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Full Article: Top Ten Tips for Photographing Eels and Eel-Like Fish

 

Eels are the snakes of the underwater world – evoking excitement, curiosity, and fear in those lucky enough to behold them. They slither through the cracks and crevices of the deep, often hidden in plain sight by their ability to blend in with the substrate around them. Because many eels and eel-like fish exhibit a wide range of habitat distribution, colors, patterns, and behaviors, they are coveted by underwater photographers in almost all dive destinations. One might think that photographing a relatively stationary eel would be easier than swift schools of ever impatient pelagics. However, an eel’s complex habitat, body structure, and patterns can create a significant puzzle for the underwater photographer. Here are some of our best tips for photographing eels and eel-like fish…

 

1. Use Contrast and Depth of Field to Isolate Your Subject 

 

An eel’s habitat introduces the majority of the problems that underwater photographers face when photographing them. Eels often live at the bottom of the ocean, slithering through holes between medium sized rocks. They rarely protrude above the substrate, and often blend in with the rocks or coral themselves. This makes it very difficult to isolate an eel from its background – often producing a cluttered or flat photo. The reason it can seem that reef fish are easier to photograph, even if they are quicker, is that reef fish hover above the bottom. This isolates them from the background and contrast is created with the blue water behind them.

So what’s the best way to isolate an eel? Contrast and depth of field! Contrast can be created in the image in many different ways. The most effective method is to shoot from below the eel (if it is coming out of its den) so that the background is mostly blue water. However, it can be very difficult to find an eel in a position to take this photo. Another option is to use a single strobe and light the eel from the side. This can be effective to varying degrees. If the eel is in its den, sometimes you can get the light from your strobe to just touch its face so the rest of the den remains dark. If you are proficient with a snoot, attach it to the single strobe, and it will create even more contrast/ black background in the image.


 

If I feel that the eel cannot be isolated from the substrate using light, then I will isolate it using a shallow depth of field. The best way to do this is to shoot with a fast macro lens and lower the f-stop so that the aperture is close to as wide as possible. This will keep the head of the eel (or parts of the head) in focus while the substrate and rest of the body is blurred into a nice bokeh. It’s important to keep aesthetic features (especially the eyes) in focus for the full effect of the bokeh. 

 

2.  Catch it with its Mouth Open!

 

Perhaps the most charismatic eel behavior is their constant “breathing.” Because eels don’t use gill covers (operculum) to pump water across their gills, they have to open and close their mouths to breath. When you capture an eel with its mouth wide open, it can create a threatening and fierce look in your image.

With my mirrorless camera, I often time my photo by pressing the shutter right as the eel finishes closing its mouth. The inherent lag in the device will make the shutter coincide with the opening of the eel’s mouth. I use single auto focus instead of continuous because it helps me compose the image a little better. I have the focus lock on a point, point the camera to my desired composition, and click the shutter at the opportune time.

When the eel’s mouth is open, be on the lookout for little cleaner shrimp and fish that meander about the mouth looking for a morsel among the teeth. 

 

3.   Teeth Add a Little Character

 

Teeth in an eel photo can make the subject look menacing – particularly with eel species that inherently have big teeth. Teeth can be tricky photograph. For the full effect you need to isolate them and make them the focal point of your image. As mentioned before, it’s important that you time your photo so the eel’s mouth is open. But most importantly, you need to be able to light the eel with a beam of light pointed directly at the side of its head. This creates contrast and shadow that bring out the shape of each tooth, giving the eel a fearsome grin. 

 

4.  Use a Fiber Optic Snoot for Dramatic Effect

 

Our first tip was to use contrast to isolate your subject. Well the absolutely best way to do that is with a fiber optic snoot. A snoot is a flexible bundle of fiber optic cables that attaches to the front of your strobe and concentrates the light into a smaller, moveable circle of light. Although traditionally used to create black backgrounds with small macro subjects, snoots can be very effective lighting even medium sized eels. Instead of placing the snoot in the default position directly above the subject, I often point the snoot directly in front of the subject or from its side. This can create nice dramatic, contrast with the substrate behind it.  Black background can easily be created as long as a little bit of open water lies behind the subject. Fiber optic snoots are also great for lighting an eel that has retreated far back into its den.

 

5.  Shooting from Directly in Front of the Subject is Thought Provoking

 

As much as photographers warn against perfect symmetry in photos, people are often drawn to symmetry naturally. Shooting from directly in front of an eel or elongated fish creates an unusual symmetry with a comical feel to the image. The eel will appear slightly whimsical and bug-eyed. 

 

6.  Fill the Frame

 

Filling the frame with your subject is good practice in all underwater photography. But with eels in particular it is important to fill the frame with the eel or you can lose sight of it with all the surrounding substrate. It is generally easy to fill the frame with an eel since they don’t tend to move around much.

 

7.  Keep the Eyes in Focus - Not the Snout

 

When taking a very close photograph of an eel's head it is important to set the right focal points. The best place to focus is the eel’s eyes. It maintains the eel’s character in the image and lets the viewer appreciate what the eel might be thinking or feeling. It is a common mistake to have only the snout in focus (especially when shooting with a shallow depth of field). This can be a cool effect, but the loss of eyes to bokeh detracts from the image.

 

8.  Know Where to Look


 

Although eels can sometimes be difficult to find, it definitely helps to know where to look! Eel habitat is fairly predictable. They like medium sized substrate with a lot of holes and tunnels to navigate and slither through. In the tropics they often hide among a network of tunnels formed in coral heads. In cold water they can be found on rocky slopes and rock piles. Eel-like fish often share similar preferences of habitat. Some eels will live in the same general area for a long time. It can be nice to get to know an individual and photograph them over the course of their life.

There are also some locales that are more prone to having eels than others. I find that tropical destinations with moderate diversity and moderate to low abundance often have a lot of eels. In particular I have found a lot in Mauritius, Hawaii, and the Dominican Republic. Locally in California, my favorite place to find moray eels is Casino Point on Catalina Island. In very cold water, such as in the Pacific Northwest, wolf eels and wolf fish fill the eel niche even though they aren’t true eels. 

 

9.  Be Patient

 

Fish that live in dens can be wary of the big, wide world. I find most eels to have a cautious but curious disposition. If you sit quietly at the entrance of their den, they may become curious enough to slowly approach you and your camera. However, if you immediately shine your light directly at them and blow a lot of bubbles, they tend to shy away. I also find that some eels don’t mind being photographed more than others. Usually after sitting outside of a den for a minute or two, I can get a feel for if an eel will be cooperative or not. If it won’t, I move on. If it is, however, I will take a couple of test photos and then slowly inch forward if the eel lets me until I have an image where I can fill the frame with the eel. Never feed eels to get them out of their den! Some eels will learn to associate divers with food. If they bit your hand, even mistakenly, the angle of their teeth will leave the flesh cleaved from your bone at best. Eels have been known to bite fingers off. But if they aren’t fed, they usually have a very nice disposition. 

 

10.  Go Wide!

 

Most people associate eel photography with shooting macro. This is certainly not the case! If you are working with a cooperative eel, going wide gives you the potential to take an even more striking image. A fisheye lens will not only capture the habitat of the eel, but it will capture negative space in the form of water. This will give depth and contrast to the image, solving the issue of clutter in eel photography. The trick to shooting wide with eels is to inch very slowly towards the eel and shoot from the side of its head. Make sure that half your dome is angled to its head and den, and the other half of the dome is angled towards the outside of the den and water above. This will create the illusion of being inside the den with the eel. Shooting a little farther away from the eel can create a photograph where the eel becomes part of its environment – also an interesting artistic endeavor. 


Full Article: Ambient Photography: An Artist’s Pursuit for the Most Natural Underwater Photography

Surrounded by two thousand meters of crystal-clear cobalt blue water, the Cayman Islands (pronounced “K-Man” for those of you who want to fit in with us locals) are home to some of the best visibility found anywhere on planet earth. These three small islands aren’t home to the usual environmental factors impacting water clarity found in other popular diving destinations. The lack of rivers, lack of neighbors, and a deep bottom where all the suspended particles can sink out of sight are all reasons that make ambient light photography a great choice when diving Cayman.

A little less battery power and a little more solar power 

This style of photography might not be your cup of tea. Many enjoy the challenge of lighting an underwater scene by illuminating the phenomenal colors found on a reef with artificial light. I must admit, I also found this appealing for many years. Like other things in life, my tastes changed as I grew older. Now my search for the perfect underwater image calls for a little less battery power and a little more solar power. This likely comes from an extensive background in underwater videography. Years of shooting ambient light underwater video gave me an appreciation for the natural look found beneath the surface. It’s not to say that I don’t shoot artificial light. I do. But I much prefer the natural tones found without the use of powerful lights. Dark blue backgrounds and bright colorful sponges are without a doubt beautiful, but it’s not what I see with my eye while diving.

What to consider when taking ambient light photos

When considering ambient light photography, you must first ask yourself a few simple questions.

Firstly, does the dive destination have decent visibility?

Murky, turbid water is not the best place for this style of photography.

Secondly, how much ambient light can be expected at depth? 

If you’re cave or night diving, break out the strobes.

And lastly, can the camera preform a custom white balance?

This is not absolutely necessary, but if your rig isn’t capable of this, you should probably think about lights and/or filters.

The Pros and Cons of Ambient Light Photography

Pros

Streamlining

When considering the advantages of ambient light photography, several things come to mind.First, this type of photography utilizes less gear. Less gear means more money in your pocket. More money means more dive travel!  More dive travel means more time underwater, and more time underwater makes you a better photographer. Therefore, ambient light makes you a better photographer. Well, if only if were that simple. 

The second thing that I love about my strobe-less rig is its usability in the water. Take free diving for example. Kicking up and down with a fully rigged DSLR can be cumbersome and tiring for even the most experienced free diver. By removing the strobes, the rig becomes notably more streamlined, making for a much easier, sustained breath-hold. While this effect is less noticeable while diving on scuba, the biggest advantage I find here is getting in and out of the water. We all have that crazy jigsaw puzzle movement where we try and fold up the camera into a manageable position so the dive master can easily lift your baby from the water without damaging one of your many attached investments. It’s SO much easier without the arms required by video lights or strobes. Setup and breakdown is a lot easier with this configuration. There is no need for sync cords, less o-rings to clean, no strobe batteries to charge. This is something to consider if weight is a factor in your dive travel plans.

