Choosing a housing for your dSLR can be a daunting process. There are many options starting from what brand to pick, what parts you all need, accessories, strobes, and more. As an Ikelite user for over twelve years I’d like to share why I choose Ikelite and continue to do so and the basics of getting your own Ikelite housings for your dSLR camera. I will admit I’m a bit biased as Ikelite was the first brand of housing I used for dSLR photography and as my cameras upgraded so did my housings and I stayed with what continued to work for me. These days I’m also an Ikelite Ambassador.
Ikelite began in 1962 and have been on the forefront of underwater photography and lighting since people started to take cameras underwater. Their technology brought some of the first underwater views to the surface and they continue to bring new technology and quality products to underwater image makers today. Their brand strives to not only produce the products divers need but they also inspire, teach, and help photographers grow. Made in the USA, their products and reputations speak for themselves and the next time you’re on a dive boat check out how many Ikelite housings you find. I usually see quite a few onboard almost every dive charter I go on.
Ikelite makes housings for many popular cameras including compact point and shoots, mirrorless, and dSLRs. When a new camera model comes out they are usually one of the first brands to bring a housing out for each new model. Recently Ikelite has redesigned the structure of their housings and because their new models are all in this design I am going to focus on the new design. Built with high quality, durable materials
A key feature of Ikelite housings was that they were clear but now the front is made from ABS-PC, a thermoplastic that is lighter, stronger, and heat resistant, so if the housings is sitting in the sun (say on a dive boat) the inside of the housing won’t heat up and cause potential damage to your camera. The back of the housing is still clear so you can see inside the housing to check for leaks as well as see the buttons on the back of the camera and full access to the LCD screen on the back of the camera.
Ikelite also makes dSLR housings depth rated to 50’ or 200’, the only difference being the back of the housing. The 50’ is considerably lighter and perfect for types of photography such as surf, pool photography, over-unders, and snorkeling and the 200’ is obviously better for scuba divers. The backs are interchangeable, so it’s possible to have both and use them in whichever shooting conditions you are currently in.
Plenty of Options
Ikelite realizes that every underwater photographer is not the same so many of their features are optional so you can pick and choose what you want. (Even better many of the options can be changed in the future if you decide you want a feature just by sending it in to their service facility.)
- TTL Circuitry: Ikelite is known for its fantastic TTL (Through the lens) system. Without TTL a photographer shoots their strobes on manual, adjusting strobe power for each shot. This gives the photographer full control but be slow and inaccurate with quickly changing light situations, or when that amazing whale shark swims by for ten seconds. Ikelite’s TTL is sort of an “auto mode” for strobes. Using internal circuitry the strobe power for each shot is determined through communication between the camera and the strobes. So if one second you shoot a blenny in a dark crevasse of coral and then the next second you turn around to shoot a shark swimming behind you (probably just getting its eye if you’re shooting manual) you don’t have to do anything but the strobe will change the power necessary to nail both shots. I have found over the years that TTL is great. It speeds up my shooting and does most of the work for me. Occasionally I don’t like the results it gives, but usually only when doing some sort of artistic effect where I don’t actually want a properly exposed photo.
- Current housings do not come with the TTL circuitry built into the system. This allows for them to weigh less for those that do not use this. If you desire TTL circuitry there is an easy user-replaceable hot shoe and TTL converter which plugs into the sync cord allowing for automatic exposures on Ikelite’s DS strobes.
- Vacuum valve and pump: A small valve in the housing and hand pump allow you to check if the camera is watertight before taking it in the water, a great way to prevent accidental flooding.
- Right Quick Release Handle: Straight out of the box the Ikelite housings only come with a left hand quick release handle and base, the right hand handle is sold separately (again allowing you to choose what you need and what you don’t need.)
Ikelite has recently redesigned the manner the ports attach to the housing. Called the Dry Lock Port System, the O-ring is seated in a grove on the housing and the ports pop on to the housing and there are three thumb screws used to keep it in place. Not having to twist on a port prevents the possibility of the O-ring becoming unseated or twisted, which could lead to leaks. The O-ring is on the outside of the housing, not the inside which prevents water drops from going into the housing (and onto the camera) when changing/removing the port.
