Underwater Housings 

Selection, Protecting Your Investment & Basic Camera Settings

It seems that no matter what you do these days, there is a plethora of equipment available and underwater photographic equipment is no exception.  Rule Number One is try and keep your underwater rig simple with clean lines – remember you have to carry it underwater and lugging a huge box through a current can be very tiring. 

Housings - Which One For Me?

There are dozens of different underwater housings to suit cameras and they range from the very reasonably priced acrylic style housings made by Canon and Olympus, to the more expensive housings made by Ikelite, Subal, Nexus, SeaCam and others.   

I have never been impressed with the acrylic style housing s offered by Canon, Olympus and Ikelite.  In fact I call Ikelite housings lunch boxes and Canon and Olympus style housings bubbles.  Yes they are relatively inexpensive and for a person shooting underwater once a year are probably a good investment.  However, these type of housings are NOT an investment if doing a lot of underwater work .  Fogging can be an issue due to either temperature fluctuations between ambient and water, or from flash usage and camera operation heating up the air inside the shell, despite the use of silica gel packets and anti-fog spray.   

Lunch boxes and bubbles although relatively compact, are also very buoyant and scratched easily if roughly handled.  Furthermore, lunch boxes usually are depth rated to quite shallow depths.  Finally, lunch boxes and bubbles are not designed for longevity; you will discover that after a few years o-rings seals behind buttons will begin to fail, etc. 

Despite these short fallings the "bubble" is a good investment for the money "shelled" out and provides an ideal platform from which to learn digital underwater photography, before expanding to a dedicated DSLR camera and more advanced housing. 

Methodology To Selecting An Underwater Camera Housing    

I thought I would document the methodology and logic I used to determine which housing to purchase for my Canon camera. 

I was indecisive as to whether to purchase the Subal or Ikelite housing.    

First, I utilized a number of forums to solicit comments from other users and would be users of similar products. Wetpixel.com, Digitaldiver.net and scubaboard.com are three such forums that I recommend you have a look at. 

The factors I weighed up when purchasing my underwater housing were:    

  • Size and weight of housing
  • The type of diving I do (shallow, deep, wrecks, etc) 
  • Depth rating of housing (if you only snorkel you do not need a aluminum   housing - buy a "bubble" style housing)
  • Whether the housing was neutrally, positive or negatively buoyant underwater   Attachment fittings for attachment of strobe and base plate (not all housings will connect with all strobes) 
  • Robustness & ease of scratching
  • Ergonomics (large square housings are difficult to move about underwater)   Lens ports (glass versus plastic) – the later can cause chromatic aberrations when shooting towards the sun (star bursts)   
  • Glass lens ports versus plastic lens ports. Scratches in glass tend to disappear underwater whilst the opposite is true for Perspex lens ports 
  • Ability to add macro/wide angle lens to lens port 
  • The volume of air inside the housing (condensation problems?) 
  • Housing construction (aluminum, polycarbonate, plastic) and closure clips on the housing 
  • O-ring placement and sealing ability and reliability – is it protected or unprotected – easy to remove and service 
  • Housing visibility – what I mean here is whether you can see the camera in the housing or not.  I judged this as important as a dark housing will allow the LCD to be more brightly illuminated, in contrast to a clear housing which will allow light to enter the housing causing possible difficulties in viewing the LCD. Also, light entering the housing can cause extra reflected light to enter the lens. Furthermore, a clear housing will allow the air inside the housing to heat up more quickly which may cause condensation issues
  • Water entry alarm or sensor 
  • Construction and ease of operation of knobs and switches – when wearing gloves  Functionality of the camera in the housing 
  • LCD viewing through the housing. Is it framed, hooded, shaded or indented causing the LCD to be more easily viewed in strong sunlight 
  • Ease of repair in your country – not just the USA 
  • Whether the camera fits snugly in the housing and is easy to install 
  • Strobe connection. Either a Nikonos plug system and sync cord or an optically fitted cord (slave technology).  The former does not utilise camera battery power, the later does lowering the life of your camera battery. Furthermore, if your camera is pre flash, there is the risk of heating the air inside the housing as the pre flash fires to trigger the strobe.  Heating the air may cause condensation problems – and if it gets very warm your camera may go into auto shutdown mode (depends on camera type and model)  Your requirements and the type of diving you will be doing (shallow, deep, snorkeling, etc) 
  • Ability to use your camera whilst wearing diving gloves 
  • Life span of the camera before replacement
  • Chance of ordering problems such as wrong attachments, plugs etc.  Probably not an issue if you live in the USA, but for buyers in countries outside the USA, the wrong product sent can often cause innumerable and costly problems which consume considerable time, patience and frustration to rectify 
  • User, dealer and forum comments, and the consistency of information received     

