Getting your first underwater DSLR / Mirrorless
Today there are a lot of options available for shooting underwater. Many prefer shooting with a GoPro or Waterproof all-around cameras which are terrific and great fun! But lets face it – when it comes to professional photography, high end optics and good low light capability are a must such that can only be found in interchangeable lens cameras – DSLR’s or mirrorless cameras.
It is clear why many choose a compact system. It’s cheaper, much easier to carry around, and most of us don’t dive in our backyards… It produces good quality photos and video. It’s much easier to handle and operate BUT eventually, when you progress with underwater photography and get past the initial enthusiasm of “Look at me! I’m taking pictures underwater!”, you realize that your gear is limiting you and in order to get the shots you really want, you need a DSLR.
The first thing that I want to emphasize, is that getting a dSLR or mirrorless camera does not guarantee good photos! It really is the photographer that makes the shot. You need to be highly familiar with your dSLR above water to actually be able to control it well underwater. Remember that underwater is probably the most challenging environment for photography and there is no room for error.
Important to note that mirrorless cameras are rapidly taking the place of dSLRs, becoming extremely popular among underwater photographers as they entail many of the advantages while being more travel friendly. As such, this article also applies to mirrorless as well, but I may occasionally be using the term dSLR for the sake of simplicity.
Note: This article was updated in 2020 to reflect the changes in the market and the shift towards mirrorless cameras.
That being said, let’s get down to business:
Where to start?
Assuming you followed the path I mentioned above, you should already have a dSLR or mirrorless body and lens(es). This should be a good starting point. If however, you decided to jump straight to getting the whole system, camera and underwater equipment included, Canon & Nikon would be a good bet for dSLR’s. Other manufacturers are rarely supported. Canon & Nikon are the most popular and have a wide variety of housings, lenses, ports and accessories.
With mirrorless it’s a different story – most cameras are indeed supported, including those by Olympus, Sony, Panasonic, Fuji, Nikon and Canon. This is another advantage towards mirrorless for underwater!
As you have probably already found out, dSLR housings aren’t cheap. They will, in most cases, out-price your camera body and lenses all together. This should lead your decision making -if you already are investing in a housing, don’t get one for an older camera. If you already have a dSLR, consider selling it and getting a newer body, so that you extend the life of your entire setup. If you are getting your first dSLR, get a new model within your price range.
Once you decide on a camera body, the next step would be lenses. Not all lenses are good for underwater. Usually many dSLR photographers above water prefer traveling with zoom lenses such as the 18-200, 18-105 etc. These lenses are just too long to be useful for underwater (Due to the limiting lens port). UW photographers prefer prime lenses (fixed zoom), or Ultra-Wide zoom lenses such as the Tokina 10-17mm. Read our guide on Choosing the Best Lens for dSLR Underwater to help you decide.
If you’re going for a mirrorless camera, read our Ultimate Lens Guide for Mirrorless Cameras Underwater.
It is not recommended to “force” your top-side lenses underwater because you won’t be pleased with the results.
Choosing a housing
Here are some good news! Most dSLR and mirrorless housings available from known manufacturers are excellent. These housings are built to fit like a glove to your camera and most have access to all the functions, command dials and buttons on the camera. They are built from strong durable materials and are top quality.
The leading options available are: Nauticam, Aquatica, Sea & Sea and Ikelite. Our most recent addition are the NiMAR housings, which provide a more affordable solution without compromising on quality. Nimar also offers Water Sports / Surf housings which are great for shallow water and surfing.
Fantasea produce housings for mirrorless cameras a well as compacts and their Sony A6XXX series is very popular.
The first 3 are made of high-grade Aluminum, while the Ikelite, NiMAR and Fantasea housings are made of Polycarbonate.
The Aluminum housings are considered more durable, and usually pack more features and excellent ergonomics, while the polycarbonate are lower in price, provide good value and support the most lenses.
Another option, is the Nimar PRO housings which are made out of Delrin. Delrin is a very rugged material, which bridges the gap between plastic and metal.
