A lot of people ask me about my set up and rig for underwater photography, often looking for suggestions for their budget. Before answering, I always ask how many dives they’ve done and I recommend that before venturing underwater with a serious rig that they have a good 100 dives under their belt.
Underwater photography requires that you should be completely comfortable underwater, your buoyancy should be excellent and you should be aware of your surroundings at all times. If any of those are lacking, either you photographs will suffer or your safety will be compromised. It’s often the case that with a good rig, both of your hands will be occupied and it will seem at the beginning as if you need a second pair of hands to inflate your BC, deploy an SMB, give hand signals etc.
With experience though, it will seem weird when you don't have a camera in your hands underwater.
My personal rig comprises the Panasonic micro four thirds system (m43) and Ikelite underwater systems for the housing with an 8 inch dome. I choose the Panasonic Gh4 for its for its size, robustness, excellent stills quality, outstanding video and the 4k photo option. Being effortlessly able to switch between stills, video or 4k photo (the latter I’ve assigned to a function button for quick toggle use) allows me a huge flexibility in choosing video or stills on the fly.
The m43 system comprises a huge choice of world class optics to choice from such as the Panasonic Leica 42.5 f1.2, a stunning lens that offers other-worldly results that are in a league or their own (see the model photographs for examples).
Underwater photography is different however. For the very best results you are limited to 2 options; wide or macro. That’s not to say that you can’t venture underwater with other lenses, you certainly can, but to get world class photographs underwater it is imperative that you minimise the amount of water you shoot though. And that means getting close, really close to your subject. And when you think you're close enough, get closer. The less water you shoot through, the sharper the photo, the more vibrant the colours. Hence the only serious choice for good underwater photography is macro or wide angle.
My underwater photography is all ambient light, meaning I do not use strobes. I flirted with a pair Ikelite strobes 2 years ago but I quickly realised my own personal photographic style is not suited to artificial light. This is simply a personal choice and you may decide, as the vast majority or serious underwater photographers do, to go down the strobe route. So, that being said please bear in mind that all my comments on underwater photography pertain to ambient light photography only.
Whatever camera system you decide on, whether compact camera, DSLR, mirrorless etc, it is vital that you are able to manually white balance the camera underwater. White balance is critical in underwater photography. I repeat, white balance is critical in underwater photography. In your topside photos you can adjust your white balance in post production but underwater it’s different. Auto white balance will not give you stella results and the trick is to neutralise the blue in the water (or green if diving temperate water). I’ll go into this in more depth and detail in the next blog post.