I never bought an underwater rig I didn’t like

by Janice Nigro

There I was again. In the store. Less than three weeks before a dive trip. Considering the options.

“I just want to see what it looks like,” I said.

That was the end. The guy behind the counter knew he had me.

“Yeah, here you can hold the housing and see how well it fits in your hands,” he said handing it over to me carefully.

I went in to the shop to buy a simple o-ring for my old housing and left with a plan for a more expensive something else.

The dilemma for me for several years now has been when to crossover to a camera with dedicated lenses for underwater. I am obsessed with macro shots, the kind of images capturing the eyeballs of some already barely visible creature in glorious detail.

A high-end compact with some manual functions will get you pretty far, but you are handicapped. For one, you can never achieve the level of sharpness, even with a compact with great macro capabilities, that you can with a great dedicated macro lens.

So I went home…to think about it. Yeah, I didn’t really think about it. I reacted the same as I did the first time I bought an underwater camera. I just handed over my credit card. Because there is no better time to buy an underwater rig than right before you might actually be able to use it. But what was different from the first time, is that I knew what underwater photography did for me. Discovering it opened many new worlds for me, let alone an appreciation for all creatures in all their wacky forms underwater.

The dollar amount was bigger this time. I hesitated, thinking, I can’t have everything I want when I want it. “But,” I told the guy in the shop, “I have some mad money.” He had no clue what that was. Being a guy, I suppose he wouldn’t know. Technically, mad money is for that moment when you need to escape a date. A few dollars to take a taxi home. Maybe it’s irrelevant now in the day of the latest app for “Uber” or “My Taxi” but I had it, my mad money to purchase a new camera and housing.

The idea to buy a new camera was not entirely spontaneous (although the trip was). I had really been considering a new rig for a long time; probably since the first day I took photographs underwater 12 years ago. Part of the problem is that there are just too many options to consider. The options start at pretty basic-a compact in a plastic housing-but the price point is already at a few hundred dollars. And it just goes up from there.

You have the same choices as on land, compact, DSLR, mirrorless and even film. Every big brand has their own version of these options. And underwater photography is further complicated by the choices for underwater housings.

So how do you decide?

Not so many people use film any longer underwater. There are pluses just as on land, but for me film is right out. Your time is limited underwater-humans need to breathe air-so digital is the way to go. You learn every day, every hour, every shot. You have immediate feedback on the lighting, the focus, and your settings. There is no better tool than a digital camera; you learn while diving, and you can evaluate your work at the end of the day on the computer. So film is easy to eliminate, what else do you consider?

I had a lot of issues holding me back. Money was a big one. It’s hard to jump when you have to invest a few more than the usual dollars into something you might do about 40 hours a year. And I always find myself leaving the decision to right before a trip bumping up my stress level.

My thinking all along was that composition is what matters most. You don’t need an expensive camera to take great photographs. You just need to see the shot.

I was also worried about the size of my rig. My point and shoot is easy to travel with; everything fits into a backpack. It’s important for traveling, especially flying domestic in Indonesia. On domestic flights, it’s a big mad dash to get space in the overhead bins, and they aren’t always standard size like in the USA.

It’s also important to feel safe underwater. My compact never gets in the way of my diving.

The easiest step forward would have been to take my land camera, a Canon DSLR underwater; I already have a great macro lens for it. I could invest in lenses then that I could use on land as well as in the water. And I love the camera; it’s been everywhere with me, really everywhere. But it’s heavy and big, and even bigger in a housing.

Complicating everything is that by the time you decide which camera and housing to buy, the camera is almost already old news.

Based on those considerations, it was easy to make a decision-mirrorless. Some mirrorless cameras are quite expensive while others are not. The lenses often cost more than the camera, but they are usually designed to universally fit a brand’s entire line of cameras. For this reason many photographers are all one brand and not the other. Canon unfortunately does not have a great mirrorless option so I went for the Olympus. I already had experience using Nauticam housings-they are easy to use, and they fit my small hands. They also offer a vacuum system which helps you to know the system is air tight.

It was an extravagance on top of an extravagance.

There wasn’t much time to prepare before the trip. When I first took the housing out of the box and looked at all the buttons, I wondered how far my head was screwed loose this time. I took some photographs around town, enough to work through some basic issues before going underwater. And all the parts fit into my bag that goes under the seat in front of you on the plane. That was a critical test.

I would like to say everything went perfectly after that. I not only had an issue with the vacuum and moisture detection sensor in the housing after the first dive, but I dropped the camera getting out of the van in Bali before the diving even began. Yep, I dinged it. Lesson 1: your underwater camera is for underwater only.

As for the sensor, I have little advice except to wonder if too much sophistication can be a bad thing. There was no water inside the housing, and the camera had not been compromised. My aspirations dashed in that first hour of diving…Maybe it had all been too easy, I thought. Maybe I pushed everything too far this time, waiting until the last minute and heading off without much experience with the camera.

But really, “I was done with the old camera,” I said out loud to my roommate. This was just an inconvenience, I told myself, a necessary step in moving forward.

After I investigated online a bit, others had complained that the Nauticam sensor had some possible engineering issues. I decided to do a test dive without the camera and without the sensor. All indications were that the housing was air tight. So I put the camera in and dove with it. The camera worked like a dream throughout the rest of my trip. I found it to be much easier to shoot, and more of my shots were in focus. I didn’t have to take quite as many shots to get one I liked or even linger over sites or critters for so long.

Yep, the rig cost me my mad money…but maybe it’s like buying gelato. Sometimes you get a flavor you are not crazy about, but you are still always glad you bought it. I can say I really never have bought an underwater rig I didn’t like.

©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, PLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.

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