and Lumix TZ35 camera

If in Lanzarote, and you get the chance to visit the dive site called the Cathedral, it is well worth a look!  Get right inside and shoot out towards the light to create a silhouette as your dive buddy swims across the mouth of the cavern.

The Cathedral
The Cathedral (La Catedral), dive site, Puerto del Carmen, Lanzarote

I should put out an extra special mention for the fantastic team at Manta Diving, Lanzarote – who looked after us fantastically on our trip.  Also – please don’t think the only things to take photos of are underwater!

Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote - one of the many volcanoes in a still active region.
Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote – one of the many volcanoes in a still active region.

Lanzarote is also a great place for a spot of stargazing.

The Milky Way over Puerto Calero, Lanzarote
The Milky Way over Puerto Calero, Lanzarote

Travel the world: Make great memories

Like so many photographers, I love to travel and to photograph the world around me.  Whether close to home or in distant lands, there’s nearly always something worth gazing at in wonder, just taking it all in.

Staring at things will hopefully give you an eye for what you like in an image – and if you’re like me you will then want to take a great photo as an aide memoire or souvenir of the scene, and how you felt at the time. (I have no idea why English people need to remember everything in French!)

As this blog is generally about making photography cheap, I’m not trying to suggest that to take great photos you need to do lots of expensive travelling.  It’s simply that, if you are travelling, you should take the time to enjoy your photography, no matter how cheap or expensive your gear is.  The photos you take on your travels will naturally feel more interesting and exciting to you than the more everyday shots near your home – and travelling throws up some wonderful opportunities to capture great images.

I thought it might be worth sharing a few ideas for things to try when travelling, which are free, cheap or at least well worth the expense.  They’re all things that work for me, and hopefully might work for you too!

You don’t need to travel far to get some great photos

It’s always struck me as weird that people will take a camera on holiday and take photos of absolutely everything, but when they go on a day trip to fantastic places in their home country with family and friends, and not bother taking a camera at all.  Take a camera with you everywhere – it’s great practice.

Ilfracombe in North Devon, taken on a Fujifilm A850 point & shooter. (6mm, ISO 100, f/4.5, 1/850sec)
Ilfracombe in North Devon, taken on a Fujifilm A850 point & shooter. (6mm, ISO 100, f/4.5, 1/850sec)

Don’t be afraid of including friends and family

Having photos of and with the people closest to you is really important.  Sure – you probably can’t sell them and enter them into competitions, but you can pass them on through the generations and get some great moments. Plus they will actually mean something to you – and you will therefore look back at them again and again.  You can still take some beautiful photos (even with your ugly mates and relatives in!)

My girlfriend and me, in Verona - shot with a Fuji Finepix S8000fd bridge camera on a self timer (but using two exposures combined for the foreground and background tower: 20mm, ISO 200, f/4, 1/140sec & ISO 1600, f/6.3, 1/2000sec)
My girlfriend and me, in Verona – shot with a Fuji Finepix S8000fd bridge camera on a self timer (but using two exposures combined for the foreground and background tower: 20mm, ISO 200, f/4, 1/140sec & ISO 1600, f/6.3, 1/2000sec)

Take a boat trip…

There’s so much to see at sea (or on lakes and rivers) and the time you spend sitting and staring means you notice things and take photos that you might otherwise have missed running around.  Nearly everywhere you go on holiday, it’s possible to get a boat, and they hardly ever cost much.  Just be prepared to jostle your way past other tourists!

A tall ship spotted from a large ferry between Rhodes and Symi islands in Greece.  We saw the boat from miles away and I have a series from a distant speck to a full broadside. (Canon EOS 650D, 160mm, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/1000sec)
A tall ship spotted from a large ferry between Rhodes and Symi islands in Greece. We saw the boat from miles away and I have a series from a distant speck to a full broadside. (Canon EOS 650D, 160mm, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/1000sec)

Learn to stitch a panorama

Lots of phones and some cameras can do this for you in-camera, these days – but to get a truly huge effect (horizontally or vertically) you need to take several stills and combine them:

The medieval town wall of Rhodes. (Please click to enlarge)
The medieval town wall of Rhodes. (Please click to enlarge)
New York - Manhattan & Brooklyn (please click to enlarge)
New York – Manhattan & Brooklyn (please click to enlarge)

Set yourself a challenge… (because the best things in life are free)

Practice makes perfect, or at least doing something over and over again statistically increases your chances of getting it right.  This is a key theme for me in photography – and I think a helpful tip for anyone trying to take good photos on a tight budget.

It’s very easy to get blown away or intimidated by some of the truly awesome photos out there taken by professionals, or occasionally by a lucky amateur in the right place at the right time.  A key thing that can be learned from all of these photos, though, is to put yourself in the right place, at the right time.  Also, know what to do when you find yourself there.

…a traveler from the tropics may be amazed at the site of a swan – which are common-as-muck in temperate countries, but completely absent from Africa and huge swathes of Central and South America and Asia.

I thought today, it might be fun to think about wildlife photography.  This is a real passion of mine, and I try to take photos of the animals I find around me all the time.   Many of mine lack the finesse and perfection of the work of the experts, but I think I have managed to get some nice images over time and this is almost certainly because I repeatedly set myself challenges and will carry on trying until I’m pleased with the result (and will carry on trying to get better even after that).

Friendly sheep
A friendly sheep in the field behind my office, shot with my mobile phone. (He wanted me to feed him fresh grass so trotted over).
Common Grey Squirrel
A common grey squirrel on the miniature train tracks in a local park.

To make an obvious statement; you can categorize wildlife photos into two sorts: Photos of exotic animals where the simple inclusion of the animal itself makes the subject interesting and photos of everyday animals where you need to capture something more to keep the viewer interested.

If we examine this statement closely, though, how true is it really?  After all, the animals which are exotic to you will seem everyday to someone else.  The locals in Thailand (or even the South of France!) always laugh at me for spending my time taking photos of lizards, of which we see very few in England but are literally everywhere, there.  Similarly, a traveler from the tropics may be amazed at the site of a swan – which are common-as-muck in temperate countries, but completely absent from Africa and huge swathes of Central and South America and Asia.

Swanning around - a different take on a swan, as it comes into land.
Swanning around – a different take on a swan, as it comes into land.
Gulls fighting
Gulls fighting at the lake behind my house.

On this basis – I would recommend you set yourself a challenge and get out near where you live regularly and try and shoot the animals that you find.   There’s no need to worry too much about what equipment your using.  True – to shoot distant subjects you will need a long lens and to shoot really close-up you will need some sort of macro kit.  This can be a lot of fun (and I’d encourage you to try it) but most animals can be shot with just a compact camera or a smart phone and a bit of patience.  Just try to get yourself into the right place and learn how to get close to the animals, whether domestic or wild.  After all, taking a photo of an animal is free!

…the time you spend practicing on every-day animals will mean you get better shots of the ones that excite you.  You might even get one of those magic shots that makes the ordinary look extraordinary.

If you get the chance, also try taking photos of animals at the zoo, or somewhere like Longleat safari park, or just at a farm.

A giraffe in Longleat Safari Park
A giraffe in Longleat Safari Park – shot with a Canon 75-300mm zoom lens (second hand for £50).

In some cases, its a question of quietly “stalking” and not startling an animal. In other cases, it might be a case of attracting it over. Remember, a lot of animals have very sharp hearing and eyesight, so even if you’re shooting from a distance, sudden movements could scare them off.  A hint, for example, is never make eye contact with a wild deer…

Deer in Knole Park
Deer in Knole Park in Sevenoaks, Kent. Shot with an Optomax 500mm f/8 telephoto lens bought for £25

The great thing about doing this near your home and with your local wildlife is that you will learn skills which will stand you in good stead when you’re face-to-face with a more exotic animal, on holiday, or in those great chance encounters, like a barn owl sitting in your garden fence.  So the time you spend practicing on every-day animals will mean you get better shots of the ones that excite you.  You might even get one of those magic shots that makes the ordinary look extraordinary.  (Check out the British Wildlife Photography Awards website for some great examples).

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.