DSLR Underwater Camera Housing Options for Portrait Photography and Video

Jul 23, 2016

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand. To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube. JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

DSLR Underwater Camera Housing Options for Portrait Photography and Video

Jul 23, 2016

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand. To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube. JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

Join the Discussion

Share on:

DSLR Underwater camera housing options for portrait photography and video

It’s mid-summer and I have been doing a lot of underwater portrait photography lately…which has started me thinking that it might finally be time to upgrade my current DSLR underwater camera housing.

I have been working with an inexpensive EWA Marine underwater DSLR camera housing for years (read my review here) – I love the simplicity of this housing, but I feel like I have reached a point where the limitations of the flat port are impacting the types of underwater photos that I can capture.

In this article, I will discuss a few of the options for DSLR users to take their camera underwater.

Underwater Portrait Photography versus Dive Photography

Before we get started, I think that it is important to note that in this article, I am talking about underwater portrait photography – not dive photography.

By portrait photography, I mean photos of people in and around the water, usually at relatively shallow depths, while dive photography is more sea life, wrecks, underwater landscapes and photos of other neoprene clad divers.

DSLR Underwater photography camera housing options

DSLR Underwater photography camera housing options

Most of my underwater portrait photography is ambient light, although I do use a set of home made DIY underwater strobe housings – but the setup is much different than the typical underwater dive strobe setup where the strobes are within arms length of the camera.

I do dive and I do take photos when I am diving so it would be nice to be able to find an underwater camera housing that would serve both purposes, but underwater portrait photography is my main consideration when evaluating DSLR underwater camera housing options.

Domed Port versus Flat Port

The single biggest limitation of a flat port underwater camera housing is the magnification that is introduced due to the optics of the angle of refraction of light as it travels through water and air. To put it simply, with a flat port everything looks 33% larger underwater.

While this might not sound like a big deal – it is a huge limitation when you consider the way light is absorbed by water. Reds are adsorbed first, followed by orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. This means that to get good color rendition underwater you need to be as close to your subject as possible – even a few feet makes a big difference.

Using wide angle lenses helps – but using a domed port gets you 33% closer.

In practical terms, it’s also a lot easier to see what you’re photographing when you are close. Every single time I begin an underwater shoot, I end up starting too close to my subject. We’re used to seeing a scene on land and that 33% magnification really throws you off when you’re gauging the composition of a scene.

Flat ports also introduce a significant amount of chromatic aberration and pincushion distortion. These imperfections can be managed in post, but a domed port largely eliminates them at capture.

You can clearly see the severe pincushion distortion in the following photo, and how it looks after a manual correction in Lightroom:

Underwater photography flat port versus domed port distortionGirl (9) swimming in outdoor pool at all inclusive luxury resort in Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba.

Finally, if you want to get as close as possible by using a fisheye lens, or an ultra wide lens with a convex front element, or if you want to capture over/under photos where the underwater portion is not magnified – you have to use a domed port.

If you’re not sure – the following photo illustrates the extreme differences in magnification due to a flat port housing, and the difference in color as light travels through just a few feet of water:

flat port versus domed port for underwater photography

Underwater DSLR Lenses

For the purpose of this article, I am looking at options for an affordable DSLR underwater camera housing for a Nikon D800 that can be used with a selection of lenses.

Dive photographers have a set of preferred lenses that work well for dive photography (and most are for cropped format cameras), but for my purposes, I am primarily interested in using the full format lenses that I already own for my regular day to day photography.

The Nikon 20mm f/1.8 is my favorite lens for underwater photography – it has a flat front element so it can be used with a standard screw on filter (and a flat port), it’s very sharp and wide enough for most underwater work.

I also occasionally use a Sigma ART 35mm f/1.4 underwater – for images where I don’t want a lot of wide angle distortion, changing to a 35mm makes a big difference, with the trade-off of having to be much further away.

I am also planning on using a Nikon 14mm f/2.8 or a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and a Nikon 16mm fisheye with with whatever housing I choose.

DSLR Underwater photography camera housing options


EWA Marine Underwater Camera Housing

I have been using an EWA Marine U-BXP 100 underwater DSLR camera housing for my underwater and in-water photography for years. It’s never leaked – not once (and I’m not particularly careful with it) and its small and lightweight for travel.

EWA Marine Underwater Camera Housing

Controls

Technically you can access all of your camera’s controls while using an EWA Marine housing. In practice, it’s nearly impossible to do anything besides turn the camera on and off and press the shutter release – although with patience you can use the jog dials to change the white balance, ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

Depth

Rated to 150′

Ports

Built in optical glass flat port.

Lens Compatibility

Compatible with the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 and Sigma ART 35mm. Not compatible with any lens with a convex front element.

Cost

$399 from B&H – no ports or extensions are required.

