Sunday, March 25, 2007

FAQ: How to take a decent picture underwater

To provide a bit of context: I don't dive, I snorkel. The main difference is there's a lot more light near the surface so keep that in mind. Also, this is taking kind of a middle approach in terms of gear. If you're using an underwater disposable camera or a cased SLR with multiple flash units only some of this will apply.

The approach I took with the underwater pictures on my critters page was to use a cased point-and-shoot camera. Canon makes cases for most or all of their digital cameras. If you already have a camera you're happy with you may very well be able to find something decent. If not, I recommend basically getting the cheapest Canon with the Image Stabilization feature which I find very useful. Right now that's the Canon A710 IS. It runs about $250 and the case is about $170. For this camera it's the WP-DC6 You might want to search on "Underwater Housing". Add a 1-2GB memory card and some desiccant (more on this later) and let's call it $450. If you don't already have some high capacity rechargeable AA batteries and a charger pick those up too ($20). You can get all this stuff at B&H Photo.

Hopefully this link will let you see what the cases look like - you can do every camera function except of course you can't change batteries or memory card. So clearly you need to have enough batteries and memory to shoot continuously for, say, an hour.

Your big concern that's going to affect picture quality is fogging. The inside of the camera and case needs to be bone dry. I keep the camera in a Ziploc bag with a couple of sticks of desiccant when I'm not using it. Ideally you don't want to be putting the camera in the case at the beach - read the instructions, but there's an o-ring that needs to be cleaned and lubed before every use and grit or a hair is seriously bad news - so my routine is to put the camera and some desiccant sticks in the case at the hotel before heading out for a morning snorkel.

More about the o-ring: I've heard that after the first couple of swims that's when people get flaky about this. Sometimes it will be totally clean after a swim. Sometimes fine sand gets all over the ring. I always wipe it down, use a q-tip on the case, relube it and put it back in before every use. It's really the only way to be safe. If you're at all unsure, float it in the sink - it's better than salt water, that's for sure.

After use, wash off the case with fresh water as soon as you can. Salt water's just nasty. Then once you're in a safe place you can open it up and pull out the camera. If you're headed back to the hotel for a shower you might as well do it there.

Do note that you can take pictures above water with this setup! So if you're taking a boat trip or something, that's fine, just leave it cased the whole time. Do be sure to take some location shots, and also take some shots of the surroundings while treading water. There will probably be some drips on the front but they make it clear they were taken from the water - perfect for the family photo album.

Take pictures of your friends, and remember it's a 3D world. Take "seascapes" to the sides, don't just point the camera straight down. Point the camera back at you for a self portrait. I basically advise shooting away like a lunatic and editing later, at least until you get some experience.

In terms of settings, the modern Canons actually have an underwater mode that sets the white balance to something reasonable (otherwise your pictures will be way too blue) and all I'd recommend past that is to turn the flash off and to turn on the multi-shot mode and learn how to use it. The flash setting is because you don't need it and it will make any little bits of stuff in the water look ten times worse than without. The multi-shot is so once you have, say, a sea turtle composed and focused and you take a shot, you just hold down the button and it will fire away at about a frame per second. It updates the screen just enough that you can keep things pointed the right way. It works!

My one last piece of advice is to not zoom much if at all. The camera will focus faster and generally work better zoomed out. If you absolutely have to zoom, get one or two shots zoomed out and then zoom in, remembering to put it back after. With a 7 MP camera, if you're making 4x6 prints you're throwing away most of the data anyway - you're better off going wide and then cropping later.

That's all I can think of for now. Have fun with it!

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