There are quite a number of makes and models of
housings available to you at a range of different prices to suit most
pockets. This article discusses the features to consider when
purchasing a housing. The accompanying table enables you to find out
which camera / housing combinations are available off-the-shelf with
links to the manufacturer's and UK retailer's web sites to assist you
in your choice.
Choosing a housing
Your choice of SLR housing may depend on whether or
not you already have a camera that you want to house.
Underwater SLR camera housings are only
available off-the-shelf for a relatively small number of the makes
and models of SLR land cameras, so there may not be a suitable
housing off-the-shelf for your existing camera. You may therefore
need to consider which camera / housing combination you need.
Although some manufacturers will make a custom housing for you, this
is likely to cost more. Or you could consider making your own, as
several BSoUP members have done.
Fortunately for underwater photographers, housings
are available off-the-shelf for many of the Nikon and Canon models
and for some of the Mamiya, Minolta, Olympus, Pentax, Vivitar and
Yashica models of SLR cameras.
If you already own an SLR camera from one of the
manufacturers listed above, you can use the table below to check if
there is a housing available off-the-shelf for your make of camera.
If your camera is not listed, then you should consider building or
having built a custom housing or purchasing a new or second-hand
camera and an appropriate housing. With the increasing emphasis on
digital cameras for the land photographer there is quite a
competitive market for second-hand SLR cameras. All of the housing
manufacturers listed below make housings for one or more Nikon SLR
cameras, which are probably the most widely used by underwater
Currently, the most popular choice amongst BSoUP
members is a Subal housing for a Nikon F801 or F90, although some
members use others, including Aquatica. Although with the
availability of the new Nikon F100 and suitable housings this will
almost certainly change in the future. Their choice, however, may be
dictated by availability and proximity to a retailer within the UK.
My wife, in contrast, uses a Hugyphot housing for a Pentax LX
purchased at a time when Hugyphot were available in the UK . A number
of other successful photographers use a housing from other
manufacturers or a housing that they have built themselves.
Polycarbonate, aluminium or
Housings are usually made from injection
moulded polycarbonate, aluminium or alloy. Polycarbonate housings
tend to be cheaper than their aluminium or alloy equivalents, which
can be more expensive than the camera they are designed to
Ikelite and Nimar each make two different
sized housings (Nimar 2 and 3 and Ikelite TTL SLR-AF and MD-size
respectively) from polycarbonate for a range of different makes and
models of SLR camera, although the choice of controls available for
Ikelite housings varies considerably, dependent on the camera housed
These 'one size - fits all', polycarbonate housings
tend to be bulkier and more buoyant than aluminium housings designed
for a specific camera. Their one major advantage is that you can see
when they leak, if you have failed to maintain the all-important
o-ring seals. They will also accommodate more water before the camera
gets wet. Although tough, polycarbonate housings can easily be
scratched and cracked if abused, but they will not corrode.
If you want to house a Minolta, Olympus or Yashica
SLR camera, you currently have no option but to choose a
Other manufacturers housings, made from
aluminium or alloy, tend to be smaller and less buoyant than their
polycarbonate equivalents. Aluminium and alloy housings, usually
designed for a specific make and model of camera, will fit so snugly
that there is little space between camera and housing. In the event
of a leak the camera will almost certainly be ruined. Aluminium and
alloy housings are more robust than polycarbonate housings and can
take a fair bit of abuse without coming to much harm, although they
can corrode, particularly around stainless steel fittings (where
present), if not thoroughly soaked in freshwater after immersion in
sea water. Some housings come complete with a leak detector and for
those that don't, you should purchase one from an independent
The front and back part of a housing may be
secured either by catches or screws. It is possible to under or over
tighten screws, either of which can lead to a leak.
The design of the housing should be such that
the primary controls are readily to hand. At the very least you
should be able to hold the housing comfortably whilst still being
able to press the shutter release and focus in a controlled manner.
As a test, hold the housing by its handles or grips at eye-level and
try half depressing the shutter release, with your fore-finger, to
activate the camera's LED display without taking a picture, and focus
on something using the thumb and fore-fingers of the other hand. If
it doesn't feel comfortable and natural check to see if the handles
can be adjusted or replaced with more suitable ones for your
particular hand size or, if not, try a different make of
All housings include external controls for the
shutter release, focus and aperture.
Most housings also include other external controls e.g. on/off,
speed , Film
speed, exposure compensation, manual, single or continuous
exposure and spot, centre-weighted or matrix metering etc.
