Digital Photography Underwater – swimming with turtles
Flicking through a range of holiday brochures it's easy to forget what sort of equipment pro-photographers used to get the shots you see. So you find yourself dreaming of seeing underwater wonders of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and coming home with your own award winning photos snapped off with your camera. What sort of camera rig makes those 'cool" underwater shots. Try five to fifteen thousand dollars per rig. Of course that was a few years ago shooting on Provia slide film, pushing it one stop, using a top of the line SLR film camera and a pod and boom flash - that was before - but there has been a quiet evolution taking place under the waves – the digital UW cam. It’s all good news and I thought I would put together a budget setup using an amazing new lens, a low end affordable compact digi-camera for everyone, and then take it out in the lagoon and give it a spin.
Pro’s use wide angle lenses underwater to : - A) recreate the total surround experience of being underwater ; and B) to make to blah zone go away – What is the blah zone – it is the effect where on land we can see 10 km but underwater we only see object clearly at 2 to 5m, everything beyond that is blurry or blah. The water particles, temp variations and other factors reduce the visibility. Of course Lady Elliot has some of the best vis on the GBR and especially so in the winter months from April to July when it is twice as clear and blows Far North Queensland away. With an ultrawide angle lens you get lots of peripheral information plus a foreground subject appears enlarged and very clear.
Lenses make shots and cameras store them. Try to think like a pro and think lens first. In my honest opinion there is one stand out product on the digital lens market - I picked the INON UW105AD super wide lens from reefphoto.com because its sharp, super wide and amphibious, then the Canon IXUS 60, a Canon WP-DC4 housing. Just like a frog this UW105AD lens works above and below water yet is a wet lens, meaning it can be removed underwater without the camera getting wet. This total price for this digital setup was only A$980. Most of the tiny budget went on the Lens and mount at $450.
I used the dpreview.com site to find a budget compact digital with underwater mode Canon IXUX 60 (auto correct out the blue water colour cast) and a Canon factory underwater housing from bhphotovideo.com (fits perfectly and costs a lot less). Megapixels are not as important as sellers want you to think, nor are telephoto-zoom lenses important underwater. Don’t go and buy a canon G9 by sacrificing your INON lens budget because although the G9 can shoot RAW files (which require big cards and special software) there is no superwide INON lens for the G9 housing. Doooh! So please don’t spend all of the budget on the UW camera. To top it all off the little canon Ixus can shoot video in .avi format at 640 pixels, 30 fps using the INON superwide lens. I use bhphotovideo.com to source the Canon WP-DC4 housing and JBHiFi for the IXUS 60 on special.
The IXUS has a flash but some underwater cameras with a flash which is too closely lined up to the lens reflects back any tiny particles in the water known as back-scatter and hence the reason why you see the big long arms holding the flash heads. I don’t recommend flash for snorkelling for two reasons : - A) its too bulky and hard to swim around under water with, costly and adds to baggage weight. An external flash head, arms and mounts will add another $1600 to the budget and you will be carrying your camera into the dining room at night worrying about the investment. B) if you are like most people you will be only free diving down to 5 meters before you run out of breath and at that depth the IXUS can adjust the blue cast out automatically by setting it to underwater mode. I turn flash off on a sunny day and leave the ISO on auto. The other un-published thing about the underwater mode is the IXUS will sync with non-digital Ikelite strobes and land based slave flash, normally not possible because of the pre-flash problem.
OK so this little rig is tiny, weighs only 800g and is a wide angle movie camera and a still camera. Even better you can see every shot will you snorkel around and know straight away if your David Doubilet (NatGeo all time guru legend UW photographer in the day) and it’s good on one battery. I usually load the camera into the housing in my room check the seals are clean and free of hairs, dust or sand. Once closed it stays closed until I get back to the room, where I rinse it in fresh water, dry it off. Put the strap around your wrist because the INON lens makes the rig negatively buoyant so if you drop it you will be chasing it down. I prefer to swim with less drag and wear a ‘rashie’ an Aussie term for sun resistant lycra shirt, speedos and swim fins. If your not fit wear a buoyancy device or take a wet suit and weight belt with you if it is winter on the GBR.
Talk to the staff, be aware of the direction of currents, tides times, local underwater landmarks and shore reference points and most likely location of your target fish or turtles. We planned to enter at Lighthouse Bombie on the low tide, head north to Coral Garden and planned to stay inside middle reef. Last check of the camera on dry land by powering it up inside the housing. Avoiding opening the UW housing in hot and humid outside conditions then putting it into cold sea water – you may get condensation. When you first lower the housing into the water check for leaks into the housing or bubbles rising from it. Now you and your buddy enter the water. Now what? My advice is to make yourself streamlined and tuck your arms away. Arms are not an asset for snorkelling because they increase drag and flick water into your snorkel on the surface. Tuck the $980 camera rig into the small of your back as you swim out over the coral. Remember just one scratch on the lens or one smack on the coral and its all sadness for you. Try to swim calmly with less noise and don’t rush to cover miles of ground. Look well ahead into the blah zone, look for movement and to the side and behind you. I have found that turtles often rise after I have swum over them.
At Lady Elliot there is at least one turtle every 50m or so. A turtle will be on the bottom lying still and only surface occasionally so patience is important. When he starts to rise turn on your IXUS, take a breath and start your descent on the sunlight side of the subject. Don’t fin straight at him if possible. I try to use a parallel path to keep the turtle happy and slowly converge when along side. Equalise your mask (hold your nose piece and blow) then with your arms and Camera still tucked away swim along side the turtle and smoothly bring the camera up. If you are relaxed the turtles will not be alarmed and usually just slow swim along. Try to compose the shot with the surface as a background by getting lower. This is very important. As land based creatures humans like shots which include the surface – our home ground. Don’t try to get too close because the shot will actually look better with some reef in it. Nobody is going to like the look of a very tight shot out of context looking down into the abyss. Give the wild animal a comfort zone. Snorkellers are less alarming to fish and turtles than scuba gear because there are no noisy scuba bubbles. Take a few second to eyeball the critter while you are there face to face after a shot.
Also one artistic note. If you shot video of a marine animal while swimming with your buddy be sure to swing the camera around to your buddy then raise it out of the water to capture the landmarks. This way it links the sighting to the place and the people you care about. This is the reason I have put together an amphibious lens kit. Either start the shot above water or finish it off that way. Take a minute to explain to your buddy to keep their arms tucked in at their sides so they look good on film and on video – it makes a huge difference.
I like to take my own fog-free low profile mask/snorkel on holiday. It is small and fits into its own case, is clean and fits my head and face without leaking – a bit like a toothbrush – take your own, don’t hire it. Remember your nose needs to be in the mask to equalise – don’t dive down with swimming pool surface-goggles, and if you wear weights set up for neutrally buoyant at 5m depth – don’t swim overweighted.
I shot these images/video with the rig above, basically a very modest 6 MPix camera with a good lens, on a cloudy and showering day at Lady Elliot in January and tried to get low and shoot upwards. We were in the water for about 40 mins and I took it easy as my wife is a infrequent snorkeller, and I wanted to stay close to her.
So UW photography has all changed now. Sharp super wide angle lenses with Digital is really affordable and nice results are within reach of snorkellers in the fantastic clear water at Lady Elliot, with the right information and techniques. Shoot up, shoot wide.