DIY Underwater photography

Underwater photography can quickly become horribly expensive, with good hard DSLR housings costing thousands of dollars, and bad ones resulting in even higher repair bills, so here is the story of how I've been playing in the local swimming pool on the cheap.


Canon S90 in a soft pouch.

I love my S90, and so had to try it in an old Aquapac bag, which is a soft housing with a hard plastic window costing around $30. There are even cheaper bags with no hard window, but these give very poor image quality. Modern compact cameras are sensitive to pressure on the extended lens, and either break or withdraw in panic, so I added a small length of toilet roll that I put around the lens to take the pressure of the front window.

My pocket camera bag
Here's one you can buy for 99 Kr in Sweden, with a built-in toilet roll :

Canon S90 in a hard case.

I ordered one of these from the US : Canon-WP-DC35
But it got stuck behind the Eyjafjallajokull eruption and didn't arrive in time for this project. But see 'update 2011' below.


So far I have only dared to use my old D70, in a borrowed Ewa Marine housing that is a soft bag with a glass window. These cost a couple of hundred dollars, and I used to have one, but after 20 years it yellowed, and the seams split when I tried to put the camera in. I'm just glad it was then.
This housing has a one-finger glove to fire the shutter, but I found it easier to just press on the outside of the bag. With the D300 I'd use a radio remote, even if I'm holding the camera : The DSLR bag

Specialised compacts

What I haven't tried is the relatively inexpensive waterproof pocket cameras that are now available, because none of them supports RAW format images, which I want for top-side shooting, but they obviously solve a lot of the problems mentioned. I have to borrow one for comparison though.

Mobile phones

You can now buy waterproof bags of optical quality for mobile phones and tablets. Here's one example for 99 Kr :


On-camera flash is weak, and also picks up all the dirt in the water, so I went with external units. These can probably be synced with radio triggers, but I chose to go with optical triggers for simplicity. I diffused the on-camera flash with some tissue paper so that it wouldn't contribute to the exposure so much, and cause less back-scatter.

The flashguns I wrapped in double, lubricant-free condoms, after taping over any sharp corners to avoid damage. The unlubricated ones have powder on them - keep this away from your camera, as you don't want it to get on the sensor. Yes, it's fun asking the chemist for a large number of the biggest, strongest, least lubricated they have, and a tip - don't try to explain your choice to the nice lady in the chemist's by saying that you want to do something unusual with them. And if your hobbies include building your own camera gear, I'm guessing that you don't have much experience in using condoms, but maybe your mum can help.
I put the double-condomed flash in another zip lock bag, which are not terribly waterproof, but protect the condoms from external damage, and reduce the amount of water going in if you should have a failure.

To stabilise the guns on the floor of the pool I screwed a GorillaPod into a metal plate that rests on the bottom, and then use the arms of the Gorilla to hold the flash. The packed flash and mounted.

Preliminary results

One of my first pics

Thoughts on problems encountered

During my first experiments shooting the local kayak club at the pool, I discovered the following :

I was using a Nikon SB800 flash, which has an IR filter over the optical sensor, and it seems that so much IR is absorbed by the water that firing became erratic, especially used fully automatic, where the flashguns need to have a complicated conversation involving many weak flashes. I wanted to swap this for a conventional white-light triger, but mine happened to have sharp edges and kept puncturing the condoms.
So maybe radio triggers are the way to go, but they are big and bulky and will also be hard to get into the condoms.

Maybe there is a better rubber product to use for waterproofing. Gloves ? Thicker condoms, even if they all happen to be lubricated. Maybe I can have a plastic bag inside and out and try to wash off the lubricant. Maybe more transparent too ? Synthetic ?

I worried about the stiff plastic casing for the DSLR damaging the popped-up flash when it moved around. Radio triggers would solve that problem too, along with backscatter from residual light from the on-camera flash. The extra power from the radio-triggered slave should be able to trigger other flashes optically.

To keep the nice blue ambient light, I need more sensitivity than my D70/f4 lens combo could manage without noise. I don't think I dare to use the D700, but maybe the D300. A faster lens would probably be bad, given the problems of focussing through the bag and with my eyesight. Maybe this is a job for liveview ?

Swimming in deep water whilst hanging on to a camera turns out to be tiring, especially when you keep wanting to dive. Maybe it's better to wear bouyancy, and only shoot downwards from just under the surface. Or maybe have a life belt that you can rest in but easy get out of.

Maybe fix the camera on the bottom, and remote trigger ? This cage for the camera weighs about 1kg, but could obviously be weighted more. Pro tip - remove the lens cap before sealing the camera in the bag....
It might also be worth tying a piece of string to the cage so it can be pulled up from the bottom without having to dive down.

A huge problem for me was my eyesight. Normally I need glasses for distance, and peer over them to see the camera controls and display, but at the pool I either had to have corrected goggles or contacts and clear goggles, but either way I couldn't easily swap between distance and close up. I'm guessing Woolworths don't have bifocal swim goggles on the shelves, so I'm thinking about wearing just one contact lens next time.

Lessons from a second evening with the paddle club and quick session at Gottsundabadet:

There is hardly room for the radio shutter-release remote control in the UW housing I'm using. It either covers one of the screens, or jams the lens focus movement.