Having said all that, 90% of the time I’m carrying strobes on my rig. I don’t have to use them, but if the situation calls for artificial light, I’m ready to go. On some shoots, I’ll even carry video lights in conjunction with the strobes. This makes for one cumbersome beast on the surface, but prepares me for any situation I may encounter underwater. At the end of the day, do what you’re most comfortable with that will help you achieve the image you’re after

Natural Tone

The tonality of an image for me is key. It’s the main reason I prefer ambient light photography. Shooting ambient light will always give your water the natural tones provided by mother nature. This look is achieved by white balancing your camera to the ambient light. That’s not to say that this look can’t be achieved with the use of strobes. It certainly can. As a matter of fact, I often use my strobes on a very low setting to fill in some of the shadows on close subjects.

Frame Rate

Ambient light photography lets you push your framerate to optimal levels. My Canon 5D Mark IV has a maximum frame rate of 7 frames per second. This is one of the biggest advantages of shooting ambient light. I don’t have to wait on my strobes to recycle. Or if I am shooting my strobes, the setting is so low that they have no problem keeping up with the camera… for the most part. Capturing the split second when your subject is in the perfect position is much easier at a high frame rate. For this reason, when shooting ambient light, I ALWAYS shoot in high speed continuous mode.

Cons

Constant White Balance Changes

For me, the biggest drawback of ambient light photography is amount of attention needed to get it right. Let me explain. Every time the light changes you need to re-balance the camera. This means that if a cloud moves overhead, your scene will be overly cool. On the other hand, if you balanced the camera with a cloud overhead and it moves exposing the reef to the sun, your scene is overly warm and a new white balance is needed. Every 10 feet of depth gained requires a new balance. Conversely, every 10 feet of depth lost requires a new white balance. 

Some will say, “I shoot in raw, so I can adjust white balance in post.” To some extent, that’s correct. For me, this is not an option. I want my image as close as possible in camera, so I constantly change my white balance when I shoot. Also, for those of you who think that shooting RAW is the solution to your white balance needs, remember, you can’t correct a color that doesn’t exist in your image.

Contrast

Adequate contrast in one’s photos is another issue when shooting without external lights. Separating your subject from the background is easily accomplished with artificial light. Ambient light photography requires you to place your subject against a contrasting background. My favorite background is a white sandy bottom, followed in close second by the beautiful blue water found at the edge of a drop off. These techniques require a little more work. Getting out in front of your subject is key to an amazing image.

Macro Photography

Macro photography is also not very well suited to ambient light. Often, the tiny subjects in macro and super macro need to be separated from the background with a combination of shutter speed and light. While this is possible with ambient light, it’s not nearly as cool as a well-lit snoot shot.

Night Photography

Night photography underwater with ambient light is pretty much a no-go as well. While there are many creative ways to light your subject underwater, they all pretty much involve flooding the scene with artificial light.

The path to amazing, natural, ambient light photos

Whether you choose to shoot only ambient light or add a little artificial fill light, the process is basically the same. To achieve this, one must be able to properly preform a custom white balance. This is a very simple process of telling the camera what is white at a given depth. While this process is different on all cameras, the environmental factors remain constant. Firstly, I recommend carrying a white slate; mine is fairly small – about four inches in diameter. It’s clipped to my BCD where it lives 24/7. This insures it’s never left behind and always at the ready when needed.

White Balance

Metering with your slate

When using a slate to balance your white underwater, the white card must ALWAYS be illuminated by your light source. This typically means sun over your shoulder, with the card held at arms length in-front of your lens. To properly preform this, you must first zero out the light meter in camera. This process is simple, but different on all camera models. If you’re new to underwater photography, simply throw the rig into full auto and take the shot. This will insure proper exposure. Now all you need to do is select the image and tell the camera to use it as white. Many of the new mirrorless rigs will have a simplified version of this whole process. But as mentioned, the basic function of illuminating the card and zeroing out the meter remains the same.

Custom white balance with mixed artificial and ambient light

I might also add, if you want to use artificial light in conjunction with ambient light, the process is basically the same. The one thing to keep in mind here when using artificial light is the distance to the subject. For example, if you plan on shooting a turtle with this mix of light, decide when you balance the camera how far you intend to be from the subject. If the turtle will likely be 3 feet from the camera, balance the camera with the white card three feet from the lens. You might find this process easier if you have your buddy hold the card. Other options are, find an area where the sand is nice and white and exposed to the sun. Fire your strobes here with your chosen distance and voila! Now you have a mixed-light, custom white balance. Some equipment manufacturers make white fins. These are great for balancing your camera without the help of a buddy. Mixed light with custom white balance can be a little tricky – always remember that if you move too close to your subject it will become overly warm. If you’re in a pinch and the turtle swims too close simply move back or turn down the power on your strobe. You can apply this same technique with video lights.

Base Line Settings

While all cameras will be different, the base line settings will be similar for most. I typically start out with my aperture wide open (lowest f-stop number). This allows me to get the maximum light to the sensor while keeping the camera as close to its native ISO as possible. Depending on the situation, I may even choose to close it slightly to increase depth of field if the light allows. My shutter baseline is 1/100th. Again, these are baseline settings, that give me a starting point from which to compose my first image. I find that 1/100 will sometimes give me motion blur – particularly when the subject is very close to the lens.

As mentioned, I like to keep the ISO at 100 (i.e., native ISO) if possible, so that’s where I start. If I’m shooting something that’s moving quickly, I’ll switch to auto ISO. A slow shutter and wide-open aperture will ensure it only goes up slightly, keeping the color noise at a minimum.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, shoot what makes you happy. Ambient light photography is a great option in underwater environments. Hopefully these techniques will help you get the most from your next underwater photography dive.

Happy Diving!

 

For more great photos and information check out Jason's youtube and instagram accounts! 

Further Reading

 

Full Article: Tide Pool Fun with GoPro 6 Time Lapse Video

I had the great fortune of growing up on Vancouver Island where my parents used to take my sister and me up to Tofino every summer or two. They used to get us to the best intertidal zones at the lowest tides possible, which unfortunately tended to occur at ungodly morning hours. I’ll never forget being woken up at 3 am, putting on our boots, grabbing our flashlights, and going looking for things you couldn’t find higher up the water line: moon snails the size of dinner plates moving along just beneath the sand; giant gumboot chitons (well, giant for the chiton world) cunningly stuck to the undersides of rocky overhangs; crabs which were, according to my Dad, of edible size and very tasty looking.

But probably my most enduring memories from those trips were of the countless times (during normal daytime hours) that we clambered over mussel-encrusted rocks to peer into one tide pool after another, looking for our favourite denizens. Each pool was its own little wondrous world, full of starfish, anemones, sea urchins, sculpins, hermit crabs, barnacles, snails and limpets.

Some of the large tide pools at Botanical Beach. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 12-100mm f/4.0 pro lens.

Tide Pool Expedition to Botanical Beach

I was recently back in Victoria, and my Mom and I decided to head out to Botanical Beach to relive some of our tide pool memories. But this time we were armed with my OM-D E-M1 in an underwater housing, a GoPro Hero 6 Black, a Sealife Aquapod and a GoPro Hero 5 Black. Our mission: take some time lapse videos of tide pool life.

We timed our visit for a decently low tide which did not require waking up at 2am. Once we got out to the beach, we found a lot of wide and deep tide pools. We started looking around in them, hoping to find some really cool action-packed ones. I thought about the amazing footage in Blue Planet II of a starfish chasing limpets around, but we could not really find more than a couple of colorful starfish wedged into cracks (and they did not appear to have any plans to move any time soon). So we combed back and forth over the rocks for awhile, keeping a few feet from the breaking waves and looking for the perfect tide pool. But they all seemed just…dead. Not dead in terms of life, but dead in terms of movement. A few anemones in some deep pools, just sitting there. Urchins at home inside crevices and crannies in the rocks. Nothing really moving.

I knew that we had to get started doing something, as we only had a couple of hours of low tide. So I put my GoPro Hero 5 onto my SeaLife Aquapod, set it for 4k video with a 1 second time lapse interval, and stuck it into a 3-4 foot deep tide pool in front of some anemones, hoping they would do something cool when we weren’t looking.  

Exploring the tide pools at Botanical Beach. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 12-100mm f/4.0 pro lens.

Slowing Down…

Then, as we returned to browsing back and forth through the pools in the area, I realized that I needed to slow down my thinking – after all, we were looking for time lapse video opportunities, not super-quick action-packed sequences. I was standing by a shallow pool no more than a foot and a half deep that did not look particularly special. But I made myself sit still and stare at it for a bit, and I noticed a little brown starfish inching its way over the rocks.

I called my Mom over, and we sat down to watch. After sitting there for awhile, we realized it was moving quite a bit. And there were limpets in the pool, and we saw them move when the starfish came too close! And the starfish appeared to be chasing the limpets!

I quickly set up my GoPro 6 for 4K time lapse video, on a 2 second interval. I set it in the pool in a couple of inches of water, on a rock overlooking the drama, and then we left to look in some other pools. Not having done my research beforehand, and with no internet access, I was unsure as to what frame rate the GoPro would record at. I remembered my E-M1 would do 4K time lapse at 5 fps, so I assumed it would be something similar. So after 5 minutes I figured I would have a decent amount of footage. Not remembering how to get the GoPro to play back, I could not check how the video looked. But I decided I should probably take some shorter interval time lapses as well, for comparison later on, so I set it for 0.5 second intervals. 

Here is a video I made of the best footage of the starfish in its little tide pool.

Time lapse video taken of a starfish in a tide pool at Botanical Beach, on Vancouver Island, BC. GoPro Hero 6 Black using 4K time-lapse video mode.  

Note that in the third clip, there appears to be some small bubbles on the lens. I was just using the GoPro without a housing, and the little lens cover that comes with it must like to collect bubbles when taken out of the water and then put back in. There were a number of videos I had with these spots in them. I am surprised I did not notice the bubbles on the lens protector piece, so I guess they could have been caused by light reflecting off of the lens protector. But based on what I saw in my footage I think it’s most likely very small bubbles. Next time I will watch out for this, for better understanding!

