Diving Abroad with a Digital Underwater Camera (for beginners)

Reprinted from the Houston Underwater Photographic Society newsletter.
Do not reproduce without author's written consent.

Many of us take our camera gear with us when we go to “exotic locations” to dive and come back with some great pictures. I’ve taken my digital camera to Fiji, Belize, California, etc, and I’ve also traveled with my Nikonos V film camera; during these trips I’ve noticed that each system has its own special needs. This month, I’d like to write about some of the important things to consider when traveling with your underwater digital camera setup that you may not have considered.

Photo Storage: As many of you know, when using a digital camera, you can fit a lot of shots on your storage card – but what do you do when your card is full? You can’t easily “change film” like you would with a traditional camera, so if you’re traveling, you need some way to store your images. Here are a number of solutions:

Laptop: Sony makes the Picturebook and Fujitsu makes the Lifebook – both of these are “subnotebook” computers that weigh about 2 pounds and have a half-height and full width screen. They are fully functioning computers that will let you view, edit, and store your photos, just like you can do at home. Cost new is roughly $1,500 though.

Digital Wallet: A company called Minds@work makes a portable hard disk called the Digital Wallet. This device comes in various storage sizes – the bigger the storage the higher the price. These compact (smaller than a paperback) units let you plug your card in and transfer images for storage. A mid-sized Digital Wallet costs ~$450.

Nixvue Vista: by “Jobo” comes at a little higher cost than a Digital Wallet but it has a small LCD screen that allows you to view your images. It’s about $600 or so.

Image Tank: This is the cheapest “rough and ready” storage solution. It is a very simple “hard drive holder” that is built to hold a laptop sized hard drive. It has slots to insert a compact flash or smart media card and transfer images. The unit can be ordered with or without a drive, so you can use any size you want. The bare Image Tank is about $150 and with a 40gig hard drive costs $350.

Packing: Most consumer digital cameras pack down pretty well. I can fit my coolpix, housing, strobes, and arms into a Pelican 1600 case. Talk about putting all of your eggs in one basket! If possible, carry on your camera and memory cards. The airport security x-rays won’t harm your gear, but the checked baggage x-rays might.

Care and Handling: Digital cameras tend to suffer more problems due to fogging than film cameras – probably because they are electronic devices and heat up during use. It is best not to bring your camera out of an air-conditioned boat, stick it in your housing, and go diving! I recommend that you let your camera warm up outside before a dive – even if it is humid. If you put it in your housing and it still fogs, try cracking open the housing and leave it in direct sun, but only for a minute or two. If this still doesn’t work, use silica gel packs inside the housing – or my old-standby – a small piece of a “minipad.”

Equipment Insurance: Digital cameras can be expensive! If you dive enough, you WILL flood one. So, just like with a film camera setup, purchase good insurance. However, here’s the important difference to consider when buying a policy for your digital: don’t buy a replacement policy! If you flood your camera a year or two after you bought it and your insurance company sends you a direct replacement, you just got some “brand new” old technology. Since digital cameras are improving so fast, you should aim to get a policy that will pay your claim in cash – that way you can buy the latest and greatest model.

Battery Management: If your digital camera takes AA batteries, consider yourself lucky. Bring lots of them – preferably 1800 mAh Nickel Metal Hydrides, and a good fast charger (or two). If anything happens to your batteries, you can usually find AA’s locally. If your camera uses a special proprietary battery, then bring plenty of spares. Also, consider buying a “universal” battery charger that will work on multiple voltages.

On my first trip to Fiji, I was literally limited to bringing back only 150 shots because all I owned were two memory cards and I didn’t have a laptop or portable storage. I also “smoked” my battery charger on a powerstrip that my friend assured me was 110 volt…? Hopefully these few tips will help you out on your next trip – remember, learn from others mistakes, so you don’t have to make them all yourself!

To discuss underwater housings, digital cameras, and strobes with other wetpixel readers, check out our message forums.