By Joseph Tepper
They say that the best camera is the one you have with you—and nowadays, it seems that more and more this is the iPhone.
So when the folks over at i-Divesite gave DPG a close look at their i-Pix housing for the iPhone at DEMA, I knew I had to test it out. After a month testing the housing in Grand Cayman I am shocked to say that I never once used my trusty DSLR.
So what would cause a underwater photographer to favor his cell phone over a top-of-the-line DSLR in a prime location? Well you’ll just have to read on.
The iPhone Camera
Camera phones have been around since 2000, but the days of the 1-megapixel monstrosities are far behind. Today, the latest iPhones feature an 8-megapixel camera built around a relatively open f2.8 lens.
Mobile photographs have also taken off with the success of Instagram, a mobile-only photo feed. They appear in newspapers, magazines and are even being accepted by stock agencies. That’s not even delving into the 1080p HD video recording.
But how would the iPhone camera hold up underwater?
With the success of iPhone photography topside, it was only a matter of time before the avalanche of housings came tumbling down the mountain. While we had seen a handful of “tough” or “waterproof” housings, the i-Pix was the first to be truly aimed at underwater photographers. The manufacturer, i-Divesite, is the maker of fine underwater video lights, camera trays, and other accessories.
The i-Pix features a full suspension system that “floats” your iPhone for maximum protection and is depth rated to 130 feet. The company put a great amount of attention into the little details: the lens is made from glass to improve optical image clarity, there’s a lens baffle to protect from the halo effect and a threaded bezel to attach accessories. The housing also features a distinct grip so that the camera can be held as easily with one hand as with two.
The end result is a setup that looks, feels, and responds like the top-of-line compact camera. In fact, most days on the boat other divers didn’t even realize that it was my phone until I removed it from the housing.
The housing features three buttons that allow the user to access the lower quarter of the touch screen, as well as a fourth control to push the phone’s “home” button.
Using the i-Pix and iPhone underwater
While the i-Pix housing could serve over and beyond as a surf, snorkel or pool housing, what really makes it unique is its performance as true underwater camera for divers. A big part of this comes from the custom made app that often outperforms the iPhone’s native “camera” application.
The Watershot App is a free download, which is designed to work specifically with the i-Pix’s three-button configuration. The app does many of the same things as the standard iPhone camera app like switching between photo and video recording, but it also has features that proved useful underwater like flicking through images in playback.
One of the hardest decisions to make underwater is whether to shoot in stills or video. The Watershot App allows the user to capture stills in video mode, which I found useful especially with more rare encounters like eagle rays, turtles and mantas.
Rapid-fire mode is another feature not seen in the iPhone’s native app. I made sure to use this when in fast-paced situations like a shootout at Stingray City.
The only downside to the App is the lack of ability to playback videos. There were several times when I thought I had the shot underwater, only to discover it was out of focus or too red back on the boat.
Still Photography with the iPhone in i-Pix Housing
I’d taken still pictures with compacts for a review of some of the most promising point and shoots last year, but wasn’t really sure how a phone would take still pictures underwater.
Underwater iPhone photography is perhaps easiest and most consistent when shooting medium to small sized subjects—those that can fit in the frame without having to move more than 4 feet away.
Wide-angle with the iPhone proves to be a more challenging task. The 28mm equivalent lens doesn’t let the photographer get within two arms distances of larger subjects. This is where the red filter proves particularly useful, at longer distances from the subject where even strong video lights could not reach.
To combat this distance I used both the red filter to achieve crisp blue water and artificial light to fill in the main subject, be it a sponge or turtle.
Underwater Video with the i-Pix Housing
The iPhone 4s and 5 are capable of shooting full 1080 HD video at a crisp 30 frames per second rate. While there is certainly an application for the i-Pix as a stills-only device, I think the most potential lies in using it to record HD underwater footage in an ultra-compact form, much like the GoPro.
As with any compact HD video recording device the name of the game is producing stable footage. While you can take pretty amazing shots with just the housing and the red filter, you can also take a step up by adding the i-Divesite tray and i-Torch Pro 5.
I-Divesite makes several filters to fit the i-Pix housing thread, including a red filter for tropical water and a magenta filter for green water environments. Although I tested only the red filter in the blue water of Cayman, I found it to do an excellent job of adding the appropriate amount of red in depths from 20-60 feet. In shallower conditions, like stingray city, the result was far too harsh a red hue. While with deeper subjects, the lack of light and increased "blueness" resulted in an almost all-blue image.
This filter comparison was conducted at 50 feet in clear, tropical Caymanian waters
Adding a Tray and i-Torch Video Pro 5
The tray functions to add stability to an otherwise small housing. It’s light and compact, constructed from lightweight aluminum, and makes panning and following moving subjects like turtles or stingrays much smoother.
When shooting video of a free swimming eel, the tray made it much easier to keep the camera parallel with the subject than if I had been trying to grip it with just my hand. On a more practical level, the tray allowed the attachment of the i-Torch Pro 5 video light. When taking video of a moving subject like that free swimming eel or a turtle, the last thing you want to worry about is aiming your video light.
The i-Torch Video Pro 5 is a 1600-lumen professional-level video light. It features a very soft edge of light instead of a hard fall off, which lends its self to either wide-angle video or stills where the artificial light can’t fill the entire scene.
Underwater photo enthusiasts hoping to use their iPhone/i-Pix in more than just a casual way will appreciate the addition of an artificial light to fill the shadows in the scene. Although continuous lighting is a natural thought for video shooting, it’s less obvious for stills—but still quite effective.
Practical Tips for Using i-Pix Housing
Using a touch screen phone underwater does take a little while to get accustomed to. It took several rather unproductive dives to iron out the kinks of the system—but here I’ve combined a few tips I learned the hard way, so you don’t have to!
Turn off notifications: If a notification from another application pops up in the middle of a dive, there is no way to close out of it in the middle of the dive
Charge your phone: You never want to go into the water with a half charged camera, but it’s especially important with a battery-sucking iPhone. What’s more, when that 20 percent battery warning pops up, there’s no way to close it
Switch between apps: There were a few times when the Watershot app froze and I needed to switch to the regular camera app. Configure your phone so that you have the Watershot app on the left side of the home dock and your phone’s camera app on the other—that way you can access them at any point throughout the dive
Make Space: While most photographers are used to downloading and backing up their images, our phones tend to be a little less organized. A few movies, music and emails can add up pretty quickly. There’s nothing worse than reaching the iPhone’s storage limit when a pair of eagle rays come flying bye (trust me).
No, Siri is Not Available: Believe it or not Siri can’t help you find your way back to the dive boat.
Thanks in advance,
If your looking to do just video, and do not require the red for a focus light the Video Pro5 is a good option, and a little less money to boot!
But if you think down the road you will want the red for night time focus it would be something to consider.
If you have any other questions don't hesitate to ask!
Doug @ i-Torch
Doug, do you mean using the red as a focus light for video or still shooting? If using it as a focus light for still shooting with strobes, will the light automatically detect the strobes and power off to avoid the light color/source conflict?
Joseph, when you say that you used the lesser output of a focus light for night dive shooting, do you mean the video pro 5 turned down to 50% or do you mean a different light altogether. If it was a different light, how many lumens was the light you liked.