GoPro Farming

With both GoPros collecting footage, we went back and forth between the two tide pools to keep an eye on things…"GoPro Farming" as my Mom called it. I repositioned the GoPro with the starfish to keep tracking its wanderings, did a couple of anemone shots, and then after staring intently at a pool full of immobile sea urchins, noticed one of them was moving! So I grabbed the GoPro on the Aquapod and followed the urchin around. We went back and forth between the two "farms" for maybe an hour and a half.

And I was very pleased when checking the footage afterwards to see that some of the anemone footage had urchins moving about as well. However boring they may look at normal speed sitting in a crevice in a tide pool, they look really cool when they are on the move and sped up with timelapse video! Here's a video of the best sea urchin footage.

Time lapse video taken of sea urchins moving about tide pools at Botanical Beach, on Vancouver Island, BC. GoPro Hero 6 Black using 4K time lapse video mode. 

At a few points it started to rain, sometimes getting quite torrential. Fortunately, as born and bred Pacific Northwesters, we were prepared: rain jackets, rain covers for our packs, quick dry pants, and old running shoes that could get soaked. Good thing, too, as at one point we were a bit too close to the incoming tide and had a particularly large wave splash our feet.

What happened with my OM-D E-M1 in the housing? It stayed in my pack. It was just much too big to fit into a tide pool and capture the action, without causing significant disturbance or damage. With the starfish pool, it was physically too big to even fully submerge. 

Towards the end of our visit, we noticed a clump of gooseneck barnacles sitting in a pool which were feeding. We had never seen that before, so I switched the GoPro on the AquaPod to 4K video and put it nice and close, moving it around to get a couple of angles, and leaving it still for long enough that the barnacles would emerge and feed. 

Shortly after that, as the tide was coming in, we decided to put an end to our very fun and very wet afternoon. After putting things on the computer, I was very happy with many of the results. The biggest disappointment though was probably the barnacles; I had placed the GoPro too close for every shot, and all of the feeding footage was quite blurry. 

Good thing we were ready for the rain! Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 12-100mm f/4.0 pro lens.

What I Learned

1. Time Lapse Interval Timing

It takes longer to collect 4K time lapse footage on my GoPro than on my OM-D E-M1, due to the higher frame rate. The GoPro takes images on a set interval of seconds, and outputs it at 30 fps. Here’s how long it takes to get 10 seconds of footage for each interval setting:

  • 0.5 s: 2.5 minutes
  • 1 s: 5 minutes
  • 2 s: 10 minutes
  • 5 s: 25 minutes
  • 10 s: 50 minutes
  • 30 s: 2.5 hours
  • 60 s: 5 hours

I like the footage that is around 0.5 s to 1 s intervals, while I find the 2 s interval too fast. So I think I will use the 0.5 s interval in the future, as I can always speed it up in post-processing to make it equivalent to a 0.75 s or a 1 s interval.

2. GoPro Minimum Focusing Distance

I learned the hard way that the GoPro cannot focus underewater on any subject closer than about 12”. I wish I had figured this out before some of the footage I tried to take. I wasted a lot of time on blurry starfish and sea urchins, and all of my videos of the gooseneck barnacles were blurry. Rats! I am going to have to go back sometime with a macro lens for my GoPro, and probably should have read this article by Todd before going on the outing. 

3. Bubbles on Lens Protector?

Next time I take the GoPro I will make sure I wipe the lens protector clean after submerging it. It's best to always be vigilant for bubbles intruding on the shot. I don't recall seeing them, but there must have been small ones on the lens protector during a number of the videos, as I saw a lot while looking through footage for post-processing. 

4. GoPro Size Advantage

GoPros really shine when it comes to revealing the secret lives of tidepool inhabitants. Their small size allows you to put them into shallow pools where nothing else would fit, without disturbing the marine life. Even better, they allow you to get a really cool perspective that a larger camera just can’t get; namely, being submerged in a tide pool that is only a few inches to a foot deep.

5. Slow Down!

The most important thing I learned was the best footage from tide pools comes from slowing down, and finding the subjects which you never see moving around when watching at “real life” speed. Yeah, hermit crabs and sculpins are fun to watch when you’re squatted over a tide pool. They are cool in time lapses too, but a video of just sculpins and crabs would become very boring and repetitive quite quickly. In my opinion it’s really all about the echinoderms – the starfish and sea urchins – as well as any barnacles if you can find them (and get them in focus!). Limpets are also neat if there are starfish to chase them around, and I imagine snails would be cool as well (though we didn’t find any to video).

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line at bryan@uwphotographyguide.com!

Gear Links

Additional Reading

 

Full Article: Northern Exploring: Discovering the Remote Arctic

A Note from the Editor: I met Sven when I took a trip with him to Greenland for summer iceberg diving (no, the water is not really any warmer in the summer). He runs an Arctic diving tour company, Northern Explorers A/S. I have since joined him for a trip with orcas during the herring run in Northern Norway, and for two weeks iceberg diving in Greenland in April. On that last trip I got some time to sit down with him and learn a bit about what it’s like to run an Arctic diving company. -Bryan Chu, Associate Editor.

Nudibranch, photographed near my home in Norway. People at trade shows often think that Nordic waters are just cold and dark, with nothing to see. I disagree!
Nikon D300, Sea & Sea housing, 105mm macro lens, Seacam strobes. f/16, 1/200 sec, ISO 200.

 

Bryan: How long have you been diving and what got you into it? 

Sven: I started in 1998, and at that time it was mostly in Norway. From the beginning on I was mostly interested in diving in remote areas. So once I started diving, I got my own equipment, including tanks and a compressor and everything. I was always going to remote areas, like small towns in Norway where you have no infrastructure for diving. Somehow I ended up going further and further North, and ended up in areas like Greenland and Svalbard.

Bryan: What draws you to coldwater diving or Arctic diving instead of warm water?

Sven: Once you start something you want to see more and more, and see how far you can go. I have gone pretty far, but have never felt that I was close to my limits. I am still very interested in remote areas and exploring things, especially in Greenland, as we are the only divers in this whole area (Tasiilaq, East Greenland). It’s kind of crazy that this is the biggest island in the world and it is widely unexplored underwater. So I think I have something to do for the next few decades.

 

Monkfish eye: Monkfish/anglerfish are perfectly camouflaged, and they know it. Therefore, they don’t move when divers approach. As these are some of the most expensive delicacies in the sea, some divers in Norway use this fact to catch these fish. Other times they are lucky, when the diver just takes a picture and lets them live.
Olympus C-7070 WZ @ 22.9mm, Reefmaster strobe. f/10, 1/80 sec, ISO 80.

 

Bryan: Do you do any warm water diving?

Sven: Not for Northern Explorers; when it’s warm water diving it’s on holiday. I stopped writing logbooks years ago, but out of maybe a total of 3000-5000 dives, I have done only 200 warm water dives.

Bryan: When did you start Northern Explorers?

Sven: 8 years ago.

Bryan: What was the first trip?

Sven: We started in Norway. It was quite interesting because we didn’t jump into any established tour locations. It involved a lot of scouting and, in the first three years, it was also a bit frustrating because on the one hand we wanted to earn money, but on the other hand we had to build up our products and invest in equipment. It took quite awhile until we got the space and the freedom to be relaxed about scouting new areas. 

For Greenland, we sent over a container with compressors and everything before we even knew if we could make money here. So basically we put in $20,000 without knowing if we would get anything back. Now it is a bit easier because we have learned a lot. We have people who have been on tours with us before and trust in us. So, when we do scouting trips they join us for the chance to be the first to go somewhere new. 

Diver meets deep-sea creature: The Norwegian Trondheimfjord is very special, as you can see deep-sea fish and other deepwater animals at recreational scuba depths. This up to 1.5m long chimaera (ghost shark) is quite common to see, often in dozens. This picture I took on a night dive. Sometimes it seems that they are interested in electronic gear; as a member of the shark/ray family they have the sense organs to feel electric impulses. So they often come close to divers to check out what going on. Luckily they are harmless and friendly.

Nikon D300, Sea & Sea housing, DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G lens, Sea & Sea YS-250 strobes. f/ 7.1, 1/160 sec, ISO 250.

 

Bryan: How do you find running a tour company vs. diving yourself?

Sven: If you would have asked me 20 years ago I could never have imagined doing this. You see documentaries on TV and think, wow, those people have supernatural powers. It’s not for normal people to go into the Arctic and dive. But it just happened one step at a time, and suddenly I was there. Sitting here in Greenland now feels so normal, but years ago it was something else…Greenland, glaciers and icebergs, something I thought I would never see. 

At a certain point you have to decide what you want to do and how you want to focus. When you work as a tour operator and you spend some weeks in the Maldives, some weeks in other places, it’s different than doing more specialized things. We focus on the Arctic and it might be an advantage that we don’t have to care about other destinations.

Atlantic Salmon and sea trout in a river in Norway. They were shy, so I put my Nikon in a pool and put the camera in auto mode, taking a picture every 15 seconds. In the end they were as close as I could wish.
Nikon D300, Sea & Sea housing, DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G lens. f/2.8, 1/40 sec, ISO 400.

 

Bryan: You’ve worked with film crews, documentary makers and BBC as well…?

Sven: When you ask people, everybody seems to have worked with the BBC. But we are not one of their main corporate partners. I am not the filmmaker or the filmer. What we do is provide support for everybody who asks us. For the Arctic, it’s mainly the bigger companies who can afford projects here. We have an interesting project starting in Greenland next year, and we just finished supporting an interesting 3 year project in Norway. It was really, really interesting because we got the space to scout new dive sites and do things we cannot do on normal trips. We are not focused on just film teams, but when they do the research on who can get them to the right places with diving support in the Arctic, there are only a few companies out there who can help. So, it’s natural they sometimes come and ask us to help them.

 

Monkfish/anglerfish, Norway
Olympus C7070 @ 6mm, Reefmaster strobe. f/8, 1/80 sec, ISO 80

Bryan: What’s the funniest/most interesting experience you’ve had on a coldwater dive trip?

Sven: That’s a very difficult question. At the end of each year I always have my personal highlights. Like last year in Svalbard when we had a big group of beluga whales all around our boat the whole day, and they were really playing with us more or less. I had some very interesting wildlife experiences in Svalbard. Last year was very interesting because we had one of my best trips in Svalbard…beluga whales, blue whales, walrus and other animals. 