Rating

Cost effective and gets the job done. In my opinion, the best soft shell underwater housing on the market (Outex is another good option). Not compatible with fisheye or ultra wide angle lenses like the Nikon 14mm f/2.8 and Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. No option for a domed port.


Starbea / Meikon / Polaroid Underwater Camera Housing

Meikon is a Hong Kong based manufacturer of aftermarket polycarbonate (plastic) hard shell underwater camera housings. There isn’t a lot of information available out there, but what I could find was mostly positive.

As far as internet photos go, their D800 underwater housing looks well made.Starbea Meikon Underwater Camera Housing for Nikon D800

Controls

Most camera controls are accessible through the housing. No zoom or manual focus currently available.

Depth

Rated to 195′ (60m).

Ports

Built in acrylic flat port. Meikon states that the port is interchangeable, but as of right now only a 105mm lens port is available.

Lens Compatibility

Unknown – without the lens port matched to a specific lens, its hard to say which lenses would be compatible (to avoid vignetting it is critical to match the length of the port to the length of specific lenses). Not compatible with any lens with a convex front element.

Cost

$657 from Amazon – no current options for port or extension options.

Rating

Very cost effective for a hard shell camera housing. Unknown quality and reliability. Unknown lens compatibility. Not compatible with fisheye or ultra wide angle lenses like the Nikon 14mm f/2.8 and Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. No option for a domed port.


AquaTech Surf Housing

Surf housings are designed to be used in and underwater, but near the surface only.

90% of the underwater photos that I take are within a few feet of the surface. I rarely go deeper than 10 feet (3m) and only occasionally to 30 feet (10m) so a surf housing would meet most of my requirements.

AquaTech recently released the Base series of entry level sport housings which offer a relatively affordable way to get your camera underwater, compared to the expense of hard shell dive housings.

AquaTech Surf Housing Review

Controls

Shutter release and focus control only. Zoom is available with lens specific ports.

Depth

Rated to 33′ (10m).

Ports

Ships with an acrylic flat port. Optional 8″ acrylic dome port and various lens specific flat ports.

Lens Compatibility

Ports are available for compatibility with most lenses. With the 8″ dome port the Nikon 20mm f/1.8, Sigma ART 35mm f/1.4, Nikon 14mm f/2.8, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and Nikon 16mm fisheye are all compatible.

Cost

$995 from B&H – includes P65 acrylic flat lens port.

$495 from B&H – 8″ acrylic dome port.

$195 from B&H – Port extension for use with Nikon 20mm f/1.8 and Nikon 14mm f/2.8

$195 from B&H – P-100 acrylic flat port for use with Sigma ART 35mm.

(AquaTech has a dedicated 8″ domed port for used with the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 – $450 from B&H)

Total cost for all components: $1880

Rating

Cost effective for a hard shell camera housing. Domed port, compatible with most lenses including lenses with a convex front element (with the purchase of additional extensions). No in-water camera control. Limited to a depth of 33 feet or less – and five minutes or less below 15 feet.

Note: AquaTech also offers a pro version of this housing that offers underwater control of image review and the camera’s menu system to change settings (but not many of the physical buttons or jog dials). $1885 from B&H for a total cost of all components of $2770.


Ikelite Dive Housing

Ikelite offers the lowest cost hard shell dive housings on the market. Ikelite’s underwater housing for the Nikon D800 is clear polycarbonate and offers access to almost all camera controls underwater.

Ikelite dive housing review

Controls

Almost all camera controls are available underwater – including direct control of ISO, aperture and shutter speed and white balance via the camera’s physical buttons and jog dials.

Depth

Rated to 200′ (60m).

Ports

Large selection of acrylic ports – domed up to 8″ in diameter and flat ports. High end aftermarket large diameter glass domed ports available.

Lens Compatibility

Ports are available for compatibility with most lenses. With the 8″ dome port the Nikon 20mm f/1.8, Sigma ART 35mm f/1.4 and Nikon 16mm fisheye are all compatible. Not compatible with large diameter lenses like the Nikon 14mm f/2.8 or Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8.

Cost

$1800 from B&H – Housing only.

$400 from B&H – 8″ acrylic dome port.

$150 from B&H – Port extension for use with Nikon 16mm fisheye

$120 from B&H – Port extension for use with Nikon 20mm f/1.8.

$175 from B&H – Port extension for use with Sigma ART 35mm f/1.4.

Total cost for all components: $2645

Rating

Most economical option for a hard shell dive rated camera housing. Domed port, but not compatible with lenses with a large barrel diameter like the Nikon 14mm f/2.8 or Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. Options for aftermarket large diameter glass domed port upgrade. Full access to camera controls underwater including direct physical control of critical exposure and white balance settings.

