I use underwater compact cameras. They are small and let you dive down to 15-20 metres without the hassle of needing a waterproof housing.
I have had several over the years (I have found they last about 2 years, but I use them a lot). Technological advances mean that you will probably want to upgrade every couple of years, anyway. Capabilities are still changing quite quickly – depth tolerances increase, apertures get bigger, macros get shorter focal lengths; and sensors get more sensitive.
Currently, I have an Olympus Tough! TG4 and a Canon Powershot D30. The Olympus is pretty awesome – the colour balance is fantastic and the UI is (finally) very flexible; the macro has a cozy 1 cm focal length and the battery lasts forever. The depth rating is 15m without a housing (you can also get a housing, which goes to 40m, but it costs as much as the camera). The TG4 will also shoot in RAW format. Video is HD. The latest model is the TG5.
The Canon goes deeper (24m without a housing). But the colours aren’t as good and you have to correct everything in Photoshop afterwards. Then the colours still aren’t as good as on the Olympus. I only use it for taking snaps while scuba diving.
The other contenders in this market are the Fuji Finepix and the Nikon Coolpix. I’ve haven’t owned them myself, but I have looked at other peoples’ and they seem inferior to the Olympus.
I haven’t tried the Lumix FT5.
I haven’t gotten into GoPro, myself. The lack of a zoom makes it unsuitable for taking pictures of fish.
Current options @ 2018:
Big apertures (=small “f” numbers) and good light sensors are important in low-light environments (=underwater), so prioritise these.
Once you have your camera, be really careful about checking that there are no stray hairs or specs of dirt/sand in the doorway everytime you close it.
If you have a camera leak and you take it back to the manufacturer, he will do a pressure-test on it. If it doesn’t leak when he tests it, you can forget getting any warranty support.
When you take your camera into the cold water, you might find that condensation starts to form on the inside of the lens (the water may have come from previous micro-leaks or just from the camera containing the humid air of the tropics). If this happens, keep the heel of your hand on the lens until you want to take a picture. This keeps the lens warm, so that the condensation will form on the other, less optically sensitive, interior parts of the case, instead. Start this early-on, before the condensation turns into droplets and messes-up your lens.
Photography tips and Post-processing
Water filters-out light and the longer the column of water between you and your subject, the less light reaches your camera. The big thing about getting decent snorkelling pictures is to get as close as possible to your subject.
Getting up-close is a constant problem with fish who are trying to swim away, but if you can get within a meter or two, the pictures will look much better than ones taken from further-away.
Getting close to a fish is difficult, but if you can train yourself to use neutral buoyancy and to hold your breath longer, it helps. Fish are sensitive to jerky motion and are also sensitive to being approached from above. If you can gently dive down to a spot 10m away from the fish and then, when you are at the right depth, turn and slowly approach the fish from the side, it is less likely to spook the fish. This is especially true for Turtles, it seems.
Camera settings / post-processing
Setting your camera’s White Balance to the “underwater” setting will help a lot. It will increase the reds and reduce the blue/green wash in your pictures.
Some cameras let you make a custom white balance setting by pointing the camera at a white slate whilst underwater. I have never had much luck with that method.
Other than the White Balance setting, to improve pictures you need to adjust “Levels” “Saturation” and “Vibrance” in computer software afterwards. Software such as Photoshop (expensive), Photoshop Elelments (cheaper) or Gimp2 (freeware). Others: reviewgeek.com/1472/6-cheap-alternatives-to-adobe-photoshop/
Adjusting the Levels is the single best thing you can do to make a boring, grey picture look better. The Levels setting “stretches” the colour range, so the darkest thing in the picture becomes (almost) pure black; and the lightest thing becomes (almost) pure white. If you look at the histogram of a boring, grey picture, it is often very narrow, and correcting (stretching) this will make a big difference. It is easiest to use the “Auto Levels” setting in photoshop/gimp, but you have more control if you use the manual settings within the Levels menu.
If the original picture has good light and clear water, you will see that the histogram is already very wide, so adjusting the levels won’t make much difference.
Saturation and Vibrance make colours brighter and is what they use in Holiday Brochures to “make the pictures pop”. Saturation does the primary colours and Vibrance all the others.
Increasing the Contrast using software helps a little, as well.
If you have a nasty blue/green colour-wash over the whole of your picture, you might be able to fix it by adjusting the colour balance in software. Colour Balance adjustments come in pairs Red/Cyan; Magenta/Green and Yellow/Blue.
Adjusting Colour Balance is a bit of an art. It is best to experiment a lot. Getting rid of a green hue is often a matter of increasing the Blue, rather than reducing the Green.
Often, pictures taken in deeper water without using flash just didn’t have enough light to get a decent picture in the first-place and there is nothing you can do after the event. On deep, blue pictures, try ramping up the Red, saving the picture and then doing it over again.
Divers wanting to take pictures deeper than about 15m will need to use a strobe (external flash), on arms 30cm away from the lens. Preferably two.
External sources of info:
Do a google search on “Levels” “Saturation” and “Vibrance” in photo editing software – there is lots of useful info out there. Here’s a good one on Levels:
This article is very good for underwater photography, generally. But for compact cameras, I would change what he says about using the flash. With a compact camera (where the flash is close to the lens) I would leave the flash switched-off, as it makes reflections from particles in the water which get back into the lens. I hardly ever use the flash when snorkelling.
If you are serious about doing underwater flash photography, you will need to splash-the-cash on some external strobes, which send those troublesome reflections off, away from the lens.
I hope this helps – Good luck 🙂
Please post your tips or up-to-date developments about underwater cameras in the comments below.