Shooting Underwater – My Gear

Underwater photography has always been a phenomenal source of inspiration for me. Growing up my father got me hooked on scuba diving. We would travel to Florida frequently and dive some of the wrecks and springs. I was elated when he purchased a housing for his little point and shoot! I commandeered it straight away and started shooting everything I could! Now that I’ve left the nest and started paying bills on my own I don’t get to dive as often as I like.. Growing up in Indiana does have its downfalls. I wouldn’t let this stop me though! I decided to rent an underwater housing for my DSLR one year and was absolutely hooked. The next summer I purchased one from Ikelite and started shooting in pools!

Even still I haven’t given myself much time to commit to learning the system and shooting with it as much as I should.. I’ve posted a portrait gallery and a sports gallery dedicated to some of my favorite shots thus far, I may be a little picky with what I am really happy with though.. This will all change though! Starting with this shoot my goal is to produce more with my underwater gear this year!

I am not proclaiming to be an expert by any means, I’m simply writing to anyone who is interested in my current system.

So what do I shoot with underwater? I’ve made a list of the primary pieces of gear with links to their respective sites at the bottom of this post. Between here and there we’ll discuss what I use and how I use it.

Camera & Housing

I shoot with a Nikon D300s. (pictured here with the vertical grip attachment, which I do not use underwater.) Why did I make this decision when I have a D3? The 300s has a cropped sensor, which zooms slightly on every lens you put on it. Why would I want this over a full frame, which is generally wider? (Very important underwater! The more you zoom underwater the worse the image looks. Simply due to the fact that there is more debris in the water vs in the air. Comparatively images shot underwater with a large zoom will not nearly be as sharp as those shot above water. Which is why most of the underwater shots you see are all wide angle.) The answer was simple for me, money. While I could purchase an underwater housing for the D3, several factors lead me to the housing I purchased for the D300s.

There are several companies that produce underwater housings for camera’s. Primarily I’ve noticed that 2 tend to lead the DSLR pack, Ikelite and Aquatech. I have had a lot of communication with each company, and each have phenomenal customer service.

I started with Aquatech. Based in California they offer most of their housings for rentals, and were happy to hook me up with a housing for my D3. The only disadvantage I found when I put the housing to use was the lack of control I had over specific camera features. I was forced to think about all my settings and dial them in before I sealed the camera in the housing. While I could change a few from the buttons on the housing I was extremely limited once underwater. Another drawback to Aquatech was the fact that they are only rated to 25-30 feet. Anyone who does any type of scuba diving knows this is not very deep.. because I have my license and would love to use my camera below 30 feet of water I had to rule out Aquatech as my brand.

This brought me to Ikelite. A huge advantage Ikelite had over Aquatech for me was the fact that one of their production sites is right here in Indianapolis! I called them up and they were more than happy to let me in and look over the housing before I even thought about making a purchase or sought out a venue to rent. Upon arrival to the warehouse I was hooked. Unfortunately they do not produce housings for the D3 though.. But it had everything I was looking for: 100% access to every button and dial on my camera from within the housing, and a rating of 200 ft. Another bonus was it was cheaper than the Aquatech housing for the D300s even though it has more access to camera features and is rated to dive deeper. Go figure.

Light

Years of scuba diving with my father taught me one extremely important lesson about photographing underwater. Light disappears crazy fast. There is a lot of science behind it, specifically Selective Absorption, wavelengths of light being absorbed at specific depths and what not, but I’ll skip that.. In a nutshell, in approximately ten feet of water all red disappears without artificial light. Orange follows at 20 ish, yellow around 30 ft and so on.. All of this to say, I’m going to need a flash. The only problem with this is they are pretty expensive. I just blew most of my savings on this housing. there is no way I can afford a dedicated underwater strobe. I do have several PocketWizards and a few speedlights. Problem: they aren’t waterproof.

Another problem, Ikelite doesn’t make anything to protect my speedlights and PocketWizards from the water. However, I did notice on Aquatech’s website they do! They offer both housings for Nikon’s SB900 and PocketWizard! But I just bought the Ikelite housing.. I’m screwed. While both Aquatech and Ikelite support flash connectivity through the housings the ports are different. Its like trying to plug a European appliance into an American outlet. Its not going to happen. Another disappointing discovery, the housing for Nikon’s SB900 cost just as much as the Ikelite strobe.. There is a slight chance I’ll get lucky with the PocketWizard housing though.

