The SeaLife SportDiver housing in action in the Caribbean
There is a famous saying that states “the best camera is the one that’s with you,” and no camera is with you more than the one built into your smartphone. Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone and Samsung’s various Galaxy models are the most popular, but most phones these days are capable of capturing high-quality images and video at the press, or touch, of a button. With that in mind, it was only a matter of time before one of the big underwater camera manufacturers realized the potential of this market and produced a housing for divers to take their smartphones underwater.
SeaLife specializes in entry-level cameras that focus entirely on diving, snorkeling and water sports, so it came as no surprise when they launched the SportDiver smartphone housing in late 2020. SeaLife was kind enough to send us a SportDiver last year, but thanks to COVID and ongoing travel restrictions, it has been difficult to get the housing in the water—until recently. For the past few weeks, I have been diving in Sint Maarten and shooting exclusively with my iPhone 11 inside the SportDiver housing, along with the Sea Dragon 2500F photo/video light that’s bundled in the SportDiver Pro 2500 Set. The warm tropical waters of the Caribbean provided the perfect location to finally complete my review of this innovative product. Read on to discover what it’s like to use your smartphone underwater, and whether you should consider adding a SportDiver housing to your camera bag.
A loggerhead turtle in the seagrass is the perfect subject to shoot with your smartphone
The SeaLife SportDiver Pro 2500 Set: SportDiver housing, Sea Dragon 2500F photo-video light, Flex-Connect Single Tray, and Flex-Connect grip
Unboxing and Specs
SeaLife’s SportDiver underwater housing works with most Android models and the iPhone 7 and up. It is depth-rated to 140 feet and comes with a dual leak alarm system that continuously monitors for a waterproof seal. People are incredibly attached to their smartphones, so this is an important feature and selling point of the housing that gives users confidence there will be no accidental flooding or potential phone damage. The unit comes in a nice carry case which keeps your housing safe when not in use and while traveling.
First impressions when unboxing the product is that it fits nicely in the hand, and all buttons and controls are easy to access and use. The shutter button is big and perfectly positioned, and the entire back of the housing is clear so that you can see your entire phone screen at all times. Four buttons on the front of the housing let you control the camera and adjust settings, and a large lens port for a multitude of different phone models comes with a detachable red filter that helps adjust for the loss of this color spectrum at depth.
Inside the box you will also find the usual spare O-rings and lubricant, as well as a bag of rubber tabs that you have to insert into the housing depending on what smartphone you will use. In case you are wondering if your phone is compatible, SeaLife has created a QR code that takes you directly to this information on their website, which also features an extensive 40-minute video tutorial that covers everything you need to know about the housing and how to set it up.
The SportDiver app is free to download and is simple to navigate and use underwater
In order to use your smartphone underwater, the first thing you need to do is download a free application that utilizes Bluetooth wireless technology to control the camera. The SportDiver app gives you detailed instructions to prepare your phone for use and allows you to access advanced camera settings such as exposure, focus and white balance.
Power on the housing and insert your phone, and you will receive simple on-screen instructions that tell you how to prepare the camera and how to create an airtight seal. A blue LED light indicates that your phone and housing are connected, and a digital pressure gauge appears on screen that tells you how much air to remove from the housing until a three-and-a-half minute countdown begins where the vacuum system monitors the pressure to make sure the seal is good. Once this test is complete, you are ready to start taking photos or recording video, and everything captured when using the app is automatically stored directly to your smartphone’s camera roll. It’s never been easier to access your images and share them with others straight after a dive.
The colors of the schooling fish are enhanced by the Sea Dragon 2500F photo/video light
A friendly green turtle sitting in the sand allowed a close approach
The first thing to mention is that the quality of the images you can capture with the SportDiver is entirely dependent on the quality of the camera in your smartphone. Apple phones are well known for the quality of their cameras, and my iPhone 11 captures excellent 12-megapixel images and shoots 4K video at 60fps, rivaling many high-end cameras costing much more. Newer phones have even more impressive cameras, highlighting one of the main benefits of using the SportDiver housing: As smartphone cameras continue to improve, so will your underwater system.
Because the housing is not compatible with strobes, you don’t need to worry about adjusting light positions and power settings, and can instead focus on finding interesting marine life and scenes to shoot. Of course, all of the usual rules of underwater photography still apply, and your images will be greatly improved by getting as close as possible to your subject, shooting with the sun at your back, and choosing a good composition.
