It's simple. You have to be mad. You need to have very precise ideas what your housing should look like and how it is supposed to work and also about the camera you'd like to house. Some people say that I need the challenge. I think, they're right.
I have to warn you at this point. You don't have just to like your own housing. You have to really want it with all your energy and all your thoughts. It's a long way from the first idea to the first dive. There are quote a lot of traps along the path and you need to be stubborn, brave-hearted and lucky to meet the right person at the right moment to get it all done properly. You need a couple of weirdoes that share the same madness to walk this path successfully. Thanks to all who helped me along my way.
When you cracked the jackpot or you're sure you don't know how to spend all that money. It'll be expensive. You simply have to want it. It's so amazingly expensive that it doesn't make sense for a mainstream compact camera. There's no sense in doing it for something less than a high grade SLR. For most of the digital cameras on the market there's either a housing available or there's some nearly equivalent (or even better) camera you can order an off the shelf housing for. These housings will be much cheaper than any customized solution can be.
If you want to use one of the well selling models you'll find at least one manufacturer supplying a housing. The available housings will vary in price, technology and add-ons. If you by chance want to use one of the most popular lenses you're already a made (wo)man.
If at least one of the conditions isn't met things may start to get complicated and you may think of a customized solution of some sort. Maybe it's just a port for an exotic lens, maybe it's a special zoom gear or the like. Not all of the housing manufacturers will satisfy your special wishes. Some are too posh, some don't have the technology to solve the problem, some are not able to do it for a reasonable amount of money.
First of all, you need a reliable manufacturer to build it according to your plans. At least to cooperate in building it. Else you've to invent the wheel over and over again. Without years of experience you won't be able to avoid the traps that are laid out for the unaware. It's wise to have a close look at some of the housings built by this manufacturer to get a feeling about his craftsmanship. You should also ask users about their experiences. Luckily there are a couple of news groups on the net where you may get this vital information. There's also a database to find the right housing for a camera. That wasn't always so and when I set off for my first prototype I had to make a lot of phone calls and made a lot of mistakes. Therefore, the results were not that satisfying in the long run. For my current project I found a reliable partner in UK-GERMANY. They provide years of experience and are open to customer wishes and ideas. They also have a well designed system of ports and add-ons and the used technology is state of the art. I also found a couple of weirdoes doing specialized tasks to realize my ideas. The biggest portion (measurement of the camera, housing case design) was done by Hans-Jürgen Neuf who also did the actual milling. The port connector and camera mount is UK standard so it'll be compatible with the whole range of accessories.
I bought myself an Olympus E-1. I simply like the concept and the camera fits like a glove in your hand. The FT system allows to build smaller, faster and lighter lenses compared to the 35mm film format. The whole system was designed from scratch for being digital. There's no compromise to legacy systems. All available lenses are exceptionally good. They have an amazing image quality, even at full open aperture. The 7-14mm WA zoom (114°–75° angle of view) is a masterpiece. A great side effect of shorter focal length is the larger depth of field that is vital to correct for corner sharpness problems that come with a dome port.
When I started my project there was no housing for this camera available. Now there is one but it's not what I'd like to have. Besides, I'm far too far to cancel it now. After a longer planning phase I got a wooden model to fine tune the handling. It feels like a somewhat larger camera. No problem to use it single handed. There's a grove for the thumb on the rear and a grove in the front to allow a proper grip.
The housing will allow access to all main controls and features a macro port (for the 35mm and 50mm macro, also with extension ring or tele converter) and domes for the 11–22mm and the 7–14mm zoom lens (base dome with step rings). The new 8mm FE prime lens will also be housed behind a dome. All ports and accessories are interchangeable with other UK-GERMANY housings (like the E-300 and coming E-330 housing).
If you are interested in a proper E-1 housing please drop me a line.
The camera has been measured. Now, the housing body is designed too. Milling is currently in progress. In the meantime I try to build a 45° angle finder to help me see the viewfinder properly through the mask. The finder has reached the prototype state. It was presented during the Boot 2006 in Düsseldorf.
I'm also collecting data to design the dome ports. Thanks to the pano shooters I know I got al the necessary information on the lenses I'd like to house. I've even got a dome with a radius of 180mm! but I'm not sure if I'll be able to take it on my trips. Maybe I'll stick to the somewhat smaller 150mm or 100mm glass. For the purists of the half/half persuation I even got hands on a 16" dome that allows 180° of view angle. Unfortunately it is built of 1/8" thick Polycarbonate so it'll can only be used in shallow water.
