Photography Tips: The Poor Man’s Underwater Camera Housing

By: Scott Holstein

Filed under: Behind-the-Scenes, Editorial & Commercial Photography, Photography Tips

Photo of two cave divers floating in a sinkhole, created using a cheap underwater camera housing.
Partially submerged environmental portrait of cave divers Aletheia and Andre Lange in Church Sink in Tallahassee, Florida.

The Tallahassee, Florida region lays claim to a unique topographical feature - the Woodville Karst Plain. The karst plain is made of irregular limestone and underground water channels which are tied into the Floridan Aquifer. The Woodville Karst Plain is home to first magnitude springs, sinkholes, and the longest underwater cave system in the United States. As such, the region has great appeal to a courageous and adventurous type of person - the cave diver.

An article in Tallahassee magazine was featuring a local couple who cave dives - Aletheia and Andre Lange - whom I was to photograph. While I would have loved to photograph them in action in an underwater cave, I am in no way trained to do so, nor do I own an underwater camera housing. Still, I wanted to take an environmental portrait of them in the water. But how?

Behind-the-scenes photo of Tallahassee photographer Scott Holstein photographing cave divers in a the water.
Tallahassee photographer Scott Holstein creates portraits of cave divers Aletheia and Andre Lange partially submerged in a sinkhole, using an aquarium as a cheap underwater camera housing. Photo by Saige Roberts.

With the poor man’s underwater housing! By creatively enlisting the help of a small, 10 gallon aquarium, I could achieve a partially submerged look for cheap - under $15! I placed the camera inside the aquarium with a wide-angle lens, sans lens hood. Next, I gaffer-taped the lens to the glass, with the front filter snug against the side of the tank, to hold the camera in place and prevent reflections. By tethering the camera to a laptop, I could see what the camera was seeing and control the camera settings as I carefully dunked the aquarium a few inches into the water. Bisecting the lens with the waterline gave me a frame partially above water and partially underwater, a view that normally would require an expensive underwater camera housing.

Please keep in mind if you use this technique that you are entrusting thousands of dollars of water-shy electronics to a cheap, glass box. While it can create a unique look, I don’t necessarily recommend you try it, so please use caution! Place water absorbing material such as paper towels inside the aquarium to soak up any drops of water from splashes, keep a dry towel handy, oh, and carry plenty of insurance.

Portrait of cave divers Aletheia and Andre Lange blowing bubbles in Church Sink in Tallahassee.
Portrait of cave divers Aletheia and Andre Lange with masks on, blowing bubbles in the water at Church Sink in Tallahassee, Florida.

I took the portrait of the Langes at Church Sink in Tallahassee, Florida. I was perched on a rock ledge in shallow water, my legs, camera/computer aquarium setup, and the photo subjects were all hanging over a deep drop-off.

I lit the divers with one speedlight flash shooting through an umbrella, placed above and in front of the divers with a long pole held by assistant creative director Saige Roberts. Interestingly, the divers maintained their correct floating height in the water throughout the shoot by using a breathing technique paired with adjustable air bladders in their wetsuits.

An underwater cave resides in this sinkhole and the Langes actually explored it that night after the photo shoot. When I inquired while packing up my things at dusk, they told me with a chuckle that it doesn’t matter what time of day or night one cave dives; it’s always dark underground.

Photo of Jack Rudloe holding a green sea turtle swimming underwater by Florida photographer Scott Holstein.
Jack Rudloe of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab holds a captive green sea turtle swimming underwater in a tank in Panacea, Florida.

An earlier use of the aquarium "poor man's underwater camera housing" technique produced the cover image for Forgotten Coast Magazine, featuring an environmental portrait of Jack Rudloe of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab with a green sea turtle in Panacea, Florida.

Photographer Wes Skiles

To view some amazing cave diving photos, check out Wes Skiles’ photography website. A very talented photographer, Wes tragically succumbed to the dangers of diving in 2010 while on assignment for National Geographic in Florida.

7 Replies to “Photography Tips: The Poor Man’s Underwater Camera Housing”

Absolutely fantastic! Like Master, like pupil!

I love the aquarium idea. I have done some studio work shooting thru an aquarium to get freezing action but never dared do something with more variables to go wrong.!i=968417120&k=XpYW8

Nice work, Tim! It is risky dunking electronics into a sinkhole…

Very cool! I have shot many pics with my underwater housing but never thought to use an aquarium. I like the look very much, though I can’t believe all that you risked with those electronics in a glass box. Church Sink is somewhere that I’ve always wanted to dive but have never had the opportunity to do so. How was it?

Thanks, Gabrielle! The sink is large and very pretty. It’s surprising how close it is to the road. I’m not a diver, though, so I don’t know what it looks like underwater!

Very nice Scott! I found this page after someone sent me the link to your Rambabe shoot… I love your work and commentary, and now I’m a fan of I’m looking forward to seeing more of your work (and hopefully BTS videos).

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