You may note that aesthetics (what is looks like) and price did not come into the equation.  I went through this process, then looked at the price, and weighed up the pros and cons.    Please note that I am in no way recommending or condemning either Ikelite or Subal.  Both companies produce excellent housings, but cater towards different segments of the market.   

Some of the comments above may not seem important to you, and that’s fine.  The list was compiled to help me in my decision.  Ultimately, it is up to you, but I hope that some of these comments may assist to steer you in the right direction.   

What Equipment Do I Use Underwater   

I’ve used an assortment of DSLR bodies underwater, all with Subal housings (I’ve owned 3 Subal housings).  My current underwater rig is Canon 5-D MK2 DSLR in a Subal CD-5 2 aluminum housing. 

I have been more than happy with all the Subal housings.  

The lenses I use underwater are the Canon 100mm f2.8 USM macro, Sigma 50mm f2.8 DG macro and Canon 16-35 f2.8 L type 2 zoom.  To incorporate the 16-35mm zoom lens I use the Subal FE4 Type 4 8 inch dome port and EXR  port extension.  The strobes I use are two Inon Z-220-S strobes.  The strobes are fitted to the housing using an assortment of brackets and clamps produced by Ultra-Lite USA.  

The Inon strobes operate superbly, have excellent recycle times, are compact, light and very durable.  More importantly they are very easy to operate underwater even when wearing thick gloves. 

To aid in focusing or using my rig at night, I use a Inon LE250 5W 250 Lumen focus light, either attached to the strobe or the upper portion of the Subal housing.  The good thing about the Inon light is that it’s colour balanced to 6000 kelvin which is ideal for still or video photography. 

Evaluation Of Subal Housing 

There isn’t much I can say to counter against the quality of workmanship, ergonomics and functionality of Subal housings; I have owned 3 at various times and everyone has been constrcuted to exacating standards.  

The buttons are large enough to use whilst wearing gloves and the trigger button has been engineered in such a way that instead of a round button it is a flat lever which is exceptionally easy to press.    The additional wide angle viewfinder, although very expensive, is remarkable and definitely makes the job easier.   

If I was pushed to find a problem, it would be in the weight of the housing.  The housing with camera, lens and twin strobes is quite heavy - even underwater!  

To reduce wrist strain while underwater I have fitted foam braces to the Ultra-lite arms and around the lens port. This minimizes wrist strain and makes the unit easier to maneuver  when underwater.   

Protecting Your Investment    

All my camera equipment is stored securely in a Pelican waterproof carry case.  I purchased the case with the wheels and extendable arm which makes airport transfers a breeze (Peleican 1510).  Just extend the handle and wheel the case along behind you.  If you do not like the idea of the handle and wheels, they are very easily removed converting the case to a carry only style.  I either carry the case as hand luggage on the aircraft or check it in the hold.  The pelican case is very durable and offers the best all round protection for you camera equipment.    

The remainder of my gear I carry in a LowePro backpack or within Think Tank International roller. 

Camera Settings For Underwater Work 

I often get asked this question.   

I always shoot in RAW format with the camera and strobe set to manual.  I very rarely use shutter or aperture priority.

Aperture, shutter speed and ISO are interrelated and I alter these constantly during a dive depending upon my requirements.

I always have a 0.5 diffuser attached to my Inon strobes.  Although this does decrease the output somewhat, it increases the size of the light when shooting macro.  If shooting wide angle I will often remove them.  I am continually adjusting the power of the strobes to match the ambient light and environmental conditions.  Likewise, I often shoot with the strobes handheld to provide creative lighting.