Here working in Greenland last year when we were building huts for a new camp in Sermilikfjord was one of my personal highlights, because it was different from what we normally do. I was building houses there but the scenery around was just amazing. You were working on the roof of the hut and suddenly there was a humpback whale just 150 m away. 

In November we had people in the water with orca whales and they were 1-2 m away from the orca whales that came up. One guy said there was this big male orca whale looking at him face-to-face, and he thought he was filming with his GoPro, but he had actually pushed the button twice so he only got about 2 seconds where you can see the orca whale very close, and then nothing. 

Iceberg aerial in East Greenland in August. Usually it is not very smart to dive in an ice bay like this. However, after observing the icebergs around for a couple of hours and seeing they were all very stable, we decided to do it. Even though this is not the time of year with the best visibility, the water looks crystal clear.
DJI FC300S drone. f/2.8, 1/2200 sec, ISO 100.

 

Bryan: What do you shoot underwater? 

Sven: I have a Nikon D300 in a Sea & Sea housing with Seacam strobes. I don’t think I will change anything; we have some very good photographers joining the trips now, and I can just relax and enjoy their photos.

Bryan: Do you have any favourite coldwater photo subjects, especially for underwater?

Sven: I like one of the photos I’ve taken in Svalbard of walrus. It was not underwater but I was very close to them with a wide angle lens. I used a flash as it was late in the evening, around 11 pm. 

There was a walrus colony nearby. For our safety and to not disturb the animals we landed the zodiac quite far away from where the animals were resting. But there were some guys in the water as well, and they obviously got curious when the saw us walking up the beach towards the colony. So they came close to check us out. However, male walrus is one of the animals I am really careful with - they often tend to be aggressive, or at least they are not in a good mood :-).

Walruses, Svalbard.
Canon 5D Mark III, EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens, flash. f/20, 1/200 s, ISO 400.

My favorite underwater shots are from Greenland in winter – clear visibility (usually 30-60 m) and icebergs. Every iceberg is like a sculpture in a way…because they are melting and breaking…when you dive on an iceberg you know no one else will ever see this iceberg. It’s a dive site that will not exist after you’ve seen it. It also makes the pictures unique, because no one else will ever take those pictures.

You never know in advance about the dive site; every season, the ice creates new shapes, structures, opportunities and challenges. Often you can really play with the light falling through the ice. Also you should be prepared to see amazing macro life, including small shrimp living on the ice, magic comb jellies and the sea angel, a swimming nudibranch.

Last winter in Greenland we dove on an iceberg in the Tasiilaq harbor. The iceberg was frozen in the sea ice and covered with snow, so we did not realize at first that it was blue ice, which has the most interesting structures. Since I did the surface support I did not have much time for diving myself. It’s always amazing diving under ice and next to an iceberg. This one was more than 30 meters deep, which you would never believe when you just see it above surface.

Blue Iceberg, Tasiilaq harbor.
Nikon D300, Sea & Sea housing, DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G lens. f/2.8, 1/500 sec, ISO 320.

Bryan: You run a number of different trips. Do you have a favourite, and why?

Sven: I like the trips in Norway because they are close to home. When a trip is remote, there are many many things that have to work out…for example let’s take a liveaboard in Svalbard. We have the compressors and diving equipment and everything there. If anything breaks, you cannot get any spare parts. It’s nice running trips in Norway where I can just drive home to get tools or spare parts. But for the adventure…we’re starting to explore more remote areas in Greenland which you can only reach by boats for a few weeks in the summer…that’s something I’m really looking forward to. And Svalbard, Spitsbergen is a very interesting trip because there is so much wildlife. Basically every day you see interesting things. Last year we had a week trip and it was amazing what you saw there. I would say Greenland and Svalbard trips were what I liked most.

Making of a split shot: the colours of the ice are different every time. The ice has different contents of air or dirt, is compressed blue, white or clear, and the light changes by the hour. Split shots can be challenging due to a thin layer of fresh water that is often on the surface around icebergs, which can be quite blurry.
Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lens @ 310 mm. f/9.0, 1/800 sec, ISO 100.

 

Bryan: You’ve mentioned climate change a few times. What do you see happening as a result of this?

Sven: I’ve seen a lot of things I was not expecting to see so quickly. I mean you can see the glaciers, the ice retreating, but also different species migrating into Arctic waters. For example in East Greenland, we are now seeing cod, mackerel, pilot whales and sperm whales, mostly from Icelandic waters. It will be interesting to see in the next years how that will affect the whole ecosystem in the Arctic. Another thing we are facing is just that the weather conditions are getting less stable, less predictable; we get more challenges. This is a problem all over the world, also in warm water destinations, but in the Arctic we can see that warmer water is affecting the whole marine ecosystem.

So that is maybe one more reason to experience this kind of extreme diving in the arctic; to understand and to document what we might lose in the future.

 

Diver with a deep sea jelly (Periphylla periphylla) in the Trondheimfjord.
Nikon D300, Sea & Sea housing, DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G lens, Sea & Sea YS-250 strobes. f/3.5, 1/250 sec, ISO 400. 

Bryan: What should people do if they want to get into Arctic diving? 

Sven: I could share a whole lot more than this, but here are a few of the most important things to think about:

  • Do your research - look for trips offering small groups
  • It can be very challenging, so be ready for personal challenges
  • Be well-trained with your gear
  • Do not always expect luxury
  • Don’t expect a large number of dives, like the 3-4 dives per day of tropical destinations
  • Be open to challenges, bad weather, itinerary changes and pitching in to help with moving equipment, dive site setup, etc.
  • Bring a pair of 3-finger wet gloves
  • Bring your macro setup!

Bryan: Great, thank you so much!

Sven: No problem!

Additional Reading

Full Article: Wide-Angle Photography in Low Light Conditions

As a cold-water diver, one of the most frequent phrases I hear from other photographers encountering bad visibility is “I guess it’s a macro day!” Except in extreme cases of bad conditions, that photographer is often missing out. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to take quality wide angle images in poor visibility down to about five feet at any time of the day. It’s just a matter of understanding how light works. 

Painting with Light

As a photographer I only have one aspiration – to use light as a paintbrush in a way that extracts a work of art from a scene. I stopped “taking photos” years ago and switched to “painting with light”. The “painting with light” mindset is particularly essential for diver who do not have frequent access to the studio-like conditions of tropical sea, such as myself. The importance of quantity of light pales in comparison to understanding how it works. 

“Painting with light” is a mentality where you can picture in your head how the light you have at your disposal (e.g., the sun, strobe, focus light) will affect the image you are creating. It’s a skill that takes years to develop but ultimately results in a photographer being able to set up his/her camera and take an excellent photo on the first try. The best way to develop this mentality is to constantly change your settings and strobes. Taking multiple photos of the same scene will help you understand how each element of the available light is affected by each element you change. 

One thing I like to do is pre-create an image in my head at a dive site I know and then replicate it underwater. First, I will look at the sky and the clouds and determine what the sun will look like underwater. Then I pick a subject I know I can find, guess a depth it will be at, and determine how I would like to compose it. I think about where in the image I would like the sun to illuminate, and what I would like the strobes to expose. Finally, I choose a rough range for my aperture and shutter speed, pick my ISO, set my strobes, and hop in the water. You’d be surprised – it almost always works. Some of my best images were made this way.

 

Positioning 

The two golden rules of underwater photography are especially important in limited visibility. 

1. Get close to the subject

2. Shoot up at the subject

Shoot Into the “Sun”

The most consistent aspect of my photography in limited visibility is that I almost always shoot towards the sun. Even if it’s not a sunny day, I strive to position myself where the lens of my camera is pointed towards the highest amount of ambient light. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that if there is very little ambient light, shooting away from the sun will result in an image lit only by your strobes. This usually creates a black background. In a few circumstances an image like this can be desirable. But usually some amount of colorful water in the background will give your subject perspective. The second reason is that shooting into the sun results in the ability to use a higher shutter speed, small aperture, and lower ISO – all essential to improving the quality of the image. The third reason is the higher contrast resulting from multiple sources of light and shadow. Everything is more dramatic that way. 

Snell’s Window

Snell’s window is an optical phenomenon where an underwater viewer sees the surface as if looking through a tunnel to the light at the end. This effect can be easily captured when shooting into the sun, resulting in dramatic underwater photos. Low light intensifies Snell’s window in underwater photos because the edges of the tunnel become black instead of dark blue as they would in clear water.

Shooting with two strobes? Leave one at home!

When shooting in low light conditions, you need much less light to take photos. This is a counterintuitive concept that can be very difficult for some to understand. The reason for this is that strobes are used to balance ambient light in the background and artificial light on a subject. When there is a lot less ambient light in the background, you need to respond with less artificial light so that you don’t blow out the exposure of the subject. 

Although many photographers swear that two strobes increase artistic capacity, I disagree in low light situations. Many times, it is better to shoot with one! In limited visibility, I think two strobes can make wide angle photos look unnatural. This is because there is a larger gradient of ambient light in the image, especially in a Snell’s window. If too much of the foreground is lit, then it looks unnatural. Using one strobe will let you work with Snell’s window. This is done by lining up the subject you want to light with your strobe with the bright part of the window. The subject is then lit with the single strobe, but the rest of the foreground remains dark – naturally following the pattern of Snell’s window. 

Aperture 

Aperture can be a tricky thing to set in limited visibility. It’s the setting that I change the most. Many people start by shooting at f/8 as it’s the most neutral aperture. You will likely have enough depth of field in the image, but it also lets in a good amount of light. However, this aperture might be too small (i.e., too dark) in might low-light situations. I will often open my aperture wider than this, even taking the f-stop down to f/3.5. This almost always results in a shallow depth of field and a blurry background. However, I think that any image can be composed in response to any f-stop. Sometimes having a blurry background is worth having better lighting with more ambient light in the background. 

Shutter Speed

Different photographers have differing opinions concerning shutter speed. I like to keep my shutter speed consistently at the highest sync speed – 1/160 sec in my case. This results in a crisp image with no motion blur as well as better contrast. I find that if I let more ambient light into the image by decreasing the shutter speed rather than opening the aperture, the image can become rather flat in low light. There will be more ambient light in the background, but there is less of a gradient to produce a dramatic effect. 

One of the biggest benefits of shooting wide-angle in low light is the ability to take long exposure images underwater. These images result in artistic motion blur, further enhanced by panning on the photographer’s part. Remember to turn off your horizontal image stabilization if you’re planning on trying it. I find that shooting at 1/8 sec to 1/13 sec is the sweet spot. 

