How to choose your first Underwater Camera Setup?
Posted Jun 11th, 2021 by Elisabeth
One major consideration these days for any new underwater videographer is determining whether you should get a camcorder, which is easy to use, an SLR or mirrorless camera for the amazing “film” look or even a compact camera for its smaller size and convenience?
For low budget filmmaking the choice isn’t as clear-cut as it was a while back: DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras are getting better and better and you can now get camcorders with DSLR-like features. Whichever way you choose to go, make sure you choose a good camera to suit your needs; there are plenty of options available.
Camcorder vs. DSLR vs. Mirrorless vs. Compacts what’s the difference?
A camcorder is a popular video recording device. They have built-in smooth zoom lenses and tilt-and swivel screens. Camcorders are easier for filming long stretches at a time, smooth zooms, and offer stronger audio, and better in-camera image stabilization. However, these cameras are not ideal for still photography. So, if you are looking for something that will allow you to capture both video and photos, you may want to choose something else.
A DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) offers better photography possibilities as well as more flexibility and upgradability through features like interchangeable lenses. How does a DSLR work? A mirror reflects the image up to the viewfinder and flips up when you take a photo. When you shoot video you have to use ‘live view’ on the main screen. DSLR’s have much bigger sensors than camcorders which allows the possibility to take in more light, and therefore, offer images of greater detail and higher resolutions.
A mirrorless camera is like a DSLR, you can swap lenses, but it doesn’t have a mirror. It usually tends to have a smaller and lighter body than a DSLR. In general, these cameras are great in low light.
Compact cameras these days offer great video, even 4K quality, but they don’t offer the user the option to change lenses. However, when it comes to size and weight, compact cameras are clearly on top. For beginners and avid travelers it’s a great way to get into the video game. You have the flexibility to manually change all settings in a small package.
It is not always necessary to purchase at the highest end. There are professional videographers in the field making money right now with inexpensive, simple cameras. Alternatively, some hobbyists invest substantial sums into professional equipment for personal use. There are lots of cameras out there that will do a wonderful job for what you need it to do.
There are quite a number of camera manufacturers in the marketplace. Some of the most dominant players in the market are Sony, Panasonic, Nikon, Olympus and Canon. These companies have products that range from low-end consumer devices all the way up to the highest end television-studio cameras. All offer cameras that fit well into the consumer and the more professional line. A number of housing manufacturers have made housings for the most popular models. Before investing in a new camera for use underwater, make sure someone has made a housing for it. Check the websites of Nauticam, Seacam, Fantasea, Isotta and the many others to look for the appropriate housing for your camera.
There is no “best” camera. There are a number of great cameras in every price range and for varying applications. As with most things, the general rule is “You get what you pay for.” You should not expect a $300 camera to perform as well as a $3000 camera. Even if the basic specifications look the same, there are vast differences in the quality of camera components. Each is likely to be better on more expensive cameras, as the technology used in the lenses, sensors, and processors will be superior. That said, it is not necessary to purchase the most expensive camera on the market.
Before making a purchase, you should ask yourself what your video goals are and what camera type is going to be able to meet those goals. Also spend some time researching what is out there. Make sure you do a “deep dive” on the internet, check out some photo/video chat rooms and forums and solicit advice from others who can help guide your decision based on your goals. Feel free to check out camera shops to compare prices and features, but keep in mind that most of the staff in these places know nothing about housings for their products and how they perform underwater. For that you need to go to underwater equipment distributors and dive centers. Do not be afraid of making the investment in a quality camera, but make sure that whichever camera and housing you choose, is the one that makes sense for your needs.
If you opt for a DSLR or a Mirrorless camera: What are the best lenses for underwater use? What are the best macro lenses and wide-angle lenses? Just because a lens is a good choice topside doesn’t mean it is the best choice underwater. If you are looking to move into a DSLR or mirrorless system, don’t skimp on the lens. Start off with a good macro and a wide-angle lens. Or check out wet wide angle and wet macro lenses that will work with a “kit” lens for your camera.
Prime vs Zoom lenses
There are two types of lenses, prime lenses and zoom lenses.
Prime lenses usually offer faster speeds and produce superior images, but require videographers to move themselves rather than the lens barrel to get closer or farther away from a subject.
Zoom lenses allow you to rotate a lens by pulling it forward and back, or pressing a button to “zoom in” on an object. When the object you are looking at gets larger, we say we are “zooming in”. When it gets smaller, we’re “zooming out”.
A 16mm, 60mm, and 90mm lens are all examples of prime lenses. A lens with 2 numbers, like a 16-50mm lens, is a zoom lens. The smaller number is the wide end of the zoom range, and the larger number is the telephoto or zoom end.
All compact cameras and camcorders have built in zoom lenses. A zoom lens’ best feature is that you can shoot at a variety of focal lengths. The ability to change perspective and add variety to your shots quickly cannot be overstated.
If you have a mirrorless or DSLR, you may get a prime lens, which means it can’t zoom in or out. It always has the same view when you look through the lens. One of the biggest advantages of using a prime lens is that you generally get to use a wider aperture (smaller f-number) such as f/1.8. The larger the aperture, the faster the lens. Lenses with fast speeds let more light through over a given time frame and allow for shallower depths of field. Zoom lenses generally don’t allow you to set the aperture as wide as prime lenses. The ones that do feature wide apertures, like the 16-35 f2.8, tend to cost substantially more.