Don’t expect to capture perfectly lit wide-angle scenes at depth, as this is difficult even when using big, powerful flashguns. Instead, try to find interesting things to shoot in the shallows, where there is plenty of natural light. I was able to take pictures of turtles, stingrays and sharks, and was pleasantly surprised by the results, especially when I was able to get close enough to use the Sea Dragon 2500F photo/video light to add additional color and clarity.
This reef shark was too big to light with the Sea Dragon video light, so I used the red filter to bring back some color
If you prefer to shoot video clips instead of photos, most smartphone cameras now capture high-resolution 4K footage as standard, and some even record at high frame rates, giving you the ability to slow down your clips for more cinematic results. Changing between photo and video mode is as simple underwater as it is on land, so there is no problem doing both activities on the same dive.
Unlike GoPros and other action cameras, most phones don’t have a built-in electronic stabilization feature for shooting video, so you have to try your best to remain still and use smooth movements when recording. Of course, you can always stabilize the footage in post-production, but arguably, most users of the SportDiver housing are likely to film short video clips and post them directly to social media without using editing software, so a steady hand is essential to get usable results.
Full HD test reel from the Apple iPhone 11 in the SeaLife Sportdiver housing with Sea Dragon 2500F photo/video light: Minimal post-production—stabilization and some basic color grading—was done
Settings and Shooting Tips
The most appealing thing about using your phone in the SportDiver housing is that it is so easy to use, but there are a few settings that are worth adjusting before going underwater. First of all, I turned on the RAW option so that I always captured the best quality images possible. For users not familiar with RAW image editing, the standard JPEG images are more than sufficient. I also reduced the screen brightness and turned on Low Power Mode to prolong battery life so that it could last for two dives without issues. Other than that, I left everything else alone. As mentioned above, you can take control of exposure, white balance and focus in the settings menu, but I left these on auto and never found any reason to adjust them manually.
As with any other camera, understanding your equipment's limitations is critical to your success. The small sensors in smartphones are not particularly well suited to low-light photography, so unsurprisingly, the SportDiver housing and iPhone combo performed best when shooting in shallow water in bright conditions. The addition of the Sea Dragon 2500F photo/video light is a big plus, but for large wide-angle scenes this doesn’t help, and the red filter and midday sunshine were more effective in reproducing accurate colors.
Getting close allowed me to illuminate subjects with the Sea Dragon photo/video light for better color and clarity
Also, as I was only using one light positioned close to the camera lens, I would often highlight too much backscatter and produce hot spots, especially when shooting video in lower visibility. For this reason, I would only ever turn on the light when I was able to get close to a subject and would adjust the power setting accordingly. Of course, while I was limited by the capabilities of the single 2,500-lumen light in the SportDiver Pro 2500 Set, you could opt to add a second light or choose two lights with more power, and SeaLife offers various Duo Photo/Video Light Sets using different models from their extensive range with outputs up to 5,000 lumens.
Still, even with my more-basic SportDiver rig, I was able to capture images and video clips that exceeded my expectations, and I particularly enjoyed the simplicity of diving with a small, lightweight camera that I could easily clip to my BCD when not in use. Those new to underwater photo and video should also make sure to check out the SeaLife website, and the excellent tutorial videos that cover basic setup, composition tips, lighting basics, and much more.
Whether you’re wielding a big mirrorless setup or a compact smartphone rig, getting close to your subject is still the most important rule to capture good images
Modern smartphones have excellent cameras that are able to capture great detail underwater
Considering nearly everyone already owns a smartphone, the SportDiver housing provides the easiest and most affordable way for new divers to start shooting underwater. SeaLife thought of everything to make this a successful product, especially for newbies, including tutorials, regular app updates, and a dedicated troubleshooting page for any problems that might occur during operation.
The housing is particularly well suited for shallow water dives and snorkeling trips, and also serves as a great backup for more-experienced photographers who are used to shooting with bigger and better cameras. Even non-divers will find a use for the housing during family vacations in a swimming pool, or for any other event that might require underwater images at an affordable price.
Everyone who saw me using the housing expressed an immediate interest in buying one for themselves, and loved the fact that I was able to quickly share images with them after each dive. Because it fits multiple phones, you can also share the case with others, making it a great rental unit. I plan to order a few of these to use in our dive shop, and I will always travel with one in my camera bag in the future.
It is also possible to shoot small subjects, such as these flamingo tongue snails
Nassau groupers are colorful and photogenic fish—if you are able to get close enough to shoot them
Friendly turtles are the perfect subject to shoot with the Sealife SportDiver
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