It's a simple fact the humble water-housing is one of the most important investments a surf photographer can make. The fancy epoxy and Perspex lunchbox, that costs as much as your camera, is so expensive it's not a decision to be taken lightly.
There used to be two options: use a heavy (and not really suitable) diving housing or make your own. Everyone should make at least one housing, it's kind of an initiation rite into the Guild Of Surf Photographers. Even if you have the DIY skill of a man with boxing gloves super glued to his hands it is worth doing. But that's a post for another time. Here I'm going to look at the current market for housings, this is my personal take on what's available, I've used, owned or handled pretty much everything around so its not armchair punditry.
Arguably the biggest, most successful housing manufacturer Aquatech was started as a 'one man in his garage' operation by Alan Love and now supplies distributors worldwide. The housings are unique in using the locking clip system to attach the back plate to the rig. Some photog's diss it but I've been using Aqua's for over ten years with no problems. In the days of film it was a godsend to be able to change a roll without dropping screws in the sand and carrying a screwdriver to the beach. These days Aqua's are state of the art epoxy composite, with full control access, including full use of the video on 7/5Ds. So you can turn Live View on/off and turn REC on with ease.
Aquatech manufacture a complete family of accessories, ports for all lenses, pistols, pole grips, flash housings etc. All of which are easy to swap in and out. Adaptable, light, compact the only con with Aqua's is the price. They ain't cheap. But you get what you pay for and the resale value is high. Used by Mickey Smith, Tim Jones, Me and a host of others. They are also making an economy range sans clips and less controls but perfect for those on a tight budget.
New guys on the block CMT are making very tidy looking housings from carbon fibre. Pros: very light, very strong, compact, interchangeble ports and flash system. Cons: black carbon may cause heat issues internally in the tropics, from the units I've seen the controls aren't comprehensive so no access to video. Apart from that and as long as you are happy with bolts these units are looking very promising. The kit pictured would make an awesome set up. Used by legends like Timo Jarvinen.
Pros: Compact, light and simple Del Mar housings are ideal for photogs not bothered by video. Cons: wingnuts are easier than bolts but not fun if you or the surfer cops them in the face. The 'port on plate' system is fine if you only use one lens but if you want to use a fisheye, mid range prime and a 70-200mm zoom like most people then the ports are awkward to travel with. Feasty is rocking one of these and the results are tack sharp.
Made by Mike Waggoner Essex housings are well thought out rigs with access to every control you could need with compact, low profile controls. Two stage buttons on the pistol are a nice touch as well. Although back focus button is generally the best way to go for long lens in the water and for wide angle you preset focus anyways. Cons: ports on a plate again and wingnuts but thats personal preference.
Mike just emailed me with his new concept, the Slant X housing. Which is a brilliant idea. Nothing more annoying than having to sell a housing each time Canon/Nikon update the camera and move everything around.
Coming out of France (Aqua's are Oz, the rest all USA) Liquid Eye have been quietly carving a niche for themselves and have guys like the Jasons (Childs and Reposar) using their rigs. For people keen on shooting with a zoom lens they are really cool, featuring the best zoom control system around. Full controls for everything and real light. The pistol grip has a cable free two stage release switch. They are European and it's good to support a company on our side of the world. They also make economy basic models.
SPL are possibly the most popular housing on the market, they certainly are common in the line up. They differ from the rest being made of aluminium. Which is bombproof but can cause occasional light condensation issues in the kind of cold conditions we get in Northern Europe. One of the nice things with SPLs is the tactile shutter release. No cables to go wrong there. The system is adaptable with flashes etc and SPL are also now doing an economy range as well as the pro range. Again the port/plates are a pain to travel with. But they do work as proved by Will Bailey, Ben Selway and many more.
Water Housing Solutions
Water Housing Solutions are a new crew out of Portugal are making a decent range of Kobetich inspired models. Don't know anyone that's used one in the flesh yet but they certainly have a good price point.
So there you go. A round up of what's available at the moment. It depends on what you want to use them for and your budget as to where you go. I'd always suggest Aquatech but every photog has their own preference...
Of course I didn't mention housing guru Dale Kobetich who makes amazing, yet very hard to get hold of housings, super light, low profile and brilliantly designed Dale could be huge if was more reliable! Here's a little story about one of his housings and its many homes...
If you are on a tight budget consider:
The GoPro camera have come a VERY long way since their first wrist mounted film surf cameras. The HD HERO3 BLACK is an amazing piece of kit. Tiny but powerful. Still more useful for video than stills it is the perfect option for surfers wanting to shoot/film themselves and pop off the odd shot of their mates.
They are getting expensive with the new 3 around £360 here (cheaper in the US as with all camera stuff) so get someone to get you one there if possible. But do remember this is a fun piece of kit. Not a serious tool for surf photography as you have no control over the settings. That said Anthony Walsh is doing some mind-bending selfies with his and if you do get an awesome shot of yourself in the tube the images are now mag quality.