The Truth About 'Waterproof' Cameras

With Panasonic launching a new entry into the waterproof/tough camera market, the FT7, now is probably a good time to took about the pros and cons of this type of camera.

But before we go any further let me make it clear, this blog is not intended to denigrate waterproof cameras or their users. Instead this is aimed at giving owners and prospective owners some insight into what makes a camera 'waterproof' and why despite what some people may tell you on social media they aren't indestructible. 

 The new waterproof camera from Panasonic. The FT7 or TS7 in the US.

The new waterproof camera from Panasonic. The FT7 or TS7 in the US.

The group of cameras I am referring to are those that the manufacturers state can be used underwater. So not just splash-proof or weatherproof but actually submersible without an underwater housing. Examples include the Olympus TG's, Nikon W300 and the SeaLife Micro 2.0.

The common misconception with these cameras is that they can't flood. A land camera in a housing relies on the o-rings of that housing to protect it from water. That in turn relies on you the owner to maintain the housing and ensure that the o-rings are clean and undamaged each time you go in the water. This can appear to be somewhat time consuming especially when you are only a diving holiday where you want to relax and maximise your leisure time.

So with that backdrop the idea of camera you can just take in the water with no maintenance and no worry sounds good. But it isn't that simple.

Cameras aren't made magically from solid blocks of metal or plastic. They have multiple parts that have to be put together and that means there are joints and seams in their construction. All of these have to have some form of seal, as do all exterior moving parts such as buttons and levers. Any of these can still fail in much the same way as those seals on a conventional housing from use, age or manufacturing defect. The only risk factor that has been removed is the need for the owner to take any care when using the camera.

But that last statement isn't entirely true. You do still need to take care. Most of these cameras have removable batteries and memory cards. This means they need a battery compartment that can be accessed by the user and this throws in all the risks that a normal camera in a housing has.

Paul Duxfield -1700992.jpg

You can make an error and not close it properly. Hair or other debris can get caught across the seal and cause a leak. Or the seal can suffer damage and not function properly. Unfortunately, unlike a camera in a housing where a small leak from a trapped hair will not necessarily result in harm to the camera, a small leak of sea water into a battery compartment will almost always result in severe damage to the camera.

Now some cameras have got around this by not having removable batteries and memory, instead having connectors sealed into the outside of the camera body with just a simple cover. These remove that weak spot but instead introduce other issues. Being able to change batteries is a real advantage on a trip with a lot of time in the water when you won't necessarily be able to recharge between dives. Also memory and batteries do fail which isn't a nice thing to deal with in the middle of a dream trip. Also you need to take care to rinse these connections thoroughly after being in sea water as they can corrode if neglected.

My advice to someone with one of these cameras is to treat the camera body in the same way one would treat a housing. Whenever the battery compartment is open, visually inspect it for debris before closing it up. Make sure the seal and the compartment edges are clean. Always check that the compartment is secure and take pains to protect the locking mechanism from being caught or damaged. Rinse the camera carefully and dry it by hand with lint free towel taking particular care of the lens which can be damaged by water being allowed to dry in the sun on it. Don't leave it languishing unattended in a rinse tank. THE RINSE TANK IS THE GRAVEYARD OF CAMERAS!

You should also make yourself aware of any maintenance schedule in the cameras manual. For example the Olympus TG5 should be returned every year to a dealer for its seals to be changed. If you don't do this and you have a leak after a year any warranty you have won't cover it.

Ideally if you have one of these cameras or plan on getting one and there is an additional underwater housing to go with it, get one. This will give you more reassurance than that of having either a normal camera in a housing or your waterproof camera on its own. 

PT-058_Front_TG-5_0.jpg

A waterproof camera won't necessarily survive a catastrophic housing failure at depth below it is rated to but even a large housing leak shouldn't kill it, if you've looked after it properly.

Bear in mind that the reason why not everyone uses these cameras for underwater photography is that they have their own limitations when it comes to taking pictures. Most have limited modes with few having a full manual mode and very few having sensors as large as the high end compact cameras available with housings. This stems in many cases from the fact that they aren't really aimed at serious photographers. Instead they were conceived as a way of keeping some of the point and shoot camera market from slipping into the hands of the mobile phone manufacturers. The camera makers quite rightly realised that when you run your life through your phone there are some situations where you don't want to use it to take pictures. Whether that be canoeing, sailing, climbing, skiing or snorkelling. 

As phone cameras keep improving, this will hopefully drive the tough camera makers towards the high end compact market. Every year we berate the guys on the Olympus stand at the Photography Show that they need to make the next TG with a bigger sensor and a full manual mode. Then it would probably be our go to camera for customers looking for a compact camera for underwater photography. Until then they are great cameras but just not the top dogs amongst underwater compacts like the 1 inch sensor boys.

