Underwater photography is a real challenge. OK - it can be downright difficult and frustrating at times. When starting with a new camera, we often throw out roll after roll of film (and Jon deletes frame after frame from his digital camera). Over time, as we get familiar with our cameras, we may keep up to half the photographs on a particular shoot. Most of the time, if 10% of our shots are good, we're pleased. Why is underwater photography so difficult? From our experience the big differences are as follows:
First, with film based underwater camera setups, you can not get an accurate depiction of what you are actually photographing by looking through the view finder. Because of the mask on your face and your regulator protruding from your mouth, you can not get your eye right up to the view finder for an accurate representation of what you are actually shooting. Many cameras come with a crude view finder on top of the camera that give you some idea of what you are shooting. However, "some idea" is the key here. A slightly incorrect tilt of the camera can easily result in headless divers, tail-less fish, etc. What you think you are shooting and what you are actually shooting can be two different things. But don't get discouraged! Learn from your mistakes and practice, practice, practice. Eventually, you will get a good idea of how to properly line up your camera with the intended subject.
The second difference is that water is not a good medium to shoot through, especially in Puget Sound were a good visibility day is 20'. The lack of clarity of the water means you need to follow the two golden rules of underwater photography:
Some things you can do get better shots of fish are as follows:
About the cameras we use:
Equipped with the external strobe, Fuji Endeavor instamatic camera, water correcting lens, and macro kit, the Aquashot IIIe is fairly easy to use and takes clear, detailed pictures using APS film. The Aquashot IIIe is limited in the types of pictures it can take. Generally, subjects should be 4' to 6' away with the water correcting lens and inside the wire framer when using the macro lens. When using this camera, look for subjects that work well with these camera-to-subject distance limitations.
Photographs taken with the Aquashot's macro kit are incredible and rival those of much more expensive setups. Two "gotchas" when using the macro kit are:
The Aquashot is a simple a point and shoot system. When used with the Fuji Endeavor camera, you don't even need to worry about manual film advance. As this was Keiths first camera, he did not play around much with film speed and stuck to ISO 400 film. The resolution on the photos is good, even when blown up to 8" X 10".
The best thing about the MMII is that you can change lenses underwater. One minute you can shoot a five foot long Lingcod with a wide angle lens, the next minute you can shoot a two inch long Stubby Squid. Very cool! The system actually comes with a lens caddy that allows you to attach two lenses to the strobe arm.
The MMII also offers TTL (through the lens) flash capabilities - that is to say that the camera lens can read the amount of light reflected back from the strobe and turn the strobe off at the appropriate time (given the shutter speed and aperture setting). Although not foolproof, it does work very well.
The MMII is an excellent camera for the avid recreational underwater photographer. Is not cheap, but it is extremely flexible and appears (so far) to be very rugged. Being a true amphibious camera, it is compact enough that I can take it on almost all of my dives and it does not slow me down.
The back of the camera has a big LCD screen that allows you to make sure that the major settings are correct, the flashes are firing, and the lens cover is not on the lens port. I mention these things, because I spent a rage filled narc'd out of my mind 5 minutes at 105 feet shooting and seeing only black on the LCD. I had left the neoprene lens cover on, but was moving too slowly (mentally) to realize what was happening. The LCD screen unfortunately does not indicate how in focus a particular shot is, it just isn't big enough to tell. Still, the autofocus on the lens usually does a pretty good job, so just snap off a few frames, and usually one of them is in focus.
It is really nice being able to check the first couple frames to see if the pictures are coming out even close to what they should look like. After dives, I generally download the images to my laptop for a much better look at how I'm shooting. Having this instant feedback has greatly accelerated my skills as a underwater photographer.
I am using an Ikelite housing that was custom built for not much more than a stock housing they make. I have dual strobes, and when shooting macro work, generally use the diffusers. This is a big, bulky, heavy, awkward rig out of the water. In the water is it not heavy, but it is still everything else.
As bulky, and awkward as it is, it takes stunning macro shots; any problems I have with my shots is always me, and never my rig. Except for flooding it, but that's another story altogether, and was still my fault. Ikelite builds a wonderful housing.
The autofocus works reasonably well if you carry a modeling light. Without the modeling light, the lens just hunts, as the incandescent bulb just doesn't carry underwater. Not Canon's fault, they probably never thought it would submerge. I just use my HID light as a modeling light, and it works like a charm.
I much prefer to shoot stills than video. Although there are artistic talents associated with doing either, much of the artistry with video is added after the fact - i.e. through the digital editing. With stills (especially with film), you really have to be an artist underwater. Instead of being able to browse through 60 minutes of tape from a dive and hand select the best 10-20 second clips, you are limited to capturing 24 or 36 instants in time. In my opinion, still photography is much more challenging and enjoyable.
However, that said, I still lug a video camera setup with me occasionally. People really get a kick for seeing what goes on underwater, and video is the next best thing to being there. I am by no means an accomplish video photographer - I am a rookie in every sense of the word. But here is what I have learned so far:
As the video thing for me is just a fun thing, I went a somewhat economical route (although the term "inexpensive video setup" is something of an oxymoron). My wife had already purchased a Canon Optura miniDV camcorder a year or two earlier. Therefore, I built my system around this unit. Unfortunately, most manufacturers who build specialized video housings do so exclusively around the Sony or JVC camcorder lines. If you want to get into underwater video, I would actually recommend checking out housings first (as they tend to be more expensive) then deciding on what video camcorder to use.
