Backscatter: The Best Compact Camera Systems for Underwater Photography

  • Olympus System Goby

By Alan Throop

At our July 12 General Meeting, Becca Boring & Rob Duncan from Backscatter presented an excellent program where they showed the best compact camera systems for Underwater Photography, as well as providing some useful ideas and examples to help us get those spectacular shots in our local waters and giving us the opportunity for some great hands-on experience with several camera systems that they brought with them.

Rob & Becca with Cameras

Rob & Becca with Cameras

The Backscatter folks are some of the most knowledgeable people in the nation about UW photography and equipment, so we’re fortunately to have them right near us in Monterey, located at San Carlos Beach. Check out their website for lots of information and ideas.

First, Rob & Becca spoke about the Monterey Shootout, coming up this year on Thursdays, August 9, through Sunday, August 12, in Monterey. It’s a great event for both beginners and semi-pros, with great prizes at all levels, ten great classes, seminars by world-class UW photographers, fun activities, good feedback on your photography, and a great bunch of people to mix with … all for just $25! Maybe their program inspires you to join the fun!

They discussed all the camera systems but focused on the compact systems since they are great for anyone from entry to advanced UW photography, are more accessible to the new diver, and are the ones that most of us shoot. These systems have become more popular due to the tremendous improvement in quality and capability in recent years, the fact that they are light weight for both travel and in the water, the significantly-reduced cost factor, and fact that you can ‘grow’ these systems using the accessory hardware if you decide to upgrade your camera and housing. They covered them in order from the least- to more-expensive systems.

One interesting factor that they discussed was that – although some compact systems have technical capabilities that rival the larger DSLR systems – a key advantage with the larger cameras is that the settings that you often need to change UW are typically available by a single button whereas you have to search several selections deep in the menus of compact systems. This can be a problem when you’re trying to respond to rapidly-changing conditions or subjects.

Linda with Camera

ATDC Member Linda with Camera

Becca also mentioned some useful suggestions. While many compact systems allow you to use wet lenses change from Wide Angle to Macro easily underwater, it’s usually best to select the type of photography and lens before you enter the water – based on the marine life present, conditions, info from other photographers, etc. You will get better images and – if you miss the shot of your life, then just enjoy it visually! So, in that sense, having to use interchangeable lenses is not a big detriment.

Also, she said that you should use a tray for stability of the image. Having your hands hold the tray will greatly help the quality of your images, and allows you to add a strobe or other lights, which is critical for good UW photography. You don’t need the long strobe arms that the photo with Linda shows – short arms often suffice, so a tray system can be small, light, easy to use, and can really help improve your images.

They also said that in our local waters, which can often be green and have poor viz, you can shoot great macro almost any time – especially given the large number and beauty of all the critters and photo subjects that we have. One can similarly shoot Close-Focus Wide-Angle (CLFW) around here to produce great wide-angle-looking images. For this, get close to the subject to reduce the amount of water and particulates between the camera and the subject and use a Wide Angle lens to see the whole of the subject. By doing this, along with proper positioning of the strobes, you can produce dramatically-improved images. … and it’s easy to do with today’s strobes and cameras.

Finally, they emphasized that good buoyancy-control is critical for UW photography, so you need to be a good diver before being a good UW photographer. You need to avoid stirring up sediment, damaging the environment, and damaging or frightening the subject.

Close-Focus Wide Angle (CFWA)

The first system they discussed was GoPro-type systems. These are very compact, great for video, and – with some help – can do good macro; see the Backscatter website for examples. These systems are so small that you can clip it to your BC or put it in your pocket so that it’s always available when you’re diving. There are a number of accessories that can help improve the quality of the images. One is a flip filter that can color-correct the images; another is a flip-macro lens that can capture much-improved macro shots; another is a tray that also allow one or two strobes and/or a video light that will improve your photographs.

Go Pro with Filters

The next system up was the Canon TG-5 Tough camera. It is simple to use and outstanding for macro, is very compact, produces high-quality images, and the housing is easy to use UW with gloves. Backscatter has some very useful articles and a great suggestion for “jump-settings” to use before you get into the water and then in the water. It’s shockproof and waterproof (good to 50’, but I wouldn’t try it) AND you can easily put a polarizing filter on it for top-side work. The TG5 has some setting control over simple Point & Shoot cameras, with Aperture and Programmed modes (no manual mode); white balance is good and easy. Editor note: One thing I found is that it’s waterproof so that – although you still have to show good camera/housing practice, of course – I don’t agonize over small housing leaks or water drops getting into the housing during setup.

Canon TG5 System

Next, they covered the Panasonic LX-10, which is a bit harder to shoot, but allows you to ‘grow’ into a more-user-controlled system. It has manual control and is best for video; white balance is good and easy. Only two housing are currently available: Nauticam and Ikelite; Nauticam has great ergonomics.

Panasonic LX10 System

Next, they turned to mirrorless camera systems, using the Olympus OM-D E-Mk5II as an example. These are almost like DSLRs except that you are viewing the electronic sensor directly instead of looking at the image through the viewfinder off a mirror. With no mirror, the camera can be made much smaller & lighter – great for travel and handling in the water. Here, you can shoot the camera as simply or as advanced as you want. These have interchangeable lenses, but as noted above that is not necessarily a bad thing for a serious photographer. Several of our members have this system and really like it.

Olympus Mirrorless System

Next, they discussed the Panasonic Lumix GH5 system, which is their most popular video camera on the market. They discussed how it is important to film at 60 fps and then playback at 30 fps to have a smooth video without jerky motion. This camera has image-stabilization in both the camera body and the lenses so it can filter out vibration well.

Panasonic Lumix GH5

In Q&A, they discussed the classes that Backscatter offers; see the website for a wealth of information. You need to use a bright spotting/focus light with some care – particularly if the light has a tight focus – so that it doesn’t produce hot spots in the image. The Light & Motion Sola 200 has a wide beam that doesn’t interfere with strobes and the red light is great for night-diving since UW critters don’t see the red wavelengths.

Finally, members got some time to handle and try out some of the systems that Becca and Rob brought. This was great, since you don’t often see and handle all these different systems at one time. Of course, you can almost do the same thing at Backscatter in Monterey, but these were set up so nicely for comparison.

We thank Becca and Rob for taking their time to drive up here and present a great program. They hope that more of our members will come and join the Monterey Shootout in August!

Q&A