For the underwater videographer, buying ports and dome ports for five or six different lenses can be a logistical burden and will quickly become very expensive. If you need to choose just one lens to start your underwater video journey and are prepared to compromise slightly on image quality and the ability to shoot a wide aperture, then a zoom lens (for example a 16-35mm f4.0 for a full frame sensor or a 16-50mm for a cropped sensor) is an ideal choice for you. This will allow you to shoot in multiple focal ranges with one lens.
A 100mm lens used with a cropped sensor with a 1.6× factor will result in the field of view equivalent to that of a 160mm lens (100 × 1.6) on a full-frame camera. A crop factor can actually be of a benefit when filming small critters or shy marine life. In order to compare one lens with another, we refer to the equivalent focal length in 35mm film, or with full-frame sensor. For example, a Micro Four Thirds 8–18mm lens has a “35mm equivalent focal length” range of 16–36mm, since the crop factor is 2.
While some full-frame lenses may work on cropped sensor cameras, many are designed specifically for cropped sensors and will not work on a full-frame camera. Lenses for full-frame cameras typically retain their value more so than lenses for cropped sensors. They also tend to be of higher quality.
Wide Angle and macro lenses
Lenses that allow you to capture video of a wide area, such as a large coral reef, are called wide-angle lenses. Lenses that let you take video close ups of smaller critters or more detailed shots of marine life, are called macro lenses. They allow you to get very close to small objects and film them. These lenses can be prime lenses or zoom lenses.
Rectilinear wide-angle lenses do not have the curves found in a fisheye lens. They create rather straight lines with little to no barrel distortion. These lenses can be quite helpful with shy marine life. The most widely used rectilinear focal lengths are 16mm to 35mm. These wide angle lenses are great for video since they don’t distort your subject.
Most compact cameras aren’t very wide, and if you zoom in you can take a video of something smaller or get a closer up shot. But these aren’t great for really small subjects and will not pick up much detail. There are some exceptions of course. A lens that is in-between wide angle and telephoto is often called a mid-range lens. Underwater you’d want to give your camera wide-angle or macro capability. Shooting subjects from far away underwater is usually a bad idea.
Wet lenses are positioned in front of the camera housing. Either screwed into the port or you may use the ‘quick release” bayonet system. They are designed to allow a layer of water between the front of the port and the back of the lens. Hence the term “wet” lens.
Wet wide angle lens
To get a wider view you have the option to buy a ‘wet wide angle’ lens. These lenses are screwed onto the outside of your housing. The wet wide angle will either restore the native field of view for the camera (meaning it compensates for field of view lost due to refraction behind the flat port), or it may expand your field of view to 130 or even 165 degrees.
An example of a great wet wide angle lens is Nauticam’s WWL-1 with a 130 degree angle of view. It uses a 67mm thread and supports full zoom-through ability. It has high grade glass optics, hence the heavy weight of the lens. This lens is suitable for compact and mirrorless cameras due to its high quality images.
There are a number of good quality wide angle lenses out there with acrylic domes too. These are much lighter. Fantasea Line offers the UWL-09F which is less pricey than the glass lenses. The Kraken KRL-02 wide wet lens is an ultra-wide conversion lens. At 24mm, it has a 145-degree field of view!
Wet macro lens
‘Wet macro’ lenses are not magnifying lenses. They are “close-up” lenses. A close-up lens will allow the camera to focus closer than its minimum focus distance, so getting closer to the subject will make it appear larger on the sensor. The entire focal range of the camera shifts closer, so the camera can no longer focus on farther distances. This is why there are different powers of close-up lenses available, such as +5, +10, or even +20. The highest powered lenses are not always ideal. It depends on your subject’s size. Larger subjects don’t require a high powered macro lens. And you can’t simply back off and fill the frame since you are now out of the focal range of the lens at that distance.
The advantage to having these wet lenses is that you can swap them underwater or even take them off when not needed. Make sure you have a place to secure and protect your lenses if you will be swapping underwater.
An example of a good ‘wet macro’ lens is the Fantasea UCL-09. This diopter has a power of +12.5 and a reproduction ratio over 2:1 with an SLR/mirrorless lens. The image quality is outstandingly sharp. However, the lens is on the heavier side, which may or may not be a consideration for you.
Wide-angle focal lengths are used for shooting divers, sharks, whales, manta rays, schools of fish up-close, or coral reefs. Mid-range focal lengths are for larger fish, marine life portraits, etc. Macro lenses are for smaller fish, intimate portraits, nudibranchs, macro shots, etc.
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Underwater Video & Photo Equipment FAQs
Compact cameras offer great video, and when it comes to size and weight, compact cameras are clearly on top. For beginners and avid travelers it’s a great way to get started with underwater video. You have the flexibility to manually change all settings in a small package and at a reasonable price!
If you are looking to buy a DSLR or mirrorless system, invest in a good lens. Start off with a great macro and a wide-angle lens. Or, if you want to keep it down to 1 lens, check out wet wide angle and wet macro lenses that will work with a “kit” lens for your camera and can screw on to the outside of your housing port.
A number of housing manufacturers make housings for lots of the most popular model cameras. Before you buy a camera, check if someone has made a housing for it. Check the websites of Nauticam, Seacam, Fantasea, Isotta, Sea and Sea and many others to look if there is a housing for your camera. Some housings are much more expensive than others. But then again there is a difference in quality.
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