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What Equipment Do You Need for Underwater Photography?

Exploring the range of equipment needed for underwater photography can be overwhelming. From choosing the correct lens (with appropriate lens port) to the housing for your camera, there are a lot of expensive decisions to be made before you can get underwater and shoot.

For those of you that are considering jumping into underwater photography and don’t know where to begin, this short guide should help you get started with the essential gear you need to get hold of. It’s important to fully consider each of the following points before making any purchases.

Choosing a camera for underwater photography

Joanna uses: Canon 7D Mark II and Sony AX100 screen

Truly, the best camera is the one you already own. While good camera bodies and lenses play a part in creating great underwater images, they are not everything. Starting with a camera that you already own will help you save more than a few pennies in what can be a very expensive hobby. However, if you don’t own a camera, or need to upgrade for whatever reason, you’ll have a few decisions to make.

Compact cameras, or point and shoots, are great for beginners. They are affordable, lightweight, and low-maintenance travel companions. But they have their limitations. The image quality, shutter lag, and interchangeable lenses are typically inferior to that of DSLRs or even mirrorless cameras.

Learn more: An Introduction to Underwater Photography

You’ll want to be sure to purchase a compact camera that has the ability to shoot in raw format, and has an aperture/shutter priority and manual mode. Shooting in automatic mode underwater is far from ideal and should be avoided.

As a beginner, I was more frustrated by the shutter lag on my point and shoot than the image quality. The underwater world is highly dynamic, and waiting for your camera to process images is not what you need when something amazing unfolds before you.

equipment underwater photography

Beyond compact cameras, you’ll be looking at DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Whilst DSLRs are great cameras, and still offer many more lens options, mirrorless cameras seem to be the way of the future due to their size and ease of use. That being said, I still shoot with a DSLR and don’t intend to switch anytime soon, but when that time comes it will be to a mirrorless camera. Here are a few reasons why:

Mirrorless cameras boast simple mechanics that create compact, lighter bodies, which can be super helpful when carrying your kit to and from dive sites or while traveling. Keep in mind that the bulkier the camera, the bulkier the camera housing. A little extra weight for the camera body might not seem like much, but every ounce counts when it comes to carry-on luggage.

Top-end mirrorless cameras are also capable of shooting more images per second than the “equivalent” DSLRs; shooting more frames per second is never a bad thing – especially underwater!

Whilst there are a lot of perks to using mirrorless cameras, there are a few minor downsides. For one, the battery life on some mirrorless cameras is still not as good as that of a DSLR. Rather than looking through an optical viewfinder, you need to shoot via the LCD screen on the back of the camera (or an electronic viewfinder); this can eat up a lot of the battery.

Not having an optical viewfinder also means you may have issues in certain situations. Whether you are photographing sea lions or diving deeper than recreational limits, the electronic viewfinder may struggle to produce a crystal clear preview. If you are a technical diver and spend a lot of time at depth, be sure to check the LCD reviews on the particular mirrorless model you are considering. Some camera bodies may be more prone to this than others.

Read more: Mirrorless vs DSLR Cameras for Nature Photography

Lenses, ports, and extension rings for underwater housings

Joanna uses: Tokina 10-17mm, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8, Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro

For many photographers, investing in good lenses definitely trumps the camera body. But, before you begin researching lenses, you’ll need to ask yourself what it is that you are most interested in shooting. Do you prefer little critters and fine details or pelagic marine life and wrecks? Knowing this will help you decide which lens and port purchases to make.

Once you decide what your focus will be, the next step would be to research what port and lens options are available for the camera and housing you are interested in buying. If you plan to go the compact camera route, you’ll have the ability to attach “wet” lenses to the front of your housing.

These lenses will enable wider or narrower fields of view than the camera is capable of producing on its own. Be sure to do your research on which wet lenses are available for your camera and housing as these can greatly vary.

For DSLR and mirrorless shooters, the lens you choose will dictate the port you need. Ports come in both acrylic and glass, with the latter being the more expensive, better quality option. Whilst scratches on acrylic are usually easy to fix, glass ports will need to be replaced or have the glass element swapped out.

