Many of us went through the same phases – we fell in love with photography a long time ago. We started out with our first compact, advanced to a Superzoom high-end compact, and finally got our first DSLR! After shooting for several years with a DSLR, gathering an impressive arsenal of lenses, we started diving! Naturally, sooner or later, in a bright sunny day, we will think to ourselves: “Hey wait a minute… I can combine my two hobbies!!”.
With a merry heart and pleased that you came to the above conclusion, you quickly go on Google and search for “Nikon/Canon D*** Underwater Housing”. Suddenly your eyes darken and you hear the sound of your dreams shattering above you. “$1600 to $3500 for just the housing! And even more for ports! And zoom gears!! That’s 2-3 times what my camera cost!! I might as well stick with my GoPro…”
Fear not! We are here to help!
First of all, you need to understand why DSLR housings cost that much.
While DSLR cameras are mass produced by the millions, DSLR underwater camera housings have a much smaller market and much smaller production lines. Some are only made by the hundreds, and some are even custom made per purchase!
Clearly, engineering, manufacturing, testing and QA-ing these housings to their final excellent quality costs quite a lot, both in time and money, so manufacturers must charge a certain amount to stay in business and keep producing these great products for us. These housings also need to pass rigorous tests to make sure they can survive and stay reliable in the harshest environment in this planet – the depth of the oceans.
There are cheaper alternatives to the well known brands, but those usually compromise on usability, reliability and ergonomics. While that may be a calculated risk for older, less expensive cameras and lenses, most people prefer to go for a trustworthy brand to make sure their expensive camera bodies and lenses are safe and dry.
Enter the high-end compacts!
I have been shooting with a DSLR above water for almost 15 years now. Believe me that the last thing I wanted to do was downgrade myself to shooting with a “compact”! However, one must understand that underwater photography is a different world, and subject to different rules. There are many other variables that are added to all the existing ones of photography. Compact size and ease of use make a huge difference underwater, and most of us start out as much better photographers than we are divers.
Here’s a short list of advantages of getting an underwater compact:
Advantages of Using a Compact Camera for Underwater Photography
As noted above, housing your DSLR will usually cost you at least $2000, accommodating only one lens, and without taking into account strobes, more lens options, underwater video lights and other accessories. A full underwater set for a DSLR ranges between $5000 to $8000 easy. Not including the camera body and lenses!
On the other hand, a good high-end compact bundle – camera + housing, can start from $600 for the more basic ones to $1400 for the best ones. Leaving you more than enough budget for lighting and wet lenses.
DSLR’s are exactly the right size to use topside, engineered over dozens of years to fit the average human hand perfectly and allow maximum control and portability. Now add a thick waterproof layer of Polycarbonate or Aluminum on top of that, and you get a 1.5 – 2 times larger monster, weighing 15-25 pounds and hogging up all your carry-on and sometimes even more. Traveling and handling a DSLR housing is not an easy task and not fit for everyone. Remember that unless you’re a free diver, you will have to add a BCD, reg, tank and fins to all that mess!
A housing for a high-end compact usually comes in a very comfortable size, comparable to that of a DSLR without a housing and much more manageable to use and carry around.
One of the greatest limitations of compact cameras is their fixed lens. Underwater, this limitation is actually a blessing! An entire market of add-on lenses, AKA wet lenses has been developed over the years, providing excellent high quality options for going wider, or improving macro abilities for underwater compacts. The fact that these are wet lenses, allows the photographer to remove and replace lenses underwater, making it possible to shoot a fisheye view of a Whale Shark and an extreme closeup of a Nudibranch on the same dive! With DSLR’s, you would usually need to decide on a lens before hand, and match it with the correct port (dome or flat) prior to entering the water, which means you are basically stuck with it for the whole dive. Nothing is more frustrating than watching a huge Manta Ray pass by when all you have is your 100mm macro lens attached…
Actually, one thing can be more frustrating – discovering 80ft down that your lens is on MF and not being able to switch back (Been there done that).
Technology is advancing quickly, and this may not be an advantage towards compacts in the near future, but for now it is still safe to include here.
Video capabilities on high-end compacts are absolutely fantastic! With bigger sensors and better focusing technology, results from these cameras are superb, allowing photographers to produce excellent videos even on automatic settings without putting too much effort into it. DSLR video is fairly new, thus slightly behind on technology, especially when dealing with autofocus, but they are gaining on fast and video capabilities are better with every new model coming out.
Maximum Flash Sync Speed
Here’s another important advantage of using a compact underwater – it has an electronic shutter so it’s capable of shooting with a flash at very high speeds.
