Entering the Underwater World on a Budget

SCUBA diving is something that I've wanted to get into for nearly as long as I remember. Now that I live in California, so close to one of the best recreational dive sites in the world (Monterey), I figured I should't wait any longer before getting my open water certification. After getting my open water certification a couple of months ago, I suspect that I asked myself the same question that many aspiring underwater photographers ask themselves: how am I going to make amazing photos under all that water?

Honu Bro (Tunnels Beach, Kauai, Hawaii)

I desperately wanted an underwater camera setup that would provide me with fantastic, publishable image quality, without breaking the bank. This is an extremely tall order, since underwater camera equipment tends to be outrageously expensive. For example, a housing, lens port, and dual-strobe setup for something like a Nikon D800 can easily run $6000+. Not to mention the risks associated with putting a $3000 camera, plus a presumably expensive lens inside a setup like that.

What's an enthusiastic underwater photographer on a budget to do? Let me introduce you to the best budget-friendly underwater setup available today: the Olympus E-PM1, 14-42mm lens, and PT-EP06 underwater housing... just $500! This setup is a steal for the money, and includes everything you need to get started: camera, lens, and housing. The PT-EP06 housing supports three different lenses: the included 14-42mm, the wider 9-18mm, and the 60mm macro. It also supports the standard fiber-optic strobe connections, it's easy to add on underwater strobes once you're ready.

Image quality and handling are a bit of a compromise. As with all of the cheaper Micro Four Thirds cameras, the lack of manual controls can be frustrating. These control annoyances are magnified when the camera sits in the bulky housing, and when you operate it underwater while wearing gloves. Image quality is good at ISO 200, but I don't venture past ISO 800 unless I really must. It's certainly no Nikon D800, but it's a surprisingly capable little camera.

I've augmented my setup with a Zen Dome Port, which is made of curved glass, unlike the standard flat port. This gives a slightly wider field-of-view underwater, and also improves image quality (sharpness) when shooting with wider angle lenses, like the 9-18mm. I've also added a Sea & Sea YS-01 underwater strobe for better color and light at depth.

Despite its few shortcomings and limitations, I feel very strongly about this kit. It offers significantly better image quality than an underwater point & shoot, while costing significantly less than a complete underwater DSLR kit.

The images that you see above and below are from my first few dives with this setup. Stay tuned for more underwater imagery as I gain more dive experience!

Striped Squirrelfish (Oahu, Hawaii)

Yellow-Striped Goatfish (Oahu, Hawaii)

Snorkeling (Tunnels Beach, Kauai, Hawaii)

Self-Portrait - Cheers!