There are three main ports and a series of port extensions used to allow a wide range of lenses to be used inside the housing. The new ports are also lighter than previous models (which is key when traveling with dive equipment). For wide-angle there are two dome ports, a traditional 8 inch port (2.2lb) and a compact 8 inch dome (.5lb) which is a lower volume but gives similar image quality as the normal 8 inch.
- Wide Angle Photography – There are three options of ports for shooting wide angle, all are made with optical grade acrylic. The compact is great because it’s considerably lighter and smaller and also is good for photographers interested in close focus wide angle shooting because you can get very close to the subject. The traditional 8 inch will give the largest diameter and is great for those wanting to do a lot of over-under photography as the larger dome allows for more surface area for both the over and the under parts of the photo and will show the water line thinner than a smaller dome port. There is also an 8in dome port with extended base for certain very large diameter zoom lenses. Extenders can be used for multiple wide angle lenses.
- Macro Photography – To shoot macro, Ikelite has a macro flat port with optical glass and has 67mm threads on the outer front so external wet lenses can be attached such as diopters used for shooting macro photography. The most popular macro lenses in underwater photography are the 60mm and the 105/100mm (Nikon/Canon). Both of these can be used with the correct extender on the macro port.
- Port Extenders – The port extenders attach in the same manor the port does to the housing. Each extender has an O-ring on it that allows the port (or another extender) to pop on and three thumb screws to secure and then the bottom extender becomes the part that is attached to the housing, also in the same way. It’s a very easy to use system and allows cutting down on how much gear you need to travel with because several lenses can be used with one dome, one flat port, and a few extenders. The extender system also allows for many lenses to be able to be used underwater which is particularly important for full frame lenses.
Choosing a Lens and Port
The first step to choosing a port is to know what lens you want to use. Many underwater photographers use prime lenses predominantly because they create significantly sharper images due to not having the extra glass necessary to zoom (less glass means less diffraction and better quality photos). However, zoom lenses can be used underwater and zoom gear is necessary for this to work. A lens clamp fits snuggly on the zoom mechanism of the lens and when the lens is attached the clamp connects into a zoom sleeve that sits in the housing, making a toothed connection with the mechanism that can then be operated with the zoom knob on the outside of the housing. Depending on the lens diameter different sized zoom sets are needed.
Some lenses require the use of a +4 close-up lens (or diopter) that screws onto the lens of the camera inside the housing in order for them to focus inside the housing. When the camera takes an image through a dome port the apparent image is created at about 12” from the cameras sensor plane underwater. If a lens has a minimum focusing distance of more than this 12” a diopter will help reduce the minimum focus distance and give sharper photos. These are commonly purchased at camera stores or online.
Top lenses used Underwater
- Wide Angle Fisheyes
- Nikon 10.5mm: 75340 Dome
- Canon 8-15mm: 75340 Dome or 75344 Dome with 75020 extension.
- Tokina 10-17mm: 75340 Dome or 75344 Dome with 75020 extension
- Nikon 105mm: 75301 flat port and 75020 and 75050 extensions.
- Nikon 60mm: 75301 flat port and 75020 extension.
- Canon 100mm: 75301 flat port and 75050 extension.
- Canon 60mm: 75301 flat port.
There are many more lens options and port recommendations can be found here: http://www.ikelite.com/images/products/housings/general/dl-port-charts.pdf
For Ikelite users who currently use or are more familiar with the Four Lock Port System, the new housings can also come in the traditional port lock system but also can be sent in later to be upgraded to the Dry Lock system in the future.
Strobes, Sync Cords, and Arms
Ikelite dSLR users will find several options for Ikelite strobes, the DS161, the DS160, and the DS51 which all are compatible with Ikelite’s TTL system.