I also want to mention that there is an active second hand market for Ikelite housings and components – so you might be able to find used components if you are trying to match an older camera (like the D800) to a housing, and if you upgrade your DSLR, chances are you will be able to sell your housing used.

Professional Grade Dive Housings

Aquatica, Sea & Sea and Subal offer professional grade dive housings for DSLR cameras. These housings are milled aluminum, not plastic and offer a wide selection of professional level accessories. In this article I am going to look at an Aquatica housing.

Aquatica professional grade dive housing for nikonControls

Almost all camera controls are available underwater – including direct control of ISO, aperture and shutter speed and white balance via the camera’s physical buttons and jog dials.

Depth

Rated to 295′ (90m).

Ports

Large selection of acrylic ports – domed up to 8″ in diameter and flat ports. 9.5″ diameter glass domed port available.

Lens Compatibility

Ports are available for compatibility with most wide angle prime lenses and wide to medium zoom lenses. With the 8″ dome port the Nikon 20mm f/1.8, Nikon 14mm f/2.8, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and Nikon 16mm fisheye are all compatible. No prime lenses longer than 28mm are listed in the port compatibility charts.

Cost

$3530 from B&H – Housing only.

$546 from B&H – 8″ acrylic dome port.

$249 from B&H – Port extension for use with Nikon 20mm f/1.8, and Nikon 14mm f/2.8

Total cost for all components: $4325

Rating

A significant investment. Option for large diameter glass domed port upgrade. Full access to camera controls underwater including direct physical control of critical exposure and white balance settings.


Boy (8) jumping into Georgian Bay (freshwater lake) at cottage in summer from a water trampoline.Conclusion

Investing in a soft shell underwater camera housing (like EWA Marine ) is by far the most economical underwater camera housing option.

For most in water and underwater portrait scenarios these housings are more than adequate – although the lack of a domed port does have limitations.

Upgrading to a hard shell underwater camera housing is a big decision. Unlike soft shell housings, hard shell underwater camera housings are matched to a specific camera – which means that your camera will likely be obsolete long before your housing.

I always set the settings on my camera before putting it in the housing, so I don’t need to access very many controls while in the water.

However, conditions change very rapidly underwater – just a few feet in depth or a change in direction can require drastically different settings.

Being able to easily change ISO, aperture, shutter speed and set a custom white balance are key considerations. So is the ability to review and zoom in on images underwater – I often can’t tell if I have the shot or not until I zoom in to confirm focus and exposure.

What Underwater Camera Housing Would You Choose?

I think the AquaTech surf housings and the Ikelite dive housing stand out as the most economical options for an underwater camera housing if you really need a domed port.

For my purposes, a professional grade dive housing is overkill – I can’t justify the cost for a camera that will be obsolete in a few years.

Cost wise, the AquaTech Base system is the most economical option by a wide margin, with a total cost of around $1880 for the housing, domed port and a selection of port extensions. This would be a great step up from a flat port soft shell housing.

However, I know that over time I would be frustrated with the lack of camera controls available with the Base series housings – which leaves either an AquaTech Elite housing or an Ikelite housing.

The total cost for an AquaTech Elite system (around $2270) and and Ikelite system (around $2645) are roughly equivalent – so the decision really comes down to photography style.

Surf / sport housings are really designed for just that – fast paced, dynamic environments where you need to work quick and get the shot.

Dive housings are much more suited to a slower pace.

The Ikelite system is more capable – it is suitable for dive depths and has better access to more camera controls.

Because of this I decided that the Ikelite underwater camera housing would best suit my style of photography.

It took a bit of searching, but I was able to find a used Ikelite housing at Reef Photo & Video in Florida (highly recommended, great customer service) and a used 8″ dome port and port extensions from B&H – so in total I spent around $2000 to get a dive rated housing with full camera controls for roughly the price of the AquaTech Base system.

Boy (8) jumping into Georgian Bay (freshwater lake) at cottage in summer from a water trampoline.

What Do You Think?

What underwater camera housing would you choose? Why?

If you already have an underwater camera housing – what housing do you use?

Leave a comment below and let us know!

 

Filed Under:

Tagged With:

Find this interesting? Share it with your friends!

JP Danko

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand. To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube. JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

Join the Discussion

DIYP Comment Policy
Be nice, be on-topic, no personal information or flames.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 responses to “DSLR Underwater Camera Housing Options for Portrait Photography and Video”

  1. pincherio Avatar
    pincherio

    Go mirrorless. A full frame Sony a7 can be had for under a grand (used) and hard shell casings can be found for as low as $150, around $300 if you get one with a domed port. You still have some cash left over to get a bright, wide prime. And if the unthinkable happens and you do spring a leak, you still have your Canon gear for above-water use.

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      A good suggestion for a dedicated underwater only rig.