Camera Dunking

A waterproof digital camera offers whole new possibilities for your photography

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camera dunking

Water and digital cameras don’t mix. If you drop a digital SLR into the water, you might as well just leave it there and hope that insurance will cover the replacement costs. Yet recently I’ve been dunking a camera into all sorts of water. Of course, this isn’t any ordinary camera, but a compact and waterproof, point-and-shoot digital camera.

Olympus and Pentax have been making great waterproof digital cameras for a while now. My daughter received a Pentax Optio W10 waterproof digital camera a few years ago as a high-school graduation present. She started dunking it into water right away, starting with a saltwater touch tank at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. She loves anything having to do with the ocean, and her use of the camera in that touch tank really startled a few people. “Aren’t you going to hurt that camera?”

Salt water is especially a problem, so this was a real test for her camera, and it worked great. Since then, she has used it to photograph sharks and rays in the touch tanks at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., where she was a summer education intern.

I liked this idea, but I wanted to apply it to real-world situations in nature. I thought it would be interesting to try photographing below the surface of a pond, under the surface of a lake, down at water level in a stream and so forth.

camera dunking

Then I got the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW. It seemed like the waterproof camera that I had been looking for—waterproof down to 33 feet and shockproof from a drop of six feet. Not that I had any intention of doing either one of those things, but this meant that the camera could handle tougher wet conditions, such as a running stream or waves in the ocean.

This camera, like all of the point-and-shoot waterproof digital cameras, is quite small and fits in your pocket. It also fit in my camera bag without displacing any of my other gear. It became another option for photography, not just a special-use camera.

Dewitt Jones talks about small compact digital cameras in terms of the new possibilities of photography that they offer photographers. I like his idea that these should be thought of as adding a lens to your camera package, rather than buying a new camera. In a sense, that’s exactly what special digital cameras do—they offer new capabilities for your photography.

With most compact digital cameras now offering 8 megapixels and more, these cameras have plenty of resolution. I know a number of pros, such as Dewitt, who regularly use these cameras because they allow the photographer to do something they can’t easily do with a digital SLR.

I took the 1030 SW with me on an assignment to shoot an area of great biodiversity beside the Apalachicola River in Florida. Part of my work was to capture some of the ecosystem restoration work that had been done on a seep stream. These streams literally seep out of the sand in steep ravines, sort of like a spring, and are very clear. To give a little more variety to my photography, I dunked the waterproof camera into a variety of locations to show what was going on below the surface.

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camera dunking

Through the summer, I took the camera with me to other locations such as Mono Lake in California. Mono Lake gains a lot of attention for the unique tufa formations at certain parts of the lake. Because of controversial water agreements with Los Angeles, this lake’s water level has dropped a lot in the past century, revealing the tufas, which are formed from calcification from springs. Through the efforts of many people in the area and the Mono Lake Committee, the lake is finally being restored to previous water levels.

As I was photographing the tufas, I felt I had seen all of these pictures before. Then I remembered the little underwater camera and stuck it into the lake beside a tufa. Suddenly, I had totally new views of these rough-looking natural sculptures. Those images were fun to play with, and I got inspired to see these tufas anew.

I also was up in Yosemite National Park photographing with a friend, Chuck Summers. I had thought it might be interesting to take this camera into some of the streams there, but we never got down to the low levels where all the water was located. But coming back down the pass from Yosemite toward Lee Vining, we stopped to shoot flowers along the side of the road, and Chuck spotted tadpoles.

A little ditch had collected water dripping from the mountain rocks beside the road, and in that ditch were hundreds of tadpoles. I brought out the 1030 SW. Well, I tried, but those tadpoles were awfully skittish. I think if I had had time—and if I had been willing to lay down beside the road where people could have run over my feet—I might have patiently held the camera underwater while the tadpoles came back into position. That didn’t happen.

camera dunking

But I did notice that a lot of small moths had died and were floating on the surface of the water. Now that seemed like it had possibilities for a really different photograph. I put the camera in the water and pointed it up at the drowned insects. I started seeing some interesting things happening in the background with the trees and rocks above the water, so I took a series of pictures while gradually moving the camera until I got a picture I liked. This was totally blind shooting, but the great thing about digital is that you simply take the picture and check the LCD. You then make adjustments for the next picture until you get it right.

The point is that this was a lot of fun. It took me out of my regular way of shooting and made me see some new parts of the natural world. This sort of thing is such an easy way of capturing totally new images—way better than just buying a new lens.

Editor-At-Large Rob Sheppard’s photo information blog is located at His latest book is the New Epson Complete Guide to Digital Printing.

Shooting from beneath the surface of Mono Lake and in a pass near Lee Vining in California, Sheppard created a very different look of familiar landscapes.