The milling of the housing was delayed for some months. Now it shows progress again. I'm eagerly awaiting the prototype.
My first tries with an OM-1 inside an ewa-marine bag in the early seventies don't count. It all began, when a friend gave me his old Nikonos III and suggested, that I might have lots of fun with it. After drowning and flooding it (it isn't easy to find someone who is able to repair a Nikonos III) I thought of buying a camera of my own.
I decided to go for a digital camera because of many reasons. First of all, most of my photos end up as illustration of documents or web pages. It's faster and cheaper than spending a complete film if you need only 2 or 3 photos. The resolution of 5 mega pixel is sufficient for my purposes. I make pictures, not pixel collections. Viewed from a sensible distance (2 times the image diagonal) you can't see the difference between 5 or 8 mega pixel. If you like to stick your nose close to the images you may recognize a difference but you'll be missing the best. The image.
In the meantime I sold my E-20 and the housing at well. I haven't regretted this move. I fully concentrate on the new project. I left some traces along my way through the digital UW community because of my projects. A few things wouldn't have happened if I hadn't started. I hope that the outcome is a benefit for all.
I decided to buy an Olympus E20 in december 2002 because it had an optical viewfinder, an acceptable zoom range and most of all, it was affordable. The zoom range from 9 to 36mm, equivalent to 35 to 140 of a standard SLR. The 9mm wide angle setting isn't sufficient for real uw-wide angle photography but you won't find a camera with a built in lens ranging from 21 to 200mm. That's why I've got a dome port for a wide angle (or fish eye) converter lens (both Olympus WCON-08B and the Raynox DCR-FE180PRO).
Most manufacturers of underwater housings support only main stream SLR cameras. For my first housing project, I had a try with bruder-unterwasser technik. They offer a range of off-the-shelf housings for various video cameras and SLRs as well as prototypes for nearly any camera. It took them 2.5 months to build the prototype housing. I got it just in time for my trip to the Philippines. The housing has levers, pushbuttons and knobs to control most of the camera functions (in theory, the sub dial never worked). It features both optical viewfinder and LCD display. Although a total of 10kg on land the whole system weights only about 100g to 150g under water. Soon after the first dives parts went loose and the zoom gear broke off. Bruder is known for fixing such problems in no time (as long as you've got the time space and patience of a well trained Asian monk). Sometimes the fixes even work. After a series of troubles that ended in a partial flooding through the finder (a glued on part, no user serviceable parts inside!) I luckily sold the housing and camera.
In 2002 digideep installed a site where you find descriptions of a large number of cameras and suitable housings. The site features reviews and sample pictures as well.
The last add-ons I got for the E-20 housing were a the wide-angle dome port for the Olympus WCON-08B and the Raynox DCR-FE180PRO wide-angle converters. The DCR-FE180PRO features nearly 180° angle across the image. The port had to be split into two parts to allow for the wide diameter of the adaptors. I have taken photos with the port during my trip to México and in Austrian lakes too.
Working with the digital camera isn't much different to a standard SLR. There are some things to observe though.
First of all, the LCD is hard to read without a shade. Light under water causes lots of reflection. Sometimes I wasn't able to recognize anything. nearly no chance to check the focus too. Especially for macro I used the optical viewfinder although it is sometimes hard to get the whole image without shifting your eye across the rear window. The camera shows a significant shutter delay when using the LCD. With the optical viewfinder it releases immediately (60ms delay). True SLRs don't have a preview on the display at all. Digital finders still have too low resolution to focus properly. That's why I've started my optical angle finder project.
Synchronizing digital cameras with uw-strobes is a pain so I first decided to use 2 video lights (HLX 14,4V, 35W, 3500K, 100% and 60% dimmable). It showed, that the video lights are better to control than strobes, both mechanical and optical. Digital cameras have no fixed white balance like chemical film. Therefore 3500K lights are sufficient in many cases. The HLX light doesn't produce that crisp impression known from strobes.
One big advantage of the video lights is that you see them better than the guide lights of strobes. Especially above 25m where the remaining sunlight may be quite strong. You may use them as stand-alone tank lamps as well. In many cases my buddy helped me with an extra lamp (50W dimmable HLX light by Willixhofer) to produce special light effects. I got a magnifying glass for a close encounter deep down, designed by Jos Schulte. It helps my buddy to find the small things I like to take pictures of.
There is an interesting discussion on strobes versus video lights on Wetpixel. It seems that the brilliance gained with strobes is far better than with video lights. Some experiments on this made me buy a Hartenberger 250 Ws strobe.
After experimenting with different exposure and white balance settings I stuck with the following: