From Compact To dSLR: Preparing For The Switch
An underwater photographer describes his evolution from shooting with compact to dSLR, with valuable tips and information
This is the first article in a series of three chronicling the switch from diving with a compact camera to a dSLR. For me, this journey was several years in the making. In these articles I describe some of the dilemmas, tips, pitfalls and lessons learned from the transition, and hopefully provide some useful info for photographers in the same situation.
Should I've Gone Straight for a dSLR?
Buying Equipment that is Transferable
Getting Comfortable with Manual Mode
- Shutter Lag - This is a drawback that most compact cameras have: when you press the shutter the camera does not respond immediately. It might take some time to autofocus. Fast moving subjects like sharks, rays or other fish can be difficult to shoot. The trick is to half-press the shutter for quicker response, but then you are locked to a particular focus distance.
- Focal Length - The range of the apertures is comparatively small. You only get a range of f2.8 to f8 in the case of the SP-350. This limits your creativity range for depth of field in a macro scenario. In general, it was very difficult to get an image with shallow depth of field with my camera, almost everything on the image was in focus.
- ISO Sensitivity - Any ISO setting higher than 100 resulted in noisy pictures. So for murky water situations or fast moving subjects (sharks) where you are using quite a bit of ambient light, I was limited. Resulting images tended to come out either too noisy or too dark.
- Image Quality - The sensor inside a compact camera is rather small (compared to the one in a dSLR), so if your image has lots of contrasting details, that information has to be packed in a smaller area, causing some information to be lost. This is the case in sunburst images or manta rays with backlighting. This drawback combined with the ISO sensitivity made my camera very limited for big animal images in which ambient light is prevalent.
Taking the Plunge with a dSLR
I knew the limitations of my camera and knew that no matter how much I tweaked the settings, I was not going to get a better images, in particular, in some high contrast situations or big animal situations. It was time to move to the next level. In following my approach of "upgrading gradually" I decided to get a dSLR, but only for land use. I got a Nikon D300. I was already a Nikon shooter from the days of film (I had a Nikon FG SLR) and I was really impressed with the D300 sensor capabilities, in particular the quality of the color and low-light sensitivity. When the D300 came out, it was also a generational shift, in terms of its sensor.
- Participate in photography meetups (meetup.com) - This was a way to meet other like-minded camera enthusiasts and also have peer feedback on your images. We would get together and go to different places to shoot skylines, night scenes, close-ups, sporting events, and fireworks. At these different occasions I became more aware of when to use (A)perture, (S)hutter and (M)anual modes, as well as auto-ISO.
- Buy lenses that you might need underwater - I made a conscious decision to get dSLR lenses that are useful underwater. I first got the Nikon 105mm and used it on land for macro pictures of flowers, butterflies and food. For these kinds of shots, I also used the Nikon SB-800 flash off-camera with a hot shoe cable. Later on, I got the Tokina 10-17 (fisheye) and the Tokina 11-16 (rectilinear wide angle). I used them mostly for landscapes and architectonic pictures.
- Play with rear curtain sync - At parties and family events, I played with rear curtain sync with an external flash on the camera. A rear curtain sync picture gives you a well-defined subject on the foreground (lit by the flash) with some trails that give you an impression of motion and a blurry background. I've seen pictures of sharks using this technique and I thought that shooting people dancing would be a good way to practice.
- Take flash photography classes - One summer I signed up for a flash photography course at the New England School of Photography (nesop.com) and guess what, the instructor taught us to use manual mode with a flash during day time, just like you do underwater. I also went to one-day workshops on portrait photography and table-top photography (testoftimephoto.com). In both workshops, we dealt with multiple sources and kinds of light. The tips and knowledge from these classes translated to many situations underwater.
Going for the Housing
The Shopping Dilemma
- Consider mirrorless cameras - There was a new class of cameras coming on the market, the "mirrorless" or "micro four thirds." They were similar to dSLRs in terms of the interchangeable lenses and sensor size, but had the body of a compact, ie no moving mirror. Many underwater housing vendors had come out with housings for these cameras. The price point was attractive, usually between a high-end compact and low-end dSLR. The mirrorless camera also "fixed" or improved all the drawbacks that I had with compacts such as shutter lag, focal length, image quality and ISO sensitivity. For me, I had already gone the dSLR route to shoot on land, so the prospect of traveling with two sets of lenses, batteries and chargers was a non-starter. The "dream" situation would have been if camera manufacturers came up with a mirrorless body that is compatible with dSLR lenses! The options to consider for mirrorless cameras are Sony NEX, the Olympus Pen and the Nikon 1. If I had not started on the dSLR path, I would have considered a mirrorless camera very seriously.
- Canon vs. Nikon - For me this was a moot decision, since I had already gone the Nikon route. However, considering the Canon EOS 7d would have been a wise choice if I wasn't already familiar with Nikon. If you do go for the dSLR underwater, you should restrict your choice to either Canon or Nikon. They are the two vendors that are well supported by underwater manufacturers.
- New camera (D7000) vs. old camera (D300) - The D300 had a couple of drawbacks that I did not like for an underwater camera. It did not have video and the live mode was not very usable (autofocus was limited). A new Nikon camera had come out by then, the D7000. It had rave reviews and its electronics were a generation better than the D300. In addition, it had HD video and improved autofocus in live mode. The price was right as well, much lower than the D300.
- Ergonomics - In deciding on a housing, I went for middle of the road and observed what other divers had been buying in recent years. I also observed what housings had poor designs as I witnessed many dSLR floods on my dive trips. I was really impressed with Nauticam. Even though they were a new company, they reacted very quickly to changes and with many innovations that made their housings easier to use.
About The Author
Eddy Wong is a contributor to the Underwater Photography Guide. He lives in Revere, MA and his interests are scuba, software, travel and photography. Eddy started his underwater photography from "the ground up" with an inexpensive point-and-shoot. Over the years he evolved into a more advanced photographer and received several awards for his underwater images. For more of his evolution as an underwater photographer, photography tips, reviews and dive travel stories, visit his blog.
Support the Underwater Photography Guide
Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo and Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!