My ambition to film underwater

This page was first written in 2008. A lot has changed since then, computers are faster, Blu-ray players have been invented and High Definition is here to stay. It is now Christmas 2012 and time for a revision.

Some years ago I bought an Ikelite housing for my Canon A80 stills camera. Suddenly my enjoyment for diving was given a new lease of life. These housings had dropped in price and were now affordable. Within a year 1 in 3 of my club’s members had a camera. Over a beer at the end of the day we no longer recounted our day’s diving adventure but merely passed the cameras around with a “look what I got!”.

My problem is that on land I prefer to video. Stills are great but there is nothing like the “talkies” to see what happened next. In 2007 I started my research. I looked into suitable cameras and video housings to match.

 

Choosing the right equipment

Given that I am entry level to the world of underwater video the criteria I worked to was as follows:

The camera

  • Compact domestic
  • The camera must be HD and SD capable
  • It must be able to remote control it.
  • It must have a reasonable number of manual controls: Focus, Zoom, Exposure, White Balance etc.
  • It must be able to have a wide angle lens fitted or have a lens that is already very wide
  • The record media must be editable on a laptop, reasonably priced and give at least 45 minutes record time
  • It must have reasonable battery life


The Video housing

  • Good build quality – you don’t want it flooding
  • A good optical port
  • Remote controls for the camera
  • Can have an exterior light fitted
  • REASONABLY PRICED – I’m not made of money


The record media options available

Good research is important whenever you propose to spend a lot of money on something you know little about. The best research tool is the Internet. Do some Google searches for best video camera or housing and you’ll start to see a pattern emerge of what is good on the market. You can then refine your search looking at the features to see if it fits your criteria. Go in to some video forums and ask questions.

There are loads of Camcorders on the market and perhaps four different types of media they can record on to.

MiniDV tape

Tape! Yes tape. It’s cheap, reliable and records HD. Unlike flash cards and hard drives where video files are quickly transferred to the PC, for tape you have to play the tape back and ingest the material in real time.

In it's time tape was a great media but is now superceded by flash and hard drives

DVD Optical Disk

Great if you just want to pop into your player and watch but useless if you want to edit the material. This is a publishing format only.


Hard drive (SD)

I read a number of articles about hard drives failing. Since then hard drives have become a lot better, whether this is still the case I don't know. Hard drives spin at high speed and do not take kindly to being knocked. I had a 6Gb MP3 player once and went running with it. It crashed and damaged the hard drive beyond repair.They also record in AVC-HD Mp4 so you get loads of recording time, but if you have a flood it's game over.

Flash memory

Some cameras have Internal memory and the ability to take SDHC cards as well. Theses are the same as used in many stills cameras. The cost of the cards has dropped dramatically and at the same time the memory size has increased. The recording format is often AVC-HD Mp4 which is an excellent compression that packs loads of video in a small amount of space. You can often choose the file compressed in terms of bit rate. The less compression the higher the bit rate the better the quality of the resultant video file. These SDHC cards are also pretty much indestructible. I have seen cameras flood and the flash card is still readable.


The Camera options available

Bearing in mind that I made my decision some years ago before flash memory had developed I concluded that miniDV was the way to go. Very few domestic cameras have a remote control socket (LANc socket). LANc remote control is a Sony product that was used by Canon. The winner by a hair’s breadth back then was the Sony HC9, a miniDV tape camcorder.

In 2013 it was time to upgrade. Camcorders have improved dramatically. The criterior I looked for in my next camera was:

  • Must have the Sony Lanc control.
  • Needed a wide angle lens
  • Internal flash memory plus a SDHC card slot
  • Very good optics with image stabilisation
  • External microphone input
  • Excellent low light performance

The winner was the Sony PJ780VE. This camera already has a very wide lens with optical stabilisation. Through the lanc control you can get to all the camera settings and fuctions so has better control than my old camera. No longer do I need to ingest tape, I just transfer the files. Finally the quality of video is outstanding!


