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Disposable Underwater Cameras

An Underwater Camera Test in the 
Middle of Winter?

t's winter here in the U.S. But while it's a bone chilling 8 degrees outside my office today, it's balmy and warm in Florida, the American Southwest and the Caribbean, which is why so many of you are headed to those places for vacation right about now. 

For those of you lucky enough to be heading off to warmer climes we have a review on underwater vacation cameras courtesy of Charles Dias. Charles is writing from Brazil where the weather is warm and the the beaches beautiful. Hmm, maybe I need to rethink where I'm spending my winters... 

The Basics Specs
Three Cameras Compared Related Reading
Special Underwater Film Processing

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Will you be spending your vacation on a beach, beside a waterfall or along a scenic river? Maybe you're just going to spend your time in a swimming pool with the kids. So why not shoot while in the water? 

There are beautiful pictures to be had both above and below the surface of the water. Since most of us don't have the right equipment to take our SLRs under water, you've probably looked at disposable underwater cameras and wondered about their quality. 

Some Basics
Earth. Perhaps our planet has the wrong name, it's mostly covered by water. We're surrounded by water in the oceans, rivers, and even in our swimming pools. 

But taking photo equipment to the beach can be dangerous for our cameras and lenses. Sand, salt water and harsh sun are all concerns. There are plenty of articles full of advice about cleaning and taking care of photographic equipment at the beach, the dangers of salt water, moisture and sand. These concerns prevent many photographers from enjoying the great photo opportunities that exist on, around and in the water. 

What do we need to know about underwater photography? What kind of equipment exists? 

Basically there are three kinds of "wet" photography:

Surface Photography You shoot with the camera close the water's surface, showing someone swimming, surfing or just playing. You practice this kind of photography when boating, canoeing, rafting, running rapids and participating in other water sports. In this instance the camera isn't taken underwater but it's always in danger of getting wet. Some professional and even amateur compact cameras are fully sealed to allow their use in such conditions but it's not possible to fully protect most amateur and prosumer cameras, compact cameras, SLRs or DSLRs unless you purchase custom built and expensive housings.

Low Depth Underwater Photography This is photography at a depth of less than 10 meters or 33 feet of water. Most compact underwater cameras experience problems below this depth due to light loss, a weak flash or increased water pressure.

Deep Water Photography This is true underwater photography using professional cameras, underwater housings, and sealed external flash units. 

Deep water photography requires a significant investment in both photography and diving equipment as well as time spent learning the skills to dive safely. Your reward is the unbelievable beauty of the flora and fauna that inhabit the seas and coral reefs.

OK those are the options for those who want to shoot in and around the water on a regular basis. But what are the options for those of us who don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on underwater equipment we'll use only once or twice a year during vacations or holidays? Equipment that will only collect dust in a closet the rest of the year.

Well for the rest of us there are disposable underwater cameras. Disposable underwater cameras are simple compact cameras (just advance the film and press the shutter release) encased in a plastic or acrylic housing. They can be used in and around the water and for low depth underwater photography, but while some are capable of withstanding the pressure of deeper water, the lack of light will render them useless in deep water.

The biggest problem with these cameras is their lack of flash. Why is that a problem?

 Water acts like a big blue filter. The deeper you go, the more the red spectrum is filtered out and the bluer your pictures become. When your camera has a flash you supply your own light and your own red spectrum. The result are images with true vibrant colors. 

According to the manufacturers of the disposable underwater cameras, eliminating a powerful flash avoids the risk of electric shock in case of water leaking into the case, and avoids film damage from fumes given off from batteries sealed inside the camera case. An onboard flash can also create severe problems with "backscatter". A condition where small particles floating in the water reflect the flash making it look like your subject is obscured by falling snow. All these problems are corrected on more expensive systems through the use of sealed external flash units. 

So with these limitations why use a disposable underwater camera at all? Because used properly, at shallow depths where the sunlight is less filtered you can get great pictures. 

Keep the following in mind:

- The water is a big filter and it also distorts the image, especially when you're shooting in strong currents. So the object is to get as close as possible - while maintaining a safe distance from wildlife.

- Check the clarity of the water. A lot of sand or small particles in suspension in the water will result in poor images. You'll generally too much sediment kicked up in the water after storms.

- Shoot between the 10 AM to 3 PM to get the maximum sunlight available. The high angle of the sun will even extend the depth to which you can shoot. The low angle of early and late sun limits its penetration below the surface.

- Don't exceed the depth your camera is rated for or you may bring a camera full of water to the surface instead of a camera full of photos.

Follow this advice and experiment and you'll find yourself proud of your "fish time" photos.

Who is Charles Dias?

Charles Dias is the creator and editor of the excellent Brazilian online photo magazine Louco por Fotografia. Currently this site is published only in Portuguese, but you can take a peak using the BableFish translator - a free service from Alta Vista. 

To use it to view Louco por Fotografia, go to , and enter into the Translate a Web page field. Then choose the Portuguese to English translation. There are limits as to what an automated translator can do, but you'll be able to get the gist of the articles and you'll enjoy some wonderful images. 


Related Articles

Underwater Photography: Basics and Beyond

Underwater Light

Basic Shutter Speed, Aperture and Depth of Field 
Underwater, Part I

Basic Shutter Speed, Aperture and Depth of Field 
Underwater, Part II

Sport Divers: Australia's Rowley Shoals

Diving Africa's Lake Malawi



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