My first digital underwater camera was the Fuji F100fd I received for Christmas in 2008 (It was very much appreciated, as I'd already bought the housing). It lacked any serious manual controls -not that I would have known how to use them- and it would only offer up JPGs rather than RAW files, but it was more than enough for my needs at the time. I even managed to get some reasonably well-lit shots with the onboard strobe, though this was decidedly hit and miss. Fortunately it was pretty decent in low-light situations. As I slowly got better at composing my shots I found myself, like many other British underwater photographers before me, favouring macro to avoid taking in too much backscatter. I could only get in so close however, and after nearly ten years of casual snapshots I began to start thinking about a replacement.
Seeing the light
Whilst I was still using the Fuji, I went through a phase of action cameras: the 2014 Gopro HERO, and two iterations of the Apeman a80, the last one with 4k. However, I wasn't really doing much with the clips of wobbly video I took, despite acquiring underwater video lights. What's more, I found a fixed wide-angle lens was not the most helpful for the underwater profiles and macro I was doing more of. The appealing compact form factor of the action camera limits the amount of light hitting the (necessarily smaller) sensor. Owing to the popularity of the Gopro brand, there were (and are) numerous ways to work around the shortcomings I've mentioned. The popular US dive shop Backscatter developed their 'Flip Mount' system to add filters and a macro lens, INON of Japan brought out a similar cage and lens mount. More powerful video lights were also an option. I liked the results diving friends were getting with their Gopro macro lenses, but there was always this trade-off with blurry edges. Once I realised such thing as a 1" sensor compact existed, I started doing my research on compacts again and I was quickly steered toward the Sony RX100 (and the Canon/Panasonic equivalents).
'Perfect' I thought, upon picking up an rx100 second hand in November of 2017, a bigger sensor, 20.1 megapixels, better still in low light than my Fuji. I was indeed really happy... until I managed to flood the housing and camera a few short months later. I would like to blame the housing for this error, but truth is I had sealed it far too carelessly and, despite a DIY screen replacement, my first RX100 was toast. Being absolutely skint and on paternity leave at the time (2018) I had no means to buy another one, so it was back to the trusty old fujifilm for the rest of that year.
Adding the first strobe
Even before I started dabbling with strobes, I felt the need to try and get a bit closer to my subjects. In May of 2019 I was able to pick up my first wet-contact optic, INONs popular UCL-165, which acts as a +6 diopter in water, offering 2.5x magnification and my first proper crack at underwater macro. Prior to this, my efforts with the rx100 would result in blurry images up close, whereas (with a little concentration) I could get crisp close-ups almost on top of my subject. The anemone shrimps I'd been finding all over Chesil Cove suddenly came to life. It felt like a real jump, and I'd definitely still recommend one to anybody starting out with underwater photography. Another plus of the UCL-165, in addition to its (relatively) cheap price, is the fact that you can stack two together to produce a +12 super macro image. In application, this doesn't actually work so well, mostly because the 'sweet spot' of focus is so challenging to attain, any bit of surge or waft of wave could spoil your shot or blur the edges. It was certainly difficult with the 28mm Sony rx100 and a real nightmare with a subject moving at any speed. I kept at it, but started looking around for dedicated super macro alternatives. It wasn't long (September 2020) before I lighted on the Nauticam CMC-1, which has a well-deserved reputation for crisp edges. Alex over at the UK Nauticam dealership, Underwater Visions, was very helpful and offered some handy tips on care and cleaning- which I was grateful for as this was my most expensive bit of underwater photography gear to date . Many friends reading this will find that last observation hilarious, as it's well known that underwater photography is not a cheap hobby. For my part (as you can probably see) I like to try and get the best I can from a modest budget. That, and there's a chance my wife might be reading this.
I was lucky enough to pick up a replacement RX100 off ebay by the end of 2018, yet before long I felt I was reaching the limitations of what I could do with my (albeit cheap and cheerful) video lights. I could either double down on video lights or teach myself how to use an external strobe. Being a mostly stills guy, I went with the strobe, first a god-awful Fantasea Remora which was dead in two months (luckily, I'd only wasted £50 on it) and then a far more robust INON s-2000 with a proper (Sea & Sea style) optical bushel connector.