ISO

I am a firm believer of shooting with a camera’s native ISO, even in low light. It results in the highest quality image with the least amount of noise. My opinion is that it is best to bring out exposure in post processing instead of fixing noise. Fixing noise kills detail in the image. However, if your photos are resulting in a black background and you can’t afford to lower your shutter speed or open your aperture, bumping up your ISO to around 400 can be a big help. 

Strobe Positioning and Reducing Backscatter

Strobe positioning is essential in low light wide-angle photography. Poor positioning is the reason many people think you can’t take wide-angle photos in anything less than 20 or 30 feet of visibility. Perhaps the largest mistake photographers make in limited visibility is using too much light and not being close enough to the subject. Too much light increases the chance of having backscatter in the image and over exposing the subject. Being too far from the subject reduced the color of the subject and increases the chance of backscatter. Two strobes often exacerbate this problem by introducing too much light in all the wrong places.  The best way to get nice, even lighting and to reduce backscatter is by increasing the distance between the strobe and the dome while maintaining a close distance to the subject. There is an artform to being able to do that. Here are some of my favorite strobe positions in low light: 

1. Place the strobe(s) above the camera and behind the camera without creating a shadow in the image from the camera. In limited visibility, strobes act more like spotlights. Using the traditional position of placing the strobes on the side of the camera can result in strange shadows. Putting the strobes higher up makes the lighting more even and reduces backscatter. 

2. Placing a single strobe above the camera and as far behind the camera as possible. As mentioned before, a single strobe is often more than enough light in limited visibility and will make light more even if used correctly. I almost never shoot one strobe from any other position since it can often introduce unwanted contrast.

3. Place a single strobe right next to the subject but pointed away from your camera when shooting close-focus wide-angle and reducing the power. This will help properly light a close subject while allowing ambient light to properly expose the background. 

4. Use what works. It can’t be stressed enough that these are suggestions but not instructions. I almost never keep my strobes positioned the same way for more than one or two photos. The best position is the one that works!

Conclusion

Shooting wide-angle photos in limited visibility could be described as its own “genre” of photography – one that only a select few photographers capitalize upon. But taking the leap into low visibility and bringing along your fisheye can introduce you to a whole new dimension of art. It takes more experimentation, dedication, and failures, but it is well worth the effort. Beyond all else it’s important to remember that art can be made regardless of the conditions. You just have to let the light paint a nice picture. 

Additional Reading

Full Article: The Nikon D850 vs the Sony A7R III for Underwater Photography

If underwater photography is the reason you get out of bed in the morning, then no doubt, by now you have realized that the caliber of your artistry is defined by the images you create and not the equipment you use. That being said, having nice equipment certainly helps. Having the best equipment helps even more. Right now, without a doubt, the best cameras available for underwater photography are the Nikon D850 DSLR and the Sony A7R III Mirrorless full frame cameras. 

As can be expected, both cameras are equipped with top of the line resolution, sensors, processing power, dynamic range, etc. But what is most historic about this comparison of cameras is the comparison itself. For the first time, a mirrorless camera is now a direct competitor with a DSLR for the prize of world’s best underwater camera. This isn’t merely a comparison of brands or specs – it’s a comparison of photographic engineering. 

Jump to a Section

Mirrorless vs DSLR   |   What is Top of the Line?   |   Image Quality

Performance   |   Processing Power   |   Focus

Video   |   Ergonomics   |   Lens and Housing Availability

Recommendations Based on Photographic Style

 

The Nikon D850 and Sony A7R III is available now at Bluewater Photo!

Mirrorless or DSLR

Before the release of the D850 and A7R III, mirrorless cameras had been thought of as the bridge between compact cameras and DSLRs. But the development of mirrorless cameras with full frame sensors (instead of crop sensors) introduces a conundrum for hardcore DSLR users. Mirrorless specs are starting to become indistinguishable from full frame DSLR specs. So wherein lies the difference? Well now it’s mostly physical – mirrorless cameras don’t have a reflex mirror and thus have smaller bodies. They are also more effective when using the LCD than DSLRs. That being said, the autofocus and low light sensitivity tends to be better in DSLRs. 

What constitutes as top of the line?

With light speed advances in camera technology, it can often be difficult to determine what constitutes as “top of the line” camera system engineering. Recent focus by industry giants has made it clear that improved resolution, low-light sensitivity, processing power, and autofocus are the centerpiece of recent efforts to improve photographic and videographic technology. Developments in resolution and low-light sensitivity materialize as improvements in image quality. Whereas, developments in processing power and autofocus materialize as improvements a camera’s performance. The world-class image quality and performance of these cameras ultimately results in a versatile tool that can take on almost any underwater photographic situation.

Image Quality

Winner: Tie*

Sensors for a New Age

Image quality is a direct consequence of the performance of a camera’s sensor. The frontiers of image quality were pushed further into the realm of impossibility when both cameras made history as the first DSLR and mirrorless cameras in their respective categories to achieve a DxOMark sensor rating of 100. 

A backlit full-frame Exmor R CMOS Sensor of the A7R III continues to offer 42.4 megapixels of resolution with a native ISO of 100. The Nikon D850 backlit CMO sensor now offers a whopping 45.7 megapixels of resolution with a native ISO of 64!

What does this mean for underwater photography?

These recent sensor improvements have resulted in two cameras that offer both exceptional dynamic range and resolution. Being able to shoot with a low native ISO enables you to photograph scenes with high dynamic range (contrast), without losing information (details). This means that in an overexposed or underexposed photo, details in shadows and highlights can be extracted more easily during post processing. This is great in situations where you might be shooting directly into the sun (e.g., sunballs), or in particularly low light environments where you might need to bump-up the ISO. A low native ISO also reduces the amount of noise in an image which is again important in low light environments or while taking long exposure photos. 

 

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the A7R III and D850’s sensors is the ludicrous megapixel count of 42.4 and 45.7 MP respectively. To the average underwater photographer, such large file sizes may not seem necessary. However, I found that shooting at full resolution with both cameras changed my photography style. Macro photography becomes a particularly more forgiving artform. This is because you can crop almost anything while retaining resolution. Diving with the D850 or A7R III is more akin to taking a microscope underwater than a camera. Even the most boring photo of a fish or octopus can become a beautiful depiction of the almost invisible photophores or eye parasites! Because the resolution is so large to begin with, most crops will still be a relatively large file! There is also the added benefit of being able to print high quality prints for professional use. 

*Although the Nikon D850 has a slightly lower native ISO and a slightly higher megapixel count, the image quality of both cameras is comparable in most cases. 

Performance

Processing power and autofocus performance are two important metrics for underwater camera performance. Because of constant improvements in photo resolution, modern camera systems must have comparable processing power to write information onto a storage device. Otherwise, a camera will slow down and need to buffer while the photographer risks missing photo opportunities. This is particularly important when photographing underwater pelagics or other high-speed scenes in burst mode. 

Likewise, fast and accurate autofocus is essential to underwater photography as manual focus modes are not always accessible. Particularly with moving subjects in both wide angle and macro photography. Almost all underwater photographers have experienced the frustration of watching a small fish or crustacean disappear out of frame as the lens continues to hunt. Who knows, in a few years this might soon be a thing of the past!

Processing Power

Winner: Sony A7R III (But the Sony A9 is the real winner)

The Sony A7R III has an updated BIONZ X image processor that is 1.8 times faster than previous versions of the A7R series. This enables the camera to shoot continuously at 10 frames per second with a 76 RAW image buffer up from 5 fps with a 23 image buffer! However, if shooting sports or quick pelagics is the core focus of your photography, consider the Sony A9. The A9 has the fastest shooting speed of any full frame camera on the market at 20 fps and a 241 image buffer.

The Nikon D850 is only slightly slower than the A7R III with 7 frames per second burst mode and a 51 image buffer. But don’t be quick to rule it out when comparing it to the A7R III as processing power is not the only metric of performance. 

It is worth noting that the benefits excellent processing power can only be reaped with a highest performance SD cards.

Focus

Winner: Nikon D850

The autofocus of the Nikon D850 is unbeatable. The Multi-CAM 20K autofocus module is Nikon’s best. It includes 153 focus point – 99 of them being cross sensor types and 55 being user selectable. Cross type sensors increase accuracy and minimize focusing errors resulting in an almost magical ability to track focal points. The dedicated autofocus engine also helps the camera process autofocus calculations at a quicker rate. With the ability to focus down to -4 EV, the lowlight AF performance is great for underwater photographer – especially macro photographers who wish to do away with their focus light in the presence of shy subjects. The combination of these capabilities results in focus modes that just might change how underwater photos are taken. For instance, the 3D-tracking AF mode will focus on a single point and intelligently follow that point as the subject moves around the frame. This mode changed my shooting experience completely. I stopped having to worry about the timing and placement of my focus points and began to completely focus my attention on composition – letting the camera take care of focus. Macro photographers in particular will benefit from this ability, especially when shooting small subjects that move around a lot. I except that we will be seeing many more photo of non-stationary macro subjects in the next few years as the underwater photography community adapts to these advances in AF.

One of the Sony A7R III’s strongest improvements was in its autofocus. It has 399 phase-detection AF points and 425 contrast AF points – 400 more contracts points than the A7R II. This has resulted in AF significantly quicker than the A7R II. However, the A7R III cannot match the AF speed of the Nikon D850 by any means. When shooting wide-angle, the A7R III’s AF speed is sufficient and you won’t see a considerable difference in performance from the Nikon D850. Macro photography is where the A7R III’s AF performance cannot match the D850s. When shooting macro, I found the A7R III could spend a considerable time hunting for focus points – especially in low light situations. 

Video 

Winner: Sony A7R III

One of the pride and joys of Sony’s mirrorless cameras are their video capability. The video performance of the A7R III is something to behold. The A7R III offers 4K resolution, 5-axis stabilization (reducing wobbles in hand-held videography), 120 fps @ 1080p, hybrid log gamma compatibility, a Super 35 mode, among other upgrades. Combined with increased battery life, the Sony A7R III is a formidable tool for underwater videographers. Check out our underwater video test where we were particularly impressed by the A7R III’s capability. 

 

The Nikon D850 should be commended for its 4K video with improved underwater white balance. However, Nikon has never had quite the reputation for video as compared with Sony. And Sony went all out for the A7R III.

