Introduction: 3D Printed Underwater Camera

Selecting an underwater camera is not easy: there is no one best or right underwater camera to buy, but rather the best or right camera for your specific needs and most unfortunately: your budget restrictions.

To shoot underwater photography you will need a digital camera and a waterproof housing designed specifically for that camera.

Nowadays a lot of people have decent DSLR cameras but vey few also have underwater camera enclosures. And there is a simple reason for that: the enclosures themselves usually cost more than the cameras and are only tailored for one specific type/model of camera. The later prices range form two to five times the average DSLR camera price! Furthermore, they aren't upgradable, and they usually have a limited lifespan.

Being an avid 3D printing fan I've thought for a while what if you could 3D print camera cases/enclosures/grips & other accessories for cheap and customize them to your needs and perhaps even 3D print enclosures for turning your favorite DSLR into an underwater camera!

So consider this the ultimate camera accessorizing project since 3D printing possibilities to upgrade your camera are endless. This project is thus just the beginning, a stepping stone, on the long journey to achieving this. Here the enclosure it-self is not 3D printed but the handles, the internal frame and all accessories are 3D printed and compatible with any DSLR that will fit within.

I also briefly elaborate upon future upgrades and ideas, methods to trigger the camera safely etc.

Step 1: The Concept

What if you could 3D print camera enclosures for cheap and customize them to your needs and perhaps even 3D print enclosures for turning your favorite DSLR into an underwater camera?

Now I know a lot of skeptics are probably going to say that FDM printing methods will always leave cracks due to the nature of printing layer by layer and any such crack is disastrous as it enable water too leak in; I agree. But there are smart ways around that. Here is my chosen method: print two double shell hollow ABS at 0.12mm layer thickness, 5mm gap between the shells, then pour liquid epoxy between the double shells. Finally once the epoxy has hardened, the printed part is vapor treated (tutorial) such that most, if not all, cracks are smoothed out. I've tested the method and as far as I can tell it's a good solution. However for stage one (this Instructables) the outer case itself is not printed. Here we use a 5" heavy duty acrylic tubing pipe. The first step is determining what features are most important to you in camera cases/accessories... etc do you want grip, do you want to turn it into an action camera, are you going to be using it for filming, on a dolly... etc. Here in phase one of this journey the goal is simply a diving case, aka: waterproofing. Basically: a cheap, robust, and reliable way to waterproof your DSLR and bring it deep underwater; not just at 10ft, but rather: 40-50feet minimum. As to the other features: everything must be printed (like in the picture above), there must be multiple heavy-duty grip handles all around the case, it should float but have a very low buoyancy, there should be a spot with-in for high-power LEDs lighting, and a good leach attachment point.

Step 2: The Parts

For this particular run at this project I'm using a friend's DSLR: a Canon T5i. The reason I'm using this one is because of the touchscreen functionality, which may or may not become handy later on when further manual controls are added. The lens is a 40mm fixed focal length canon lens.

After many variations of prints to hold the camera in place (see first picture) I've gone with the bulky and less sophisticated part seen bellow. It offers a good grip of the T5i, as well as three spots to mount high-power white LEDs for strobing. Be advised: this was a very very long print (12+ hours...)!

All parts laid out in picture:

  • 8 3D printed grip handles (4 on either side all around the cylindrical housing)
  • 1 Camera holder (bellow)
  • 2 High-pressure pipe plugs (such as these ones)
  • 5"*12" long 1/8" thick acrylic pipe
  • 4ft surf leash
  • 3 white LEDs (10mm)
  • 1 1/8th audio jack & photodiode trigger.

Step 3: The Flaws

Flaws observed during test dives (@ 19, 27 and 14 feet):

  • During the first camera test the enclosure got banged on a rock. This resulted in one of the handles to snap off (see first picture). Lesson learned: 15% infill is not tough enough!!
  • Handles should also have been designed on the sides (near leash attachment point perhaps?).

The good news is: no leaks, pictures look wonderful and the buoyancy was perfect. However as should be expected with any prototype there is a lot of room for improvement. Evidently, I'm trying to avoid (the unavoidable?) Murphy’s Law of Underwater photography: leaks & flooding... and so far so good!

Most important improvement is controls. Right now it's automatic: the photodiode on the 1/8th audio jack triggers the camera whenever I flash my diving strobes. There is no manual control of white balance, focus, exposure... etc

This is the next major upgrade I intend to do. Unfortunately, relying on the camera to help achieve good exposure and color is just nowhere as effective underwater because your camera was not designed to deal with light in water. Additionally, manual white balance becomes important if you are planning on shooting without strobes and only using ambient light. Because of the properties of water, images using only natural light will appear blue. Manual white balance is an effective way of removing this color cast (or just use more powerful strobes).

Step 4: The Results

Step 5: Further Improvements

While accessories often seem like optional add-ons, in underwater photography many of the accessories will make shooting more convenient and/or productive, and higher quality.

Among future planned upgrades I plan to do the following:

  • add a way to use manual controls ( I have a few ideas that need testing )
  • magnetic lens focus (for non-fixed focal length lenses): two rings with neo-magnets, on the outside of the under-water housing, the other inside around the lens. This enables the user to manually focus without any risks if leaks or weak points.
  • swimming side grip handles (see CADs bellow)
  • clip-on side strobe mounts
  • a smaller and more fit enclosure
  • and finally but most importantly: 3D printing the entire shell (except the lens window) - as described in the first section of this Instructables. Thus making this project a truly and fully 3D printed underwater robust & cheap camera enclosure!

And these are just but a few of the accessories that are to come - any ideas of improvements & things that I should try to investigate, print & build? :)

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