The Big Leap
Contributed by Scuba Diver Australasia
With several reputable brands producing entry-level digital SLRs (DSLRs) at
a very competitive price, a number of underwater photographers currently using
consumer or prosumer cameras are now thinking of upgrading their current set-up.
But stop! Before you make the big leap, just read these few words of hard-earned
The SLR Advantage:
As a consumer digital camera user, you certainly have been put off more than
once by shutter lag, this delay between the shutter release being depressed
and the actual photo being taken by the camera. However slight, this delay is
sufficient to make you miss that shot of a posing clownfish or of a manta ray
passing overhead. This problem is an artefact of consumer digital cameras, and
is virtually non-existent in DSLRs. There is no noticeable delay between the
actuation of the shutter release and the actual shot. This is a significant
advantage underwater, where you often only get one opportunity to take a shot.
A corollary of this is the ability of DSLRs to take shots in close repetition.
These cameras are normally provided with a generous amount of buffer memory,
which translates into the possibility to take several shots in close succession,
without having to wait until the camera has finished writing the pictures, since
the latter are stored in the camera’s built-in memory bank. This particular
ability of SLRs is especially useful when shooting RAW (more on this in a future
article), given the relatively large size of the files produced. By comparison,
one often has to wait several seconds, depending on the format and size of the
picture, before being able to take the next shot. Here again, this could mean
missing out on a photo opportunity.
Another clear advantage of DSLR cameras is the quality of the lenses. Camera
and lens manufacturers generally produce lenses that exhibit much better optical
properties for DSLRs than for consumer cameras. This results in images that
are of higher quality, and sharper from corner to corner on DSLRs. This is further
enhanced by the fact that currently, the majority of lenses used by DSLRs are
originally manufactured for use with film-based cameras. The centre portion
of the image projected by these lenses is generally sharper and clearer than
the periphery. Since most digital DSLRs only capture this centre portion of
the image, pictures produced by DSLRs with these lenses are of high quality.
The fact that DSLRs only capture the centre portion of the image projected
by the lenses presents an added advantage when shooting macro subjects: since
the camera sensors sees a smaller picture angle, the subjects appear magnified,
as if the picture had been taken with a lens of longer focal length. This effectively
makes DSLRs great tools for shooting macro subjects.
Besides lens quality, DSLRs also benefit from the flexibility afforded by the
extremely diverse offering of lenses available on the market, ranging from the
widest fisheye to the longest telephoto lens. Depending on the subject you want
to shoot, you can always find the right lens for the job.
Finally, DSLR cameras are usually highly customisable. It is possible to make
fine adjustments over a wide range of shooting parameters to achieve just the
right shot. Even high-end prosumer digital cameras cannot match the amount of
customisation afforded by DSLRs.The Catch:
Now, that’s for the good news. However, all is not necessarily better
in DSLRs. First of all, there’s the cost involved in upgrading. Although
entry-level DSLRs may cost the same as high-end prosumer cameras, one also has
to factor in the cost of additional lenses and ports, and the generally higher-priced
housings. Fortunately, most strobes used with prosumer cameras can also be used
with DSLRs. Nonetheless, for a complete DSLR set-up, you could be looking at
forking out an extra A$1,500 as compared with a high-end prosumer one. This
may not sound too bad, when weighed against all the advantages of DSLRs.
On the other hand, the fact that DSLRs use interchangeable lenses may prove
a disadvantage for underwater photographers. While most underwater housing for
consumer or prosumer digital cameras accept external wide-angle or macro conversion
lenses, the same cannot be said of DSLR housings. In fact, at the time of writing
this article, I am only aware of the existence a wet-attached x2 lens for close-up
shots, but no wide-angle conversion lens. This means that you have to make a
conscious choice before the dive as to which type of subject you will be shooting
during the dive. So if you planned to shoot nudibranchs and a turtle comes by,
you may just be able to capture its eye.
Long-time consumer digital camera users who have gotten used to framing their
subjects using the LCD screen of the camera may be put off at first when switching
to a DSLR. Since these cameras have a mirror or a prism between the lens and
the sensor to allow photographers to see through the lens in the viewfinder,
it is not possible to preview the picture on the LCD. One can only review it
after the shot. This is not as bad as it seems, since it is possible to check
that the subject is properly focussed, which may be missed out when using the
LCD. Also, some housing manufacturers, such as Seacam, produce angled viewfinders
that allow DSLR users to shoot in a natural swimming position.
A last point to consider is the extra bulk and weight of a DSLR as compared
with a consumer camera set-up. Depending on what equipment you are currently
using, you could well be looking at adding 10kg to your gear bag. This is an
important consideration when travelling to exotic dive destinations, as you
could end up having to pay substantial excess luggage.Your Call:
Hopefully, these few points will provide some insight on the pros and cons
of using a DSLR underwater. Ultimately, it is up to you to weigh the advantages
and disadvantages in the light of your diving and shooting habits, and decide
whether or not DSLRs are the right tool for you.
This article was originally published in Scubadiver Australasia - issue 1 - 2005