Ergonomics and Handling 

Winner: Tie

When it comes to ergonomics and handling, both cameras have their pros and cons. One of the most obvious benefits of mirrorless cameras over DSLRs is their size. The Sony A7R III is 5.0 x 3.8 x 2.9 in. (127 x 96 x 73.7 mm) and 1.45 lb (657 g) vs the Nikon D850 clocking in at 5.75 x 4.88 x 3.11 in. (146 x 124 x 79 mm) and 2.22 lb (1005 g). Although weight varies based on lenses, housings, ports, and accessories; generally, I found the Nikon D850 to be heavier both above and underwater. While I did not use float arms when testing the cameras, I think it’s possible to use the Sony A7R III without floats. On the other hand, using the Nikon D850 without floats was fatiguing to the point where it affected my shooting ability. The underwater drag of the of the Nikon D850 is also slightly more than the Sony A7R III. This makes it easier to dive off the shore, in current, and in surge with the A7R III. However, the A7R III is still a large camera for a mirrorless camera. If size is a real factor in your camera decisions, I would consider the Olympus OM-D EM-1 MK II for a smaller but high-quality mirrorless camera. 

Navigability, on the other hand, is superior in the Nikon D850 over the Sony A7R III. The A7R III’s menu system remains confusing when compared to the D850’s, making it more difficult to change settings on the A7R III. It is also necessary to make a few essential, but difficult to find setting changes before taking the A7R III underwater (e.g., automatic photo replay after capturing and image). 

It is important to note that the view finder on the D850 functions much better than shooting in live view, whereas live view is best on the A7R III. One camera is not better than the other – it is a merely a matter of preference.

Lens Availability

Winner: Nikon D850

Nikon has a strong legacy of excellent quality and availability of full frame lenses. This is particularly notable in the wide-angle category when compared to the options for the A7R III. Wide angle photographers should know that there is no dedicated fisheye for the A7R III. However, the 28mm prime lens can be coupled with the fisheye conversion lens to give the widest possible angle of view. 

Check out our full reviews of the Nikon D850 and Sony A7R III for a full list of lens recommendations. 

Housing Availability 

Winner: Tie


There is no lack of high quality, functional, underwater housing for both cameras! Housings are available by leading brands such as Nauticam, Ikelite, Acquapazza, Aquatica, and Sea & Sea. 

Check out our full reviews of the Nikon D850 and Sony A7R III for a full list of housing recommendations.

Final Verdict? It Depends on You

When comparing cameras, there can never be a winner or loser. Cameras are tools. Different tools are made for different tasks. So the best question to ask is not what camera is better, but instead, what type of underwater photographer are you? If you can answer that question then you can better understand what camera would be suited for your needs as a photographer. 

For the Wide-Angle Photographer: Nikon D850 or Sony A7R III with a Metabones adapter 

Because image quality and autofocus in wide angle are so similar with both cameras, the Nikon D850 is the choice camera for wide-angle photographers due to lens availability. The Nikon 8-15mm, Tokina 10-17mm, Nikon 16mm 2.8 fisheye, Nikon 16-35mm 4.0, Nikon 20mm 1.8G and Sigma 15mm 2.8 fisheye lenses are all excellent wide-angle choices for the D850. Nikon’s low light focus performance is also better which can benefit in limited-visibility wide-angle photography. 

The A7R III is limited to a fisheye conversion lens with the Sony 28mm prime lens, the Sony 16-35 mm f4, and wide angle wet lenses. However, when using the Metabones adapter with Canon lenses, more high-quality lens options open-up. This can make the A7R III rival the D850. 

For the Macro Photographer: Nikon D850

Photographers looking to take split second macro photos with difficult lighting situations and tough subjects will want to consider the Nikon D850. As it can be difficult to take macro photos with full-frame cameras, I was surprised with how exceptional and effective the D850 was. The focus is the quickest and most effective we have seen for a macro set up! Combined with 3D-AF tracking, this camera will do all the worrying about focus for you. All you need to do is compose your image. The D850’s effective low-light sensitivity means quick focus without a focus light if you’re shooting sensitive macro subjects. 

But what was most apparent was that the Sony A7R III has not yet broken some of the last remain shackles of mirrorless cameras. The Sony 90 mm macro lens is a great lens, but the camera will hunt for focus. It is noticeably slower than the D850. 

Regardless, what is most noticeable about these two cameras when shooting macro is the resolution. One could argue that the resolution itself adds 100 mm of focal length to any lens you shoot with as you can still pull high quality images from extreme crops. The details captured by these cameras will astound you.

For the Pelagic/Action Photographer: Sony A7R III/Sony A9

When a speedy tuna or shark makes a quick pass at your camera, the one thing that can make or break your encounter is the frame rate in burst mode on your camera. Although the A7R III shoots 2 fps higher than the Nikon D850, the Sony A9 is the real winner here. 20 fps is just astounding. The A9 was developed specifically for this purpose. It’s amazing processing power enables you to take hundreds of shots before the camera needs to stop to load files. 

For those worried about the A7R III’s autofocus – the autofocus is much more effective shooting wide than macro. In most pelagic situation there is a good amount of light so the AF will function like the D850.

For the Underwater Videographer: Sony A7R III

As mentioned before, the A7R III’s video capability is exceptional. Underwater videographers will want to consider this camera if they are looking for something with great 4K capability, but would also like the ability to shoot excellent, top of the line images. 

For the Casual Photographer: Sony A7R III

Both cameras require completely different diving styles entirely. The A7R III is the least intensive of the two cameras to shoot. Because everything is composed using the LCD screen, I found that I had ample opportunity to watch my subjects without needing to spend all my time looking through a viewfinder. In fact, when compared to shooting with the Nikon D850, I felt like I could actually experience the dive and take photos at the same time. The D850 requires a lot of concentration on looking through the view finder and eats up your ability to just enjoy the dive. The A7R III is lighter and slightly more streamlined which makes for a better swimming experience. 

For the Beach Diver: Sony A7R III

Aforementioned, the Sony A7R III is lighter and slightly more streamlined than the Nikon D850. I found it easier to beach dive with and get through surf.  

For the Fashion Photographer: Nikon D850

Fashion photographers often can manipulate conditions to their desire and need the crème de la crème of tools to worth with. The Nikon D850 is going to be the camera of choice due to low light performance, lens availability, and image quality. Areas where the A7R III excels, such as burst shooting, video, and physical size, are not as much of a priority in a studio. 

The Nikon D850 and Sony A7R III is available now at Bluewater Photo!

 

Full Article: Freediving Photography with the Olympus TG-5

A Note from the Editor: The Olympus Tough TG-5 is an award-winning camera known for its versatility, ruggedness, fantastic macro capabilities and extremely high performance-to-cost ratio. After we reached out to our dedicated readers and customers, freediving instructor Pavol Ivanov shared his insights into underwater photography from his fascinating world of breath-hold diving. - Bryan Chu, Associate Editor.

Check out our full review of the TG-5 here!

Underwater Photography - Why we do it!

This sounds like very stupid question… but have you ever asked yourself “why do we really spend so much money on underwater photography equipment?” Well, there is the obvious reason, which is to share the experience with other people. But then there is the less obvious one: creativity! We have this amazing technology at our disposal which enables us to tell a story! And as they say, ‘’a picture is worth a thousand words!’’

Breath-hold Diving in the Past and Now - Accepting the challenge

For those who don’t know what freediving is (no, it is not free-of-charge scuba diving), it is the activity of diving underwater using only one breath taken at the surface. In the past, freediving was commonly used to harvest sea sponges, shellfish, fish and other sea goods, either for self-consumption or for sale on the market. Some people still practice this method of artisanal living today!

Now, recreational freediving is being taught worldwide. It is practised as a competitive sport, including freediving photography (in some countries)! For many people, the decision to learn to freedive comes from wanting to challenge themselves in a very extraordinary way. Who doesn’t want to be a Marvel hero? After only 2 or 3 days of learning and training, being able to dive to about 20m depth (66 ft) on one breath sounds pretty incredible, doesn’t it? However, taking good shots with a camera, while holding your breath and swimming underwater, takes a bit longer than just a few days. Same as with scuba, mastering diving first and then taking shots later requires more than just a few dives under one’s belt.

Photography Equipment for Freediving

Correct streamlining, buoyancy, equalisation, head positioning, movement, awareness, and relaxation are some of the many very important components of freediving. Every inefficiency costs you precious oxygen, of which you have a very limited amount. Having heavy equipment and pushing big lenses, strobes, lights and strobe arms through the water costs air. Less air means less time and distance under water. This is why most freediving photographers choose more compact designs; cameras which are easy to control, setup, and swim with.

In freediving, we have to be very aware of our buoyancy, as it is something which is changing constantly. Most of the time, we are very positively buoyant in shallow water and very negatively buoyant in deep water, which can both help and hinder us. (Editor’s note: since freedive weighting is constant, but at depth air spaces become significantly compressed, freedivers will always be less buoyant the deeper they go. Safe freediving weighting ensures that the diver has positive buoyancy in shallower water so they can make it to the surface in an emergency). In deep water we can enter into something called freefall, which can often allow us to drop right on the top of our subject, sometimes getting very close without being detected. However, the positive buoyancy in shallow water sometimes gets in the way of taking our shot; in this particular situation, exhaling all of our air can help, but of course this sacrifices our bottom time for that dive.

I have chosen as my weapon of choice the Olympus TG5, with the Olympus underwater housing and the UWL-04 wet wide angle lens. Most of the time I prefer to shoot in ambient light as I believe that this can be one of the great advantages in freediving; getting underwater scenery with a nice, natural look. If I need to highlight a particular scene or object I use a video focus light; the key with this is to get as close to the subject as possible.

My Thoughts About Shooting with the TG-5

Since this camera doesn’t have full manual mode, having 2 programmable modes (C1 and C2) straight on the dial of the Olympus TG5 is one of the key functions for usability. I choose to shoot in Aperture priority mode. It is possible to save any setting of any mode under one of the two C1 or C2 quick dial options. My most used mode is for wide angle photography, so this is my C1 option. Since we don’t have an option to set the shutter speed, we have to start with ISO setting first as this will give us more options for Aperture setting later. Depending on the light available, the shutter speed I need (automatically adjusted by the camera) and the subject, I dial ISO in with just a couple of clicks on the quick menu.