It took some time, but I finally started 'freezing the action' and losing that annoying soft blurring associated with taking pictures under video light. Sadly I was still not proficient enough with the strobe to take it out with me when I had the incredible fortune to see a Torpedo (electric) ray in Chesil Cove, along with a large mobile crawfish on the same dive. Using the strobe meant much more fiddling with settings, not to mention a better grip on the exposure triangle than I had necessarily required before, fudging along with auto modes as I had been. Advice from other photographers, books on the subject as well as lots of trial and error with my frequent photography buddy (who had already made the jump to a strobe prior to me) helped me improve, but my lighting is still very much a work in progress.
Reaching for APS-C
Truth be told, I'm very much at home with a compact underwater, and the idea of taking anything meatier down there with me had not even crossed my mind. To this day my rx100 probably gets taken underwater twice as much as my bigger Sony (More on that score later). I ended up getting an APS-C camera because my focus on the principles of photography underwater was steadily creeping out on land. I mean, the interest had clearly always been there, but now I started thinking of the kind of landscapes and creature portraits I could pursue above sea-level. It was also noticeable that I had transformed into one of those bores that carries a camera around with them almost everywhere (much like diving). I started seriously considering the pros and cons of Canon and Nikon DSLRs and I very nearly bought a Nikon D3500 early in December of 2018. The size bothered me though. I wanted the flexibility of an interchangeable lens camera, something I could add a telephoto lens to for bird and nature shots, yet I had to be able to move the thing about easily. Quite how I had remained utterly ignorant of the Sony Alpha line of mirrorless interchangeable cameras is beyond me, but utterly ignorant I was.
As soon as I saw the α6000, it just made sense to me, given the way I like to shoot. It's understated, I never feel like I'm some paparazzi with a massive hefty DSLR, etcetera etcetera. I mean, they always say the best camera is the one you have with you, and here was one scarcely bigger than my rx100 that had 179 more AF points and the 24 MP APS-C sensor on a par with any of the DSLRs I had been considering. The α6000 was, and still is, a phenomenal amount of camera for the £285 I picked one up for.
That's not to say there aren't any downsides to buying into the Sony E-mount system. I had an inkling of the breath-taking sums the truly decent G series lenses cost when I bought the camera, but I quickly despaired of being able to own a telephoto lens with any range, and the selection of glass for the E mount was heavily biased towards their bigger full-frame brothers. Perversely, I found APS-C was the poor relative. The menu too, is the least intuitive jumble of associated commands and options that anybody could conceive. Reading the photography forums, I'd heard how that alone was enough to put people off the α series. Lucky I started with the rx100 really, as I'm not used to anything different! In addition, I gradually understood there were ways around the glass situation too, making do with macro tubes in place of a dedicated lens and picking up the value 55-210 prior to a trip looking for puffins on Skomer in May of 2019. Other acquisitions included the superb APS-C only Samyang 12mm NCS CS f2.0 (See Astrophotography section) and I also picked up a retro Helios 44-M (for the swirly bokeh) and a Minolta 50mm prime 1:2. The crispness of the latter in comparison to the (perfectly adequate) kit 16-50mm zoom blew me away. That is one of the real bonuses of the mirrorless platform to my knowledge: the correspondingly shorter distance to the sensor means you can attach literally anything to an α series and be assured of a result (albeit, not one you necessarily want!) the flexibility of the whole system really appeals. Not just that, but going manual with the retro glass really made me concentrate on what I was trying to achieve. 'Zooming' with my feet again became oddly refreshing, f-stops are pretty obvious when they're a massive dial that clicks in front of you! I digress. This was supposed to be about how a simple 2008 point and shoot Fuji got warped out of all recognition into this monster:
By June of 2019, despite my resolve not to risk my 'land' camera in the way that had dished my first rx100, I somehow found myself picking up a barely used Meikon a6000 housing. The previous owner had attempted some surf photography with it before relenting, and now (after a few dives empty to confirm a seal) I suddenly found myself with more options. As expected, stacking Inon 165s was no-go owing to the larger sensor, but I was later pleased by the performance of the kit 16-50 with the Nauticam CMC-1 when I picked it up last year. The real revelation however, was the compatibility with the Sigma 19mm DN 'Art' wide angle lens, which just squeezed inside the fixed glass housing.