If you would like advice on underwater photography, are interested in one of our events or would like to buy equipment get in touch via one of the methods on our contact page

We also have an advice and discussion group on Facebook, Blue Duck Photography Q and A.

"It's a great camera, but......"

 

These are words I find myself using a lot in conversation with potential customers, fellow photography geeks and on a variety of Facebook groups.

It’s all because the photographic industry often doesn’t really ‘get’ underwater photography.
That's not the fault of the industry at large, underwater shooters represent a narrow slice of the photo market, and economic forces whether we like it or not tend to shape the direction technology heads.

I came across this phenomenon many years ago working at a specialist underwater photographic retailer in central London.

Even in a large metropolis there was only sufficient footfall for two such establishments. So in our quieter moments, geeks that we were, we would be found poring over photographic websites, eagerly awaiting the next model of camera that manufacturers would announce.Apart from just general interest in digital photography, we were particularly concerned with the suitability of the latest offerings for use as underwater cameras.

At the time, (about ten years ago) there was a glut of new compact cameras that appeared on a six monthly cycle. Nowadays the cheaper digital compacts have largely been replaced by mobile phones. But for a variety of reasons that we aren’t going to explore now, mobiles haven’t really replaced those compacts as worthy choices for underwater photography, in the main.

Back then you had choice, and a lot more of it, too. So when people decided to dip their toes into the water and start picturing their underwater adventures, they could purchase a suitable camera and housing for as little as £400. Because of this smaller initial cost they often had budget left for  accessories like wide angle lenses and strobes.

 This shot was taken over 12 yrs ago on an early Canon digital compact. It was only possible to produce the clarity and colour contrast in this image with the use of an INON external wide angle lens attached to the housing.

This shot was taken over 12 yrs ago on an early Canon digital compact. It was only possible to produce the clarity and colour contrast in this image with the use of an INON external wide angle lens attached to the housing.


My colleague Phil has written a series of blogs that go into greater detail than I am now about what makes a good camera for use underwater. They are all on the blog page.

In short though the Latin phrase Caveat Emptor (Let the buyer beware) is worth bearing in mind before pressing the buy button in your browser.

What makes a great camera for underwater use isn’t always what the camera manufacturer's marketing campaign gurus would have us buy, and unless you’re a hard bitten cynical underwater photo geek like me, you wouldn’t necessarily see through their spin.

The main reason i’m writing this, is i’m expecting myself to utter the words from the title  often in the coming months, as a new camera has just been announced that will most definitely illicit this response.

The Sony RX100 mk VI

Is the camera that has just been released. 

It will, like its predecessors before it, garner plaudits and praise amongst the cognoscenti of the digital photography firmament.
It has already created a buzz, and the main reason I’m writing this is to urge caution amongst those thinking that it will perform just as capably underwater as it may do topside.

 This will undoubtedly be a technological marvel and much more sophisticated and capable than the camera I used for the  dolphin shot above. However physics is physics and the previous shot just wouldn’t have been possible with this camera.

This will undoubtedly be a technological marvel and much more sophisticated and capable than the camera I used for the  dolphin shot above. However physics is physics and the previous shot just wouldn’t have been possible with this camera.

No camera is created perfect, there are always inevitable flaws. Camera makers tread a fine line between producing something that will appeal to newbies and also those savvy in these things.
This is not a review, i’m basing everything i’m going to say next upon 15yrs of experience in the narrow world of underwater photography retail and what makes a good camera for our purposes All learnt actually shooting and using this equipment.

“It’s a great camera”

This camera is already getting sparkly reviews far and wide and don’t get me wrong it will surely be an awesome piece of kit. Sony have a fine track record of producing great cameras for above and below the waves.


Fabulous focusing speed and tracking, incredible frame rate, and impressive 4K video capabilities are all things I can hear fans and prospective customers telling me.

I would love this camera, and if I could afford one it would defo be on my short list as a do all, carry around camera capable of high quality results that I could slip into a pocket, for use on LAND.


There’s been a few niggles, like the inability to disable the pre-flash or the less than ideal custom white balance by comparison to their peers, but in the main the Sony RX100 range have been fine cameras for us underwater shooters.


This is not me bashing the brand or even the range at all. It’s simply to make people fully aware of all the implications with this latest offering if they want to use it for underwater photography even half way seriously. I'm anticipating the trouble from within our very  own world of underwater photography manufacturing that i’m trying to warn against.

