SITTING ON THE PLANE ON MY WAY TO A DISTANT DIVING DESTINATION, I struck up a conversation with the passenger next to me. A car salesman from Surrey, he turned out to be on the same diving trip.
We started talking about cameras and he pulled out his equipment. Immediately I felt a sense of insecurity. He had with him cameras and flashguns that cost almost double the not-inconsequential cost of mine. It didn't help that he said he was so pleased to see his pictures published that he didn't care whether he was paid for them or not!
I had recently explained to the Editor that I needed another camera and lens, after the last one took an unscheduled swim inside my submarine housing. He had seemed unimpressed.
The small amount of money that underwater photographs generate, especially in competition with those prepared to give them away free, makes the occasional flooding of a camera something of an accounting disaster. Professionals need to provide first-rate pictures, but this must be tempered by the risk of taking thousands of pounds' worth of equipment into a hostile environment.
As digital cameras become more commonplace, the pressure to spend the huge amount necessary for a professional digital camera looms ever nearer. Professionals must be able to compete with their peers, and under water it seems some amateurs are willing to take financial risks that would make any business accountant feel sick.
It is far more difficult taking good photographs in water than in air. The over-riding factor affecting the final quality of an underwater image is the quality of the water in which you are working, so can photographers really gain any advantage from superior optics?
Then there is the problem and cost of making everything watertight. The risk of losing that equipment to the ravages of a serious leak is real. Electronics rarely survive an unplanned encounter with salt water.
So by the time a photograph has been scanned and reproduced in pages such as Diver's, has it been worth risking all that expensive kit? Perhaps we could obtain equally useful images with more modest apparatus.
Those historic moments recorded on film, for example the R101 disaster, raising the US flag on Iwo Jima, the assassination of JFK or the more recent crash of Concorde, have all provided images so powerful that no-one worried about photographic quality. Content is the over-riding factor, and under water most photographs are opportunistic.
You don't have to give focus or exposure a second thought when using a modern electronic 35mm film camera. The on-board computer takes care of all that. But assuming that one could get it right with simpler kit, and putting aside such issues as convenience of use, we decided to find out how a variety of cameras, typical of their price-range, measured up.
You could flood 65 of the cheapest cameras described here and still be financially ahead of the most expensive set-ups!
Each of the cameras described here was suitable, in its submarine housing where applicable, for use at the depths to which divers commonly go. We took camera and flash set-ups that ranged from around £150 for the simplest plastic example to a whopping £10,000 for the most complicated and attempted to take the same photograph with each.
We used a swimming pool with exceptionally clean water so that the conditions would be as good as possible. One of the first rules of underwater photography is to get as little water between you and your subject as you can. Because the water is an important part of image quality, we took each photograph with each camera from the same standpoint, which proved ideal at about a metre from the subject.
Where it was possible to use a wide-angle lens or a supplementary wide-angle, and thereby get more of the subject, we did. By and large we tried to do what was the best possible with each camera. Where it was feasible to use a flash that could be positioned well away from the axis of the camera's lens, we did that. We considered this an important aspect of the facilities offered by any underwater camera and an aid to better-quality photographs. Because less detritus in the water is lit up as the light source moves away from the camera-lens axis, the visible quality of the shot is improved.
We show a representative sample of a photograph from each camera, together with an enlarged section. Where we used film, it was ISO100, either in print or slide form.
SEA & SEA MX5
At £151 this is one of the simplest underwater cameras, akin to the sort of thing you might use in the shallows or in the splash zone, yet rated watertight to 36m. We are told that, worldwide, it is the best-selling under-water camera.
It has a fixed-focus lens, but its relatively wide angle of view gives useful coverage. This is important, as its best working distance with its built-in flash is about 1m from the subject. The flash is quite close to the lens axis, so the MX5 is suitable for use only in the clearest water if back-scatter is to be avoided.
Poorer visibility means keeping close to the surface and using available light and faster film, which is a shame as the camera is built to go deeper. We used print film in this camera because its users will most likely want colour prints. We found both the built-in viewfinder and sportsfinder supplied hard to use and lost many pictures because they were poorly framed, but the few that were right were very usable.
The Epoque, £229 from Cameras Underwater, is robustly constructed with a built-in flash. This can be used simply to trigger the slave cell of a rather dinky auxiliary flash that mounts alongside the camera. It still provides a light source quite close to the lens, which dictates use in reasonably clear water conditions.
The Epoque has three different lens-exposure settings with unique markings. We didn't know what these represented with regard to flash-to-subject distance, so we tried all of them and got perfectly usable shots throughout.
The Epoque is rated to 45m but we found that the fixed-focus lens had a rather narrow angle of view, which inhibited what we could do at a 1m distance from our subject, and again we lost pictures through inadequate framing.
We used colour print film. A close-up kit is available for use at 50cm from the subject.
