A guide to buying used underwater photography equipment

Buying underwater photography gear from the secondhand market is an absolute minefield. There are some amazing bargains to be had but for every one of those there’s often two or three turkeys that you need to steer clear of. In this blog I’m going to cover some of the things you need to think about before splashing your cash on some pre-loved kit.

Cameras and housings

I covered a lot of what you need to look for when buying a camera whether new or used in my previous blog ‘What makes a good camera for underwater photography?’ so I’m not going to go into too much detail with stuff I wrote already. Before you buy a used camera check the specifications on a site like DP Review to find out whether the camera will shoot RAW, does it have Custom White Balance and is there a manual mode that will let you control shutter speed, aperture and ISO, explanations of why these are important are in my aforementioned blog. Don’t get too bound up in the actual camera reviews on sites like that unless you are looking for a something primarily for land photography as the reviewers aren’t concerned with how good a camera will be for underwater and as I covered in a previous blog here just because a camera is good for land photography doesn’t mean it suits underwater.

When it comes to buying an underwater housing make sure that it allows you control of all the camera settings. Not every brand of housing will and a number of manufacturers have made more than one version of housings for the same model camera with a cheaper housing not letting you change many of the camera settings.

If you have a limited budget but want at least some ability to take pictures in lowlight conditions go for a housing that will let you use the camera’s built in flash and make sure that the seller has the diffuser for it. This is one of the most commonly lost items that comes with a housing. In the same vein some housings have removable attachment points for strobe cables, these are often mislaid as well and can be a pain to source replacements.

Check that there is a picture included in the ad that shows the camera turned on and no error messages on the screen. Make sure there isn’t any damage to the lens or sensor before buying. These are especially important when buying from individuals or small operators via eBay etc. Larger companies tend to give ratings of how good the camera’s condition is.

In this picture I’m using an Olympus EPL3 camera in an Olympus housing. This was a great entry into mirrorless compact system cameras as the housing would accept both the Olympus 14-42mm kit lens but also the excellent Panasonic 45mm macro and was a lot cheaper than the other housings for the EPL3. On top of that unlike some of the Olympus housings for their EPL cameras it had threads to add wet lenses.

In this picture I’m using an Olympus EPL3 camera in an Olympus housing. This was a great entry into mirrorless compact system cameras as the housing would accept both the Olympus 14-42mm kit lens but also the excellent Panasonic 45mm macro and was a lot cheaper than the other housings for the EPL3. On top of that unlike some of the Olympus housings for their EPL cameras it had threads to add wet lenses.

You can mix and match between used and new cameras and housings to some degree. It’s surprising how quickly after a camera model is released that used ones start to appear on the market. Often you can pick up a used camera in good condition with some sort of warranty from large suppliers like London Camera Exchange or MPB. Housings tend to be harder to come by on the used market and I’d recommend if you are looking for a used camera and housing and can’t find both together get the housing first before you buy the camera as the camera will almost always be easier to pick up unless it’s a particularly old or poor selling model.

You can in some cases still get a new housing for an older model camera and this is a good way of shaving some cost off your spend. For example the original Canon G9X is still a great camera and will fit in the same Fantasea housing that takes the Mark II camera. Don’t presume that’s the case for other camera lines, the G7X doesn’t fit in the same housing as the G7X MkII.

Apart from the latest super zoom models (MkVI and MkVII) Sony haven’t changed the control layout or dimensions of their RX100 compact in a long time. This means a housing like this latest Fantasea will take the MkIII, IV, V and VA camera.

Apart from the latest super zoom models (MkVI and MkVII) Sony haven’t changed the control layout or dimensions of their RX100 compact in a long time. This means a housing like this latest Fantasea will take the MkIII, IV, V and VA camera.

New housings for discontinued cameras sometimes crop up for sale on Amazon and eBay where old stock has come to light. I’ve seen this several times with Canon brand housings on Amazon.

Beware of vague listings for housings. You need to know exactly what model the housing is and for what camera it was made for. Canon have made a huge number of housings for their compact camera models and most aren’t interchangeable so if you buy a housing for an Ixus you need to know you can get hold of that particular model camera. This isn’t helped by cameras being sold with different model names and numbers in different countries.

Make sure there aren’t any scratches on the housing port especially if it’s glass. Acrylic dome ports can usually have scratches polished out of them but beware of deep scratches. If there are scratches present get an assurance from the seller that they don’t show up in pictures as some small scratches don’t when underwater. Scratches on the rest of the housing don’t tend to be an issue even on the window for the screen and a lot of plastic housings can have the scratches polished out using something like Novus (the same thing that I use for polishing acrylic domes with).

This shot of a common prawn on a pier in Wales was taken with a Canon S95 compact in a very well used Canon housing that I picked up on the used market with a tray and INON lens mount. I then added a macro lens and a single strobe to get this picture which won the compact category of a ‘Splash In’ competition a couple of years ago. Not bad for a camera made in 2010.

This shot of a common prawn on a pier in Wales was taken with a Canon S95 compact in a very well used Canon housing that I picked up on the used market with a tray and INON lens mount. I then added a macro lens and a single strobe to get this picture which won the compact category of a ‘Splash In’ competition a couple of years ago. Not bad for a camera made in 2010.

If you are buying an interchangeable lens camera don’t presume that the seller had the best lenses for underwater photography. Often people end up selling their equipment because they weren’t getting the results they expected and if they are keen to offload it they aren’t neccessarily going to tell you that. A good mirrorless or DSLR setup should come with a fisheye or ultra wide angle lens and/or a macro lens and the appropriate ports or at least a kit zoom lens and a flat port that will take wet lenses. If those aren’t in the bundle then you need to factor the cost of these into your budget.

In the same way if you are buying a housing that doesn’t let you use built-in flash and you aren’t going to be able to rely purely on available light for your photography you’ll need to budget for light sources.

Accessories

You can find all kinds of bits and pieces to add to your camera setup secondhand but be aware that a lot of this stuff can be very specific to housings etc. Make sure that you get as much detail from the seller as possible before making your purchase. Knowing what fittings a lens is for or whether all the parts of a strobe setup are included will save you some messing around.

Strobes

Several of the excellent INON strobes use a somewhat strange system for switching between preflash and non-preflash settings. This involves a magnet held in place by a screw, lots of people aren’t aware of what this is for and being small these will get mislaid over the years. But don’t despair replacements can be bought from an INON dealer for not a lot of money. It is still worth asking about them before you buy so you can factor in the replacement cost when making an offer.

One of the most lost items of underwater photography equipment is the little magnet that goes under the screw circled red on this INON S2000. But never fear replacement ones are available and don’t cost a lot.

One of the most lost items of underwater photography equipment is the little magnet that goes under the screw circled red on this INON S2000. But never fear replacement ones are available and don’t cost a lot.

Check whether removable mounts can actually be removed. Often these get left on and eventually seize to the strobe. This can mean you’ll have issues using certain arm systems. With YS mounts you can simply use a length of arm with a ball at one end instead of a ball mount. With a flexible arm system to attach a strobe that has a ball mount you’ll likely need to replace the YS fitting on the arm with a ball if the system will let you do that otherwise you’ll need to think about changing arms to suit your strobe fitting if you can’t get it off the strobe.

Bear in mind the cost of extras when shelling out for a strobe. Is there a cable included and will it fit your housing? Don’t worry too much it’s relatively easy to changing fittings in most cases and replacements can be bought from a good supplier but if you are buying last minute before a trip (something I don’t recommend) you’ll want everything to be ready to go.

Wet Lenses

There are a multitude of wet lenses on the used market but some are very specific while others can be used with a broad range of housing models depending on the mounting system and the type of camera they have been designed for. Inon in particular make a range of mounts to attach to camera manufacturer’s own brand housings in order to add wet lenses to them. Many of the specialist underwater housing manuafacturers have opted to use a generic 52mm or 67mm threaded fitting on the port which can make life easier when sourcing lenses. Bear this in mind when buying housings as well as lenses. Adding a lens mount to a housing that doesn’t come with one may cost £100+ depending on the model, so factor this in when working out your budget.