The D300 is bigger than the D70, and so the pop-up flash doesn't have room to open properly in the housing, so often failed to fire.

My optical flash slaves slide out of position when handling the flashguns in their plastic bags. Not sure how to fix them better.

Optically slaved flashes need to be within about one meter of their trigger, regardless of the intensity. This is presumably caused by the light taking multiple paths, thus softening the sharp edge that the slave is looking for. It was even worse for radio slaves, which failed after about half a metre. And the radio shutter trigger failed after a few centimeters, so plans to trigger a remote camera that is fixed to the bottom of the pool are out.

Even extra strength condoms aren't strong enough - I had my SB800 in two of those, and then in a zip-lock bag, but the condoms split, and the zip-lock let in enough water to destroy the flash.

I'm now looking at femidoms - much bigger, seem to be stronger, but less elastic. And tupperware boxes are looking very interesting. They leak a bit, but probably a zip lock bag inside will be enough to keep those drops out, since there will be no water pressure on them.

I bought a couple of simple flashguns from the Red Cross shop for 20Kr each, which is cheaper than a femidom, so I'll probably use those in regular plastic bags.

Maybe the best way to position lights is with long poles from the poolside : light pole

Lessons from the model session at Fyrishov

Both the radio and optical triggers were much less reliable than in the tests, and I ended up with over 300 black frames. Mostly the remote flash simply didn't fire, but quite often it fired but apparently at the wrong time. Next time I'm going to try to rig some sort of fibre-optic connection.

I was so busy fixing techie problems that I didn't notice the crappy backgrounds I was getting, with the dirty painted walls being hard to remove in pp. I should have shot more out away from the walls, and upwards, though holding myself down and shooting up was really difficult.

Here are the results.

Next time : Model with parasol or umbrella.

Update 2011

The hard case for my S90 arrived, and instead of relying on optical flash triggering through the water, I now use a fibreoptic cable designed for audio connections (like everything in this project, it cost 99 Kr). It could be glued on to the casings over the flash/sensor, but for flexibility I used rubber bands on the camera end, and a pair of magnets on the flash end. These magnets have holes in them, and when attracted to each other through the casing wall, hold the optical cable and sensor lined up. I then clamped the camera and flash at each end of a monopod, so I can get up to a 1.5 metres separation in a stable setup. I also made some lead ingots that weigh the kit down so it is neutrally bouyant. The whole kit and result look like this :


Worried that that little case won't protect your camera ? This one spent 5 years floating from Hawaii to Taiwan : hardy UW case.

Fyrishov 27 Nov 2011

My second modelling session at Fyrishov pool, with Lotta and Johannes as models.
I used the S90 in its hard case, set to manual, but even though I turned off the sleeping options, it still kept reverting to autofocus when I wasn't looking, and even when on manual focus it lit up the focus light and hesitated half a second as though it was checking focus, which was very annoying.

I started off with two external flashes, but one was unreliable, so I took it off, at which point I found I hadn't put the lid on the box properly, and it had drowned. RIP my Olympus T32, it made an heroic sacrifice for art.
There was also a splitter on the fibreoptic cable that was rather inefficient (seemed like it lost much more than half the light), But the whole rig was much easier to use with one light, so not really a problem.

I shot at ISO 80 and 1/250 at f2.2, which gave me good light to about 3 metres away, and I was less ambitious about shooting upwards, and just floated on the surface with a snorkel and mask.

Here's the result :

Gottsundabadet 24 Jan 2013

This time I used a D300 in a Ewa-marine soft house with on-camera flash. Very bright sunlight on the surface made the light interesting enough :

Jan 2014 Sony RX100

I loved the Canon S90, but the shutter lag was a problem under water, so now I have upgraded to a Sony RX100 M, which also happens to have significantly better image quality. The UW house from Meikon is very similar to the one for the S90 from Canon, but has lugs for attaching flash sync cables, which makes connections more reliable.
On the other hand the RX100 doesn't allow manual flash control, and always sends out a preflash. It was hard to find a slave that could trigger an external flash, and the one that did was 10 years old and no longer on the market. The popular SYK-5 does not work. The flash also always fires too bright, so takes several seconds to recover.
Test shots work, so just waiting for models and ideas now.

March 2014

First shoot with the RX100, and it was perfect ! Very little delay in manual exposure, autofocus. Used full CTO on Metz flash, and booked Gottsundabadet for 11.00 am, between the schools, and before normal people arrive for lunch swim. RX100 UW show

Personal packing list for session at pool

D300+12-24mm and S90 cameras
Uwa-marine soft house for D300, dedicated hard case for s90 (may not arrive for volcanic reasons)
Spare soft case for compact camera
Selection of condoms, femidoms, plastic bags, map cases, tupperware boxes
(Radio remote shutter release)
(Radio remote flash slaves)
Gorilla pod and assorted poles and stands
Wet-suit jacket, shorts, swim trunks
Mask, goggles, snorkel
Contact lenses, glasses case 
locker padlock
Several towels


I suppose I should add a disclaimer - condoms break and plastic bags leak, so don't blame me if you try these techniques and destroy your nice new shiny toys (as they did mine...).

(Frozentime Homepage)