Sport Cams such as the GoPro sports cameras have had a major impact in action photography. Skiers can anchor a camera on a helmet and record what they see as they race down a hill. Mounts for handle bars will record what a motocross motorcycle rider or the mountain biker encounters. A camera mounted on the leading edge of a hang glider will give the viewer a ride of the life time. Not in the least, these types of cameras are making underwater photography more common. While GoPro leads the sport cams market, other brands and off brands are also available.

The majority of divers today are in their 50s or older. We grew up being exposed to the works of Stan Waterman, Bruce Mozer, Zale Parry (both sides of the camera), Hans Haas, Ron & Valerie Taylor and of course Jacques Cousteau. A new generation of outstanding underwater photographers have followed in their foot steps, or fin wake, to give us unbelievable glimpse into the undersea world. They have all spent years mastering their craft and spent tens of thousands of dollars on equipment to aid in their works of art. I am an accomplished advance photographer, well on land at least. I never could produce the quality of images that other underwater photographers do. Underwater photography requires being able to establish the best lighting, angles and proper filtering. When 35mm film started becoming hard to find and digital camera being so expensive, my underwater photography came to a halt.

Divers, young and almost old,have also been inundated with new concepts such as the cell phone and the internet. Cell phone cameras have all but replaced point and shoot cameras. In most societies, the majority of the teenagers and those older as well, have a cell phone with video and still photography capabilities. This does not reduce the importance of a professional photographer. It does show that there are times when that professional level of quality is not needed.

Instant Gratification and Social Media

sport cams take Wide angle shots above and below the water
Sport Cams take wide angle shots above and below the water

Social media and the cell phone cameras fit in well together and many people will take quick photographs of what they are doing and share them with their friends. Personally, I a not interested in photographs of someone eating fast food but there does seem to be very many people who think others are interested in seeing that. What we, as divers, see and do underwater is interesting to many people, divers and non-divers alike. Divers are often passionate about the sport so sharing it is a natural part of that.

Enter the Action Sport Cams

These sport cams also called action cams are very small and many are waterproof to 30 or 40 meters. They fit in well with this sharing mindset. Like the cell phone camera, they are meant to record a instant in time, or a few minutes if in video mode. There concept is what we use to call “record” photography, a direct recording of what we see. The lens is wide angle and exposure is automatic. At a relatively inexpensive entry point they allow the diver to share some of what they experience with friends. It will be a lucky shot if one of these diver’s has the level of awe that a traditional underwater photographer can produce. Still the quality can be good and it allows a passion to be shared, something much more interesting than a fast food lunch.

Selfie sticks – love them or hate them

The selfie stick has made it easier for people to take photographs of themselves and better shots than holding the camera at arms length. You seldom see people asking others to take their photos. They are so popular that they have at times become a nuisance. There is an increasing number of tourist locations that are banning the use of the selfie stick and many special events do not allow them as well. A similar trend is appearing in the diving community. Articles and blogs about annoying habits of scuba divers are seeing an increasing number of anti-selfie stick comments.

One of the problems with the selfie stick underwater, is that can be awkward to maneuver. They can get in the way of other divers and at times the enthusiasm of a new photographing diver may carry them away and they stick their selfie stick extended camera into someone else’s carefully planned photograph.

The selfie stick does have some benefits, using a shot gun effect, a sports cam could be recording video and slowly moved very close to the subject. A slow moving camera on a extension often does not cause fish to flee. This will allow a photographer to get closer. Unlike most other underwater cameras, these cameras only shoot ultra wide angle, and no interchangeable lenses. Also these selfie sticks, especially when not fully extended allows for a steadier shot.

Still learn the basics

I am now going to contradict what I wrote a little earlier, about the lucky shot with a sports cam. I have seen outstanding images and videos taken by underwater photographers using GoPro and similar underwater cameras. The cameras themselves from a technical viewpoint are not much different than a mid level point and shoot underwater camera, however, in many cases are much less expensive. The differences in results deal with the knowledge and care of the photographer and the accessories that they use to bring out the best in the photographs and videos that they take.

If you recall your Open Water Diver Training, you should remember that as you go underwater the water starts to absorb colors. This nature of light is one of the main reasons your images underwater seem lifeless. This process is adjusted with filters and additional lighting. Understanding the use of filters and lighting and how to apply them will greatly improved your images. While filters are inexpensive, the lighting can be more than the camera itself.

When you consider getting a introductory level sports cam, make sure you get a model that supports filters. Even without filters, you can get good images if the water is clear and the natural lighting is strong however only if you are in less than 10 meters of water. There will be some color shift but you can correct some of it with software. Beyond that depth it is generally beyond the ability of software to bring back the natural colors.

Basic Sports Camera without filters at 25 meters
Basic Sports Camera without filters at 25 meters
Software adjusted
Software adjusted

Many underwater photography internet sites have good primers on the basics of digital underwater photography. Download a few and learn the basic principals. Once you know the basics you will see an improvement in your underwater snapshots. You can always upgrade to a traditional underwater camera or add accessories such as trays and lights to you sport cam.

A new accessory?

I do not take my sports cam on every dive. I find the underwater selfie stick I have in the way when my purpose is not taking photographs. It great that it is positive buoyant, so that I cannot lose it if I drop it, but it also floats in the way at times. I always have a small flashlight with me, stashed away in a BCD pocket. It is an accessory I have always had with me since I first started to dive. I see my sports cam becoming another accessory, that I will always have with me on a dive. The floating selfie stick will not work for me, but the camera did come with a few different mounting brackets. One snaps into a quick release on my BCD. It nice but I have a concern about holding the camera when it is not attached to my BCD. My latest attempt which so far I am happy with is a retractor and a wrist sweat band like a runner would use. The sweat band holds the camera in place and protects the lens during entry, while the retractor allows me to use the camera without worry I will drop it. For me the sport cam will allow me to take a snapshot of something I want to share without the concerns or cost of a full size underwater camera

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for writing this article Charles Davis. My partner and I have both invested in digital SLR camera bodies and several lenses for our portraiture business, but have found the entry point into underwater photography prohibitively expensive when you factor in a decent housing and dome port. Since the rise of social media, there just isn’t a lot of money to be made in the profession, so why spend thousands of dollars on gear? I have embraced the advent of the Sport-Cam as a way of taking underwater stills without going bankrupt. I have also found that if you know what you’re doing, great results can be achieved. My experience with the GoPro is documented here:
    http://www.timhoran.com/?p=228

    • Tim, thank you for your comments and the link to your blog about your first experience with a GoPro. The photographs are great and shows that you do not need to spend thousands for a underwater camera. Your background as a photographer and your “eye” took no time at all to adapt to that small silver box.

      I have to agree with you about your comment on the impact of social media on the photography profession. People can take a photo and share it. Creative Commons sites are drawing customers away from stock photography agencies. Many time you can find outstanding images on the Creative Commons sites. However, the percentage of good photographs are very low. People just do not seem to want to learn the basics of composition and lighting. Those who do, turn out much better images.

  2. Thanks for this article. It seems that there is more and more noise out there, it’s harder and harder to get recognized for good quality. So, like Tim said, being budget conscious is way more important now. The GoPro and the more affordable alternatives like mine make it less of a kick in the wallet to shoot good video underwater. We can still create great videos and be recognized, their is just more of a chance that they’ll go unnoticed. So we shoot high quality and try to promote it. Just FYI, here’s the camera we use. https://fulltimeoutdoors.com/products/4k-sports-action-camera-with-remote-control-bracelet-and-accessories

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