When choosing between these, first consider your budget, then check compatibility with your lenses, warranty and service available depending on your location and read some reviews on forums by actual photographers using them.
Adding Lens Ports
The housing itself is not enough for dipping your camera into the water. You also need a lens port, which is the additional tube on the front that covers your lens and completes the housing. Usually for macro lenses you will use a flat port and for wide angle you will use a dome port. Some ports are made of glass and some of acrylic. Glass is considered better optically and costs more, but acrylic is easier for fixing scratches and weighs less.
Usually manufacturers will have several types of ports, and many types of extensions to fit various lenses. An extension ring is a basic aluminum ring that extends the port further from the housing. The extension + port combination is pretty much unique for every lens supported, so each additional lens will require getting more parts, either another extension or a new port altogether. This is because every lens has different length, and its own “sweet spot” relative to the port itself to maintain optimal quality, sharpness and focus.
To figure out which combination is right for your chosen lenses, you need to use each manufacturers updated compatibility chart, and search for your lens.
These are a few compatibility charts for example:
Some are easier to look at than others, but in any case of confusion, we are here to help! Just Contact Us and we will figure out the right combination for you.
There might be several combinations for a single lens such as flat / dome port, or different size of dome. Generally speaking, dome port is for wide and flat is for macro. The wider the dome, the better sharpness on the corners and easier over & under shots.
With the evolution of mirrorless cameras and more high end optics for DSLR cameras, the UW photographer can now choose between using native camera lenses under a compatible port or using one lens with a threaded flat port and switching between several wet lenses. We’ve written an entire article helping you determine which option is the best for you!
Read our comparison between native lenses vs. wet lenses.
Arm System and Mounting Options
There are two major options for mounting lighting underwater – flex arms and ball-joint arms. The first is quite common with compacts and the latter being much more popular for dSLR’s and Mirrorless.
Ball-Joint arms come in many sizes and types depending on the manufacturer, but they are all essentially the same – strong, light-weight, metal rods with 1″ balls on their ends. They are connected together using clamps that twist to fasten the grip. This method allows easy positioning underwater and as long as you have 2 arm sections, your strobe / video light can be placed almost anywhere you want it. Keep in mind that for macro shots you will want your strobes close and for wide angle you will want them far away to prevent backscatter and to achieve flattering lighting.
Housing are designed to have more or less neutral buoyancy, but once you add your lighting, you will probably start getting negative buoyancy. To help fix that, you can use Buoyancy arms instead of regular ones, or compensating float foams, which will help get it back to neutral.
Most housings include a top-mount or cold-shoe (similar to hot-shoe but no electronics) that can be used as an additional mounting point. Common accessories mounted on the the top-mount are focus lights or action cameras such as GoPro, to provide footage of the dive while taking still photos.
Strobes and Video Lights
It’s safe to assume that if you decided on getting a dSLR, you probably want some decent lighting options. Otherwise you won’t be using the full potential of your system. The importance of a strobe underwater cannot be stressed enough – strobes are the reason that awesome underwater photos are awesome! You can read more about strobes here.
The first thing you need to check is how you plan to sync your strobe. There are 2 options – either optical sync or using pin cords and a bulkhead on your housing.
Keep in mind that some combinations might sync on manual mode only and some can achieve TTL sync (that means your strobe will put out just the right amount of light for your subject, read more about it here).
Usually when getting an Ikelite housing you would also want to get Ikelite strobes because they use their own TTL system that isn’t compatible with other manufacturers.
Ikelite DSLR housings usually cannot be optically triggered because they are designed so that the pop-up flash can’t be popped up. This is done to further reduce the size of the housing.
Important to note that Ikelite mirrorless housings usually do support fiber optics.
This is where Nimar housings shine – they all include 2 fiber optic ports for triggering strobes via fiber optic cables, allowing you to use the YS-01, Inon S-2000 and other optically triggered strobes. Most of their housings also include LED triggers, so that you can trigger your strobes optically without using the slow-to-recycle pop-up flash.
