How on earth do you start in Underwater photography? A professional rig and setup can cost upwards to $5,000. For that reason my personal recommendation is to start small, experiment and get familiar with the discipline.
The best way to start is to start small. Do you have a point and shoot camera you can use? If not – then that is fine. Go down to your local grocery store and purchase a disposable underwater camera for about $10. The number of shots will be limited and few will come out good – but it will get you familiar with the actions underwater.
If you have a point and shoot camera available then your next best option is to purchase a waterproof bag. These bags usually run about $20 – $40 and are designed for point and shoot cameras. They are not the best way to shoot pictures – but they allow again for a very inexpensive way to test the field of underwater photography. You will find that you will easily get frustrated with the curved clear panel of the bag and as a result many of your pictures will come out blurry. This however is a good chance for you to learn how to handle your gear underwater and practice some of the basic underwater composition techniques.
Once you are ready to move beyond the underwater bag – your next step is to buy a hard formed case for your point and shoot camera. These generally range anywhere from about $150-$200. They are also specific to your camera model and not all camera models have underwater cases (so look closely when purchasing). If you used the underwater bags – then the first thing you will notice after upgrading to the hard case is the increased amount of control. There are designated knobs, buttons and levers that are big and easy to control. Each of these correspond with a button or lever on your camera – allowing in most cases full control of your camera.
The downsides of a hard case for your point and shoot are really around light and the flexibility of your camera. Some point and shoots will do well under water while others will not. You will also notice that your built in flash really only does a so so job. Most underwater pictures taken in the middle of the day and close to the surface will still come out well – however ones taken much deeper in lower light will not come out.
A combination point and shoot camera and a matching underwater case is in my opinion the best way to test and train yourself on underwater techniques. It allows you focus on how to shoot under water, deal with composition challenges, while also mastering your scuba or snorkeling techniques.
Once you feel you are ready to take your under water photography to the next level then it is time to buy a specialized rig. These will put you into the multiple thousand dollar range. It can be very difficult to decide which rig to get. I advise two different prep phases.
First is to spec out exactly what kind of photography under water you will be doing. Will it be very low light such as night diving or really deep diving? Will it be mostly high tropical where waters are shallow? Will it be more action based? These questions can help you design the rig that matches your photography the best as you may want to focus on a rig that has the strongest flash, the most durable casing, etc…
Second is to rent out a couple of rigs you are contemplating. Going through the rental process allows you to test the feel of a rig and helps you determine whether or not a camera is right for you. It may look awesome in the store – but in practical use perhaps the handle grip is a pain and not easy to use.
The key thing to remember is to start off small. Don’t start by investing $2K only to find that you don’t like the hobby. Start off with a bag or underwater case and learn good techniques. You will find that you are able to take some great shots with simple gear as long as you are able to focus on getting good composition and lighting down.
Oh – by the way. All of the photos displayed on this post were taken with an underwater case that cost roughly $150. This was with my Canon PowerShot point and shoot.