Normally, when shooting relatively shallow I keep the ISO low at 100. For deeper photos in less light I will go up to ISO 400, which will immediately give me more shutter speed, especially with Aperture at 2.0 or 2.8. It is really difficult to shoot with much smaller apertures when in deep water, even in clear waters, with this camera. Another trick to use is to change the exposure compensation, again very quickly on the quick menu on the shooting display, to change and improve the shutter speed as needed. However, most of the time we end up pushing the ISO. Correct shutter speed is very important in freediving photography, as we keep moving almost all the time and it can also be used to give a sense of speed in the water to moving objects.  

I highly recommend using the RAW photo format. Normally I use single photo shoot mode, but I do also sometimes use sequential photo mode up to 20fps and Pro Capture mode, which has helped me to capture great over-under photos even on rough surface days. My C2 programmable dial is set for shooting macro, where I can just remove the wet wide angle lens and take nice macro shots, getting the subject really close to the lens of the camera. Again, to save this mode I would actually use microscope mode and dial in ISO. In Microscope mode I cannot adjust the Aperture directly, but I take advantage of the manual focus and colour focus peaking mode, which can be set up in the main menu of the camera. There are some amazing macro shots to be taken with this small setup. I also think that for a beginning photographer, seeing how aperture and ISO affects the shutter speed and behaviour of the camera is a great way to learn about manual options for the future.

For lights, I use a set of iDiving 105 video lights, which are pretty small and light and produce 1500 lumens each (at 5800K). It is not much but they help me to bring up some colours on the subjects I shoot. Most of the time I prefer to shoot with ambient light, since where I dive most we are lucky to have a lot of sunshine and clear water. I do take the video lights most of the time for shots which are a little deeper, or shots where I am shooting against the surface (though I would like a bit more lighting power in these situations). In the future, I am planning to test this setup with strobes, so perhaps my next article I will talk about that!

My original idea was to go for larger setup like the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. However, for me the most important criteria was how easy I can set up, move and take care of the camera, since I do use it a lot during my work and on trips with clients as a freediving instructor. I also quite like that the camera itself is waterproof, so I don’t have to worry too much about any potential leaks or accidents. The camera is capable of taking good photos, though of course it would be nice to have a bigger sensor and full manual shooting options, as well as better lens options. I will have to keep that in mind for my next setup.

Space for Creativity and Stepping Out of the Crowd

The biggest difference between scuba and freediving photography, in my opinion, is the ability to quickly adjust angles and the positioning of the photographer relative to the subject. This provides a lot more space for creativity, and this is one of the biggest factors which motivates me to shoot pictures while freediving. If it is a picture of a diver descending on the way down, at the bottom gliding next to the animal or object, on the way up, or even on the surface, all of this can be done in one single dive. For this reason I really value having quick saveable custom modes which I can dial in by just a turn of the button, any time during the descent or ascent as I need.

As far as macro, this is one area where scuba wins big time! It is really hard to stay down, find the perfect frame and focus while holding your breath and fighting buoyancy. Because it is very difficult (but not impossible) to do in freediving, any successes are very rewarding! So I welcome the challenge and I am a very big fan of the TG5’s incredible microscope mode, which does allow the acquisition of some great-looking macro shots! 

Pros and Cons - Your Choice!

Freediving as a sport is growing; as an instructor I see more and more people of all age groups wanting to learn to freedive! Taking photos while freediving is a natural progression, and adds another element of creativity which can be very enjoyable for both photographers and the audience. The obvious disadvantage of breath hold diving is counteracted by the freedom of movement, as well as the ability to be in the water for a very long time (over the course of the day) and move in a large area without having to worry about air supply and decompression time. The ability to fly on an airplane immediately after freediving is a big benefit as well!

The big disadvantages are that you lose out on the ability to capture incredible macro shots, the ability to look deep into caves, or the ability to spend lots of time searching for very little animals. Having the privilege of air supply and being able to really take your time makes me want to learn to scuba dive as well! And in the end, I think scuba and freediving both complement each other very well. Being able to freedive instantly improves comfort and air consumption in scuba diving, and being able to scuba dive gives a lot more potential for great macro shots and more time to work with your camera underwater. It seems like the best choice is to do them both! (Editor's note: as a dedicated Scuba diver who recently took a beginner's freediving course, I agree 100% with this). 

Wishing you happy and safe photo hunting!


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Full Article: Sony RX100 VI Announced

Sony has just announced the new model in their premium compact RX100 lineup - the Sony RX100 VI. Along with the fantastic image quality, burst shooting speed, and other impressive specs of the RX100 V, the RX100 VI brings with it a few key upgrades: a telephoto lens, improved autofocus, improved video capabilities, and a touch screen.

The US retail price of the RX100 VI is $1200, and it is available now for pre-order at BlueWater Photo

Key Upgrades from the RX100 V

  • 24-200mm f/2.8-4.5 lens (vs 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 lens)
  • 0.03 sec autofocus (vs 0.05 sec)
  • High Resolution 4K Movie Shooting with full pixel readout and no pixel binning - plus 4K HDR for instant HDR workflow

Implications for Underwater Photography

Drawbacks of Increased Zoom

Although increasing the lens zoom range to 200mm could in theory provide significant improvements for macro photography, the larger physical size of the lens when fully zoomed in creates challenges with underwater housing dimensions. This could nullify any potential gains. 

When zoomed out, the RX100 VI body has the same width and height as the RX100 V, but has 1.8 mm more depth; hopefully, this will be a small enough difference that RX100 IV/V housings can be used with this camera. But the real issue occurs when the new lens is fully zoomed in, because at this point it extends out farther than the lenses of previous RX100 models. So, to allow the RX100 VI zoom to fully extend, a new housing/port design which provides this extra space for the lens would be required. However, a change like that would reduce the ability of the camera to take wide angle photos. This is because the extra housing/port length would extend significantly beyond the end of the lens when zoomed-out for shooting wide angle. A longer port could get in the way of wide angle photography with the native lens, as well as prevent the use of a wet wide angle lens due to optics issues.

Potential Fixes

There are a couple of options to deal with this. The first is to have two separate ports for the RX100 VI housing; one very similar to the RX100 V housing dimensions for wide angle shooting (and macro shooting with wet diopters), and one that accommodates the fully zoomed-in lens for macro shooting only, while precluding wide angle use. The second option is to keep the housing dimensions the same or very similar to the current RX100 V housings. The first option seems like it may be more hassle than it is worth, while the second option would mean that the RX100 VI will perform almost the same underwater as the RX100 V. This means that, although the telephoto lens is exciting for topside use, the improved autofocus is likely the best and only significant improvement for underwater photography.

Is It Worth the Price? 

This brings us to the biggest downside of the RX100 VI - the price tag. At a retail price of $1200, it is significantly more expensive than the $1000 cost of the RX100 V (now marked down to $950 on the Sony website). This pushes it up into the price range of mirrorless cameras, for what may amount to relatively paltry improvements for underwater photography usage. So if you are looking at this camera primarily for underwater use, you will get better value with the RX100 V, RX100 IV or Canon G7X Mark II. But if you are looking for an improved compact camera for heavy topside use, the telephoto lens, autofocus, and touchscreen control could be worth the hefty investment. After all, although this camera is priced like a mirrorless, it is still a premium compact camera which you can fit into a modestly sized jacket pocket. 

Who Should Consider Purchasing this Camera?

As with any upgrade, Sony had a specific market in mind with it's new upgrades - street photography. The significant increase in zoom is perfect for street photographers wishing to remain inconspicuous while taking close photos of their subjects. Although it might detract from underwater photos, this camera could be perfect for underwater dive trips with a lot of topside excursions or animal life such as whales, dolphins, and birds. The excellent burst shooting capability will further enhance quick action topside wildlife photos when combined with the telephoto lens. 

Check out the RX100 VI Camera at our sister company, BlueWater Photo!

Full Article: Fantasea Introduces UWL-400F Wet Wide Angle Lens

May, 2018 - The Fantasea-AOI UWL-400F is a SUPER SHARP quality "wet" wide angle conversion lens. Featuring a wide field of view and zero minimal focus distance, the UWL-400F produces breathtaking wide angle and close focus images that are super sharp corner-to-corner and great on the details. 

UWL-400F attaches to the housing lens port thread and can be installed and removed during the dive. The lens is compatible with most all cameras featuring a 24mm lens (or a higher focal range) and can also be used with some cameras featuring a wider lens by zooming in to avoid a vignette.

High Optical Performance 

UWL-400F features an FOV of 120 degrees (when used with a 25mm lens), a magnification of 0.50X, a zero minimal focus distance and exceptional overall sharpness. It is perfect for a wide variety of compositions, including seascapes, divers, ship wrecks, schools of fish and close focus portraits, all without having to move further away from the subject, thereby still taking full advantage of water clarity and artificial lighting. Images produced with this lens are sharp corner-to-corner with minimal distortion.

Durable Construction

Lens barrel is made from a durable aluminum alloy with a black hard coating. The dome is coated as well, helping to protect it from getting scratched or damaged. During R&D, the lens was thoroughly tested in extreme conditions (depth, temperature, salinity and radiation) to ensure long term resistance and durability. 

Anti-Reflection Design

The AR (anti-reflection) coating on all glass elements assists in avoiding lens flare from the sun or artificial light sources. Lens wings feature an improved design and can be rotated anytime underwater according to image composition without need of any tools. Vertical and horizontal images can be easily captured without having the sun or strobes reflecting on the dome and interfering with crystal clear images.

Universal Compatibility

The lens features a 52mm thread and can be mounted directly on any lens port with a 52mm thread or on lens ports featuring a different thread, by using a compatible adaptor. Its design allows for use with most lens holders, adaptors, bayonet mount converters, flip mounts and quick release adaptors. 

The EyeDaptor M67-F52 lens adaptor is included in the box and allows mounting the lens on housings featuring a 67mm threaded lens port.

Compact & Lightweight

The UWL-400F is compact and lightweight, allowing for easy storage and transportation and comfortable handling of the lens during the dive.

