Technical Details

Underwater photography is by nature an equipment intensive (and not inexpensive!) endeavor. While simple underwater cameras may be ok for a few snapshots of the family on a Caribbean vacation, anything more quickly leads to more sophisticated equipment. Light is quickly absorbed by water in a color-specific manner: first the reds disappear, then the yellows and so on until all that is left is blue--a monochromatic world that in many ways is ideal for black & white photography. Of course, the colors can be restored with artificial light, most often in the form of special underwater strobes. This is particularly advantageous for marine life photography, as the colors of the ocean's inhabitants can be breathtaking.

During the 20+ years I have been making images underwater I have gone through a whole spectrum of underwater camera systems, and still use quite a variety. Each has unique features and abilities that make it more or less suited for different tasks. The following gives a brief outline of the camera systems I am currently using and have used in the past.

Today's underwater cameras are almost all digital, but it wasn't too long ago that film was the mainstay of photography, both "topside" and underwater. I switched from film to digital in 2006 when Canon introduced their 5D model-the first "affordable" full-frame digital SLR. I purchased the camera and a Seacam housing and was thrilled with the system, the results and the flexibility that digital provided. No more limits on the number of frames I could shoot. No need to choose color or black and white film before jumping in the water. No need to choose ISO speeds before the dive. The entire transition was liberating. In 2009 I upgraded to the new Canon 5D mkII model, with increased low-light capability and the ability to shoot video, once again expanding the options avaiable on any dive. And as I write this in 2013 I have aquired the new Canon 5D mkIII camera and am eagerly awaiting the delivery of a new Aquatica housing from Backscatter Underwater Video and Photo, and looking forward to continuing on this photographic journey.

Aquatic N90 housing with Nikon N90 camera

My "last" film camera system was a Nikon N90 (F90 in Europe) 35mm SLR in an Aquatica housing. The N90 has more features than you can possibly use underwater, has an outstanding metering system and of course accepts the whole line of Nikon lenses. The Aquatica line of housings, made in Montreal, Canada, are sturdy, well engineered aluminum housings that can take abuse and extreme depths. The N90 housing is very compact as well, making it easy to carry on demanding deep wreck and/or mixed gas dives. The housing can be equipped with an 8-inch acrylic dome port for wide-angle lenses, or a flat port for macro lenses. The standard Nikon-style flash sync chord is easily accomodated for attaching underwater strobes.

Aquatic 3 housing / Canon F-1n camera

My first housed underwater camera was a Canon F-1n 35mm SLR system in an Aquatica 3 housing. The Canon F-1n was a robust, pre-autofocus, true-system camera. Perhaps it's best feature for underwater photography was the accessory action-finder--a finder that allows viewing the entire finder-area from 2-inches away! This allows the most outstanding view possible even while wearing a diver's mask. The Aquatica 3 housing is a true "battleship" housing that is virtually indestructible. When I first went on a quest to find a suitable housing for deep wreck diving back in 1990, there was not nearly the number of choices available today, and it was difficult to find information about and to buy the few that were available. I happened upon the Aquatica housing but was concerned that the depth rating was only(!) 250 feet, as I was planning some deep mixed-gas dives in the future. I called up Aquatica to inquire about the depth rating, and was told that the 250-foot limitation was simply because that was as deep as their test chamber went. They also told me that National Geographic had put one on the outside of a submarine and had successfully used it at a depth of 700-feet--that sold me on the Aquatica right there! I have personally used it at depths up to 400-feet and it peformed flawlessly. Rock solid, but a bit big and heavy by today's housing standards, it is still available for anyone wanting a manual-only 35mm system. I used to own two of these housings, but sold one to help finance my Aquatica N90's.

Mamiya 645 w/ custom housing and Gates light meter housing

I do a lot of black & white available light photography, particularly of shipwrecks. In a continuous quest to improve the quaility of my images, and in particular to reduce the inevitable grain when using high-speed black & white films, I began to look into medium-format cameras. Unfortunately, there are very few housings available, so I decided that there was no reason I couldn't build my own housing and set about picking a suitable camera. I finally decided on a Mamiya 645 2-1/4 SLR, based largely upon the availability of the Mamiya 35mm lens (equivalent to a 22mm lens on a 35mm camera), which is about as wide a lens as exists in this format without resorting to a fisheye and it's associated distortion. This camera also yields 30 exposures on a roll of 220 film--not a small consideration since you can't change film underwater!

Designing and building the housing ended up being a 2-year project that at times seemed to have no end. One of the biggest problems was finding a machine shop that was willing to machine the major pieces of the housing--most machine shops are busy doing production work and not really interested in building one-off parts--after all they are trying to make a living! The second major problem was finding a suitable dome port. The nature of the larger format requires a longer focal length lens to achieve the same angle-of-view, and this leads to less depth-of-field. One of the major consequences of this is that a dome port with a larger radius-of-curvature is required to eliminate field curvature, an abberation preventing the center and edges of the image to be in focus at the same time. I finally resorted to having an optics house custom make me a dome port with a 6-inch radius (12-inch diameter)--giving the final housing a rather impressive look!

Nikonos V & Nikonos II with Nikonos 15mm and Sea & Sea 12mm lenses

After finally getting a local shop to machine the major pieces of the housing on a milling machine, I set about building all the handles, controls and little pieces on a small lathe in my garage workshop. Machining camera housing parts in an unheated garage in New York in February turned out to be a rather cold proposition! After finally completing the housing, and being a bit tired of building my own housing and wanting to just go diving, I commisioned Elwin Gates to build me a light meter housing for a Gossen Ultra Pro meter, which can be seen mounted on top of the housing.

Like most underwater photographers, I started out with the ubiquitous Nikonos camera. My first were the Nikonos IVa, the current model back then, which proved to be true "leakers." I had two of them and it seemed that one was constantly in the repair shop being fixed from the last leak episode, leaving me one camera to photograph with. In fairness, I was regularly taking them beyond the rated depth limitation of 165 feet, but the camera was a real dog. Later came the Nikonos V, which was far superior but stil problematic. It was the constant problems with the Nikonos that finally drove me to get my first housed camera, which proved far superior to the Nikonos. Of course, the Nikonos 15mm lens is incredible and probably without equal for underwater photography. I still use a Nikonos on a reqular basis--chiefly as a second camera carried on a neck strap and without strobes for available light photography. Incidently, the Nikonos II and III, shown here with a Sea & Sea 12mm lens (another great lens, but not as sharp as the Nikonos 15) is a simple mechanical camera that takes extreme depths quite well, and can be found on the used market.

Casualties of war! The guts of Nikonos IVa's
Underwater strobes by Sea & Sea and Subtronic

Underwater strobes are invaluable for lighting in dark places and restoring the natural color to subjects underwater. Electronics and sea water don't generally mix well, but modern strobes are much more reliable than 20 years ago. I have had great luck with the well built and very reliable Sea & Sea units, while the units built by Subtronic of Germany are incredible units allowing multiple power settings down to 1/64 power and amazing recycle and recharge times. I highly recommend both.

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All images, text and content Copyright © Bradley Sheard. All rights reserved.