 

“but”

With the MkVI, the lens is the main problem for us and for exactly the reason that the marketing people from Sony and the various review sites so far have applauded it. More precisely the physical length of it.

In Sony’s sister range of models, the Sony RX10 series, their main marketing push has been the combination of a large 1” sensor, the same one as in the physically much smaller RX100’s, and the huge zoom range they offered.

 The long telescoping zoom lens is the thing that causes the Sony RX100 mk VI problems for practical use inside an underwater housing

The long telescoping zoom lens is the thing that causes the Sony RX100 mk VI problems for practical use inside an underwater housing

Now Sony have managed to cram in a long range lens into a much smaller body size. In many eyes a winning combination.

The canny marketing people in cahoots with the designers know full well that Joe and Jane Public love a long range telephoto zoom lens, as it puts within reach apparently, the ability to shoot wildlife and sports with ease. The marketers will display amazing shots taken on these outfits to show that you or I can achieve these things if only we were to buy the latest camera with it's zoom lens.


And to be fair when used within their limitations these cameras are capable of great things.
Unfortunately this is exactly what makes them a poor fit for underwater photography.

Why?

To take a camera underwater you need to put it in a waterproof box, very simple.
And if it has a more modest zoom range that doesn’t protrude the lens too far from the front of the camera when in use, then this is relatively easy.

With cameras of a similar ilk to the Sony RX100 mk VI, and there are quite a lot from other manufacturers such as the Panasonic ZS200/TZ200, the lens protrudes quite far so any housing to keep it dry needs to accommodate this lens at it’s greatest physical length, which is usually at it’s longest reach.

 A schematic showing the lens extended. This means that any housing port designed for it will need to be at least deep enough to not obstruct the end of the lens, but also wide enough to not cause any vignetting when the camera is used at the more useful (to underwater photographers) wider end.

A schematic showing the lens extended. This means that any housing port designed for it will need to be at least deep enough to not obstruct the end of the lens, but also wide enough to not cause any vignetting when the camera is used at the more useful (to underwater photographers) wider end.

This means that any housing port designed for it will need to be at least deep enough to not obstruct the end of the lens, but also wide enough to not cause any vignetting when the camera is used at the more useful (to underwater photographers) wider end.This in turn makes it very difficult to attach external lenses that will work efficiently at the wide angle end.
You may not value or realise this right now if you are just starting out in underwater photography, but you will discover that using very wide angle lenses is a big deal, and the reason why

 It’s an absolute must to be able to guarantee the clarity by shooting through less water with a superwide lens and I couldn’t do the majority of my job without one

It’s an absolute must to be able to guarantee the clarity by shooting through less water with a superwide lens and I couldn’t do the majority of my job without one

most of us shooting underwater find a super wide or even fisheye lenses a must for most of our  needs when not doing macro photography.

I personally shoot most of my work for magazines, brochures and advertising with a fisheye lens, and for the rest (about 10%) I use a dedicated macro lens.

I’ve mentioned the particular issue which effects underwater practicality. 

 But another downside that the camera manufacturers, will never say is that to pack a long zoom lens into such a small space will result in the camera having a very modest maximum aperture (the bit that dictates how much light the camera can gather) , especially when zoomed in to the most powerful end.


This is quite a big deal for all shooters as ironically when you are zoomed in, say shooting wildlife or sports, the one thing you’ll most likely require is a fast shutter speed, to hold steady and to freeze any action.


And as the cameras poor relative aperture means it is letting in a lot less light than a less powerful zoom equipped model, then you’ll either have to be shooting in blazing sunlight in the tropics or, as in most cases raise the ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor)  to very high levels, giving you that necessary faster shutter speed, but increasing the noise and reducing the quality markedly, as a penalty.

So there really isn’t such a thing as a free lunch.

Over the last 15yrs I have had this discussion a lot, and the ideal scenario is that I can speak to a customer before they have made an expensive purchase. As specialists in this field we really don’t want you to make an expensive mistake, and in this case the Sony RX100 mk VI is currently being pitched at over a £1000 on it’s own.
For that price you could buy a much more capable underwater shooting tool including a housing!
Which would also have a 1” sensor, the really important bit of the whole equation, and the bottom line dictating the potential quality of its output.

 

Final Thoughts

Some may not like what I have just said particularly if they have just bought a camera we don’t recommend for underwater use, but I can only speak what I have learnt to be true over time and with a lot of experience.
Please let me re-iterate this doesn’t mean you have a bad camera, the review sites will reassure you of this, as will I.
However if you have bought a camera that we know wont be ideal for underwater photography by comparison to often cheaper less well specced offerings, then I have to tell you why. It’s also worth bearing in mind that a very small camera with a long zoom lens, offering so much can’t defy the laws of physics, and usually something else has to give.

