Underwater Gear For Great Barrier Reef Documentary

The Panasonic Lumix GH1, while one of the most compact and advanced cameras in its class, can’t be submerged in water or safely used in the rain since it lacks waterproof seals. So, like many DSLRs or compact camera, it requires a fully waterproof housing to keep it safe and dry during dives. These  housings are fairly expensive, in many cases costing thousands of dollars more than the camera it protects, and must be designed not only to keep the camera safe under extremely high pressures (typically down to 100 feet or more), but also to allow the diver access to exposure, shutter, focus, and zoom controls. While several camera manufacturers routinely introduce compact digital cameras with a branded waterproof housing, it usually takes several months for underwater housing manufacturers to release a housing for a new DSLR model. The exception is Olympus, which routinely offers UW housings for its new DSLR cameras when they’re introduced or within a short period of time. The reason housings take so long to get to market is that the housing manufacturer needs an actual camera body and lens in order to design the housing to fit, and most camera manufacturers are unwilling to release their new models to any outside “accessory” company before the actual product launch–or even in the first wave of production models.

In order for my shoot on the Great Barrier Reef to take place in September, 2009, only a few months after the Panasonic Lumix GH1 was announced and just weeks after the first units reached stores in the US, I need help from the Lumix team in Japan. Fortunately, they had developed a relationship with the Proof housing company (also located in Japan) which had built an underwater housing for the Lumix G1 in 2008. So when my two GH1’s arrived from Japan in early July, 2009, a custom underwater housing and two lens ports were included in the shipment.

Unfortunately, it was up to me to provide underwater flash and video lights that would allow me to shoot underwater at depths below 10 feet, where most of the red light in the spectrum has been filtered out by the ocean water. Of course, lights were also necessary for me to shoot during during night dives or to capture creatures hiding in caves. The problem right off the bat is that Panasonic doesn’t manufacture its own waterproof flash or video lights, and I wanted to put together a system that was lightweight and extremely portable. The photo below shows you what I came up with:

The setup above includes two INON S-2000 flash units (red colored at end of arms) and two FIX LED video and focus lights. All four of these are attached to the camera housing via an assortment of Ultralight connectors, ball joints, and arms. The reason I chose the INON flash units is that they’re capable of true STTL metering with the GH1 via fiber optic cable connections (note the thin wire running from each flash unit to the housing.) The GH1’s flash unit is popped up inside the housing, and fires a preflash just prior to the full power flash. Normally, the preflash is detected through the lens by a metering sensor that instructs the camera to fire the proper amount of full flash for the scene. (all of this takes place so quickly you don’t notice two flashes firing.) However, in this case the camera’s preflash gets detected by the strobes via the fiber optic cable, and the strobes send out a preflash that’s detected and analyzed by the camera. It’s a stronger preflash that fools the camera into sending a “full flash” signal that’s much weaker than normal. (A side benefit to that weak full flash? The camera battery lasts far longer than expected–typically over 500 shots with flash!) However, the INON strobes instantly calculate the difference and send out the perfect amount of full flash between them. The result is a “synced TTL” exposure that’s extremely accurate–and in this case provided by two flash units, extending the range of the flash and the versatility.

Having dual flash units mounted on this system allows for very creative lighting, and each flash can be dialed down or up in power to provide desired lighting ratios. Plus, I could manipulate the Ultralight arms to position the flash units above, to the sides, or below a fish or target in front of me, or move them to the proper angles when shooting vertical compositions–an impossible situation with a flash mounted on the housing or camera. The results speak for themselves in the following photo gallery

All photos taken by Michael J. McNamara for  Our Place World Heritage

Finally, the focus and video lights I chose, both FIX LED units waterproof to several hundred feet, allowed me to switch to the cameras HD movie mode and still have lighting at hand. One FIX light provided 500 lumens, and the other 1000 lumens when dialed to maximum output, lending a perfect 1:2 ratio. However, as I learned when viewing the videos vs the still images of the same subjects, LED lighting doesn’t provide the same color rendering index as the flash units, despite providing a color temperature of 6500k. They’re a bit weak in the red spectrum output, which is really needed underwater, so red objects appear less saturated when photographed or recorded on video when using the LED lights. By the way, the entire lighting system shown above cost approximately $2100, and I’m told the custom underwater housing cost approximately $4,000. Expect a number of housing manufacturers to offer production housings with fiber-optic fittings for under $2,000 in the near future.
Didn’t need the video lights much in this scene, which had enough lighting and action of its own:

Hey, did that White Tip Reef shark just give me the evil eye? Or was he wondering how I’d taste with a seaweed salad? This is a short preview of a 6 minute long full 1080p movie I made in the Coral Sea while doing a documentary for UNESCO World Heritage Photo Project, taken with the Panasonic GH1 in a custom housing.

About Author

Michael J. McNamara
Michael J. McNamara

Michael J. McNamara is the Editor-in-Chief of the McNamara Report, Director of In-Depth Focus Labs, and former Exec. Technology Editor at Popular Photography Magazine. His photo and video portfolios can be viewed at www.McPhotoVideo.com.

  • Hi Mike – spectacular photos! Looking forward to having you post more in the future. Interesting article about how you designed the lights and how you housed the camera. My question is – how the heck did you carry all that around with you and still be able to swim? Did you have the equipment harnassed to you or something? How long did you spend at such depths? Karen

  • Adalberto

    Lovely pictures and another reason that makes me feel good after buying gh1.

    Talking about that how can i contact proof housing company?

    Id like on of them housings too.

  • SteelMobile

    Great article – I am also interested in an underwater housing for the GH-1/G-1. Are you interested in selling one of your housings. Or could you provide some information on how to contact Proof thanks a bunch!