Under Water Photography with a Compact Digital Camera

Dr. Robert Berdan
(Photographs taken with Pentax Optio W30 compact camera )
May 14, 2011




Kayakers on West Coast taken with Pentax Optio by Robert Berdan

Snapshot of kayakers off the West Coast taken with the Pentax Optio W30 Camera - these cameras are also suitable
for regular photography above the water, but be sure to wipe off any water spots first.

If you are heading to the beach this summer, boating or fishing you may want to bring along a waterproof camera. There are currently several compact cameras that are completely waterproof and they can each be purchased for under $500. The quality of the images is not up to what you get with a DSLR, but good enough to make an 8 x 10 inch print and display on the web. There are plenty of online reviews that compare the different underwater cameras for e.g. see www.dpreview.com.

Green Surf Anemones, Purple Star and Hydroid by Robert Berdan ©

Photograph of Green Surf Anemones, Purple Star and Hydroid

I have used the Pentax Optio W30 camera with produces 7.1 MP images for photographing in tide pools and from a kayak on the West coast. In macro mode I can get the front lens within a centimeter of my subject allowing me to take close-ups. The camera is small and easily fits in my life jacket pocket and has a wide angle zoom lens that produces satisfactory photos above water as well. Considering its price, around $300, I believe it's a good value. However, there are some things I don't like and would like to see improved. There is a distinct lag between pressing the button and the camera taking the picture. Also autofocus is slow and there isn't any vibration reduction in the W30 model. Furthermore, the body has a slick, shinny smooth surface that is hard to get a good grip on especially when your hands are wet. I would like to see some rubber on the body to prevent it from slipping out of my hands. There are rubber skins you can purchase to protect and improve the grip of the camera, but this is just poor design. As far as I know none of the current compact digital cameras shoots RAW files which limits how much I can enlarge and manipulate the images in Photoshop afterwards. Also be sure you have at least one spare battery as the current battery does not last long and you can expect to need to change it after about 100-150 shots. The latest Pentax Optio WG-1 seems to address some of my concerns and includes 14 megapixels, a digital microscope mode with LED lens lighting, 720p HD video, 16:9 aspect ratio and Digital Shake Reduction. Pentax also put some rubber around the camera for a better grip. The OPTIO W30 has 4:3 aspect ratio which looks too "square" to me so most of the pictures in this article have been cropped to provide a more panoramic feel. Now if one of the manufacturers of underwater compact cameras would add the ability to take RAW files, I will buy it!

Pentax Optio Cameras

Some cameras also offer underwater mode where they alter the white balance to correct for the overall
blue cast that often occurs in water, I prefer to fix the colours using Adobe Photoshop.

Miray photographing Invertebrates attached to dock by Robert Berdan

Miray demonstrates how she photographs invertebrates attached to a dock at Shearwater, BC. The best results occur
when photographing in shallow water with bright sunlight. I like to refer to this way of shooting as the "Miray technique."

Miray photographing Invertebtrates on side of dock with Pentax Optio W30 by Robert Berdan

By dipping the camera into the water and watching the view screen it is possible to take photographs that
resemble those taken by divers. See photographs below taken with the "Miray technique."

Plumose Anemone by Robert Berdan

Plumose Anemone on side of Dock showing open and closed versions.

Giant Plumose Anemone and tube worms by Robert Berdan ©

Giant Plumose Anemone and tube worms growing on the shide of the dock in Shearwater, BC.

Anemone by Robert Berdan ©

Anemone on side of Dock surrounded by smaller tube worms.

Bright orange coloured Anemone growing on dockside, Shearwater, BC.

Giant Plumose Anemone by Robert Berdan ©

Giant Plumose Anemone

Green Surf Anemone tentacles by Robert Berdan ©

Close-up of tentacles on Green Surf Anemone in tide pool. I held the camera about 1 cm from the subject and
set the camera to macro mode.

Sunflower star by Robert Berdan ©

Sunflower star in tide pool, they may have up to 26 arms and 15.000 tube feet.

Lion's Mane Jelly fish by Robert Berdan ©

Lion's Mane Jelly fish - this jelly fish has stinging tentacles that feel like a wasp sting and it grows up to 2 m in diameter. Photographed from the side of my kayak while paddling on the West Coast.

Moon Jelly by Robert Berdan ©

Moon Jelly - spawning aggregations are often found in sheltered bays, photographed from the back of our boat.

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Short film of Moon Jellies made from the back of our boat, the Mothership III , using the Pentax Optio W30.

The main challenge when taking movies underwater with the Pentax Optio is focussing. The movie above was made by simply holding the camera under the surface of the water with my hand. In some instances I set the camera to manual focus and increased the ISO speed, hence the grainy appearance of the video. While the results aren't spectacular the camera does a pretty good job in shallow water and should also be good for snorkling. In Alberta,I have used the camera to photograph trout with a friend of mine, Frank Wood (see Frank's article on Fly Fishing photography) see below.

Cutthroat trout from Upper Oldman River by Robert Berdan ©

Cutthroat Trout from the Upper Oldman River in Alberta - Pentax Optio W30.

Fisherman and Cutthroat Trout by Robert Berdan ©

In this photograph I combined a picture of the fisherman (Frank Wood) taken from above the water with one taken below the water (Pentax Optio) using Adobe Photoshop. If you try to take a shot above and below the water at the same time the exposure will be off due to the much brighter conditions above the water. To take these types of shots the Pros often use a waterproof housing with a graduated neutral density filter over the top view.

When photographing with the Pentax Optio, or any underwater camera, don't forget to wipe the lens clean after removing it from the water or you will have water drops on your images taken out of the water. Holding the camera steady in the water and focusing on Rob Berdan bending over to take photographs in a tide pool. your subject is the main challenge. I have tried using the flash underwater, but without a lot of success. I also tried attaching the camera to my monopod and inserting it into rivers with swimming salmon using my self timer, but as soon as the salmon see the camera they swam away. The main advantage the Optio camera offers is that when photographing tide pools I can insert the camera into the pool and avoid reflections and overall loss of contrast. It is possible to use waterproof plastic housings to put your DSLR camera into the water, but these housings can cost more then the DSLR camera and I found they often fog up on the inside and are bulky. There are currently at least seven different waterproof digital compact cameras on the market - see the review of these cameras at dpreview. Given their relatively low price compared to DSLR cameras, if you are wanting to take pictures in the water down to depths of about 10 m (30 feet), then these cameras are a great way to get started. I am not promoting the Pentax model per se as one of my friends on the kayak trip brought along an Olympus underwater camera and got similar results - the point I hope to make is that if you travel to the coast or anywhere you might want to photograph in the water - an underwater compact camera will provide additional photo opportunities. Finally, I show the proper technique for photographing in tide pools on the right (photo courtesy Steve Fagan).

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