There will also be one or more bulkhead connectors
to which your flash or flashes connect externally. Although you might
be tempted, if money is no object, to buy the housing with the
greatest number of controls for your chosen camera, you should think
carefully about which you actually need to use underwater. The
simpler you make it the less chance of error!Viewfinders
You will need to consider the ease with which you
can compose and focus your camera once it is housed. Not all SLR
cameras have built-in viewfinders which allow you to see 100% of the
area which will be exposed to the film when you press the shutter.
Cameras with Sports or Action finders give better coverage than
others. Make the wrong choice of housing and its built-in viewfinder
port may reduce this area further. As a general rule the closer you
can get your eye to the housed camera's viewfinder whilst wearing a
mask, the greater your chance of seeing the same area that is exposed
The addition of a magnifying lens to the
camera's or housing's viewfinder may enable you to see more of the
subject area, but it will also make the subject look smaller and
therefore make it more difficult to focus on and compose your
subject. Of course, if you are using auto-focus then focusing should
not be a problem.
You should think about the lens or lenses you want
to use underwater. The prices quoted for most housings do not include
Most BSoUP members use a 50 mm and/or 105 mm
macro lens and a 20 mm wide-angle, and some find that a 16 mm
fish-eye and a zoom lens can be quite useful underwater. You will
need different ports to accommodate the length and angle of each
different lens. If you are buying your first housing, then start with
a macro lens and port and master this before investing in additional
lenses and ports.
Ports generally use a bayonet type fitting,
sealed by a serviceable o-ring, to the front part of the housing.
Glass ports are usually better optically than perspex, and less
Macro lenses work perfectly well with a flat port,
but wide-angle lenses need a dome port. The reasons for this are that
a flat port reduces the angle of a wide-angle lens; causes colour
distortion at the edges of the frame, causes geometric distortion and
reduces the focusing range of the lens, which can only be corrected
with a hemispherical dome port. Usually the more complete a
hemisphere the better the optical quality, but larger domes can be
almost as bulky as the housing and a greater risk of damage.
Dome ports introduce further problems, which
require the addition of a positive lens or diopter to the primary
wide-angle lens of the camera to compensate for the negative effects
of the dome. The manufacturer or retailer should be able to advise
you as to the strength of the required lens. Once you have the
correct diopter for your lens/dome combination you should be ready
embark on wide-angle photography.
Domes which are sold for more than one wide-angle
lens are likely to give better results for one of the lenses than the
others. Housed zoom lenses should be of the type in which the lens
does not change length, focusing being achieved internally.
Flash attachments and
Your flash connects externally
to a bulkhead connector on the housing. Most bulkhead connectors
accept Nikonos type flash plugs. If you want to use multiple strobes,
say a master to light the subject and bring back the colour and a
slave to fill in some of the shadow, you should purchase a housing
with two bulkhead connectors, although it is possible to purchase a
splitter to connect two flash units to a single bulkhead connector.
Connection between the bulkhead and the camera is via a cable either
to the camera's hot shoe (TTL makes and models) or x-synch (manual
makes and models e.g. Pentax LX).
The flash arm may be attached
directly to the handles of the housing or to a tray secured to the
base of the housing, dependent on make. Of course, if you are only
using one of the currently available ring flash units for macro
photography, then you will not need flash arms. These units fit onto
the macro port, although they do produce a very flat
Just like amphibious cameras,
housings rely on o-rings to maintain their water-tight integrity. The
number of o-rings will vary from one model to another and from one
camera to another, dependant on which external controls are
available. Generally, as in the Nikonos range of amphibious cameras,
there are only two easily serviceable o-rings, one to seal the front
to the back of the housing and the other to seal the lens port to the
front of the housing. However, the o-rings sealing the control levers
can certainly be serviced more readily than those of a Nikonos. The
more external controls there are, the greater the potential risk of
flooding, so you should have your housing regularly serviced if this
is not your forte.
There are a wealth of accessories
available from the major housing manufacturers and others.
Handles or trays to attach flash
arms, are a must. Wide-angle photography requires longer flash arms
than macro photography, unless you are prepared to hand hold your
flash unit. If you intend to hand-hold your flash unit when taking
pictures, then you will need a flash arm that, although securely
attached to the housing, can be easily be detached.
A leak-detector, if not supplied with
the housing, is an essential item for any camera system. No matter
how careful you are there will always be that one occasion when you
haven't checked the o-rings thoroughly or secured the front and back
parts of the housing or port before entering the water.
A lanyard is a must. Not only will it
provide a means of allowing you to free your hands in the event of an
emergency, it will provide a means of passing the camera safely in
and out of the water.
A spotting torch ot laser pointer
attached to your flash unit can help ensure that the flash is
illuminating your chosen subject.
A light meter attached to the housing
can also be very useful, even if your camera has a built in
But remember, the simpler you
make it, the more likely you are to take consistently good