This little fixed-focus 35mm camera comes inside a housing with a built-in lens that adjusts the camera's own lens for underwater use. It is rated to 38m. There is also a deflector for the camera's built-in flash that will trigger the slave cell of a more powerful auxiliary flashgun, the optional Substrobe AQ/S.
Of the two sports-finders, we found the larger one easier to use with a mask, but you can use the camera's own very large optical finder. No adjustments for exposure were possible, so the use of exposure-critical slide film is out.
The mounting arm gets the flash well away from the axis of the camera lens, which means that the camera is suited for use in less-than-clear water. The slightly wide-angle three-element lens proved useful when close to our subject.
We were surprised at how quickly the flash recycled between pictures. However, it was very inconvenient to have to get the camera out of its housing to turn it on before diving. As a package with auxiliary flashgun and close-up (macro) kit, the Auto35 costs £453 from Oceanic SW.
SEA & SEA MX10
The MX10 has the advantage of a wide-angle supplementary (20mm equivalent) lens that can be fitted to its conventional fixed-focus lens while under water. This meant that at 1m from the subject it covered quite a useful area.
There is a full range of lens exposure settings but we felt this camera was aimed primarily at those who would want colour prints. The MX10 also has an auxiliary flashgun triggered by a fibre-optic connection to the camera. However, this left the light source a little closer to the lens axis than we would have liked.
Again, this precludes using the flash in the sort of conditions in which there is a lot of detritus in the water, as it will reflect back into the lens.
A fibre-optic cable accessory is available to help move the flash away from the camera. It was hard to compose the shot using the frame-finder supplied for use with the wide-angle lens, but it produced very reasonable results. With flashgun and 20mm wide-angle supplementary lens, the 45m-rated MX10 costs £625.
On to digital, and this represents one of a raft of popularly priced digital cameras pouring onto the market. Things are changing so fast in this area that the C2040 will probably be obsolete by the time you read this, but it distinguishes itself by having a selection of proprietary underwater housings available for it.
Film cameras are limited to 36 frames per load, but with digital the number of images stored on one memory card depends on the size and type of file you choose to use. We used it in high-quality JPEG mode because it gave 31 shots on the card supplied and we felt this was how most owners would probably use it.
With digital you can look at the shots you have taken, even under water, and delete the failures, so you could come back with every one a winner. Otherwise choose to use a very high-resolution TIFF image and come back with only a couple of winners!
There is no provision for use with an auxiliary flashgun. We used the Olympus C2040 at the widest setting on its zoom lens. The camera provides more than 2 million pixels per image. Other digital stills camera with submarine housings are available from £500, and of course a laptop computer or PC costs extra. Depth rating is only 30m. With Olympus housing, the C2040 costs £798. (Olympus Optical and Cameras Underwater)
SEA & SEA MOTORMARINE II EX
A full-system 35mm film amphibious camera rated to 45m, this promises very good results. It has a range of four shutter speeds and a full range of lens exposure settings, so you can use it for both prints and slide film. The lens can be adjusted for focus, except when using a choice of wide-angle adapters (20mm and 16mm), there is a selection of macro kits for extreme close-ups, and it gives a degree of automatic exposure control.
This camera marries up with any Sea & Sea flashgun, which can give full automatic through-the-lens (TTL) exposure and recycle ready for use very quickly. We used it with slide film, because it was capable of the degree of exposure control needed to get good results, and with the 16mm wide-angle attachment. Supplementary lenses tend not to give very sharp results at the corners of the pictures but as your subject is invariably in the middle this needn't be too much of a worry.
We were disappointed that the results were not that much better than those obtained with the far cheaper MX10, although of course it is more versatile and will bring back pictures in a far wider range of conditions. With 16mm wide-angle adapter lens and YS60 flashgun, it costs £1049.
This metal amphibious camera was once the ultimate in underwater photographer's equipment but is slightly primitive now in the way it achieves semi-automatic exposure control. It is also one of the few underwater cameras that still leaves you to wind the film on manually. However, it is a precision instrument rated to 50m and a wide range of optics are available for it.
These lenses are all computed for use under water (their front elements are in direct contact with the water), so they give the finest optical results. The Nikonos V offers a full range of lens and shutter settings, and all lenses can be adjusted under water for sharp focus, though this setting has to be estimated and adjusted by the photographer.
We used the Nikonos 15mm lens, which gives the widest angle-of-view and is said to be the sharpest underwater lens available. It certainly included a lot of our model at 1m. We had no way of accurately framing the picture at that distance with the auxiliary optical viewfinder mounted on top of the camera, although it is certainly better than most.
A wide range of underwater flashguns is available for the Nikonos. It fires at a fixed setting (1/90sec) when used with flash, but most flashguns give full TTL automatic-exposure control, though this is not as accurate as the latest electronics in SLR cameras. We used slide film. With Nikonos 15mm f/2.8 lens, auxiliary viewfinder and top-quality flashgun, this camera costs a massive amount of money, but you could opt for less expensive lenses and flashguns, including those by other manufacturers. Price: £4829 (Sea & Sea, Nikon UK).
