A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about some inexpensive options for trying out underwater photography. While playing around with iPhone cases and underwater point and shoot cameras is a lot of fun and well, better than nothing, it won't take you long to start wishing for the control and quality that you can only get with your “big camera”. Enter the Aquapac Waterproof DSLR Case, an underwater bag for your DSLR camera (they make a smaller one for mirrorless cameras, too). There are a number of underwater bags on the market, priced from suspiciously inexpensive to confidence inspiring, and the Aquapac falls somewhere in the middle. I wrote to a few manufacturers of underwater pouches to request samples for review and I have to say that the speed and enthusiasm with which Aquapac responded really did decrease my apprehension about placing my precious camera in their bag. None of the other companies even replied to my email, but this company clearly believed in their product and they were not the least bit concerned that my camera would drown the first time I used it, resulting in a negative review. Of course, that was just my perception of the situation, but I did feel better about trying the bag for the first time, so if it was just clever marketing and PR, then it worked on me.
What Size Bag Do You Need?
The bag that I reviewed is the Aquapac Waterproof DSLR Case 458. It will fit most crop sensor DSLR's, and some of the smaller full frame ones. For example, it fits my Nikon D7100 and D750 but would not fit a Nikon D4S. You can check this size guide to see which bag will fit your camera. I did have to remove my tripod plate and strap in order to fit my camera in the bag. It is probably for the best to remove the tripod plate anyway, because of the sharp corners and the strap will just get in your way inside the bag and drive you crazy.The bag has an attached, flexible tube with an acrylic lens at the end. According to the sizing graphic, it can accommodate a lens up to 80 mm or 3.2 inches in diameter and 100 mm or 4 inches in length.
What Lens Should You Use?
For underwater photography, a fairly wide angle lens is preferable. Although you may be thinking that you would want a longer telephoto so that you could take photos of marine life from a distance, shooting through water just isn't the same as shooting through the air. Even the most crystal clear Caribbean waters are full of billions of tiny particles and the further away your subject is, the more it will be obstructed by those particles. It is more comparable to photographing a subject through fog or smoke than it is to photographing a subject through clear air. The greater depth of field afforded by a wide angle lens can be an additional benefit as achieving perfect focus while bobbing around in the water can be tricky.My Nikon 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens with a 72 mm filter thread fits perfectly, but my 16-35 mm f/4 lens which also has a 72 mm filter thread is quite tight. Although I feel like I could probably finesse it in there, I suspect that it would be a nightmare to get it back out and that it just generally might not be a good idea to force it. Any lens smaller than those will fit fine, but I found it easiest to use with a larger lens that fills up the tube and sits snuggly inside the acrylic cap at the end. If you have to keep pulling back on the flexible tube part to get the acrylic lens to sit firmly against your camera lens, and hold it there while trying to stay afloat, frame your shot, and find focus you will soon realize that you possess too few hands.
Originally, I was trying to use the bag with an 18-55 kit lens which was extremely tricky and most of my photos were out of focus. I thought that maybe I was keeping the lens from focusing, by holding the acrylic lens firmly against it, so I tried my little 35 mm prime lens and that was even worse. The lens was so short that the tube kept bunching up and getting right in front of it. When I finally switched to the 24-70, it freed up my left hand for treading water and I started getting much better results. One note: if you are using the bag with a larger lens, you will want to select your focal length before you put the camera in the bag and you probably won't be able to zoom in and out much. Once it's in there, it becomes very difficult to turn that ring, so that is one advantage to using it with a smaller lens. If you are actually scuba diving with the camera, as opposed to snorkelling or just doggy paddling around in the pool, then the pressure will push the acrylic lens back onto your lens without needing your help and a smaller lens might suffice. I noticed this happening, even just free diving down a few feet with the camera to try and get closer to some shipwrecks. In fact, you will want to make sure that there is some air in the bag before scuba diving, so that it doesn't suck in so tightly that the controls become impossible to use. For activities near the surface, less air in the bag makes it easier to operate the camera.
