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Where should I start and what should I buy?

This is probably the single question asked most by people who want to get into underwater photography.  The worst part is, there's no easy answer.  Before you can answer the big question, you have to answer some smaller questions first.  Here's the short list:

  1. How much money are you willing to spend?
  2. How much experience with 'regular' 35mm cameras do you have?
  3. Do you already own a modern autofocus camera and a couple of lenses?
  4. What are your goals (have fun, get pictures for your wall, put David Doubilet out of business, etc.)?
  5. How much time, money, and effort are you willing to spend while you learn?

Question #1, as you might guess, is the big one.  Regardless, here's a chart of the strengths, weaknesses, and costs of the most common camera options.

Snapshot cameras:

Pro: Cheap, easy to use, easy to get decent results.  Very few controls means little to learn.  Very little maintenance.
Con: Very limited in flexibility, accessories.  Easy to outgrow if you're serious.
Example: Ikelite Aquashot / Auto 35, Bonica Snapper, Sealife Reefmaster
Cost: $300 or less

Entry-level amphibious camera

Pro: Easy to use, better optical quality than snapshot system.  Also relatively inexpensive. More controls can get better results.
Con: Also easy to outgrow, although less so than snapshot systems.  More controls means more to learn, and more ways to make mistakes.
Example: Sea & Sea MX-10
Cost: $400-$700

Mid-level amphibious camera

Pro: Better optics, more controls, more accessories.  Decent external strobes can be used.  Some people never outgrow these systems.  Nikonos V can expand and grow with you forever.
Con: More expensive, more to learn, even more ways to make mistakes.  At this level, flooded cameras start to get very costly to repair/replace.
Example: Sea & Sea MotorMarine IIex, Nikonos V
Cost: $750 - $3000

High-End amphibious camera

Pro: Superb optics, every control you could want. If you master these cameras, your photos will be fantastic. No limit to expansion options, as long as you've got the coin.
Con: Very expensive.  Great results take a long time to achieve.   Floods can easily cost $1000 or more.  Frequent careful maintenance is a must.
Example: Nikonos V, Nikonos RS
Cost: $3000 & up.

Housed 35mm SLR

Pro: Through-the-lens view finders (a truly wonderful thing), tack-sharp focus, modern exposure electronics.  These systems can actually return good results to the beginner right away -- if you are willing to pay the cost.  Expansion options unlimited.
Con: Extremely expensive.  A flooded housing will instantly destroy the housed camera and its lens--a complete loss, usually.
Example: Aquatica, Ikelite, Nexus, Sea & Sea, Subal housings.  Nikon, Canon, Minolta cameras.
Cost: $3000 & up.

As you can see, your options are few and the choice difficult.  You have to weigh for yourself how much money you are willing to spend, and what sorts of results you want in the long run.  You might have noticed that the Nikonos V is listed in two categories, namely both mid-level and high-end amphibious.  This is because the Nikonos V fits into both categories, depending on what accessories you purchase for it.   The stock Nikonos V with 35mm lens and a small strobe is indeed a mid-level camera.   However, you can outfit the Nikonos V with any of several superb lenses ranging from mild telephoto to extreme wide-angle, a close-up kit for the 35mm lens, extension tubes for macro work, and a huge array of strobes.  The Nikonos V is the most versatile camera you can buy, in terms of accessories. If you buy even a small assortment of lenses and other accessories, you can easily change the Nikonos V from "mid-level" to "high-end."  That's one of the reasons this camera is so popular.


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