 This shot wouldn’t be possible without a very wide-angle lens, and why we deem them to be so important in our world.

This shot wouldn’t be possible without a very wide-angle lens, and why we deem them to be so important in our world.

At Blue Duck we sell equipment based upon our mantra of 'Best Advice'.

Which means that we are duty bound to warn you of the pluses and minuses of any intended purchase.

We aren’t distributors or manufacturers, and we aren’t pile it high, website retailers.
We need to survive in this market place by having proper conversations with customers and really let people be fully aware of the implications of their intended purchases.

We have access to a range of high quality brands, but even within those we don’t recommend everything they sell.

Cherry picking kit we either use ourselves or know to work well and have future flexibility, is the main reason we set up business in the first place.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because there is an underwater housing available for your camera that ergo it must be fit for purpose. Well I guess it will keep the water out.

In my old job working for one of the biggest names in underwater photographic retail, I would despair on that some housing manufacturers would just churn out waterproof boxes for just about any camera. You cant blame them, they were being reactive to the market rather than pro-active I think.

It did make for some awkward conversations though, as I felt duty bound to explain to customers that it may be better for them to wait until they had acquired a more suitable camera, it would have been easier to just take their money, but my conscience wouldn’t let me.

Luckily in some cases a more suitable camera and housing could often be bought for the same price as the huge waterproof box they thought they needed in the first place, and we sold lot’s of kit like this and built strong long term relationships with our customers.

This is the philosophy that Blue Duck Photography Ltd works by. If you are interested in buying equipment or would like more information about our training events then get in touch. Details on our Contact Page 

If you would like advice or want to discuss underwater photography, you can also join our Facebook Group

Plastic, fantastic?

Underwater housings for cameras can be made from metal or plastic. Each have advantages and disadvantages but the anti-plastic camp often seems to be the most vocal. In this blog I'm going to layout the pros and cons of both types.

anneinwreck.jpg

There are two big advantages that plastic housings bring to the table. Firstly they are almost always cheaper than metal housings. This stems from simpler production methods and a cheaper material. For divers on limited budgets wanting to get started taking pictures underwater the cost of a high end metal housing even for a compact camera such as an Olympus TG5 is a lot to layout. That extra money could often be better used on accessories or to fund some actual diving. So a plastic housing is many people's starting point in underwater photography.

 Secondly nearly all are lighter than their metal counterparts. Although Ikelite's polycarbonate housings have a reputation for being often as weighty as some metal ones. With reduced luggage allowances and the weight of dive kit and camera accessories to fit in, a lightweight housing for traveling can be a boon for someone on a budget or travelling light. 

 The Fantasea FG9X housing for the Canon G9X and G9X MkII

The Fantasea FG9X housing for the Canon G9X and G9X MkII

So why ever bother spending the money on a metal housing?

Availability is probably one of the strongest reasons. In the case of those wanting to use certain cameras it may be because they can't get a good quality plastic housing for their camera. Although this works both ways. The only quality housing for the Olympus OMD EM10 MkII is a metal one made by Nauticam but then there aren't any good metal housings available for the excellent Canon G9X MkII compact camera. For those using interchangeable lens systems, either DSLR or Mirrorless it can be the range of ports available to go with lenses. And in the case of some high end compacts such as the Canon G7X MkII the metal housing systems have short ports available that allow for better results from high end wide angle lenses unlike most of the plastic housing systems.

As well as availability issues, there are some arguments against plastic housings.  

 Nauticam housings for Mirrorless and DSLR cameras are supported by a broad range of lens ports

Nauticam housings for Mirrorless and DSLR cameras are supported by a broad range of lens ports

Durability is often sited as a problem and yes a good metal housing will probably survive more harsh treatment than an equivalent plastic one. But there is probably a narrower margin than critics believe between what will kill a plastic housing and what will do the same for a metal one. Ports, dials, buttons, hinges and locking mechanisms are weak spots to damage on all housings. If you take care of your housing, whatever material it is made from it will likely last longer than your camera's useful life. Leakage caused by flexing of large plastic housings has been known to occur and is one reason why few manufacturers produce plastic DSLR housings. A good plastic housing will have one solid metal base plate, preferably with more than one point for attaching a tray on to. This will reduce flexing action from the tray and housing being twisted or bent away from each other. 

Where there is an issue with plastic housings is the problem of the port fogging up on the inside. This is more common when there are warm, humid conditions or large differences between air and water temperatures in the area you are diving. Condensation forms when air inside the housing that is warmer than the surrounding water passes over a cool surface. In plastic housings the port is usually the coolest part of the housing because the plastic housing body conducts heat more slowly, so the port mists up. This is exacerbated in large camera housings such as DSLR or Mirrorless where there is more air to circulate. Cameras that run at higher temperatures also increase the chances of condensation forming during a dive. Measures such as using silica packs inside the housing, only opening the housing in cool, dry air and making efforts to reduce the camera's heat output can decrease the possibility of this happening. With metal housings the internal surfaces cool more evenly and so condensation inside the port is rarely an issue.

stevec.jpg

The other advantage for metal housings, that for some has become a deal breaker is that there currently aren't any electronic vacuum leak detection systems for plastic housings. This stems from the slight flexibility of the housing structure being enough to trigger the current systems such as Nauticam's when there isn't actually a leak. Some housings such as Fantasea's Sony A6500 housing do support third party mechanical systems that allow you to test for leaks before a dive and many plastic housings have built-in moisture sensors or the ability to fit one.

 Olympus housing for the EPL-7 Mirrorless camera

Olympus housing for the EPL-7 Mirrorless camera

So there are some pros and cons to both systems. But in the end it should boil down to whether the housing and camera combination will give you the best results for your budget.

If you would like advice on underwater photography, to book on a course or buy equipment go to our Contact Page for ways to get in touch. We can supply Fantasea, Olympus and Nauticam housings and accessories as well as products by INON, Big Blue and Nautilus.

We also run an advice and discussion group on Facebook, Blue Duck Photography Q & A

 

 

Power saving tip number two : Bluetooth, WiFi and GPS

Since digital cameras began to grow in popularity manufacturers have added more and more amazing features to them to get consumers to keep coming back to buy the next upgrade. 

Two common camera features now are the ability to connect wirelessly to various devices either by Bluetooth or WiFi, and the ability to track where you are by GPS and add this info to the metadata of your images. 

Both of these features can be useful but neither one can be used once you are underwater and they use camera battery power to function. So better to turn them off before you get in the water especially if you are in a situation where changing batteries between dives isn't an option and you want to squeeze all the life you can out of one battery.

 Once you leave surface lots of those fancy camera features stop being useful

Once you leave surface lots of those fancy camera features stop being useful

If you are like me and don't use these features on land either (I find wireless transfer too slow compare to using the card reader on my laptop) leave them off all the time. All these features can usually be turned on and off in a camera's setup menu.  

As an aside when taking wildlife images on land be aware that poachers of rare creatures such as rhinos look for GPS info in the metadata of images placed on the internet to locate animals. So turn your GPS off or remember to remove location info before sharing your pics while on safari. 

If you would like advice or want to discuss something why not join our Facebook group Blue Duck Photography Q and A. For equipment sales, to arrange training or club/dive centre visits go to our Contact page for how to get in touch.

The most important shots you take on a diving trip

Before any dive with a camera there is one thing you can do that will prevent a vast range of grief, embarrassment and anguish. The test shot.

It doesn't have to be anything special. Mine are often pictures of tables in the saloons on dive boats like the one below. But I also do bits of camera kit, selfies or unflattering shots of my better half.

 

testshot1.jpg

What the test shot does is show that you can get a picture from your setup before you get in the water. If you can't get it to produce a picture or it looks wrong you can fix the issue in the dry. Some problems can be fixed underwater others can't. A camera not being aligned properly in the housing will lead to a frustrating dive where none of the controls work and you can't fix this without going back to the boat to open it up. 

The test shot can detect all sorts of problems from a strobe cable not being plugged in or even left in the back of the car on a shore dive, to a compact camera being put in upside down in the housing (this can be done!).  Other classics include leaving the lens cap on the camera, not putting batteries back in the camera, putting the flat battery back in instead of the charged one the list goes on. 

Taking test shots also allows you to get things somewhat setup for when you are in the water. You can get an initial handle on positioning of strobes and/or your camera settings by taking a string of images before you get in the water. 

The picture below is of well known British underwater photographer Nick More's finger on the breakfast table at Tasik Ria Dive Resort in Indonesia. I took it using a snoot before the first dive I had ever used one on. Practicing before hand gave me an idea on how to use it and I got some pretty good shots my first time out with what can be a frustrating piece of underwater photography kit to use. 

 

testshot2.jpg

If you would like advice or information about our courses or the equipment we sell please get in touch via our contact page or email us at info@blueduckphoto.com

You can also join our Facebook group Blue Duck Photography Q and A for advice and to discuss issues in underwater photography.

Power saving tip number one : Flash output

Just a short blog for underwater photographers. Did you know that if you are using a strobe on manual power with a fibre optic cable for triggering your camera flash will trigger the strobe on any setting. This means you can set your flash to manual on the lowest power available, which will save you considerable camera battery power if you haven't already been doing it. 