Construction and Specs
The bag is made out of TPU plastic (that's thermoplastic polyurethane if you must know, as did I). In a nutshell, it is thin and light but tough, elastic, clear and resistant to abrasion and damage from grease and oils. I was surprised by how thin the plastic feels and how easy it is to work most of the buttons and dials on the camera through it. The top/front of the bag is clear, but the sides and back are a semi-transparent grey. I'm not really sure why they haven't just made the entire bag clear, because the grey sides and back are constantly folding over the LCD screen, making it difficult to see. The acrylic front lens is more durable than glass in terms of cracking or shattering but is more easily scuffed or scratched. I got a small scuff on mine, the first day I used it and I thought I was being pretty careful. I kind of wish for some kind of rubber lens cap that could be slipped over it while not in use.
The case is quite light, at 216 g (7.6 oz) and can be folded up so that it doesn't take up too much room in your bag. It comes with a sturdy grey strap that adds another 56 g (2 oz). They also throw in 3 desiccant packs to help combat the condensation that may form in the bag when you go from warm air into cold water.
The Aquapac Waterproof DSLR Bag is rated IPX8, meaning that it has been tested and is fully waterproof at a depth of 10 metres (30 ft) for 30 minutes. It is also sand proof, so this bag is a great idea for protecting your camera at the beach, even if you don't plan on going into the water. The seal is formed by two plastic rails, with three clips that you turn 90 degrees to lock it closed. It doesn't really look like it should keep water out, but I have used the bag several times now with no issues, so the design obviously works. You should always visually inspect the inside of the seal before you close it because a hair or a bit of sand in the seal can be all it takes for disaster to strike. The bag will float with most cameras in it, although you should test that in the sink before you trust it in the ocean. It certainly provides an extra measure of security if you are using your camera in a tippy canoe or kayak, to know that if you capsize the camera will float. The downside of this feature is that when you are swimming with it around your neck, it will keep floating up and hitting you in the face.
Overcoming ChallengesSometimes I feel like every review I write ends up saying “it was challenging to use this product” and the fact is: it usually is because I'm only really interested in trying things that are new and different and come with a learning curve. Underwater photography is no different in that regard than mastering a Lensbaby or an extreme wide angle macro, except that you are less likely to drown in those scenarios.
- For starters, you're going to want to be a decent swimmer because trying to operate your big, bulky camera inside a plastic bag is just too difficult if staying afloat is something you have to concentrate on. I am a pretty strong swimmer and am very comfortable in the water, but I got a noseful a few times when I was paying more attention to the camera than to oncoming waves.
- If you are planning to take photos mostly at the top of the water, for example of your kids playing in the lake or above and below photos like the one at the top of this article, then I strongly suggest wearing a floatation device or at least a noodle so that your hands are free and you won't sink while your attention is focused on the camera.
- When swimming with a mask and snorkel, it can be tricky to see through the eyepiece. If you are using the LCD screen, you will want to turn the brightness up as high as it goes and on bright days, that still won't be enough to see the screen through the glare on the bag. Between having the brightness turned up, using the LCD and being in the cold water, you might be looking at severely compromised battery life. After some trial and error, I found that I could look through the eyepiece with a mask on, it took some getting used to but the results were much better. (I also find it faster to move the focus point when looking through the viewfinder and I get more frames per second, so it's really the best option).
- If you insist on using it with the LCD screen, don't say I didn't warn you, but I did come up with a hack to help keep the bag from bunching up over the screen. The strap that the bag comes with is doubled through the loops and the camera hangs at chest height when it is doubled. If you put just a single loop around your neck, the camera is now hanging down around hip height, but if you fold the excess bag and the rail under the camera and have the extra loop sitting under the lens, the camera hangs at a comfortable height and the excess is prevented from bunching back up. Seriously, though – just look through the viewfinder.
- Focusing can be difficult, so use the highest f-stop (smallest aperture) that you can get away with, bearing in mind that you lose light rapidly as you descend underwater and that you will also need a shutter speed fast enough to combat the inevitable motion. For example, the photo above was taken at f/16 but I had my ISO set to 100 and that left me with a shutter speed of 1/25 of a second, which explains why none of my photos from that particular shoot are as sharp as I would like. If I had the chance to do it again tomorrow, I would push my ISO up to 800, my f-stop down to f/11 or f/8 and try to keep my shutter speed above 1/500th of a second, just as a jumping off point. To be honest, even though I was there for the shipwrecks, I found it absolutely eerie when this one appeared through the murk in front of me. I had a pretty serious case of the creeps and I wasn't paying attention to my camera settings at all.