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How to choose a DSLR Camera and Underwater Photographic housing, Divestyle Magazine Dec 2007 by Andrew Woodburn


So why does an underwater photographer want a DSLR and housing when surely the money involved to purchase the system is beyond most budgets, and the size of the system means it isn’t as easy to handle or as affordable as a good point and shoot underwater. The reasons that one uses a point and shoot underwater are affordability, size (easy to insert into a BC pocket) and ease of use. Another early upside of a Point and Shoot is to see if you actually enjoy taking photos underwater.

The fundamental reasons for upgrading are to improve the quality of your photography.

The first improvement from point and shoot to SLR is the fact that the photographer looks through the lens and sees what the sensor will record, this allows for creativity beyond what the TV rendition on the rear screen of a point and shoot can provide. Improved image quality is delivered because the amount of glass in SLR lenses and the sophistication of the CCD sensors in top end DSLRS deliver a much better image. The data making up the image can be worked on in Photoshop to a greater degree due to more data available and also printed to bigger sizes. The other reasons one upgrades is to take advantage of a larger amount of options a professional or semi pro level camera provides when taking the image.  These options  range from modes including full manual which is always the fundamental mode you will need to shoot in when dealing with direct sunspots and tricky subject matter where automatic modes will give poor exposure or blurred images, to full automatic. 

But all this won’t help unless the camera you are looking at is twinned with a housing to match. Research the housings available before buying the camera as not all DSLRs have housings available. Also be aware of different housing choices as not all housings promoted on the internet are always available or serviced in South Africa.  The fundamental operations one will need to perform with your housing and camera will be:

  • On / off
  • Mode control (especially manual)
  • Shutter speed adjustment
  • Aperture adjustment
  • ISO adjustment
  • Exposure lock and focus lock
  • Playback and associated features such as selecting histograms delete and zoom to check focus.

Also be aware of how big the housing will be and what the buoyancy of the housing will be like. Housings are made of different materials such as polymers which allow you see right into the camera, good for seeing flooding early and being able to see the camera buttons you are pushing from the outside. Housings made out of metal have a rear window inserted so as to see the playback screen and therefore need more instructions on the outside to enable you to understand what you are doing with all those buttons. The advantage of metal housings is their size, they are made to fit the camera more snuggly so end up being smaller than polycarbonate housings and take the beating of being handled on boats better.  Based on your needs and how you will use your housing be aware what the material of the housing will do and how it will effect its performance. This will influence visibility to the rear playback screen, toughness, and weight out of water when handing the camera up or having to balance it on your lap while ready to roll off a rocking dingy.

By the time you are ready to expand into a housed system you will have realized the invaluable nature of underwater lighting. Strobes are a must when shooting stills and video as they provide white light that brings back the colour to underwater subject matter that beyond a few meters can only reflect back blue light. Strobes come in a multitude of makes and strengths (guide numbers) some ready made for underwater use while others are camera specific and need custom flash housings. In all the years I have been dealing with underwater photography I have never seen housed dedicated camera strobes go the distance. The dedicated units might seem good at first but always fall short when really pushed to perform in a wide range of situations. Nothing will make up for a solid understanding of the fundamentals of underwater strobe light and bespoke strobes designed to work with the housing. I always warn prospective buyers to ask the salesmen selling underwater camera gear to tell you what system they have and to show you some of their work before believing what they tell you, and if that isn’t enough be even more afraid of the general camera dealers, or dive store owners knowledge about underwater lighting. For those of you heading into this area of photography my best advice is talk to many people, read up on the internet and seek out people who exhibit a solid track record of producing images that inspire you.

Once you have an idea of what camera and housing combination you are interested in be aware that the process doesn’t stop there. To complete your rig you are going to need lens ports for the type of photography you will be doing and strobe extension arms, strobes and sync cables. In some instances housings are not quoted with all the peripherals that you will need included, so double check what you will be getting against what you will need. Just remember rather go after the best you can afford even if it takes longer to build your complete set due to budget availability. Over many years I have stuck with one make and rolled up the system selling off unused items and upgrading to new units. By sticking to one brand I have been able to stay abreast of technology. Once you acquire your housing get ready for mass confusion as the manufacturers have never written a manual which can be easily understood. The best way forward here is to have linked up with either a friend or dive school that have underwater photographers who you can ask for guidance or attend meetings at a club like the Gauteng Underwater Photographic Society  (

I strongly advise that the new underwater camera housing owner do an underwater photo course (preferable hands on rather than classroom) and take it slowly.

Andrew Woodburn has been the Divestyle staff photographer for over 5 years and runs underwater photo workshops, leads dive tours and can advise you on equipment as needed. See his website on


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