Accessory Package 

Lens comes with a Neoprene dome cover, rear lens cap, and a quality padded carrying case for safe storage and transportation. A secure line ensures that the lens is safely secured to the system at all times. The EyeDaptor M67-F52 lens adaptor included allows for mounting the lens on housings featuring a 67mm threaded lens port. The microfiber cloth can be used to clean the lens prior installation, thereby also reducing lens flare, often caused by light hitting spots on the lens.

Warranty & Best Service 

The lens includes warranty against defective materials and workmanship under reasonable use for a period of 1 year. If damaged, the dome of the lens can be replaced with a new one for a discounted price during the 1-year warranty period. In addition, Fantasea offers a professional and responsive service program. 

UWL-400F Specifications 

Description: Wide angle conversion lens 

52mm thread mount

Bezel / Barrel material: Aluminum alloy with black hard anodize, ABS

Lens components: 5 groups and 5 elements

Lens coating: Hard coating on the Polycarbonate dome lens + Multi layer AR coating on all glass lenses

Depth rated to 100 meters / 330 feet

Magnification: 0.50X  

FOV (Field of View): 120 degrees (when used with a 25mm lens)

Focus distance: 0mm from the dome 

Weight (on land): 591 g / 20.8 oz

Weight (underwater): 200 g / 7.1 oz

Dimensions (diameter x height): 121.8 x 76 mm / 4.8 x 3.0 inch

Included in package: Neoprene dome cover, rear lens cap, EyeDaptor M67-F52 lens adaptor, secure string, microfiber cloth, O-ring remover and lens padded carrying case 

Comparison Images

 

For pricing information and orders, please contact sales@bluewaterphotostore.com or visit www.bluewaterphotostore.com

Full Article: The Olympus TG-5: Riding the Wave of Technology

A Note From the Editor

The Olympus Tough TG-5 is an award-winning camera known for its versatility, ruggedness, fantastic macro capabilities and extremely high performance-to-cost ratio. After we reached out to our dedicated readers and customers, photography instructor Tom Caruso shared some of the amazing photos he's taken on his journey through using every TG camera, from the TG-1 to the TG-5.  – Bryan Chu (Associate Editor)

Check out our full review of the TG-5 here!

Starting Out

Like most underwater photographers I didn’t start out with a $15,000 rig. I started out small and worked my way up.  My underwater photography addiction started with seeing the incredible images in National Geographic and on TV with Jacques Cousteau. When I finally learned to dive, I earned my first specialty in underwater photography. We were using the Nikonos 4 back then. Those were the days when you really had to be brilliant with a camera to take good underwater photos. I wasn’t brilliant. I used disposable film cameras in an Ikelite housing. It even had an attachable metal frame for macro shots.  

Twenty years ago I got my first real underwater camera, the Sea & Sea MX-10. As I learned how to take better photos, I realized it was time for a real camera: the Nikon N80 film camera. I convinced my wife that the Subal housing and Ikelite strobe were worth the $6,000 price tag. Those were the days when suitcase sizes and weights weren’t a big issue. 

When DSLR cameras were introduced they were changing too rapidly to justify making a large investment, since any camera I bought would have become outdated within a year. So, rather than investing in a top-of-the-line full-size DSLR, I upgraded to Nikon’s prosumer D700 DSLR instead. Knowing I was only going to own this camera for a short time, I did not invest in a housing or new strobes (strobes for analog cameras are not compatible with digital cameras). This forced me into a temporary hiatus from progressing into higher quality underwater images. 

Enter the digital point and shoot. I started using the Olympus Tough series of cameras as an inexpensive stop gap between film cameras and the ever changing DSLRs. They were a handy way to take a small camera on vacation. (Smartphones with built in digital cameras hadn’t been invented yet.) I would upgraded models every 16 months and this got me by.

Taking the TG-1 to Raja Ampat

In 2008, my wife and noted marine biologist Nancy Caruso watched a video on the Discovery Channel about the biodiversity of Raja Ampat, in Indonesia.  This immediately became our highest priority dive destination. After a series of life’s funny curves, we finally had a chance to go there 4 years later.  By this time world travel had changed. Luggage weight and size limits were closely monitored. I had even read stories of people whose luggage never got loaded onto their plane because it was too big. We couldn’t let that happen to us.

It was my job to find a camera setup light enough to pack with our dive gear for a trip to the other side of the planet. And I had to buy two: one for each of us. After a month of research I found the new Olympus TG-1 to be the best camera for our constraints. They arrived the week before the trip so we only had time to pool test them. Since we had already owned several other Olympus point and shoots, the learning curve was small. 

That trip to Raja Ampat was magical. We saw everything from pygmy sea horses to giant manta rays. Our TG-1s did a stunning job at capturing every moment of our 46 dives. After I put together the video from that trip, I sent a link to our local Olympus representative. He told me that within hours, nearly every senior executive had seen the video. (In my humble opinion, I don’t think Olympus knew how much of a game changer this camera was going to be until they saw what regular people were doing with it.) The detachable wet lenses and the compatibility with Olympus strobes made underwater photography easy and simple. The product line ushered in a new wave of underwater photographers who didn’t have to spend a fortune on a good camera rig. And it was only going to get better.

Raja Ampat TG-1 video.

(Editor’s note: join us for one of our upcoming Raja Ampat workshops!)

Raja Ampat Photo Workshop 2018
Raja Ampat Photo Workshop 2019
Raja Ampat Photo Workshop 2020

Upgrading to the TG-2 and Beyond

Several months later we were getting ready to go to Maui when I decided to check in with my “new friends” at Olympus. I told them where I was going and asked if they wanted me to test any new equipment for them. I was kidding, but their response was serious. They called me the next day from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where they had just announced the TG-2 camera, with a release date in 3 months, and told me they were going to overnight a prototype model to me so I could take it on my trip. Wahoo!

TG-2 video.

When we got back we eventually purchased one more TG-2 and sold our two TG-1s.  We’ve been upgrading regularly with each new product release ever since then. It’s actually been a wonderful ride. Olympus halts production of each old model several months before the new model comes out.  This makes the supply low and creates a fantastic resale market. Our most expensive upgrade was the move to the TG-5, at a net cost of only $140. The others averaged only $100. The housings have a better resale value: we’ve usually made a couple of dollars reselling them.

 

Equipment Thoughts

There is absolutely no going back (or forward or sideways) to a DSLR/mirrorless in a housing for me. Olympus uses some of the same high-end sensor technology in the TG-5 as they do in their high-end mirrorless micro four thirds cameras (although the TG-5 has a smaller sensor size and lower resolution). And the image processor, the TruePic VIII, is the same as is used in the flagship OM-D E-M1 Mark II, although without the E-M1 Mark II’s dual quad core.  The same high-end CMOS sensors in the Olympus TG series are taken from their high-end mirrorless four-thirds cameras.  The current set of features on the TG-5 rival high-end DSLR/mirrorless cameras at 5 times the price. Did I mention that you can drop this camera 7 feet onto concrete? That always freaks people out when I do that in front of them.

My new favorite piece of equipment is hands hands-down the UWL-04 wet-lens dome port.  As a photographer I use the following mantra: Expose the unseen. Now that everyone seems to have an underwater camera these days, I try to focus on the shots that others aren’t taking. I actually enjoy the complexity of trying to get a good over-under shot (aka split shot). The lighting has to be just right, you need a subject out of the water, AND you need a subject under the water (although it should be very near the surface).  The flexibility to go from super wide to super macro in 10 seconds is the greatest reason in the world to use this lens. Of course, it comes at a cost.

While in Moorea, French Polynesia last year swimming with the Humpback Whales, I had a goal of getting an over-under of a Humpback Whale spy hopping. As luck would have it, our very first encounter had this exact situation happen barely 15 feet from me. Sadly, I was removing the air bubbles from the surface of the wet lens at that moment and only captured the whale as it came back into the water. Later in the day I was told that encounters like this happen maybe once per season. I knew I might have blown my once in a lifetime opportunity because I wasn’t ready. 

(Editor’s note: for more info on taking over-unders, check out this article.)

(Editor’s note: join us for an opportunity to experience snorkeling with humpbacks!)

Humpback Photo Workshops 2018

Videography

Although I missed the shot in Moorea, I’ve been able to capture amazing images and video with this lens.  A good example is a video I shot of a green sea turtle while snorkeling in Kona, Hawaii. I dove down 20 feet to the bottom, left my camera in front of the turtle for a couple of minutes, and watched from the surface. I’m pretty sure this turtle had never seen its reflection before (the curvature of the glass of the UWL-04 dome is like a mirror underwater). The results were incredible. So now my new favorite pastime is capturing just about anything with the UWL-04, although I am really starting to enjoy the over-unders. 

Green sea turtle video, from leaving TG-5 on the bottom next to it.

Olympus has also made great progress with the video features of the TG-5. While in Alaska I was able to capture super slow motion video of a bald eagle pulling a fish out of the water at 480 frames per second. It turned a 3 second event into a 38 second video. The 4K video is equally impressive, but takes up lots of memory so I travel with 2 extra chips and a 2 TB hard drive.  

Slow motion video of bald eagle pulling fish out of water in Alaska.

My TG-5 Rigs

As with all aspects of photography, lighting is critical. I’ve seen horrible photos come out of $15,000 rigs because the photographer didn’t understand how to light his or her subject. You can’t just buy an expensive camera and hope to get better photos if you don’t understand lighting and composition. 

(Editor’s note: Be sure to check out these articles on lighting and composition.) 

My underwater “rig” has 2 configurations:

1. Light travel - Olympus TG-5, Olympus PT-058 housing, UWL-04 28mm wet-lens dome port, and i-Torch Pro6+ video light.

2. Full setup - Same as above plus dual Olympus UFL-02 strobes with fiber cords mounted to a 10-inch tray on 16-inch flexible arms. I fabricated an additional mount so my video light is right next to one of the strobes. 

Every few years I anticipate the release of a new camera from Olympus in their TG series. Once the TG-5 was released, with its strikingly long list of high-end features, I couldn’t imagine what they would come up with next. They addressed many of the missing features from the TG-4 like: 4K video, 60fps HD video, sharper picture quality, and underwater HDR. When you add in improved macro focus stacking you can capture nearly anything you encounter underwater. I have been so lucky to have chosen a product line where I could grow with it from its infancy to full adulthood. There might be a few shots that I miss when compared to a DSLR/mirrorless in a housing, but for the $3,000 to $5,000 I saved by not switching, I can take more cool trips around the world and still have stunning photos to prove it.

 

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