Please explain underwater photography to me and recommendations?
April 16, 2018 7:08 AM   Subscribe

I will be going to the Canary Islands this summer and want to take photos of underwater fauna and flora. I will definitely be swimming and snorkeling, there is a slight but not impossible chance of scuba diving but if so very beginner level so presumably not too deep. I have never owned an underwater camera and I have no idea what I need. I am an artist (not a photographer, though) and like good quality images but also I am an artist and therefore money is a factor.

I don't even really understand the basics of underwater photography - can I still zoom at all or at a reasonable price point? The articles I've read so far don't mention it, so perhaps not? Is it really just point-and-shoot? Photography is not my discipline and I don't need or want to mess around with a ton of camera, so that's fine if it's true. I do want to take decent images I can turn into paintings/sculptures, though.

If the camera has the capacity, I might take video, but really what I want is nice, clear, big photos. I care nothing at all about audio. Color accuracy would be good to have but is less important than the ability to take a large, crisp image. My normal camera is a Sony RX-100 II, which I love, if that gives you a sense of who I am as a camera person. But I don't want to spend that much on an underwater camera as I'll be using the underwater camera quite rarely...

Amazon's choice is a $50 camera, which is shockingly cheap to me - is that all I need, though? I mean, if I can get away with paying so little and still get what I want I'm all for it. I would be willing to pay up to $150-$200 if it would really improve my imagery.

Also do you have any additional, separate equipment recommendations? I saw someone in a review for a camera mention a float attachment, which sounds potentially wise?

I have very little experience snorkeling and no experience thus far with scuba diving. I have probably an average amount of swimming experience for your typical landlocked, pool-going, occasional-beach-visiting citizen. So I'm not going to be practiced at managing both my body and the camera simultaneously underwater if that's relevant.

Finally, I do have a Moto X4 phone, but it seems risky to me to use that particularly if I want to be out in the water for a length of time.
posted by vegartanipla to Technology (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
When I went to Australia, I was able to borrow a GoPro Hero 4 with an underwater case. I really only used it for still photography, not video, and the shots are pretty good.

I got a mount similar to this one and used it both when snorkeling/kayaking and when hiking. I do think a more purpose-built underwater float mount might have been better, but that was just a tiny part of my trip. It was handy to have it on my wrist but not have to hold it in my hand when hiking.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 7:15 AM on April 16, 2018

Underwater photography is a situation that you need to throw money at to get high quality results. Lighting, wide lenses, and housings are all very costly. GoPro cameras are probably your best bet. Shoot lots of photos. Practice in a pool before you leave if you can.
posted by Amity at 7:25 AM on April 16, 2018

The best budget underwater camera is the Olympus TG-5, which can be had for $400 on Amazon. I have one and I love it. I mainly use it for its excellent macro features, but it ticks all the major features for underwater photography as well: waterproof to 50', underwater color modes, and availability of underwater-suitable lens converters and lighting accessories. You can get dive cases for it that extend its depth rating but for snorkeling they're not necessary, it's good to go out of the box and will operate just the same as on land.

The image quality will not be as good as on your RX100 II due to the tiny sensor, but my main camera is an RX10 IV and I find the image quality perfectly acceptable as long as I work within the camera's limits. It also has excellent video quality and features for a camera of this class, and more manual control than is normal for a camera of its type although it does not offer full manual control. Overall I really like it.

If that price is too much for you, I'm seeing a few used TG-4s (which are pretty similar to the TG-5) on eBay that might be in your price range. $200 doesn't get you much camera. That $50 no-name action cam on Amazon (I assume we're seeing the same one) is probably…not the best, although I imagine it does actually work. You get what you pay for though; for one thing, it lacks a flash which is pretty important for underwater photography.

This is an area where the more you spend the better your results will be, but the jump from the TG-5 to a more significant underwater rig will definitely take you from three-figure to four-figure prices. In my opinion the TG-5 is the sweet spot for enthusiastic amateurs.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:27 AM on April 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

The best budget underwater camera is the Olympus TG-5, which can be had for $400 on Amazon.

I have the previous version (the imaginatively titled TG-4) and it's also pretty good. We use it for snorkeling, swimming and other places when I don't want to use my SLR.

It's got everything you'd expect from a point and shoot.
posted by mr_silver at 7:46 AM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I just did the same thing for a recent vacation!