The conventional Nikon SLR in a housing confers on its owner the huge range of possibilities available with what is probably the most highly developed type of 35mm film camera, including TTL viewing for accurate subject-framing.
We chose an F90 with a Nikon 20mm wide-angle lens in a Sea & Sea housing with a dome port. We probably could have achieved equally good results with any of a range of submarine housings available, though we wanted to avoid those with dome ports which need extra corrective dioptre lenses added to the Nikon prime lens.
We used it in automatic mode with a dedicated TTL automatic Nikon SB104 flashgun. A full range of shutter and lens settings are available. The Nikon will work at up to 1/250 sec with flash.
Pictures were made quickly and easily. This set-up represents here all the top-flight 35mm film SLR cameras on the market for which a submarine housing rated to 60m or more is available, and is the one most commonly used by serious amateurs and pros alike. We used slide film. Similar outfits cost £3300-£7000 but the set-up as tested cost around £5250 (Sea & Sea, Nikon UK).
At 2.66 million pixels, this is (at the time of writing) the highest-quality digital-imaging camera we could lay our hands on for this test, and is at least equivalent to the most advanced Nikon SLR film camera, the F5. There is no proprietary underwater housing available for it yet, but photographer Dan Burton has made his own and we used that.
Although the camera was fitted with a 17-35mm f/2.8 zoom, it had a narrower angle-of-view than the conventional Nikon with the 20mm lens. Digital Nikons give about 75 per cent of the angle compared to film cameras fitted with the same lens.
Capacity to store pictures depends on the memory card installed but with 128 megabytes the D1 can store 118 high-quality JPEG files or 15 TIFF files, and you can of course delete as you go. The D1 gives on-the-spot control and represents the acme of achievement to date in digital camera design. With a price to match, it begs the question, can you afford to flood one?
The Nikon DI is already being replaced by the D1X (5.47 million pixels!) and D1H. For camera, lens, top-quality flashgun and a proprietary submarine housing (when available), and without a laptop computer, think about spending around £10,000 with Nikon UK.
The inexpensive cameras proved entirely adequate for the purposes of most divers, who simply want to bring back a memento of an experience under water. The more expensive film cameras are more versatile in that they can produce good results in a much wider range of conditions than the rather limited circumstances suitable for the cheaper cameras.
Especially important is the ability to get good results with transparency film if you want your work published. SLR cameras are an almost essential aid to good composition, and good-quality prime lenses invariably cost more than supplementary lenses.
Digital photography might be the standard medium of the future, but unless you are prepared to spend a great deal of money, you will not yet get results that measure up.
SEA & SEA MX5
SEA & SEA MX10
SEA & SEA MOTORMARINE II EX
PRINT, SLIDE OR DIGITAL?
Before rushing into a description of the different media available to the underwater photographer, remember that you can get prints made from both slide and digital material, and get slides made from the others, though at some cost.
Print film makes a colour negative that is used to make colour prints which you can carry, pin on the wall or display in an album. They are incredibly convenient and almost anyone can get reasonable results with modest equipment.
As corrections can be applied at the printing stage, you do not need to be so accurate with the original camera exposure, but this means that the final result is only as good as the person in the colour laboratory. You will get pretty good results with pictures of auntie wearing a red sweater in a green field with a blue sky background, but most laboratory people have no idea what it's like to be under water, and results can be disappointing.
What you get with slide, or transparency , film depends more on the choices made when making the exposure. The photo-grapher has total control, but this might not be a totally good thing - get it wrong and that's it! Colour slides give you better sharpness and more saturated colours than prints but you must get the exposure exactly right.
Modern electronics in premium-priced 35mm SLR cameras seem to have no problem with this, but cheaper cameras can be less than good. Unfortunately, you can only view transparencies with a lightbox and magnifying glass or a slide projector, but most of the images you see reproduced in the colour pages of magazines such as Diver are made from colour slide originals.
Digital imaging is the medium of the future. It gives the immediate gratification of almost instant results. However, you need a compatible computer and the appropriate software, together with limited computing skills to take advantage of a digital camera. If you want to do anything more than simply look at your pictures on a computer screen, you will need to produce very high-resolution images, which come at some cost.
Electronics and water do not mix happily. Watching a well-known underwater photographer wading out to a boat while struggling to carry both his laptop computer and digital camera equipment suggests to me that digital might not be ideal for use in harsh environments, but it's great to see pictures enlarged on your screen immediately after a dive.
Sea & Sea, 01803 663012, www.dive-team.com
Cameras Underwater, 08700 660384,
Oceanic SW, 01404 891 819, www.oceanicworldwide.com
Olympus Optical, 020 7253 2772,
020 8481 6875, www.nikon.co.uk