What does that mean? (this is a bit confusing and technical. Bear with me, or skip this and take my word for it that it’s good thing 🙂 )
A mechanical shutter in a camera usually consists of two curtains. Rear curtain and front curtain. When you shoot, the first curtain opens from the top down, revealing the sensor and starting the exposure, then the 2nd curtain closes from the top down, to end the exposure. This happens very fast (often as fast as 1/8000s – i.e shutter speed). If the chosen shutter speed is faster than 1/200s (more or less, depends on the model), then the 2nd curtain starts closing before the first curtain has even reached the bottom, so at any given point the entire sensor isn’t exposed. This means that if you’re shooting a flash, which is much faster than any shutter speed, you won’t light up the entire frame, but only a stripe of light in the middle of the frame.
In order to use a flash, you have to use a shutter speed that reveals the entire sensor momentarily – slower than 1/200 (i.e Maximum Flash Sync Speed). This limits you very much in bright daylight when you want to get rid of ambient light.
With compacts, this isn’t an issue! You can use any shutter speed you want, up to the camera’s own limit, which can be 1/2000s or even more.
This advantage allows you full control over your background, as well as enables you to use weaker strobes, which saves you money in the long run.
That being said…
Do not think that shooting with a DSLR underwater is obsolete. There are many advantages still to DSLR’s, starting from better image quality, low light capabilities, faster focusing, better battery life, sharper lenses, better dynamic range and many more factors which are important. However, using a DSLR underwater is something that is more natural to advance to, after gaining experience both in diving and with underwater photography. When starting out, a high-end compact system might be a wiser choice. Keep your DSLR dry and opt for a second camera! It’s not that much of a hassle when they’re so small and affordable!
What about Mirrorless?
Mirrorless systems have become the golden standard among underwater photographers, being an excellent compromise between choosing a DSLR or a compact.
Generally, they are more similar to DSLR’s in most ways, following many of the same pros and cons listed above.
However, these systems are relatively cheaper than DSLR’s (by about %20-%40) and they are more compact in size, somewhere between a DSLR and a compact. As mirrorless systems are gaining more popularity, more housings are being offered and options are increasing every year. For those of you who can’t decide between compacts and DSLR’s, perhaps a mirrorless system is the right choice for you.
For topside DSLR users, the biggest dilemma would be whether to keep their DSLR in addition to the mirrorless, or switch to the mirrorless altogether. This is a hard and personal decision that is the subject of a completely different blog post.
In recent years, more and more mirrorless cameras have been released, especially full frame mirrorless, which until 2019 was dominated by Sony, but now that Canon, Nikon, Fuji and Panasonic joined the game, all bets are off! Plenty of amazing cameras have joined the race, prices are going down, quality is going up, and before you know it we’ll all be shooting with full frame mirrorless cameras!
What are the most popular options?
UPDATED September 2020
Canon G9X II + Fantasea Bundle
US$829.95 – Get it here
The Canon G9X Mark II is an excellent, affordable camera, with a high quality 1″ sensor and superb image quality. Accompanied with the excellent value Fantasea housing, this is a sure bet and great bundle to start from! Adding accessories is easy – Fantasea have a wide array of wet lenses, trays and arms, filters and lights available for this housing. We’ll be happy to configure a full system for you which will include everything you need to start taking awesome photos without breaking the bank.
Sony RX100 VA + Fantasea Bundle
US$1,249.95 – Get it here
The RX100 series is well known for underwater photography, delivering top quality in a tiny compact size, with a huge sensor and exquisite video capabilities (4K + slow motion!). Fantasea have created an affordable housing for this successful camera as well, followed by an assortment of accessories allowing wide angle, macro and many options.
Canon G7X II + Fantasea Bundle
US$1099.95 US$760 – Get it here
Even though the Canon G7X Mark III has already been released, many still prefer the Mark II. Especially at its new and enticing price point!
Many has been said about this excellent camera, released originally by Canon as a direct competitor for the RX100 III. It still remains one of the top choices among underwater compacts. One thing is for sure – you can’t go wrong with this one!
Olympus TG-6 Bundle
US$679 – Get it here
One of the most exciting and popular bundles available! The Olympus Tough TG-6 is a spectacular piece of engineering, including a surprising amount of fun features and capabilities. This bundle includes the PT-059 housing allowing you to dive up to 45m with this excellent camera. Just like its predecessor, the TG-5, RAW Format is supported!
Furthermore, this edition includes a much-desired option to control the shutter speed with flash, to a certain extent. When setting to Auto-ISO, you can set a minimum shutter speed of up to 1/500s. This is priceless for darkening the background in your shots!
This PT-059 Olympus housing will allow you to take your TG-6 deeper to 45m / 148 feet, while still maintaining full control over your camera.
For more options, read our ultimate guide for the Best Underwater Cameras in 2020.
I know that you are a photographer, and I know that you have been shooting with DSLR’s forever, but when starting out with underwater photography, know that there are other options out there, which are much more affordable. If you really are as good a photographer as you say you are, then you know that it’s not the camera, but the person behind it! Award winning photos with compacts are entirely possible! Just like anything else, it’s all about knowing your tools and getting plenty of practice.
Please share this post to make sure people like you aren’t discouraged by DSLR housing prices and might be passing out on some fantastic future imagery!
Dive Safe and Mind Your Fins!