Video lights are easier to choose since they don’t need to be synced in any way. Just attach them to your rig and point them forward. The more Lumens (Light units) the merrier. You can read more about video lights here.
Adapters & Accessories
Most DSLR systems are built to be versatile and adaptable to fit different accessories and add-ons.
There are quite a few relevant accessories: Focus lights, wet lenses, filters, lens holders, viewfinder, straps, handles and more.
Even if you got a flat port with a dedicated macro lens such as the 100mm or 60mm, you can further improve your magnification using a wet macro lens. Macro lenses such as the Kraken KRL-05s, the Nauticam Super Macro Converter or Inon UCL-165 are quite common and can be fitted directly or via special adapters, depending on your port. Note that you cannot attach filters or wet lenses to dome ports!
Viewfinders & Monitors
Live view mode in DSLR is a fairly new technology, and there are still many advantages for using the viewfinder and not the screen for framing your subject. Mainly faster AF and less shutter-lag. Even though many manufacturers have solutions for this built in their housings (such as optical magnifying glass), there is still a need for better access to the viewfinder underwater. External Viewfinders, attached on the back of the housing, provide a perfect 1:1 view of the actual viewfinder and make it much easier to frame and focus on your subject.
External HDMI monitors, such as the DP4, also provide a similar solution for video, and significantly improve your framing while shooting underwater footage.
You will notice that as your system grows, you will need very specific adapters, especially if you mix and match gear from various manufacturers. Adapters go by peculiar and random names so it’s not always easy to find them yourself. The best way to know which adapters you might need is to maintain a good relation with your supplier and trust them to remind you about parts that you might be missing. It’s incredibly annoying to receive your brand new strobe and not be able to attach it to you rig.
Some manufacturers such as Beneath the Surface or Inon specialize in adapters and usually have solutions for most mixed gear issues.
Secure your gear
Remember that after getting such a complex and pricey setup, you will want to secure it and make sure it stays in good condition. Neoprene Port Covers are highly recommended, so you don’t scratch your expensive ports.
You are now ready to construct your first DSLR setup. Remember that it’s very helpful to get advice from a professional and it will save you a great deal of headache. Chat with us (Little tab on the bottom right side of your screen) and we will gladly answer any question! All our agents are divers and photographers.
Read the FAQ below!
Why are DSLR housings so expensive?
Good question. The ocean is one of the most harsh environments in the world. Making a reliable case to protect valuable gear while keeping it ergonomic, user friendly, versatile and lightweight is not an easy task. It’s also a matter of supply and demand. Read more about it here. And here.
Thankfully, mirrorless housings smaller, hence they are more affordable.
Will the XX-XXmm lens and the YY-YYmm lens fit under the same port?
As we specified before, you will usually need a specific port / extension combination for each lens model. That being said, there are similar sized lenses which may fit under the same port combination, requiring only a different zoom gear or not even that. Some lenses might just require a different extension. Some lenses might be recommended under a specific port but work fine under a different port, even if it’s not ideal.
The best way to figure that out is by contacting one of our experts via the online chat. Yep it’s the one on the bottom right corner of your screen!
Can I shoot with a macro lens under a dome port?
Usually, yes. It might not be ideal, but if it fits, it should work. Read more about it here.
Do I really need the Vacuum System?
All manufactures are now offering a vacuum detection system for their housings.
As you probably know, leaks are just about the worst thing that can happen to an underwater photographer. Until the release of the vacuum system, there was no way to guarantee that your system would never flood.
While nothing can give you true 100% guarantee, the vacuum detection system is the most reliable method of preventing floods on your underwater camera housing. The method is simple – create a vacuum inside the housing by pumping the air out. If that vacuum holds for 15-20 minutes above water, your gear is sealed and safe! Any loss of vacuum will be detected and an alarm will sound (and flash), giving you more than enough time to react, end the dive and save your precious gear.
Bottom line – Get it! You won’t regret it.
For more camera options, read our ultimate guide for the Best Underwater Cameras in 2020.
Do you have any more questions? Ask us in the comments and we will update the FAQ accordingly!