 

blenny.jpg

As a couple of examples the Canon G9X MkII has three different manual flash powers: Minimum, Medium and Maximum. You can only alter these in Tv, Av and M modes. So if you are using a strobe it's another reason to get used to using the more advanced shooting modes. Instructions on how to alter the flash power setting are on page 95 of the G9X MkII manual.

As a second example the Olympus OMD EM10 MkII allows you to set the flash down to 1/64 power. This can be done via the super control menu (normally accessed by pressing the OK button. Scroll to the flash window using the back dial and select manual using the front dial. The window underneath will now show you the power setting, move down to this and scroll with the front dial again to select the power. This is true for the other Olympus mirrorless cameras. 

 So if you haven't done so already have a look at your camera manual and see whether you can change this. Bear in mind that some compact cameras don't allow you to adjust flash output manually. For these you can just have flash on or off. But if you can reduce the flash output it will give you considerably more battery life.

We discuss lighting on our photography courses. For up coming dates see the Events page.

 

scotsgoby.jpg

What makes a good underwater camera ? Part 5 Having a Flash

Hope that subtitle doesn't attract the wrong sort of people!

Having a flash on your camera gives you a number of options beyond shooting available light which I discussed earlier in the blogs about Custom White Balance and shooting RAW.


The first option is to use the flash on the camera itself to illuminate your subject. Most housings for compact cameras and some housings for mirrorless cameras have windows to allow light from the flash out, they usually also come with a diffuser to soften and spread the flash light. With any flash you need to be close to the subject because the water will reduce the distance the light will travel making it much less effective than it would be in air. But you don't necessarily have to be as close as this rather scary shot of me taken by Anne using the built in flash on a Canon S95 camera.

Phil-closeup.jpg

You may also have to deal with shadows caused by the flash being close to the housing port. But even a small built in flash will give out more light in an instant burst than all but the most powerful video lights. It's the inability to change the position that the light comes from that puts the built in flash on a camera at a disadvantage. This said for conditions where available light isn't good enough to get the shot it's worth having a try with the built in flash if that is all you have to work with. A useful tip is that you'll get more even lighting of your subject shooting portrait with the flash at the top than when shooting landscape. Here's an image of a Spotted Moray taken using built-in flash by me in Bonaire, again using the Canon S95 in a Canon underwater housing.

Moray-built-in-flash.jpg

The second option puts a camera with a flash even further ahead of the action cameras. That's in allowing you to trigger a strobe. 

Before we go further let's clarify this. A strobe is the name given by underwater photographers to a separate flash designed for underwater photography. Like the Inon S2000 pictured below.

s-2000.jpg

Having a strobe when combined with an good arm system to mount it on gives you a positionable light source that has more coverage and power than a built-in flash. This instant burst of light allows you to illuminate the foreground of your images while using your shutter speed to control the lighting of the background in your image. 

The shot below was taken in this way using a pair of strobes.

Red-sponge.jpg

If you use video lights you have to use your camera settings to control the exposure of the whole image which means that ISO's are often raised, shutter speeds slower and apertures wider. This contributes to why images taken with video lights rarely appear as sharp and crisp as those taken with strobes.

A pair of strobes isn't necessary for all types of underwater photography. You can get good results using a single strobe especially in macro photography where a single strobe gives a lot of scope for different techniques. The image below was taken using a single strobe fitted with a snoot to create a small area that is lit.

Snooted-goby.jpg

Strobes can be triggered in a number of ways. The most popular now is using a fibre optic cable to carry the light from a cameras flash to the sensor on the strobe. With cameras that have a hotshoe either instead of or as well as a built in flash, electronic cable connection can be used. This does limit which strobes can be used and means that a connection has to run through a port on the housing but means that you don't have to use battery power firing a flash to trigger a strobe. It is now possible to buy strobe triggers that connect to the camera hotshoe and produce a flash of light by LED to allow fibre optic cables to be used without a built in flash.

Using strobes is a big subject and I'll cover more in a separate set of blogs in the future. Blue Duck Photography is a UK dealer for Inon, Nauticam, Fantasea and Big Blue Dive Lights. If you'd like advice or are interesting in buying equipment or booking on one of our workshops get in touch via our Contact page or join our Q and A group on Facebook

What makes a good underwater camera ? Part 4 A full Manual Mode

Cameras are stupid! Harsh thing to say, I know. Especially coming from someone whose business is based around cameras. But it's true, cameras are not intelligent. They struggle to make decisions on their own and they are limited as to what information they can ascertain about their surroundings. I've discussed the need to be able to white balance or shoot in RAW which comes from the inability of a camera to realise it is underwater and at a certain depth, in water of a particular tint and then automatically work out what the colours should look like.

