Having watched literally thousands of
people getting into both underwater video and still photography,
I am now utterly convinced that just about anyone who remains
uncertain as to which path to follow should probably go the
video route. How would I know so quickly? Simple! Video is
simple—if you can jump off a boat, push the tape run
button, then get back to the boat alive, you will almost certainly
have at least some decent video. Video cameras are designed
to do primarily wide-angle. I They generally come set up that
way, and you have to modify or accessorize them to do anything
else. You’re almost always hooting available light on
auto exposure and will mostly get properly exposed footage
of just about anything you are likely to point the camera
at. There’s virtually always enough light around for
video—you can even do some interesting video at night,
providing there’s a moon and/or some stars and a few
dive light held by other divers! You could aim a video camera
into your pocket, push the tape run button, then count your
change on the television screen—they’re that sensitive
Since you’re shooting wide-angle, you have loads of
depth of field, so at a preset focus everything is sharp!
You’re using a very small format in 8mm or half-inch
VHS video as compared to the much larger 35mm still format.
All you have to know about this is that you get a whole bunch
more depth of filed, which means that just about the entire
ocean is in focus at all times. So you’ve got focus
and exposure insurance. About all that’s left for you
to deal with is composition, or what’s in the picture.
Since most wide-angle video covers about eighty or so degrees,
just pick a compass direction, and everything in approximately
one quarter of the ocean is in your frame. Run the camera
for a few hours, and you can’t help but get twenty or
so minutes of something that will blow away your landlubbing
friends and relatives. Wide angle means you get schools of
fish, wrecks, reefs, divers, the boat, whales, and whatever
in your video. There’s action and interaction going
on everywhere. It’s virtually certain immediate gratification!
Stills—that’s another story. If you were destined
to shoot stills, you’d probably somehow know it. Still
photography is a calling, sort of. You must be willing to
pay your dues. The likelihood of instant success is remote.
Fortunately, standards evolve along with technical skills
and understanding, so the experience isn’t totally crushing.
You’ll probably even get a few or maybe even a couple
dozen nice photos out of your first fifteen to twenty rolls.
You may even get a killer shot or two with some serious luck.
You’ll soon see, however, that outstanding photos are
hard-won. You must master the technical skills in order to
have well-expose, in-focus subject with no distractions or
backscatter (snow-like particles in the water lightly lit
by the strobe) in the frame. There’s no action to carry
viewers along at much too quick a pace to allow them to concentrate
on flaws in the image. When you’re watching video, each
image is seen only for a small fraction of a second; then
there’s another, and another—and a hundred more.
When you look at a still photograph, booboos are frozen in
"Geez, what’s that thing hanging down in the corner?
Look at all the junk in the water! Isn’t that fish’s
eye a little out of focus? You’d think she’d rinse
that stuff outa her mask before you took that picture!"
You see the problem. Not that recording moving images can’t
be an art, demanding as much skill and creative ability as
a good still photograph—it can. The better the videographer,
the better the video. But it’s still true that a beginner
can consistently get interesting, even spectacular video infinitely
easier than the same in still photography.
Now for monetary considerations. How much will you have to
$pend for an entry level purchase? The first question I generally
ask is, "Do you have a video camera? Do you want to have
a video camera for vacations, the kids, whatever?" It
usually costs about the same amount of money to get into still
photography or video. The exception would be snap shots. If
all you want to do is to get a memory/proof of an underwater
encounter, you can buy a point-and-shoot "box type"
still camera for seventy-five dollars for an Ikelite housing
and the cost of a disposable camera for each roll you’ll
use in that housing. Or you can spend about $350 for a basic
Motormarine MX-10 to around $600oi for a somewhat more sophisticated
Motormarine II with automatic flash exposure. Somewhere between
$1,00 and $1,500 buys you either a basic Nikonos V system
or a comparably equipped Sea & Sea Motormarine basic system
set up for close-up and fish portrait photography. You could
house any one of a number of popular SLR still cameras for
about $1,000 for similar types of underwater photos.
If you already have a video camera that suits you, a housing
will cost between about $700 and $1,300. For most practical
purposes, a new video camera and housing will cost about $2,500—about
the same for a new still system with strobe light. You could
pick up a used Hi8 UW system for under $1,500, and a used
regular 8mm system for something over half that amount. The
Hi8 format produces significantly higher resolution than regular
If spending money is your thing, and underwater imaging is
only the arena in which you’ve chosen to pursue your
true interest, we can unhesitatingly give the nod to still
photography. You can get into virtually broadcast video with,
say, a three-chip digital camera with the best housing built
for around $6,000, about the cost of an entry level Nikon
F4 or Nikonos RS still system. "Filling out" one
of these entry-level "professional" systems could
see you still spending from $10,000 to $15,000 and beyond—hence
the designation "Still photography."