04th Feb 2006

Underwater Digital Camera

So, you think it would be cool to have an underwater digital camera! Although you might think that snapping pictures of your favorite fish is no more complicated than point and shoot, there are some differences between photographing above and below the water. We’ll take a look at the basics and give you the information that you need to get off to a good start.

Primer

Shooting pictures underwater with an underwater digital camera requires that you be aware of how the depth and clarity of water affects the camera’s ability to render the correct colors.

If you look at a rainbow you can see natural light being broken down to it’s various basic colors and differing wavelengths. Sunlight contains not only the basic building blocks of color, red, blue, and green, but it also contains all of the invisible spectrum of colors including ultraviolet and infrared.

Our brain plays a role in our interpretation of color. It sometimes corrects our perception of color to match it’s “memory” of what a color should really look like. Digital cameras, for all of their amazing properties, do not have this ability. They record the actual e rendition of the scene without any interpretation. This accounts for why you can sometimes look at a picture and think that it does not match the colors of the scene as you remember it.

In order to try and deal with this problem, digital cameras have an auto “white balance” that attempts to automatically adjust the image so that it more closely matches human color perception. If, for example, it finds that there is too much red in an image, it attempts to create a balance between the three primary colors so that white objects will appear white to humans when they view the resulting image. This feature is called “white balance” because it processes the data that it takes in from the scene that was shot, finds the portion that is closest to white, and uses this color as the base from which to balance all of the other colors in the image.

What happens to colors underwater?

With underwater digital camera photograpy as you dive deeper you start to lose the perception of certain colors. That’s because, as we mentioned, light waves are different lengths and certain colors can only penetrate water down to a certain depth. By the time that you reach 40 meters, the depth limit for the best recreational divers, practically all of the frequencies of light have been diffused into the water except for blue which is the only color that can penetrate that far.

Knowing how the white balance feature works, you can already see problems brewing. It locks on to the blue as being white, and then goes about correcting its perception of the remaining data in an attempt to match other colors. The result is some images will have an overall bluish tint, and weak colors that do not match the scene, or all of the blue may be eliminated resulting in an artificial look that nowhere near matches what you shot.

Fortunately, there is an easy solution for this on most digital cameras. Simply use the camera’s manual white balance feature instead of auto. As a rule of thumb, the “Daylight” mode may be used for depths up to 5 or 10 meters or for flash-assisted macro shots. For deeper depths, or when your flash-assisted images produce too much blue, use the “Cloudy” setting to filter out the blue bias.

Of course, there is something even more important than color correction…

… take along a good underwater digital camera! Essentially there are two ways to take a camera along when you are exploring the watery world.

  1. Buy a waterproof camera.
  2. Buy a waterproof case for your existing camera.

Let’s look at waterproof cameras first:

Obviously, your first task is to make sure that the camera has the words “Waterproof” somewhere in the product description. Please note that “Water Resistant” is NOT “Waterproof”. You need Waterproof.

Sony WaterproofNext, you need to determine the maximum depth that the camera is certified to operate at. The Sony DSC-U60, advertised as an underwater digital camera, is “Waterproof” to 1.5 meters, or 5 feet. That may be find for taking pictures of the bottom of your hot tub, but it’s not going to get you down to that reef wreck you’re diving next week. Underwater digital camera prices range from $180 to well over $700. Of course, the more you pay, the more you get, usually. Your job is to match your budget with your needs and see what camera fits neatly in-between.

Sealife DC250 2MPOddly enough, there is an underwater digital camera, in the mid three-hundred dollar price range, that is an excellent choice for underwater photography. It is the Sealife Reefmaster Pro package. With an average street price of $350, it is an outstanding buy. It comes with all of the accessories that you need to get started, and is advertised as being capable of taking “magazine quality” photos down to an amazing 164 feet (50 meters). I don’t know about you, but I have no intention of ever going to that depth.

If you already have a camera, maybe a waterproof case will do.

Like cameras themselves, waterproof cases are depth certified. They range from 33 feet (10 meters) down to as deep, or deeper, than you’ll ever go. Of course, the deeper the depth certification, the more the case costs. Street prices range from $69 to well over $300. Also, some cases are only freshwater certified. If you dive both fresh and salt, or salt only, be sure that your case matches your needs.

Although most cases say that they are universal, this is probably something that you want to see in person. Bring your camera to the store, install it in the case, and make sure that everything fits and functions as you want it to. If you dive in cold water, and wear gloves, make sure that you can operate the camera with gloves on.

In Summary

Underwater digital camera photography is rewarding and an outstanding way to keep your diving memories with you all year round. Also, you can make money as an underwater photographer once you get your skills up to professional levels. Like anything else, your success and satisfaction will be equal to the amount of effort that you put in, and the quality of the tools that you use. If you just want to take some snapshots for your scrapbook, or if you want to be in next month’s National Geographic — there is a digital camera that will do the job for you.

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