Anne-S95.jpg

The more control over the settings of your camera you have the more you can choose how your images appear. Many shots in underwater photography are unachievable with a camera set on automatic.

There are three primary settings that have a big impact on how your images appear. 

Firstly ISO.

ISO in basic terms is the sensitivity of the camera. The higher the ISO is set the less light the camera needs to produce an image, but as the ISO rises quality starts to decline. Depending on the sensor size and other issues some cameras will start to get noise in their images at lower ISO's than others. Increasing ISO allows you to adjust other settings which will reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. Many cameras allow ISO to be adjusted in most of their modes apart from Auto.

 Like all the settings discussed in this blog ISO can be used in land photography as well. To achieve the image of this lion taken on a dull South African winter's morning I raised ISO to 2000 to allow me to keep shutter speed high while using a camera with a long lens hand held. 

Male-lion.jpg

Secondly Aperture.

Aperture is how wide the opening of the lens' iris is. This is denoted by an f number, the lower the number the wider the aperture. Camera lenses have stated minimum and maximum apertures. The wider the aperture can be the more light can reach the sensor, but also the shallower the depth of field. Depth of field decides how much of the foreground and background in an image will be in focus. Shallow depth of field can be used to isolated the subject and is one method for dealing with unattractive backgrounds that would otherwise detract from the image.

In the picture below, a wide aperture was used to give a shallow depth of field so that not much more than the eyes of this ribbon eel are in focus.

Ribbon-eel.jpg

Thirdly Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open for when an image is taken. It is measured in seconds, usually as fractions but can be set to multiple seconds or even minutes in some cases. Adjusting shutter speed affects the exposure of an image taken using available light and also whether blur occurs from movement in the image. When using flash the shutter speed can be used to control the exposure of the areas of the image not lit by the flash. Using fast shutter speeds can give dark or black backgrounds to macro shots even in shallow water during the day.

This image of a scorpion fish was taken using one strobe with the cameras shutter speed as high as possible. In this case the camera was a mirrorless one and flash sync speed (the fastest shutter speed at which you can use the flash without getting shadow from the shutter curtain in your shots) was 1/160. With compact cameras that do not have mechanical shutters like mirrorless and DSLR cameras you can set shutter speed as high as the camera will go and still be able to use the flash. This makes it easier to achieve a black background (more on flash in the next instalment).

Scorpionfish.jpg

In wide angle shooting adjusting shutter speed is a good way of controlling what is visible in the background and the shades of blue or green in the water. The light from the flash will freeze the subject but with a slow shutter speed you will still get motion blur in front of or behind the subject depending on what curtain setting you have the flash on. 

In the image below strobes were used to light the foreground while the shutter speed was adjusted to achieve the blue colour and surface effect in the water.

Kingston-stern.jpg

Hopefully you now have more idea how being able to adjust these settings yourself can improve your underwater images. Many cameras on the market that are sold with underwater housings or are waterproof don't allow you to adjust all these things independently. The very popular Olympus TG4's and 5's for example lack the ability to manually control shutter speed. 

For advice or to buy underwater camera equipment go to our Contact page

You can also join our Q and A page on Facebook to ask advice or learn from previous posts.

What makes a good underwater camera ? Part 3 Being able to add a wide angle lens

When shown someone's underwater pictures and asked how to improve them the most common thing the Blue Duck Team find themselves saying is 'get closer'. Reducing the distance between you and your subject means less water between the camera and what you are photographing. Because of the effect of water and the particles floating in it on light, the less between the camera sensor and the subject means clearer, crisper looking images.

What a wide angle lens allows you to do is frame the same subject in your picture but from a much shorter distance.

The images below were both taken with the same Canon Ixus camera without and then with an Inon wide angle wet lens. The framing is roughly the same but the distance to the subject when using the wide angle lens was greatly reduced.

 Image by Paul Duxfield

Image by Paul Duxfield

 Image by Paul Duxfield

Image by Paul Duxfield

When choosing a camera and underwater housing for it to go inside, the ability to add a wide angle lens should be high on your list of features. Not all setups are created equally. Mirrorless cameras and DSLR's have the ability to be fitted with wide angle or fisheye lenses on the camera itself and a good lens will give you startling results. When looking for a housing for one of these interchangeable lens systems you should look carefully into whether the housing system allows you to fit different ports to the housing and if so what lenses are supported by these ports.