There are a number of INON wide angle lenses with similar product codes that have different fittings. Some of these you can buy replacement fittings for so you can convert one to another, which means you can perhaps pickup a lens with an LD mount cheaper than a 67mm threaded one and then buy the replacement threads and fit them yourself. But in the case of the AD mount lenses this isn’t possible, these will only fit specific lens mounts made by INON for certain housings so it’s wise to check with a dealer such as ourselves what mount you need before you buy a lens. With INON macro lenses you can’t change the mounts but there is a trick that will let you use an LD lens on a 67mm threaded port. In most case macro lenses work as well which ever way round they are so with lenses with threaded fronts you can put a male to male 67mm adapter in the front and screw it back to front onto your 67mm threaded port. Be careful the adapter doesn’t come off onto the housing port as they can be a pain to get off.

The catchily titled INON UWL S100 ZM80 Wide Conversion Lens is specifically aimed at super zoom cameras with housing that have deep wide ports. Because of this it doesn’t suit all housing and camera combinations so they do turn up on the used market at reasonable prices when people change cameras and no longer need them. You can add domes to these to. make them very wide angle.

The catchily titled INON UWL S100 ZM80 Wide Conversion Lens is specifically aimed at super zoom cameras with housing that have deep wide ports. Because of this it doesn’t suit all housing and camera combinations so they do turn up on the used market at reasonable prices when people change cameras and no longer need them. You can add domes to these to. make them very wide angle.

When it comes to damage to lenses scratches to the glass or to coated domes are an issue. Unlike acrylic dome ports the coated plastic domes on most wide angle wet lenses are exceptionally difficult to polish scratches out of and they aren’t cheap to get replaced. As with camera lenses and housing ports get an assurance from the seller that any scratches do not show up in pictures. Make sure this is via eBay’s contact system or email so you have recourse if you discover you’ve been mislead.

Trays and Arms

There are a few things to think about when buying a tray and arm setup for lighting either new or used. If you are buying it separate to your strobe or housing you need to make sure it will actually fit. The cheaper flexible arms tend to be specifically for the so called YS mount systems that use a slot with a bolt on the strobe. That means you won’t be able to swap the head of the arm to attach a ball mount strobe. But as mentioned above if you can remove the mount on the strobe you can usually get a YS mount to replace it. In the same way you can adapt a YS mount strobe to use a ball and clamp arm system.

The strobe in this shot has been fitted with a so called YS mount but to use it with a ball and clamp system a short length of arm with a YS fitting at one end and a ball at the other has been added to Anne’s arm setup. INON strobes and the larger Sea and Sea models have removable mounts that can be either YS or ball.

The strobe in this shot has been fitted with a so called YS mount but to use it with a ball and clamp system a short length of arm with a YS fitting at one end and a ball at the other has been added to Anne’s arm setup. INON strobes and the larger Sea and Sea models have removable mounts that can be either YS or ball.

I’d always recommend when buying arms to get a system that’s long enough and has the flexibility to place the strobe anywhere around the camera easily. Don’t start off with very long arms especially if you want to shoot macro as these will get in your way. The cheap flexible arms tend to be a false economy and often get replaced by users in favour of ball and clamp system so you tend to find more of them on the used market. In the same way very long ball arms often prove impractical so they come up for sale more often.

You may find that when you get a tray the screws don’t fit your housing but don’t despair, often replacement screws can be bought separately to allow different brand housings to be attached to trays.

Parting Shots

Hopefully some of that will be useful to you. It may seem odd that a dealer in new underwater photography equipment is giving advice about buying used kit, but my first aim is to get people into underwater photography and starting out doesn’t have to break the bank.

If you would like advice on underwater photography including buying used equipment join our Facebook Q and A Group and ask on there or you can get in touch by emailing info@alphamarinephoto.com or commenting on this blog. If you’d like to come and do one of our workshops check out our events page for dates and details here.