I can't say that what I bought is the ne plus ultra of underwater cameras or anything, but I have been generally pleased with the results (in shallow, clear water) from my Nikon AW130. It's a point-and-shoot, with a reasonable bit of zoom but no protruding lens. It is supposedly water resistant to 100 ft (momentarily) without any additional enclosure and then there's an optional enclosure if you want to dive to that depth. From reading some forums it's not really rated for continuous submersion at 100 ft, but is fine for shallow snorkeling (which I can verify).

The only things I don't like about it are: (1) that the control buttons are more limited than on non-underwater Nikon P&S cameras, but that's sorta reasonable given that each button is a potential water-entry point, and (2) that it doesn't have as many manual-shooting modes; in particular it's very hard to get it not to try and shoot at f/2.8 in every mode, all the damn time.

The other one to consider is the Canon PowerShot UW D30, but since we have other Nikon P&S cameras we didn't go that route.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:05 AM on April 16, 2018

We've snorkeled with both the waterproof bag things and actual point and shoot digital cameras, and while the bag things work OK, the Panasonic Lumix TS-20 was really a much better tool even though the camera in a bag was a better camera.
posted by advicepig at 10:06 AM on April 16, 2018

I would caution you against trying to bring a camera scuba diving unless the diving part is already second nature. There's a reason why "Underwater Imaging" is a whole PADI specialty; basically you end up paying so much attention to the camera that your diving goes to crap. You have to monitor your air, depth, and buouancy, navigate, and do everything else you'd have to on a normal dive, while dealing with locating your subject, framing, camera settings, light, and all the things you'd do when taking pictures. It's severe task loading. Plus the whole point of scuba diving is getting below where you could go while skin diving / snorkeling, so you have to bring a light with you, and that means a rig, etc., etc. It's true that scuba can produce some breathtaking images, but it's really hard and really expensive.

That said, I've enjoyed taking pictures with the DMC-TS25D, which is $125. It doesn't have very high resolution, but the images are good. It will, eventually, give up the ghost, even if you keep it well above its claimed 25 ft depth. You have to check that the seal is free of sand, and preferably lubricated, every time you open it. It doesn't shoot RAW, which would be what I'd look for if I were going to spend more than that. Whatever you choose, absolutely try it out in the water before you go.
posted by wnissen at 10:20 AM on April 16, 2018

Oh hey, you're getting a lot of camera recommendations but not a lot of info about what you actually need in a camera. Generally speaking this is what you want for underwater work:
  • Strong artificial lighting, because natural light drops off really fast underwater
  • A wide, fast lens to help gather that light and keep things in frame when everything is floating around
  • The ability to shoot in RAW or an "underwater mode" for JPEG because otherwise things are gonna have a very strong blue cast
The reason I like the TG-5 (and 4) is that it has all of those things, and most cameras in that general price range just don't. It has RAW capability, an f/2.0 lens, an underwater color mode for JPEG, and can accept things like flash diffusers, outboard lights, and fisheye lens adapters.

Most compact cameras and especially waterproof ones don't have those features. When Olympus set out to design the TG series they intentionally made it to be suitable for enthusiast underwater photography, and went a few steps beyond what your average rugged compact offers. It also has good image quality for a rugged compact, thanks to its lower megapixel count which allows for better (although still not great, this is still a 1/2.3" sensor) low-light performance at little cost in terms of real detail (since the lenses on rugged compacts never really resolve a full 16MP worth of image data anyway).

It also has a number of other neat features (I love its in-camera focus stacking, its super-close focusing distance, and available ring lights for macros) but that's not really relevant to underwater photography. It has "pro-capture" mode as well, where you can get it to hold a buffer of images and then save them starting from a second before you press the shutter, which is fantastic for action. I just mention this stuff to explain why I think it's a good value overall; it's a really good little rugged camera for the size and price, not just for underwater photography.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:11 AM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

GoPros are impressive tools if you ever find yourself wanting video for other purposes. The upshot for underwater photography is that with a large enough memory card, you can make it pretty idiot proof - just tell it to shoot either 1 frame every second or every few seconds, and then scroll through at the end of your trip and take the frames you want and dump the rest. That lets you focus more on the experience and less on the photography, compared to consciously taking individual images.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:35 AM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Wire has recommendations and a good explanation of features for underwater cameras at various price points.
posted by j810c at 4:21 PM on April 16, 2018

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