By Joseph Tepper
Most normal people keep their iPhones as far away from all things wet as possible—but underwater photographers aren’t exactly normal, are we?
With increased photo capabilities of camera phones and simultaneous increase in overweight baggage charges, using your ever-handy iPhone as an underwater camera is an increasingly viable option.
And if you want to bring your entire life—uh, I mean your phone—underwater, you better have the right case for the job. That’s why DPG put the i-Divesite i-Pix A5 housing (MSRP $149.99) for the iPhone 5 to the test in Grand Cayman.
The iPhone 5 Camera
Last year, I fell in love with using my iPhone 4 for underwater photography—so much so, that for an entire trip to Grand Cayman I kept my SLR rig packed tightly in its case.
The camera abilities of the latest iPhone 5s are nothing to scoff at: Mobile photos are becoming increasingly used by news agencies, stock photography and—of course—capturing family moments. The iPhone 5s features 8-megapixel images captured on a 1/3.2” sensor—the same it’s been for the last two generations.
Significant improvement, however, manifests with the lens aperture. While the iPhone 4 featured a relatively “slow” aperture of F/2.8, Apple has widened the F-Stop in the iPhone 5 and 5s to F/2.4 and F/2.2, respectively. The faster, lower aperture lens lends itself to the underwater world where bright natural light can be hard to come by.
People love their iPhones. Seriously. And with any love, there comes over-the-top non-stop paranoiac overprotection of our iPhones. Heck, the iPhone 5 even has a fingerprint scan.
So if you want to be able to bring your iPhone underwater without joining the 20 percent of owners who have dropped theirs in the toilet, you need a real housing. I first got my housing on the i-Divesite i-Pix housing for the iPhone 5 at DEMA and was immediately struck by how durable it felt. It’s significantly beefier than its predecessor, making the nervous Nancy even more confident.
To state it simply, the i-Pix isn’t a case—it’s a housing. The housing features a glass port for optical image clarity, and is designed so that the iPhone remains suspended to further protect from the wear and tear of diving.
i-Pix for the iPhone 5 Specifications:
• Compatible with iPhone 5
• Glass lens port and baffle for optical image clarity
• iPhone is fully suspended within the housing ensuring the phone and screen are effectively shielded from wear, tear, shock and pressure.
• Depth Rating: 57 meters
• Custom app and buttons to optimize still & video camera functions & upload to social media (available at the App Store Sept. 2013)
• Integrated universal tripod mount
• Lens bezel (M32) for external filters and lenses
• One Year Warranty
• Optional Tray and light setup available
Wide-Angle Underwater Photography with the i-Pix for the iPhone 5
Of the many great abilities the iPhone 5 camera gives even the most average of photographers (or lay person), it wasn’t meant for wide-angle photography. The iPhone 5 features a less-than-impressive 31mm (35mm film equivalent) focal length, while the the 5S isn’t much wider, at 29.7mm. The bottom line is that if you want to shoot real wide-angle underwater photography you’re going to need some awesome accessories.
Luckily, i-Divesite manufactures the UWL-06, wide-angle conversion wet lens, which widens the focal length closer to 11mm. Having a fisheye-esque focal length is critical for photographing larger underwater subjects, as it allows the photographer to get as close as possible—thus minimizing the water column between the lens and the subject. It also helps if you’re shooting with the addition of a continuous video light, like the I-Torch Pro 6 (see below).
I-Pix’s red filter, which screws into the threaded glass port is another critical accessory for the i-Pix housing. For distant or immense subjects where even a powerful light like the i-Torch Pro 6 won’t be enough to bring back color, the filter increases contrast and brings back color into the image.
Macro Underwater Photography with the i-Pix
In my review of the i-Pix housing for the iPhone 4, I explained how the setup was best used underwater for photographing medium sized subjects (roughly 1 foot in size) such as puffer fish or lionfish, among others. While it is true that this remains a strength of the i-Pix setup, the addition of a wet macro lens opens up the world of macro underwater photography to any iPhone owner.
The one consideration when shooting macro—or super macro, for that matter—with the iPhone is avoiding motion blur. With traditional strobes and flashes, it is the emission of light that freezes the motion, not the shutter speed itself. That’s why, when shooting small subjects through the use of a powerful continuous light like the i-Torch Video Pro 7 you still have to keep the camera as still as possible.
This can be aided with the use of a tray, which stabilizes the camera for both video and stills of small critters. You can also use your arms as impromptu tripods by resting them on dead coral, rock or sand.
Underwater Video with the i-Pix Housing
I consider myself a photographer first and a videographer, well, only when there’s not much else to do on a dive. But using the iPhone in the i-Pix housing will transform any still shooter into an underwater Spielberg.
With the ability to record full 1080HD video at a swift 30 frames per second rate, the i-Pix fits impressive function into small form. As a photographer, I found that my best video results came when I dedicated an entire dive towards accruing footage—and not switching back and forth with stills. This allowed me to focus on the video techniques (panning, zooming, etc) needed to capture compelling footage.
Of course, if a whale shark happened to fly by, I wouldn’t discourage taking as many stills and videos as possible.
Adding a Tray and i-Torch Video Pro 7
When underwater photographers ask us what the most important piece of equipment to invest in (other than camera and housing) our response is likely a good set of strobes or video light. An underwater photographer is really only as good as his/her lighting setup. Sure, you could just rely on filters and natural light and come home with some decent iPhone underwater snapshots and videos—but adding the brilliant (pun intended) i-Torch Video Pro 7.
Powerful doesn’t even capture this 5000-lumen, continuous video light. Blinding might come closer. This pro-level light was invaluable in creating well-lit video of larger subjects, and as a great fill light when combined with the wide-angle filter for still photography.
What can’t be stressed enough is the compactness of this light. Most 5000-lumen video lights paired with an i-Pix housing would probably be at least twice as large as the housing itself.
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably wondering if this i-Pix setup is right for you. Well, if you don’t already have an iPhone 5/5S, then it’s probably not. There are great compact camera options that are similar in size and price as a housed iPhone—with better still and video specifications.
But let’s say you already have an iPhone, like a half billion other people. In that case, turning your iPhone into an underwater video and still camera becomes much more affordable and reasonable. For iPhone owners without an underwater camera and little to no dive experience, the i-Pix housing will convince you and your dive buddies that it’s a compact camera, not just another smartphone in another “case.” Shooting in JPEG is more than enough, especially if you don’t want to bogged down in post-processing and just want to show off your dive vacay snapshots.
For current compact owners and mid-level underwater photographers, there’s a compelling case that your smartphone could serve as a worthy backup should the worst (knock on wood) happen on your next dive trip. Finally, you few hard-core amateur and pro-level SLR shooters who are considering bringing your iPhone underwater—don’t scoff at the idea!
Even on my longest, furthest assignments to corners of the world, I make sure to bring my i-Pix housing… in addition to two complete SLR setups. And it’s not just because I like the novelty factor of bringing my iPhone underwater. I have found that my iPhone in i-Pix housing has served as an excellent pole cam/action cam, when my SLR (or substitute larger compact and mirrorless models) proves to bulky, heavy, and expensive. By mounting my i-Pix housing onto a pole I have captured “bitey” shoals of sharks in Yap, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins off the Rhode Island coast and hopefully many more awesome things to come.
Plan Your Adventure >