Wide angle lens

Using a wide angle lens adapter usually softens the image a little particularly at the edges. There are not a great number of options here. You can buy a Sony own, but they are not cheap. In my time I have bought two W/A lenses for my old camera.

The first was a Raynox HD-5050PRO 0.5X, bought my for under £50. The snag is that you have to use a thread adapter to fit it to the camera. On very wide angles the adapter can be seen cutting off the corners of the picture. As a lens the quality is not bad for something so cheap.

The second lens is much better. I bought a Besel WA37 from the the digitaltoyshop. You get two lenses combined; a wide angle and a macro. At the moment it cost £67.There is no thread adapter as it attaches directly to the camera so no corner cut-offs.

Fortunately the Sony PJ780VE has a wider lens than my old camera with the Besel WA37, so I won't be buying another.

The Underwater Housing options

There is a vast array of housings out there from very basic to quite sophisticated. The average price for the reputed makes is between £850-£1700, depending on whether it has mechanical or electronic controls. See the list of manufacturers below.

Remembering my criteria above the first question was the remote control. You can have either mechanical or electronic.

Mechanical

Lots of holes with rods and levers to move the switches and knobs on your camcorder. There are several flaws with this and only one good point.

As you dive water pressure builds up on the outside of your housing. The levers can become a little stiff as they are forced in. I was worried that they might cause damage to the camcorder’s touch screen. So many holes in a housing also means the risk of flooding is increased.

The housing also has to be designed for the camera so that the actuating levers line up with the buttons and screen. How long does a camera model remain on the market? It does have the advantage that you can get to functions such as colour balance and exposure.

Electronic

Ok I’m an electronics engineer so I’m biased. Electronics allows for a much more extended range of control provided you have a camera that allows it. You need a minimum number of holes in the housing perhaps for the cable entry. Using magnets and reed switches it is possible to have a housing with no holes. Risk of flooding is minimised.

Providing a replacement camera has the same LANc remote control interface the housing can be used with a wide range of cameras. In my case that limits me to Sony or Canon cameras.

The housing of choice

I looked at quite a range. One of the best was Undersea Video Housings, but the cost was high. Eventually I found a company in Gloucestershire called Birchley Products. Tony Birchley makes a well engineered housing with a basic electronic Sony LANc control. THe design is a tube with a flat Perspex viewing port that can take a range of cameras. It can be taylor made to fit the size of the camera. There are also a range of lighting accessories.

Most importantly it was £372! Looking at the web site I see the cost has not gone up since then.

Lots of ticks in the boxes!!

Editing software

When I first started only the most expensive professional software could handle Mp4 files and high definition video. A lot has changed over the years. Computers are amazingly fast these days. To decide on the editing software you first have to decide on Apple or Microsoft. There is no doubt that Apple is still the big player in graphics and video manipulation but there are now a number of very good editing packages that will operate well on PC or Mac.

I have recently upgraded my PC and changed my editing software so that I can edit HD material and burn to Blu-ray. I made my choice in the normal way of searching the reviews on the Internet. My final choice was Adobe Premier Elements 11. It's very easy to use and cost about £60. If you look on Amazon they were offering a bundle deal of Photoshop Elements and Premier Elements 11 for £65.

 

 

10Bar Underwater Housings
Aditech
Amphibico Underwater Imaging
Aquatix International
AquaVideo
Atmo-Seal Engineering
Birchley Products
BSKinetics GMBH
ClearCam Video Housings
Damm Aquaspace
Epic Camera Housings
Epoque
ewa-marine
Equinox Video Housings
Fisheye
Gates Underwater Products
Gun-Lux Unterwassertechnik GmbH
Ikelite Underwater Systems
Kabot lightcontrol
Leone Video Housings
Light & Motion
Nimar
Ocean Images
Reef Rider
Sea&Sea
Sealux
Silverfish
Subspace Pictures
Top Dawg