- DS161: These are the strobes I use and recommend. They are both a strobe and a video light and the batteries are rechargeable NiMH. You get about 225 flashes per charge with a fast 1.5 second recycle time. I love the versatility of having them be a strobe and light. The light is great for video and also for use as a focus light and I even use them as my primary night diving lights. They do weight 2.7lb and are slightly negative in the water, but I feel the weight is worth the exceptional long-lasting power they provide. I also love that I don’t have to worry about carrying batteries to all corners of the world when traveling.
- DS160: These strobes are the same as the DS161s but without the light.
- DS51: I started out with the DS51s and they are a great lesser weighing and costly alternative. They take four AA batteries or Li-ion or NiMH battery packs (sold separately). They recycle in about 3.5 seconds and weight only 1.25lbs.
There are two options with sync cords for connecting an Ikelite housing to an Ikelite strobe, either a single sync cord that connects the housing to one strobe or a dual that allows you to connect two. Ikelite does make sync cords so that Ikelite strobes can be used with other housing brands as well. For creative shooting Ikelite has three and 15 foot extension cords to wire a strobe off camera.
Ikelite makes quick release handles and arms that make it easy to attach and detach strobes. The arms use ball joins with O-rings which makes it easy to position strobes and keep them in place. Clamps are easily finger tightened. The arms have slots which make them light and allow for the attachment of lightweight accessories such as lights. It is also easy to add segments and ball joins to make your arms as long as you need. The longer the arms the further you can position your strobes from the housing to reduce backscatter and position the light as you require.
Putting it Together
It can seem daunting at first, but I promise it’s not. Create a routine and follow it the same every time and you’ll be less likely to forget a step and it will get easier after you do it a few times. Also do not set up your camera when you are distracted, no talking on the phone, no texting, and I have a firm rule (same as diving) that once you start drinking you aren’t allowed to play with your camera.
- O-rings: These small bits of rubber are one of the most important things in keeping your camera dry. Treat them with the ultimate respect. I recommend cleaning the grooves where the O-rings sit with a q-tip before installing. O-rings need to be lightly greased, use only manufacturer-recommended silicone grease and gently coat the entire O-ring. In the end it should look shiny, not globby. Too much grease can make a sort of oil-slick for water to get into the housing. Too much is not necessarily a good thing. Also always check the O-ring for nicks or cracks. They don’t cost much, so if in doubt, throw it out and use a new one (that being said, I have had many last over a year). Always carry a spare O-ring for your housing and your ports.
- Double check your camera – does it have a fully charge battery? Memory card? Lens cap off?
- The new Ikelite housings have a base that slides in and out of the housing and it attaches to the bottom of the camera similar to a tripod base. Gently tighten the screw on the bottom by hand and the camera will slide right into the housing.
- With O-ring in place, put the housing back onto the front. There are three lid snaps that will line up with three hooks on the front of the housing. Put the lids over the hooks and push the lid snaps forward until they are flat against the housing. The clear back of the housing allows you to see the main O-ring and be sure to double check this visually for twists, improper seating, or any other problems. It should look like a flat black line.
- Attaching Ports – With the port O-ring greased and seated in the grove on the front of the housing, line up the three thumb screws with the three recesses in the housing front and gently push the port on. Then turn the thumb screws until they are flush. Do not over tighten or use any tools to tighten, hand-tight is tight enough.
- Strobes and Sync Cords – Sync cords have specific ends that go to the housing or strobes and the end that goes to the housing is marked with blue. Unscrew the bulk head cover and line up the pins and receptacles and insert. Then screw the retaining ring until it is snug on the bulkhead. Do not use tools to tighten, hand-tight is enough.
- Once set up two things are mandatory: take a test shot to make sure everything is working and freshwater dip the camera to check for leaks. 99% of problems will be caught or eliminated by doing this.
Housings come with a 1-year warrantee and it’s generally recommended that housings get sent in for routine servicing once every two years (similar to most of your dive gear.) Ikelite has excellent customer service and throughout my years working with them I’ve found them to be very easy to get ahold of on the phone and via emails. Non-warrantee Repairs are done quickly and affordably. Ikelite products are carried throughout the world so if you do forget something or break something while traveling you can often find what you need wherever you are.