I pick up the phone and cross my fingers. I start with Ikelite, I let them know my situation. It looks bleak, they have no solution. Crap. Desperate I call up Aquatech. I fill them in with all the gory details, sorry I didn’t buy your housing but this is why.. I’d love to purchase your PocketWizard housing though! But it is the wrong connection. Bonus! They offer the most amazing solution! They ask me to purchase a strobe extension cord from Ikelite and mail it to them. For an undisclosed price they offered to rewire their PocketWizard housing using the Ikelite cable, so now it will attach to my Ikelite Camera Housing. BAM! We’re in business! Now I am able to place my speedlights at the pool surface and beam them down onto my subject. Check out the amazing rays of light in my underwater portrait gallery, all from massive amounts of light coming from the surface. This solution however does nothing for the loss of color under 10 feet though. But on the other hand, this solution will most likely not work out in the ocean.. Its purely a pool, portrait fix. But I have light now! My creative juices are flowing now. Since I can’t afford an underwater strobe I decide to manprovise and make my own.

I get my boogie on and head down to the local Wal-mart. I find these clear coffee canisters. Just the right size for my SB800! Coffee canisters are the best choice because they are designed to keep out air, why not keep out water as well!? I’m banking on the fact that the water pressure will keep the lid compressed. The rubber bands are to keep the latch from opening accidentally. Its not the prettiest piece of gear I own, but its a quick easy DIY $5 underwater strobe! I combine the PocketWizard solution with the feature virtually every speedlight offers, slave mode, and I’ve got my underwater strobes ready to shoot! One major disadvantage to my DIY solution is they are very buoyant, and pretty much require an assistant to hold them at just the right angle to hit my subject. I would still love to jump in and purchase dedicated underwater strobes, but financially it will be a little while.. Maybe if I lived on the coast and could scuba dive more.

Clients

Now that I’ve got my setup, I’m ready to shoot. I book as many shoots as possible, but quickly realize its very difficult to show a client the images we are producing. The housing is pretty heavy out of the water, it sinks when its in the water, and its kind of expensive so I’m a little hesitant to hand over the camera in the housing so they can see the images on the LCD. Taking the camera out of the housing is a chore, and would kill a lot of time if we would try to do this several times mid shoot. I need another solution. Enter Eye-Fi. Details in a nut shell, Eye-Fi cards produce a wireless signal that most laptops or portable devices can connect to. In doing so the card will wirelessly transmit images taken straight to the device! (More details on my Tethering to iPad blog post) Sweet! I’ve got my solution, but will it work underwater? My guess is probably not, wireless data of all kinds tend to transmit through water like trying to run through a concrete wall. If its an inch or less there is a chance, but its not going to be fun. I purchased the card anyway, I can use it out in the field with other shoots. I slapped it in my camera next time I had an underwater shoot and gave it a shot. I like to use Apples iPad with the app Shutter Snitch (Sorry Eye-Fi, its a little more reliable than your app, for now!). I decent a fire a few shots, literally holding my breath waiting to see if Eye-Fi will transfer through the few feet of water and the 2 inches of polycarbonate. It does not, I’m sad. Defeated I lift the camera out of the water and notice Shutter Snitch start to stir. It transfers once the camera breaks the surface of the water! Success! Now when I have a client who wants to see the images I take underwater I can hand them my iPad and wirelessly transfer the images I shoot straight to them eliminating the need to hand over my camera in its housing.

Conclusion

Now you have an idea what takes to shoot underwater portraits! How much fun it is! My goal is to document a few upcoming shoots I have scheduled and give you an on location look at what my light setup looks like as well as some video of the shoot in action. In the process I’ll hopefully produce some new images for my portfolio as well! Please comment with any questions you have about my process. Like I said, I’m no expert at underwater shooting, but this is what I do. It may not be the best, easiest or most reliable, but its all I got.

Keep Shooting!

Christopher Whonsetler

Gear:

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