A nudibranch (colourful sea slugs!)
Life, as most of us are all-too-well aware, can be rather surprising and unpredictable at times. A great example of this was exactly two months ago, when my girlfriend and I left Bangkok to go to Koh Tao - a tiny island in the bay of Thailand - to go do our Open Water dive certification.
Long story short - it's two months, nearly 70 dives, and a whole lot of exams later, we're still on Koh Tao, and I am about to complete my PADI Divemaster certification. Needless to say, I sort of fell for this diving malarkey.
So, what is a poor photographer to do, when you rock up on a little island that doesn't do internet deliveries, and only has a limited number of camera shops? You try your damndest to get the best photos you can with the equipment you have available. In my case, I had a beautiful Canon PowerShot S95, but no underwater housing...
The local shop did have a curious little creature, though: An 'universal' camera housing for compact cameras, made by a company I'd never heard of: SeaShell.
How it works
I was rather sceptical at first... Was I really going to put my several-hundred-dollar highly cherished camera at risk by shoving it into an 'universal' camera body? I decided that yes, it would be worth a shot, so I bought the housing for 6,800 Thai Baht (Around £140 / US$225).
The first thing I did was to close the housing and take it to 18 meters for about 15 minutes. It turns out it was as water proof as I had dared hope for... So it was time to put my camera inside.
The SeaShell SS-1 only has two buttons, and both are at the top. It allows you to control a power button and the shutter, only. It sounds very limiting, but it turns out that, just to snap some snapshots under water, it's all you need. This two-button limitation is also the reason why about 25% of cameras don't work in the housing: If the power button is a slider, or is placed too far away from the shutter release button, the camera housing's little rods can't move it (or reach it).
Setting up the housing
Before you can use the housing, you have to set it up. That sounds like it should be easy, but the manual is next to completely bloody useless, and instead I resorted to trial and error. The SS-1 comes with a metric boatload of little rubber feet of different thicknesses. You have to use 12 different rubber feet (2 at the front of the camera, 2 on each side) to attempt to make your camera fit snugly inside the camera housing.
Next, you need to adjust the buttons so the camera housing's buttons align with the buttons on your camera, by using a tiny little wrench and a nut to move the button pistons left, right, and front and back. It all seems just a little bit fragile, and fiddly to set up, but - as we'll see in just a minute, it does actually work pretty well.
In underwater photography, you're taking photos in a medium that's 800 times more dense than air, and that robs your subjects of their color. Reds start disappearing at about 5 meters, and are all but gone a few meters deeper - depending on how turbid the water is etc. As such, you want to get as close as possible to your subject, to ensure there the light has to travel as little as possible before it hits your camera's sensor.
Imagine, for example, that you are 5 meters down, and 2 meters away from your subject - suddenly, light has to travel 7 meters before you can capture it, and your reds are just about gone.
Having to get really close is the main reason why this housing works pretty well: You won't have access to your zoom buttons, but who cares: The Canon Powershot S95 has better apertures when zoomed fully out anyway - so you may as well leave it zoomed out, and get close.
Of course, since you'll be spending most of your time under half a meter from the things you're trying to photograph, you have to be a pretty good diver. It's bad practice to touch the corals and wildlife, so perfect buoyancy control and good control underwater in general is an absolute must - but then that's true for any underwater photography.
The biggest downfall with the SS-1 in combination with the Canon S95, is that the S95 has a flash that pops up, but the housing is too small for the flash to have enough space to do so. This means that you're limited to natural light photography, which turned out to be a blessing and a curse.
It's a lot harder to get photos that look 'correct' without using a flash, but I ended up writing a camera profile for Lightroom that matches the Canon S95's underwater profile, and the fact that the S95 shoots in RAW helped hugely - I was able to recover the reds even from relatively deep depths (12-16 meters), where the human eye can't see them, but the camera somehow managed to record the colors anyway.
Compared with an official housing
I met someone here on the island who had a S95 as well, and he had the original Canon underwater housing for the camera. Whilst I was envious of his additional control and the ability to use flash, it did look as if my photos were as good as his - and in some cases better.
I'll be honest with you - the Canon WP-DC38 (the official underwater camera housing) doesn't cost that much more than the SeaShell SS-1 (list price is $240, you should be able to find them much cheaper - on Amazon, they're currently going for $180), and if I had the choice of one or the other, I would have put down the extra cash to buy the official housing.
On the other hand, the SS-1 can be reconfigured to fit any number of digital compacts, and whereas the official housing would be useless with another camera, the SS-1 would probably still fit, and you can keep snapping pictures.
The truth of the matter is that there was no way the official housing was going to be available on a little island like Koh Tao. Realistically, the choice wasn't between an official housing and the SS-1, but between the SS-1, and not being able to take any photos at all. Seen from that point of view, I'm pretty happy I bought the SS-1. It kept my camera safe under water, and the quality of the pictures I was able to capture
Do you enjoy a smattering of random photography links? Well, squire, I welcome thee to join me on Twitter - Follow @Photocritic