This last month, photographer Steven Martine and I have been crisscrossing Florida to showcase travel on land and sea throughout the Sunshine State. With that mission in mind, you can bet there’s going to be a lot of water in our frames. Our cameras have gotten sprayed, submerged, and dunked, in all kinds of water, from cold springs to coral reefs. And if there’s anything that doesn’t take too well to water—especially salt water—it’s sophisticated digital electronics.
Fortunately there are many options these days for protecting cameras from the elements. For a mere $200 you can snap a GoPro inside its plastic shell and it will endure almost any kind of liquid punishment you can dish out. But for those of us who like to have control over f-stops, shutter speeds, lens and focal lengths, etc., a dedicated waterproof housing is necessary. .
Though there are many brands and varieties of waterproof housings, they basically fall into two categories: sport housings and dive housings.
Sport housings, which generally run about $1,000 plus a few hundred more for a lens port, are designed primarily for shooting watersports, and are mostly used to capture action on or above the surface of the water. That mind-blowing shot of a surfer inside a glassy barrel or the shot of a kiteboarder launching six feet from the lens with ripples of spray scattering everywhere—these types of shots are taken with cameras inside sport housings.
Sport housings are made out of tough plastic or aluminum, can withstand a great deal of banging around, and can safely submerge about 30-40 feet below the surface. They also have a positive buoyancy (that is,, they rise to the surface), which can be very handy when a heavy wave wrenches one from your grip and you are forced to swim after it.
During my Bradenton shoot of horseback riders in the waters of Palma Sola Bay, I wanted to get as close as I could to the action in order to convey the feeling of what it’s like to ride a galloping horse through the water. So with a Canon 5D Mark II inside a housing with a 16mm lens behind a dome port, I crouched right at the surface while the women of BeachHorses.com charged past me on their mounts. Not the normal kind of thing a sport housing is used for, but it produced some really cool photos, like the one above.
Dive housings are quite a bit more expensive, but are fitted with stronger seals and better means of withstanding the pressure of deep water. They can be rated for anywhere between 100 and 300 feet or deeper. They also tend to be more sophisticated in terms of design, with more access to your camera’s controls.
Most of the photos you see in National Geographic magazine of deep-water caves and undersea wildlife are shot with cameras inside dive housings. However, unless you plan to be strapping on a scuba tank and spending a lot of time in the deep, you probably won’t be needing that level of protection. Sport housings are perfectly capable of handling the kinds of depths that most snorkelers and non-competitive free divers will be using them for.
Most of us lust after this kind of gear for years before taking the plunge and buying a housing, and we all have budgets to live by. But let me just remind you that for every day you think, Man I wish I had a waterproof camera out here, there are probably dozens of incredible shots you’ve already missed out on taking. Just do yourself a favor and get one already—oh, and if you have a compact or point-and-shoot camera, you are in luck: housings for these cameras tend to run a lot less and still will grant you first-row access to the world of water.
A few bits of advice from personal experience:
-Most housings worth spending money on are “dedicated” housings, meaning that they are designed for a specific model of camera. Your 5D Mmark III will not fit into your old 5D Mmark II housing. So think carefully before you buy, and buy a housing for the camera you think you will be using most in water situations.
-The bane of a watersports photographer’s existence is water beading on the lens port. I can’t tell you how many perfect shots I’ve lost because there was a water droplet covering the subject’s face. There are many secrets and tricks to keeping your images droplet-free, but the simplest one is to cover the front of the port with spit (yes, spit) before you get in the water, let it congeal a bit in the sun, and then keep your camera submerged until about a second before you are ready to shoot. When you pull the camera out of the water, the spit will mix with the water to create a uniform layer of liquid in front of your lens, which you can shoot through with absolute sharpness. You’ll get anywhere from three to five seconds before the water will start to bead. Practice makes perfect on this one. And keep spitting on the port.
-Sport housings float; dive housings sink. You won’t fully appreciate the subtleties of buoyancy until you try to swim underneath a subject with a sport housing in shallow water, or try to take an over/under shot with a dive housing in water that is too deep to stand in. Weight belts and lifejackets can be helpful solutions to your buoyancy issues, as of course will a buoyancy controller. Experiment, practice, and treat your failures as learning experiences.
-Make sure you clamp that fourth latch or tighten that last screw! I’ve flooded more than one camera due to carelessness and impatience. Do an idiot check before you get in the water. Housings work, but only if you use them properly.
With that last point in mind, be aware that you are running a risk whenever you put your camera into the water. No system is foolproof, and all are subject to the possibility of operator error. Respect the water, take your chances, and happily accept both the rewards and consequences of getting your cameras wet.
See more photos by Chris Bickford on Instagram at @chrisbickford.