Earlier this summer, I shot a wedding in the Abacos, Bahamas, and wanted to use my free time there to experiment with underwater photography. My husband has a Panasonic point-and-shoot camera that we have used on past trips for underwater fun, but the perfectionist in me wondered if the pictures would be dramatically better with a professional DSLR.
Ultimately, no they weren’t, although that has more to do with my own underwater learning curve than shortcomings of the equipment. But through the experimental process and talking to people with more underwater experience, I’ve learned enough to look forward to trying it again.
I’m glad I used the DSLR, but ultimately, if you are a casual photographer, I think a high quality underwater point-and-shoot can be enough to capture your tropical vacation memories. However, if you do want to try an underwater housing, I suggest renting before you buy. They are fun to play with but do take some getting used to.
Here are some pros and cons I gathered for each option:
Pros of Using an Underwater SLR housing
- More control with your settings, just like above water
- Better automatic settings, if you do need to rely on them
- More post processing power afterwards if you shoot in RAW
- Overall, higher quality images
So although the images can potentially be better with an SLR, are they so much better that they warrant the extra equipment, travel weight, expense and required learning curve (plus, the inherent risk, however carefully monitored, of using expensive electronics underwater)?
Cons of Using an Underwater SLR Housing
- They are heavy, which makes swimming difficult. You will need fins to support yourself underwater.
- Even though you have more control, the knobs can be hard to use when there’s a lot to focus on (swimming, holding heavy gear, looking through a mask, fish that you’re trying to capture moving quickly away from you)
- Possibility and worry of a leak. Check it in the bathtub first, without the camera inside, and then with the camera inside. Remember, check twice before diving in!
- Expense. For fast easy shooting, a point and shoot is affordable and worry free.
- To take truly stunning underwater photos that will positively outshine a point-and-shoot, you need a strobe light unless you’re doing anything but snorkeling in shallow water on a sunny day.
After considering the pros and cons of each option, if you decide to use a DSLR with an underwater housing, set your camera to manual or aperture priority with auto ISO turned on. That should help ensure your images are not too blurry or dark! And wear a properly fitted mask so that you can easily see your viewfinder.
And remember that you don’t even have to get all the way “underwater” to enjoy taking pictures with your housing. It’s also fun shooting “near the water,” with the peace of mind knowing your valuable gear is protected.
Hunter McRae’s photography career has taken her around the world, with projects from China to South Africa. Now a full-time wedding photographer in Charleston, S.C., Hunter frequently shares tips and insight in articles and photo posts for BorrowLenses.com.