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[SHOTBETA] - The underwater split frame


noun | shot·beta | ʃɑːtˈbeɪtə

1.) A made up word to describe the setup of a photograph. From the climbing term 'beta' to indicate a priori knowledge of something.

Welcome to shotbeta, a chance for me to share a "behind the scenes" look into a specific photo. Today we'll talk about one of my favorite styles - the underwater split frame:


Before diving into the options (see what I did there), it's worth noting one important thing - if you are trying to achieve this split-frame, bigger front elements make it easiest and wide lenses give a better effect. In order for half of the photo to show underwater, half of the lens has to be.... underwater (duh). The larger field-of-view of wide lenses give some shape to this split and allow for both foreground and background elements. Check out a graphic comparing the diameter of an action camera versus a typical wide-angle DSLR lens:

It's obvious that the smaller camera will have a harder time getting this split within it's front element, and it's much more difficult to achieve in any moving water. If you are having difficulty with this shot, try shooting on a bigger camera with a wider lens. That being said, there's three ways you can achieve this look...

1.) A dedicated underwater camera.

2.) A DIY enclosure.

3.) A store-bought case or underwater bag.

1.) A dedicated underwater camera:

I remember getting my first underwater camera, the Canon D10. A stout bulbous little guy that accompanied me for a few excursions but ultimately didn't give me the freedoms I wanted. It was pretty much automatic mode only and didn't have much room for any adjustments. I graduated to the Olympus TG-4, which gave the ability to shoot in RAW format and offered much more of a manual mode compared to the Canon D10. In fact I still have this camera and reach for it sometimes when I don't feel like going with a bigger setup. Finally, the obvious choice for this category is any one of the many GoPro cameras that exist.

2.) A DIY enclosure:

I jump on the chance to do any DIY projects but I've never built an underwater enclosure for my camera. I've seen builds that involve a half-submerged fish tank and shooting through one of the sides, and also builds that convert a Pelican case to a fully submersible shooting rig. Because of the option I found below, doing this DIY didn't seem like the best choice for the photos I was taking. Factoring in the raw materials and hours to build it, I think it squares up pretty evenly with some of the affordable models below.

3.) A store-bought case or underwater bag:

This is where things start to get interesting. Depending on what camera you are looking to dunk, there's a wide assortment of options. Searching Amazon for "Camera XX Underwater Housing" shows both hard and soft cases for your beloved electronics... but buyer beware! Take for example the Meikon and the Neewer brand housings for the Sony A6000, both just shy of $200. Notice anything about the two vendors' offerings? I don't know about you but I personally wouldn't trust my $$$$ camera in a re-branded housing being sold by two merchants.

The median set of offerings for my DSLR comes in the form of flexible bags, both transparent and opaque. Outex is a product bred from a successful Kickstarter campaign and is basically a drysuit for your camera. Its flexible latex sleeve compacts down to almost nothing and is customizable to fit your needs. It's sole drawback (if you even want to call it that) is that it doesn't allow for you to see some of the buttons or the top LCD so it requires tactical feedback and looking through the viewfinder or rear menus. It's direct competitor - the bag I chose - is the EWA Marine EM-UB100. It's basically a $350 glorified ziplock bag with some semblance of transparency. In reality it's actually not that easy to use, but it's faults are easily offset with the photos it allows you to take.

Increasing in complexity from the bags there is a noticeable disparity among the contenders within this category, and the next option up is a fine example. If you're even considering one of these, without a doubt I recommend anything from Aquatech or Delphin. Expect to pay upwards of $2000 for one of these beauts - you are paying for the ease of operation and the access to many more controls


My choice - the EWA Marine EM-UB100.

This underwater bag fits my D4 nicely. I typically store it in a stuff sack with my snorkel gear for a great one-bag setup.


So what have I learned from using this bag?

After using this in four of five countries and spending hours with it underwater, I can speak towards the efficacy of this setup. It was very unnerving dunking my D4 for the first time but the fears were dismissed pretty quickly. (speaking of which - check out my short post on insuring your gear).

I recommend doing a trial photo underwater from the boat/beach/rock to check exposure before diving down. The dials are a little difficult to turn through the plastic, and checking the exposure out of the water is way easier than trying to look underwater. You have to understand that underwater will easily be 1-3 stops darker, depending on the lighting conditions. It's also going to require some clever editing because underwater white balance is WAY different than above water. If you shoot the split frame, you'll likely have to edit two versions and combine them right at the water line. In some cases you'll get lucky and the single image will look acceptable but don't plan on it. When in doubt, underexpose 0.5-1 stop and brighten up in post!

My technique for shooting the split frame shot:

It's easy to look through the viewfinder above water and pre-focus with an appropriate DOF. Keep your subject at the same distance, pre-focus, and just hold the camera away from you at the water line. Point the camera at the subject and try to keep the water line centered while shooting bursts. Your keeper ratio will suffer but the ones you get will be very redeeming.

My technique for shooting general underwater shots:

Much more difficult, and lots of missed focus. Maybe if you have a really snazzy scuba mask you can see clearly through the viewfinder, but I was always squinting and had a difficult time. My quickly adopted tactic was to hold the camera about a foot in front of me pointing at the subject, and sighting through the viewfinder from a distance. I was able to see the red [ - ] focus marker on the stingray/turtle/Jason Vorhees, and took lots of bursts hoping for the best.

Since this is a sealed bag, its basically like a floaty, albeit somewhat inefficient. You can squeeze all the air our of the bag and the camera will be more neutrally buoyant, or you can leave a fair bit in there and it won't sink at all... but will be more difficult to dive down with. Afterwards, be sure to wash the bag well with freshwater if you take it in saltwater, as the salt can corrode the hardware and affect the clarity of the bag.

In closing I think the EWA Marine EM-UB100 is a great consideration for your next underwater adventure. Treated with respect, you can get years of use out of this and a few great photos for your portfolio!

In Closing:

The good:

-Priced very reasonably, and almost pays for itself after you see the photos.

-Doesn't fog, and if you are concerned you can drop a few silica balls in there.

-It's a bag, so you can vary the buoyancy by allowing more or less air inside.

-Very compact and travels well.

-Camera-independent, you can let a friend borrow it.

The bad:

-The viewfinder is difficult to see through despite being transparent.

-The rear LCD is pretty much useless because of the reflections off the case. Don't expect to use it.

-The aperture/shutter knobs are a little difficult to spin beneath the plastic.

-Difficult to insert and remove the camera quickly.

I hope you found this blog post helpful. Feel free to drop me a line with any suggestions or leave a comment below.

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