Anyway, I settled on QuestSports Tiburon housing for my (OK, my wife's) camcorder. The Tiburon is a generic type housing that will accommodate many miniDV camcorders, including the Canon. There are a ton of these types of housing out in the market right now, some of which are simply watertight tubes that you put your camera in. Turn on the camcorder, put it in the tube, and go diving. This approach presents some problems, however (fogging, battery consumption, lighting, bulkiness). You can find these setups for about $300. The problem with all generic housings is that they tend to be quite a bit more bulky that "specialized" housings, and also offer a somewhat reduced set of functionalities (or none in the case of the tubes). The advantage is that they tend to only cost a small fraction of that of a specialized housing. Another advantage is longevity. If you have a specialized housing and flood your camcorder, you had better hope that they still make camcorder or you can buy one used. Otherwise the housing may be worthless.
I went with the QuestSports unit for a couple of reasons: One, it is not made of metal - it is made of a plastic. Metal conducts heat much more efficiently, which can result in more often undesirable "fogging" situations in the housing, especially when diving in cold water on hot days. Second, this housing has an integrated LANC control. LANC allows you operate the camera electronically from a remote switch located on the outside of the housing. Of course, your camcorder must be LANC compatible for this to work, but most new camcorders there days are. The advantage is that I get rudimentary control of the camcorder from the outside - power on, power off, pause and zoom. However, my LANC connection is not fool proof. In fact, it has been somewhat problematic at times. It has worked decently most of the time. Occasionally, my dive buddy will hear some cussing coming from my regulator after we get in the water and the LANC connection will not turn the camcorder on. Opening the housing and jiggling the wires usually fixes the situation - but this in not advisable to do underwater. My final reason for going with the QuestSports housing is it was relatively cheap. I got a used demo unit for about $600 from QuestSports. Most generic housings with LANC controls cost anywhere from $600 to $1200. Specialized housing can easily cost triple that.
The Tiburon housing I purchased is torpedo shaped. There is no way to look through the camera's built-in viewfinder or extended the integrated LCD viewing panel. I therefore bought a very small Sharp LCD screen for about $140 that mounts in the rear of the housing to allow me to see what I am shooting. After buying this monitor, I thought I was all set. I was wrong. I discovered that the little LCD monitor EATS batteries like you would not believe. Leaving it on for a couple of hours straight results in the quick death of 6 AAA batteries. No problem - I would just open the housing and turn the monitor on before getting into the water - that way the monitor would only be on for an hour or so. Wrong again. Opening the case out in the open often results in warmer, moist are getting into the housing. Once the housing cools in the cold waters of the PNW - instana-fog! You capture on video what might as well be San Francisco on a foggy day. The work around: You guessed it, get out the check book. For about $185, I was "able" to buy a small $5 cable that allowed the monitor to be turned on and off with the camcorder through the LANC control. Throw in a couple of "Moisture Munchers" in the housing to boot, and the fogging problems was completed resolved. I am able to stage all my gear the night before, seal up the housing with "Moisture Munchers", only use my monitor and camcorder batteries when I need them, and not have any fogging worries. OK. Now I have a camcorder and "economical" generic housing with an LCD screen. I have spent well over $1000. Now ready for the expensive part?
Lights are absolutely critical in the PNW. Lighting systems can run thousands of dollars. Economical variations include dual halogen setups which typically give you about up to an hour of burn time. Such setup might cost as little as $600. The issue with halogens is that the color of the light is not natural (it tends to be about 3800 degrees Kelvin, where as sunlight is closer to 6000 degrees Kelvin), so everything looks more yellow than it actually is.
I opted to go with a single 18W HID light with a specialized video reflector. Why? Many reasons. First, an 18W HID puts out about the same amount of viewable light as a 100W halogen. Second, I get over three hours of burn time from a single charge with my HID, so I can do multiple dives and not have to worry about swapping batteries. Third, the color of light from the HID is much closer to that of sunlight, so you get to see things in a more natural state. Fourth, I can use the HID light as my primary dive light when I am not shooting video. And fifth, I can use the HID light with a video reflector as a second strobe when shooting stills with my film based camera (especially effective with macro). My HID ends up coming on almost every dive with me, make the $850 price tag easier to justify. If I ever get my second 18W HID back from American Underwater Lighting (it has been there for four months waiting for repairs), I plan on running dual 18W HIDs when shooting video.
Don't expect even the best amateur lighting setup to flood the entire PNW seascape with light and color. Even with dual 50W halogens or more powerful and efficient HIDs, you have to get within a few feet of the subject to see any color other than washed out greens and black.
Shooting the video is easy. No shutter speeds, lens configurations, f-stops, or focal distances to set. Point and shoot - the camcorder does the white balancing and focusing. Some "gotchas" are as follows: *Holding the camera still is a bit of an art, especially if you are diving in a current. You need to have good buoyancy, breathing patterns, and two very steady hands to get keep the camera even remotely still. Accomplishing this takes some real practice.
With the tools available for digital video editing today, it is fun and easy. For less than $100, you can buy video editing software that allows you to record, trim, and manage clips. You can also, overlay titles, voice, and music, and incorporate cool transition effects between clips. I currently use Ulead Videostudio 6.0 and have been very pleased with my results. Be warned though; video editing can be VERY time consuming and you have to prudently manage the disk space on your PC.