Ultra-wide lenses sit behind a large, curved port that is more buoyant than that of a macro lens port, whilst macro lenses are usually situated behind less buoyant, flatter ports. Again, think about what it is that you prefer to photograph, and this should help guide you through the process.

equipment underwater photography

Personally, I like to shoot large animals that fill the frame, so my go to workhorse lens is the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens behind an 8.5” dome port. I have other lenses, but none are used more than my fisheye.

I tend to keep a 16-35mm wide-angle lens as a backup in case anything happens to the fisheye, or if I want to vary the perspectives during a shoot. For example, shooting large pelagics from a distance can make them look like sardines with a fisheye, so rectilinear lenses can come in handy for situational use such as this. Luckily, my 8.5” acrylic dome port fits both of these lenses.

Keep in mind, depending on the port you choose, that you may need to purchase an extension ring. The extender sits between the housing and the port. This is something that’s easy to miss that you’ll need to budget for.

Camera Housing

Joanna uses: Nauticam housing

Whilst there are some key things to consider with an underwater camera housing purchase, most of the time photographers place a lot of weight on the design itself. This is understandable, but it’s a good idea to consider a few things such as the available ports for the housing, the available strobe connections, its construction and durability, and whether or not it has a leak detection system.

Most housings have ridiculous depth ratings, but it’s still good to know what that depth is. Also, keep in mind that some housings don’t allow users to access all of the camera’s controls. Be sure to research which camera functions aren’t accessible on the exterior of the housing you choose.

equipment underwater photography

Strobes, connections, and arms

Joanna uses: Inon Z240 strobes and a Sola Focus Light

Strobes are not an essential piece of underwater photography equipment for the majority of situations, however they are probably something you will want to invest in at some point.

Again, you need to ask yourself a few questions: do you prefer moody scenes with a lot of shadows and desaturation, or bright, colourful underwater images? Understanding that will help you decide whether or not to purchase a strobe right away.

At their most basic function, strobes bring back colour that is lost as you descend into the depths. When comparing strobes, you’ll find that they vary in the amount of power and quality of light that they produce, as well as their recycling time. A slow recycle time can be extremely frustrating and is something to really consider when shooting fast moving subjects.

equipment underwater photography

In order to connect strobes to the camera housing, you’ll either need a fibre-optic cable or an electrical sync cord to trigger the strobes. If you are shooting with a compact camera, keep in mind that the internal flash should be avoided. Not only is it insufficient as a light source, it will illuminate particulates in the water column and ruin your images.

DSLR or mirrorless shooters will need to invest in strobe arms, mounting balls, and clamps; compact shooters will likely need a tray with ball mounts that screws into the bottom of the housing. 

Large, powerful strobes are good for lighting a reef scene but can be quite a hindrance when trying to shoot a creature the size of your fingernail. If macro is your thing then you can get away with smaller strobes with less power.

Wide-angle shooters may want to get strobes with more power and a faster recycling time. Again, think about what it is you like to shoot, as it really comes down to that.

In conclusion

Finally, I’d like to emphasise that starting to shoot with just ambient light is a great approach for beginners. Sure, you’ll see many underwater photographers with two strobes attached to their housings, but many photographers (including myself) began with just one. Even though you may see many systems featuring two strobes, remember looks can be deceiving.

equipment underwater photography

Sometimes my strobes are attached to my housing but are completely turned off to capture just the ambient light in a scene. It’s a good policy to avoid getting caught up in what other underwater photographers are doing. If you do decide to get started without strobes be sure to look into housings that have easy access to a manual white balance button—as you will need this more often.

Learn more: 8 Tips to Create Beautiful Underwater Animal Portraits

Hopefully you’ve found this overview of the equipment you will need to get started in underwater photography. By now you should have a clearer understanding of the sort of gear that is required. If you have any questions please reach out in the comment section below, and happy shooting!

Joanna Lentini is an award-winning freelance photographer and writer based in New York. Joanna produces stories related to conservation, outdoor adventure and wildlife photography. Joanna organises photo workshops and is the COO of the non-profit organisation Oceans in Focus, which delivers ocean educational outreach programs to children.

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