The image below was taken with an Olympus EM10 MkII camera with an 8mm Olympus fisheye lens in a Nauticam housing, the same setup as Anne is holding in the picture.

Anne-Kingston.jpg

With compact cameras you are limited to using wet wide angle lenses which fit on the outside of the housing. Be aware that not all camera and housing combinations function the same when it comes to adding wide angle wet lenses. Many compact cameras, especially the higher end ones have long zoom lenses, for example the Canon G7X MkII has a 24-100mm. What this means is that to accommodate the full movement of the lens through its focal length range the port on the housing must be deep and wide. This interferes with using a wide angle lens, necessitating using poorer substitutes which often take the form of push-on domes rather than genuine wide angle wet lenses with glass elements. It also usually means zooming the lens in to avoid vignetting at the corners of the image.

If you have any notion of progressing in your underwater photography it's worth thinking seriously about what wide angle lens the housing and camera will support. This doesn't always come down to the most expensive being the best. For example the G9X MkII in a Fantasea housing will support a high end wide angle lens with a 67mm thread and while the more expensive G7X MkII camera needs to be placed in the more expensive Nauticam housing with a special additional Short Port in order to use the same wide angle lenses as its cheaper cousin.

Nurse-shark.jpg

Wide angle wet lenses are not the sole domain of compact camera users, they also perform well with interchangeable lens cameras when used with kit lenses in flat, threaded ports. The above image was taken using an Olympus EPL-3 in an Olympus housing fitted with an Inon wide angle wet lens.

Having the ability to remove a wide angle lens and fit a macro lens during a dive is seen by many photographers as an advantage. It reduces the risk of infuriating moments when diving with a macro lens and you see a wide angle subject and vice-versa. 

Wreck-bonaire.jpg

There are a number of excellent wide angle lenses currently on the market including offerings by Inon, Fantasea and Nauticam. Inon in particular specialise in making wet lenses and adapters to work with many of the branded camera housings. The image above was taken using a Canon S95 in a Canon housing fitted with an Inon lens mount and Inon wide angle wet lens. We sell all the above brands of wet lenses and can help match your current camera to a lens or give you advice on which camera and housing pairs are a good option both in the new and used markets. 

Details of how to get in touch with us are on our Contact page or you can join our Blue Duck Photography Q & A Facebook Group to get your questions answered.

What makes a good underwater camera ? Part 2 Shooting RAW

Having covered using Custom White Balance in the first part of this series I'm now going to move on to something that can negate the need for Custom White Balance when shooting available light images underwater. 

RAW is a format of image produced by many cameras that includes much more information than is in a JPEG. When a camera takes an image, if it is set to take JPEGs it will immediately do a basic edit of the image and compress it to JPEG form. This basic edit does some sharpening and usually gives some vibrance and warmth to the colours. When shooting in RAW the camera leaves all the original information taken in by the sensor within the file. 

What this means is that initially you get a much bigger file than a JPEG, but it gives you much more data to play with. Using RAW format allows you to recover a great deal more from your images than can be done with a JPEG. This includes allowing more colour correction than can normally be achieved  and also recovering images or parts of images that have been under or over exposed.

It also means that images initially look flat and less vibrant than a JPEG and you will have to edit your images with software such as Adobe Lightroom. In addition RAW file formats are specific to camera types so when you have a new model camera you may need up to date editing software to even view them let alone edit. If you want to share your images on Facebook for example you will also have to export them as JPEGs after editing.

You need to also take into account the increase in size when looking at memory cards and hard drive space.

So here are some examples of the difference shooting in RAW can make.

Below is a shot taken using available light as it came out of the camera.

RAW2.jpg

And here it is after being colour corrected using Adobe Lightroom.

RAW1.jpg

 Here is another shot, this time under-exposed.

RAW3.jpg

And now after a couple of minutes worth of editing.

RAW4.jpg

The same is true of images with over exposed sections, such as this shot of the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank.

RAW7.jpg

Here is the same image after a minute's worth of adjustment in Adobe Lightroom

RAW8.jpg

Here are some cropped images to show the difference better.

RAW5.jpg
RAW6.jpg

So shooting RAW is clearly a big advantage, especially in underwater photography where lighting conditions are often difficult to control and can change quickly.

If you have questions about photography why not join our Facebook group Blue Duck Photography Q and A 

 Blue Duck Photography runs photo editing workshops through dive centres in the UK. If you'd like to attend one of our workshops check our Events page for dates and locations. If you own or work with a dive centre or dive club and would like to host a workshop email us at info@blueduckphoto.com You can also contact us through our Facebook page Blue Duck Photography Ltd

 

Coming Next: Part 3 Being able to use a wide angle lens.