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Article: $4k for a Underwater Camera Housing? Screw That.

Posted 2/25/09 by

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Most people are feeling the effects of the current economic crisis; certainly all the major manufacturers are feeling the pinch. However lust for new gear is ever present. Yesterday I was looking at the new underwater housing from Sea & Sea for the Nikon D700 and Canon 5D Mark II, until I saw the $4k price tag. $4k!! $4k could by one and a half Nikon D700's, although exactly what you'd do with the half a Nikon D700 I'm not sure.

Now if you are sitting on your luxury yacht reading this, and are about to hop off on your private yet to St. Tropez for a months skiing before coming back to your private island, then donít bother reading this post, the $4k housing is for you. For the rest of us, there may just be a more economical solution:

Exactly 20 years ago, I was living in England, trying to complete my A-Levels (for the US audience, in England you leave school at 16. You can optionally go to sixth-form college for two years to get your A-Levels before going to college/university at age 18). One of my A-Levels was in Design and Technology, and a third of the grade was based on a project, which you had about six months to research, design, build, test and present. You could build whatever you wanted.

My main interest at the time (other standard teenage boy interests aside) was Photography, so what could I build that would let me get pictures that I couldn't get now? My mind jumped to aerial photography and underwater photography. Being a poor, broke student, the RC gear needed to fit a SLR into a remote controlled plane was way, way beyond my non-existent budget, so underwater photography it was.

About this time, our tutor decided to fall of a mountain (literally), missing many months, so left without input/guidance and with plenty of ambition, I reached the conclusion that an underwater housing was too boring. I wanted to build a remote submarine for a camera. To make it more interesting, my budget was about 25 quid (less than $50), plus whatever I could beg, borrow or steal from the school workshop or elsewhere.

The initial design was quite simple: there were two compartments, a box at the front with a clear side to house the camera/flashgun, and a box at the back that would hold the batteries, circuitry, a couple of motors and have the steering fins etc.

Submarine for Cameras
Initial Sketch

While CAD/CAM systems were available in 1989, they were way beyond the schools budget, so everything was hand drawn.

I had two cameras at the time, a Nikon F and a Nikon FG. The FG had fancy new features like aperture priority mode, and I even had the winder for it, so that was the perfect choice (plus I didnít want to risk the F, my all time favorite camera). I used the cheapest lens I had, just in case (a Soligor 28mm wide angle), and figured flash would be essential, so it also had to house my Nikon SB-15. So all I had to do was figure out how to fire the camera, and how to focus it.

Firing it was easy, a solenoid and modified cable release took care of that. The project was ambitious enough for a 17-18 year old without developing an external AF system for a Nikon Camera using 1980ís technology plus whatever I could scrounge for free, so I settled on a stepper motor that could rotate the lens using the hand held control unit. Guessing the required focal length was left to the operator, but I didn't let minor details like that get in the way.

Submarine for Cameras
Camera Platform showing motor/wheel to focus lens

The camera housing itself was basically an aluminum box with a clear Perspex front to house the camera/lens/flashgun. The box could be mounted either facing downwards or forwards, secured in place with some wing-nuts. The school didnít have the equipment to weld aluminum, so I had to use angle, rivets, and lots and lots of sealant (my first expense).

Submarine for Cameras
Exploded View of Camera Housing

The rear unit housed batteries, electronics, two motors for propulsion, another motor to control the up/down fins, and yet another motor to control the rudders.

The 'sub' was connected to a hand-held control unit by about 50 ft of cable. The control unit supported the following controls:

  • Each propulsion motor had a switch to control forward/reverse direction, and a slider to control speed.
  • A joystick controlled the up/down and left/right rudders.
  • A rotary dial to focus the lens, calibrated so you could tell the focal length.
  • A big red button to actually take the picture.

Submarine for Cameras
Hand Held Control Unit

There was no buoyancy control, instead I planned to rely on the fins and power of the twin motors to propel the submarine underwater, or at least that was the plan.

I managed to get sheet and angle aluminum from the school for free, along with the Perspex etc., and so construction began. First step was to get all the electronics working (no CPU's here, all analog components from school or Tandy's, the UK equivalent of Radio Shack).

I designed, etched and built the circuits myself out of analog components (this was the only use of a computer in the entire project Ė a circuit board design program on a BBC Micro that printed the circuit board, that you then transferred to a new board and dipped in an acid bath). Just like developing film, except with more acid.

Submarine for Cameras
Circuit Boards/Wiring Diagram

Submarine for Cameras
Testing Electronics

Please keep in mind these pictures were taken 20 years ago by a 17 year old still learning how to use a camera properly.

Next step was to build the tray to mount the camera to, and get the focusing mechanism working:

Submarine for Cameras
Focusing Mechanism

The flash was mounted as far forward as possible to eliminate reflection off the Perspex, and was also mounted off camera to try and keep the volume of the housing as minimal as possible.

Next was the camera housing itself:

Submarine for Cameras
It Fits!

Next onto the vehicle itself, which took longer than expected to build (and to those friends of mine that bumped my car round into the middle of the road, virtually blocking all traffic for several hours because I had to work on this instead of going to the pub one lunchtime, I haven't forgotten. You know who you are!).

Anyway, the finished sub (camera facing downwards):

Submarine for Cameras
Finished Sub

Submarine for Cameras
Streamlining the sub was clearly the highest priority.

Submarine for Cameras
Home Made propellers

Budget was so tight, I even had to make my own propellers, which took several attempts to come up with a version that would even make it move.

So the big question is, did it work? Mostly. It floated amazing well for a submarine:

Submarine for Cameras
It Floats!

Although with the proper ballast (note the weights hanging off the front corner), it would submerge:

Submarine for Cameras
The ripples at the back weren't really caused by the hand pushing it under the water for the photo, honest.

There may or may not have been an incident where it got out to the middle of the pool, and then died with smoke pouring out of it. There may also have been a slight issue with the use of 50' of unshielded cable, which meant that when both motors were on the "off" position, the left motor would turn slowly of its own accord, so the sub would quite happily go round gently in large clockwise circles with no-one at the controls. And having the operator have to guess what focal length was needed did have its challenging moments.

Did the camera survive? Absolutely. While not 100% watertight, less than an egg-cup full of water entered the housing despite being submerged for 30 minutes.

Did it work? Here is a picture it took:

Submarine for Cameras
First Underwater Picture

This was all done by a teenager 20 years ago. Today with better AF, and running a long USB cable with liveview so you could see the images on your laptop in real time, the possibilities would be endless.

In the end I came in under my $25 budget, it cost me a couple of tubes of sealant, two batteries, and some electronic components. $4k for a simple housing? You've got to be kidding (Note to any Sea & Sea employees who are reading this, if you want to send me a housing for the D700, I'd me more than happy to do a comparison review/test at some exotic location, or failing that in my bathtub).

Bottom line, you don't need many thousands of dollars of new gear, just get a little creative.

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