The beauty of all those 1" ball mount arms and trays is that everything is so very interchangeable and flexible. A few investments in, and what I have can readily be transferred to the next thing.
As it happened, the next thing came about the following year, during the 2020 lockdown. I sold on my Seafrogs housing (perhaps rather rashly on ebay, given the useful double 67mm lens holders on it) and upgraded to the Salted Line (Gen3) with a 6" dome. I had a bit of compatible glass already, but I got really excited by the prospect of using the Tokina 10-17mm with it. This wasn’t (of course) as simple as it first appeared, but you can read all about that in my ‘Kit Focus’ blog on this housing.
I enjoyed roughly three summers of using a combination of my smaller rx100 polycarb housing (shooting exclusively macro) alongside my bigger seafrogs housing (shooting exclusively wide) but in that time, with restrictions easing after the assorted lockdowns, I began to get into slightly deeper diving again, including more trips out on the boat during 2022. I began to feel that I wanted something a bit more robust; certainly a bit less plastic-y with a permanent vacuum valve, and my relentless gear acquisition syndrome reared its head once more. I’d decided I wanted to focus on a decent, reasonably flexible compact with an option for a wet wide angle alongside my existing CMC-1 macro lens.
After picking up an almost new Nauticam rx100 iv housing on eBay, I was on the chat to Alex Tattersall at Underwater Visions again, asking whether it would take the more recent mk.V. I’d known the VI or higher was out of the question as those bodies have the 200mm equivalent lens, but I was pleased to hear it would take a mk.V with only one simple dial replacement. Being a kind, generous soul, Alex supplied the part for free as I was also purchasing a tray and arm system, alongside the body 1” ball mount. It was surprisingly good fun fitting all the requisite pieces together, and I even marked the occasion of my first proper aluminium housing by making up a bolt snap carry cord with some boating cable and nylon twine.
In the end I settled on the mk.Va – the 2018 refresh to get it as close in years and processing power as my (now safely ‘land’ a6400). It also features similar quality 4k recording, as I was pleased to see. A quick dip with it in September of 2022 saw me get lucky with a few shots of the common but relatively rarely photographed Garfish, a wish list encounter I chose to interpret as a good beginning.
Whilst the housing was equipped with an illuminated moisture alarm, it did also come with a blank m14 bulkhead which I longed to swap out. Luckily, Christmas 2022 swung round, and it transpired I had been good enough this past year to pick up an m14 vacuum valve, meaning I can now pump the unit sealed for a green (rather than blue) light, and have that much more peace of mind during my dives (Thanks mum! x).
Unsurprisingly, with all this aluminium, two inon s-2000s and a focus light, a New Year’s Day dive confirmed my suspicions that the rig was getting uncomfortably heavy. There’s barely room for a gnat to squeeze into the Nauticam housing, and the camera itself requires a gentle prod to sit snugly inside. This is unlike the larger mirrorless and DSLR offerings, which must be correspondingly voluminous to accommodate a range of ports. The upshot is (and I honestly should have given this more thought) that you have to make your ‘compact’ rig correspondingly bigger with hefty float arms to offset the negative weight of it all, whereas your mirrorless and DSLR concerns will be closer to neutral.
Fortunately help was again at hand, this time in the shape of Phil from Alphamarine Photography, who quickly sorted me out with a pair of INON mega Ms and a few other necessaries. I thought these might be the best bet, as I discovered the full rig was 1kg negative (!) when weighed in a bucket on the digital luggage scales. Whilst I did like the look of the Nauticam float arms, I do actually want to mount 67mm lens holders, which the mega Ms are already set up to do with a thread on each.
So, there we have it, my UW rig for 2023 at last. I’m really hopeful this will give me the most in-water flexibility I’ve had in a long old while, with a more or less up to date compact. I just need a Backscatter Miniflash 2 snoot now, and my G.A.S. pixie will be well and truly satiated. Well, we shall see…