What Makes A Good Underwater Camera Housing?
In all the time I have been involved with underwater photography, some of the most frequently recurring questions / topics of conversation among amateurs and professionals regarding underwater camera housings have been centered around two topics:
– What is the ‘best’ underwater camera housing?
– Camera housing ‘so and so’ is garbage because…
Underwater Photographers DSLR Housing and strobe setup…
This article will discuss issues relating to both these matters and will hopefully help potential buyers in some small way to make the right decision when considering their next or first underwater camera housing purchase.
Poor Assembly / Design
The only aspect in partial defense of people who have the ‘camera housing X is garbage’ attitude towards manufacturer X would be poor design or assembly. Amazingly enough, some of the most expensive camera housings on the market sometimes leave the factory perfectly capable of being used underwater but poorly assembled to the point where the intended camera will not fit inside the housing. Therefore paying the highest price does not always mean getting the best quality product!
I have personally seen this twice in the last few months in a very well-known Belgian based housing manufacturer where in one case the camera physically would not fit the housing and in the second instance not all of the buttons were accessible although the toggles/controls for them were there. In both cases the housing had to be returned at a massive expense to the client (shipping) to have it ‘adjusted’. So yes, although the odds are slim, you might get a dud but it typically won’t result in a flood or something as severe as you either won’t make it into the water to start with or just have limited accessibility to functions. Which brings us to a very important point…
ALL Camera Housings Eventually Malfunction.
That’s right – as with any other piece of equipment no matter how much you take care of it, if you’ve been using cameras underwater for long enough, you will inevitable have had a faulty/sticky button or even a scratched dome port. Don’t believe me? Why do all underwater camera housing brands have an after sale service department? However, this does not mean the housing will flood.
There is a huge difference between an underwater housing failing because of human error (that would be you) and it failing due to normal use.
In the first case it usually results in something quite dramatic like water flooding the housing or perhaps a massive gouge on your beautiful new 8’’ dome port.
When it comes to parts failing due to age/use, you can be sure it will be something less frightening like a button not popping back up once it’s been depressed and depending on the housing might even be something you can sort out yourself.
Underwater photographers and camera operators do not like to hear this, but if you have ever flooded a well-known brand name underwater camera housing (regardless of the brand), it was 100% due to human error. I have heard every scenario and it always comes down to the housing not having been prepared thoroughly or in a rush, the housing having been treated poorly or to none standard modifications being applied. At this point quite a few people will have taken offence and stopped reading, but these are usually the same people who tend to bad mouth brands based on experiences like these, warning others to avoid a certain brand because they flood.
So What Exactly Makes A Good Housing?
For a start, nothing beats handmade housings which have been individually tested to ensure waterproof integrity as you know an actual person performed the relevant tests to make sure everything is as it should be before it reaches you.
Ikelite housings are hand made and checked at their Indianapolis workshop.
Photo Courtesy – Ikelite
How does this work? I use Ikelite housings which are handmade at their factory in Indianapolis (USA) and the steps are as follows:
Step one consists of submerging the housing in water and applying a low amount of pressure for a period of time, then checking to make sure that it has maintained waterproof integrity . This step recreates conditions of shallow depths.
Step two consists of submerging the housing in water and applying a high amount of pressure for a period of time, then checking to make sure that it has maintained waterproof integrity. This step recreates the conditions found at 200ft (60 meters) below the surface.
This is done for all their new housings and means all housings are 100% water and pressure tested and therefore dive ready before they leave the factory.Ikelite pressure tests their housings to 60 meters during the final waterproof integrity test.Photo Courtesy – Ikelite
Can You Keep It Running No Matter What Happens Or Where You Are?
Apart from the obvious features such as good design in terms of size, functionality and compatibility, one of the most overlooked and vital features are its ‘self-serviceability’.
I’ve been using Ikelite housings for close to seven years now and with good reason, but one of the most relevant factors would be the ease with which I can service/replace almost any part of the housing with ease…including huge gouges in my dome port!
As I travel quite a lot with my equipment to places where you are typically quite far away from help, being able to fix any problems yourself is a huge factor when using a certain brand of underwater camera housing as failure to do so can even result in a ruined dive trip/liveaboard vacation. Ikelite offers replacement parts and service kits for every button, spring, O-ring etc. you could ever need, so what I do is to make sure I always travel with a small kit of spares in case of any unforeseen little ‘emergencies’. As my housing sees the water most than a casual divers housing would, I have had to replace buttons etc on numerous occasions but as it’s dead easy to do it’s not even something I’d stress about for a second.
An extreme example is the gouge in my 8’’ dome and it is actually a real story. During our annual Triple Depth Freediving competition in Dahab, I had the misfortune of having a monofin kick being placed squarely in the center of my Ikelite dome port. It didn’t scratch the dome, it left a canyon sized gouge so deep I was sweating bullets. The nice thing with acrylic domes like the ones Ikelite has, is that you can fix these kind of things yourself using something called ‘Novus Polish and Scratch Remover’, something which I have done numerous times including the gouge above and my domes still look and works like new.
Is Housing Brand X Better Than Y?
In the end, you’d be hard pressed to find any real fault in most major brand underwater camera housings and paying more does not always mean getting something better.
I choose to use Ikelite because the housings are extremely well built and where features are concerned they are self-serviceable, completely transparent (vital for quickly spotting flooding), reliable, very light, versatile in terms of lens options and ports, inexpensive compared to other brand and can be broken down to its individual parts in no time for travelling/storage. A huge plus for those wanting to sell their second hand Ikelite housing to upgrade to a new Ikelite housing for a newer camera is that you are far more likely to get a good resale price/ buyer than the guy who paid four times the price for an overpriced aluminum housing as people are less likely to pay a fortune for a housing which fits a dated camera.
I’ve NEVER Had A Housing Flood…Until Yesterday.
Ironically I had my first proper flooded housing during a freediving session yesterday in Dahab, Egypt half way through writing this article! Being very proud of the fact that in seven years this has never happened I was actually relieved to identify the cause as being due to an aftermarket modification (bulkhead) I had installed myself so a perfect example of user error. Housings are made and tested to very specific standards and therefore Ikelite (and most other brands) makes it very clear that modifying their housings in an way voids the warranty and this is with very good reason.
The happy ending to this story is that the camera miraculously stayed 100% dry!