Digital Focus: Take Your Camera Under Water, Part I

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Feature: Taking Your Digital Camera Under Water, Part I

Just a few days from now, I'm headed to the Caribbean for my first scuba trip in over a year. I'm looking forward to diving from a "live-aboard" ship anchored at a pristine site about 11 miles northeast of Cuba. Of course, I'll be bringing my digital camera.

Underwater photography isn't just for the Cousteau family anymore. These days, it seems everyone is getting into the act of preserving underwater memories. Heck, even nondivers can take underwater pictures. All you need is a mask, fins, and snorkel to skin dive; underwater cameras work just as well on the surface or 5 feet under water as they do at a depth of 100 feet.

Waterproof Camera Housings

First things first: There's really no such thing as an underwater camera. All underwater cameras are simply ordinary cameras in watertight housings.

You can find housings for most popular digital camera models. These housings are designed to keep water out, usually to a depth of as much as 150 feet, while still giving you access to the most important camera controls. Where can you find a housing for your camera? Start with the manufacturer. Canon, Olympus, and Sony, for instance, all sell housings for some of their cameras.

What if you have a model that isn't compatible with the manufacturer's waterproof housings? Don't try doing it yourself by attempting to seal your camera in a plastic bag. When it leaks, your camera will "sleep with the fishes," as the wise guys say. Instead, turn to one of the following companies for a camera housing: Aquatica, Ikelite, Light and Motion, and Sea & Sea.

But speaking of bags, there is one company that sells a housing that actually is, well, a sort of plastic bag for your camera. Check out EWA-marine for its innovative line of enclosures that are made from flexible, transparent PVC. They're essentially "bags" into which you insert your camera. You're not shooting through cloudy plastic, though: There's a glass lens port built in for high-quality photography. Various models are rated from snorkeling depth (up to 30 feet) to as much as 100 feet for scuba diving.

Keep It Dry

No matter what kind of housing you choose for your camera, it's critically important to keep the camera dry at all times.

There's an old joke about a new diver who opens his camera housing in the middle of a dive to change rolls of film. Obviously, no rational person would do that, but a lot of people don't seem to mind splattering water onto the camera after the dive is over. Remember that even a little water--especially salt water--can kill a digital camera.

Before your first trip to the beach, practice opening the waterproof housing in such a way that no water drips onto your camera. If you have a small can of compressed air (you can get one from any camera store), you can blast water away from the housing to dry it quickly. And make sure you are dry, so you don't drip water into the camera as you lean over it. It's a really good idea to put a huge media card in your camera (512MB or bigger) at the start of the day so there's no reason to open the housing halfway through the day to swap. Instead, only open it up at the end of the day, when everything has been dried off. Don't worry about turning the camera on and off--most housings let you access the camera's power.

Stay tuned for next week, when I'll talk about how to get good pictures under water. And while you're reading about underwater photography, I'll be diving. Here's to hoping I come back with some great shark photos!

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