To get a camera to go underwater, take pictures, and get it back safely to the surface and in one piece without flooding it, you need to protect it from the elements somehow. This is where the underwater housing and the amphibious camera come in. Housings and amphibious cameras approach the same problem from different directions. The housing surrounds and encloses your camera to protect it, while the amphibious camera itself is sealed from the elements.
Camera Housings vs Amphibious Cameras
Housings have the advantage of using the topside camera and lenses that you may already own and are familiar with. Take the camera out of the housing and you’re ready to take pictures on land using any lens from macro to wide angle that you have for that camera. You don’t have to have two complete and different systems to be able to take pictures anywhere you want. Housed cameras come in all price ranges. There are both, simple housings for the point and shoot cameras and housings for the more capable higher end cameras. Over the years, housing manufacturers have addressed the biggest drawback to housings; size. The housings of today are nearly form-fitting around the camera. But, even with this improved engineering, camera housings are larger than amphibious cameras, especially aluminum ones. See Figure 1. In these days of shrinking baggage allowances on airlines, size and weight do matter. Housings are made from two different materials. Some, like Aquatica, Nexus, Subal, and Seacam make their housings from high-grade aluminum, coated with a protective finish and their product lines focus more on the popular mid to high end SLR cameras from major camera manufacturers. Others, like Ikelite, make housings from high tech plastics. Ikelite Underwater Systems makes housings to fit a large variety of cameras, across the price spectrum. Some of the camera manufacturers are also making plastic housings for their cameras. So, if you have a camera already or have a particular camera in mind, one of these manufacturers probably already makes a housing for it.
Amphibious cameras are smaller, lighter, create less drag and are easier to handle underwater for fast action than their larger SLR housed cousins. On the down side, many amphibious cameras have fewer options and capabilities than the higher end housed systems. In years past, the king of the amphibious cameras was the Nikonos by Nikon. The Nikonos was a film camera system that had five lenses, (35, 28, 20, 15, and 80mm), a close up kit and a set of framers with adapters for macro photography of different sizes. It was made of aluminum and o-ring sealed. See Figure 2. The Nikonos system with a 15mm wide-angle lens was the only amphibious camera and lens to make serious inroads into the pro ranks. There are plenty of folks still using this system, even though Nikon has discontinued production of the Nikonos camera system. Amphibious cameras are sometimes referred to as “all weather cameras” and can vary in their depth capabilities. Sea and Sea currently has four amphibious cameras in their line of underwater systems.
On both types of camera systems, there are user serviceable o-rings (you take care of them) and o-ring seals you can’t get to. The o-ring’s function is to prevent the housing or amphibious camera from leaking. This means that periodically the housing or camera needs to be sent to a service facility to clean, lubricate, calibrate, replace internal o-rings, or repair it. The ocean always tries to find a way to destroy any equipment that’s put into it!
As always, in the end it comes down to the type of photography you want to do. A point and shoot, auto everything type camera, in a small plastic housing can be quite simple and inexpensive. Most amphibious cameras hold a nitch in the middle to upper middle of the underwater photo scale of capabilities. The housed SLR camera holds the high ground with advanced amateurs and pros.
Some web sites to look at for more information about specific systems.
Sea & Sea: http://www.seaandsea.com/