Tips From an Underwater Photo Pro
Long gone are the days when underwater photographers had to make the choice between 24 and 36 exposure film. Back then, choosing your shot carefully took on a whole different meaning. For those of you old enough to remember, taking the last shot in the role was a major deal, “what happens if I see something even cooler on the way back to the boat?”…Argh!
The only thing holding you back these days is the size of your memory card, and the charge in your batteries.
Underwater camera housings have come a long way as well. From the top of the line milled aluminum housings, to the less expensive polycarbonate versions, there’s something out there for every level of shooter.
As the primary photographer, videographer for iDive, my Ikelite camera housing wears several different hats.
Let’s start with the basics
I’ve been a Canon guy for a long time and my goto daily rig is a Canon 5D Mark3 in an Ikelite housing. With this camera, I shoot video and stills, both wide angle and macro.
Let’s start with a little chat about this housing. Firstly, as many of you are well aware, Ikelite is one of the more inexpensive housings on the market. A quick search over at one of my favorite online retailers, Backscatter Underwater Video and Photo, shows the price for housings for my camera as follows:
- Ikelite $1695
- Nauticam $4100
- Sea & Sea $3899
- Aquatica $2795
- Isotta $2700
Now, before we get all hung up on what one of these housings has over the other, let’s remember one important thing. They all have the same purpose, they allow me to access all the functionality of my camera while keeping it dry. That’s it! Some are lighter, some heavier. Some have leak detection sensors, some go deeper than others…you get the point.
Personally, I’ve been diving Ikelite housings for more than 10 years now. With the exception of a few sticky buttons, they have served me well. There are some changes I would like to see made, but that’s a topic for another article.
So, how many ways can you configure your underwater housing? Lets start with my job at iDive and one of my favorite things to do in this world.
Shooting Wide Angle Underwater Video
Before I plunge into the camera and housing, let me tell you about a piece of gear that makes my job a whole lot easier. It’s our DPV or “diver propulsion vehicle”. iDive exclusively uses the Dive X Cuda 400. Dive Xtras actually makes a smaller, lighter, longer running scooter than the 400 but our underwater housings need the extra real-estate provided by the 400’s longer body to mount securely to the DPV. This is all done with an awesome little quick release mechanism built by Dive Xtras. We had to make some modifications to the ikelite housing to accommodate the release, but hey, drilling holes in your underwater equipment brings in a whole new level of excitement to the dive!
Back to shooting wide angle video. Attached to the camera housing is an 8 inch modular dome port. Behind this large port is my goto wide lens, the Canon L Series 8-15mm zoom. This lens is actually sharper than my Canon 15mm prime, but again, thats the subject for a separate discussion.
Attached to the 8 inch dome port is a port shade. I’ve found that removing this shade makes for much better video and here’s why. Because of the shape of the port shade, the camera would begin to shake at higher speeds. Removing this allows the water to flow freely around the port, making for and overall smoother video. Not to mention the fact that at depth I get more ambient light into the lens making life a little bit easier. The shade is pretty easy to remove, it has four small set screws that hold it to the port. Ikelite, if you’re listening, a quick release would be a great thing, especially for those looking to shoot 8mm spherical photos!
Back to the wide video. Depending on the location, topography, and time of day, I might use artificial light. My goto lights are a pair of 10,000 lumen monsters made by Chinese manufacture Hi-Max. These lights are a quarter the price of their Swiss counter parts and the two deliver even coverage over the entire scene of my wide shot with an exceptional burn time.
Pro Tip: If the water is clear and there is plenty of ambient light, turn the lights off and custom white balance your camera. This will give you even color in both the foreground and background. You can also do this with the lights on but keep in mind that your image will become warmer as the light gets closer to the subject and cooler as you move farther away.
Pro Tip: Custom white balance your camera every 10-15 feet to maintain true white throughout the dive. Do this both ways, ascending and descending. Watch the weather above. If you custom white balance your camera under cloudy conditions and the sun comes out, it’s time for a new cwb.
Shooting Wide Angle Stills
My still set up isn’t that dissimilar from my wide angle video rig. The goto wide lens is again the Canon 8-15mm. The biggest difference is the lighting. For shooting stills, I shoot Ikelite’s underwater strobe system. My goodie bag includes both a pair if DS 125’s and 160’s. I also have a few DS51’s with optical sensors used for remote firing.
Ikelite is also one of the few underwater housing manufactures that actually has TTL built into their housings. While I don’t always use TTL, it’s very helpful when conditions are right and firing off a quick shot without thinking is necessary.
Attaching all of this to the scooter gives me a big advantage over most shooters. The speed of the Cuda 400 allows me to get in front of fast moving subjects. It also allows me to cover more ground, essentially giving me more time on target.
Pro Tip: When shooting large objects, it’s often best to turn the strobes off. This will decrease the likelihood of backscatter in the image. Also, your strobes aren’t likely to light the entire Ex USS Kittiwake.
Shooting Macro Video
Capturing wandering hawksbill turtles swimming alongside one of our famous vertical drop offs is fairly easy compared pulling critical focus on the eye of a tiny and reclusive jaw fish.
My goto lens for macro is the Canon 100mm macro. With this lens and the corresponding macro port, I’m able to capture video of fish about the size of my hand. Now, when I say the size of my hand, I’m basically talking about filling the frame with the subject. Sometimes I use video lights, but more often than not, I just custom white balance the camera and shoot ambient light.
In some cases the 100mm macro lens by it’s self just won’t do. If the subject is really tiny, I break out the SubSee X10 diopter. This allows me to get really close, filling the lens with critters as small as the eraser on a pencil. Pulling focus here is probably the most difficult part of this process. While some use an external magnified viewfinder, I opted for an electronic external monitor. It’s a Sony CLM-V55 in a Wahoo housing “currently discontinued”. I picked this up from my friends over at Backscatter. It was a little pricy but well worth the investment. Attaching it to the Ikelite housing was fairly simple. I just removed the factory ball mount on top of the camera housing and replaced it with a Nauticam 10mm bulkhead…again, probably better I leave the really technical stuff for another article.
So, now that you can see the subject, it’s time for some light. Getting creative here can be the difference between an okay video and a HOLY COW THIS IS FREAKIN COOL! video. For this you will need a light with a very narrow beam. I use the Inon LF800-N with the corresponding condenser filter. This light casts a 5 degree beam, allowing you to light very small object in a super creative way. Few divers accomplish this style of video as well as my friend Evan Sherman of Sea Sick Productions. You can check out his work here, and Evan, if you’re listening, we would love to get some of your ‘Pro Tips”!
Pro Tip: Switch your lens to manual focus. There is nothing more frustrating than waiting on your auto focus as it tries to grab something tiny and dark.
Pro Tip: Watch any movie, tv show, or documentary and you will notice that they are all shot with multiple camera angles and lens combinations. This keeps the viewer involved and lends a more realistic feel to the piece. If you have the time and equipment, add some macro video to your next project.
Pro Tip: Shooting macro video is difficult. Make your life easier by using an underwater tripod. I made mine from 3 ultra light arms and a triple clamp. Be sure to choose a subject in a location where your tripod doesn’t come in contact with anything living, I have little time for photographers touching anything living to “get the shot”.
Macro Still Photography
Shooting macro stills is a pleasure. There is always something hiding in the shallows waiting to be discovered. For this, I’m shooting the 100mm macro lens with a single Ikelite strobe. While these types of images are interesting, adding the SubSee X10 diopter with my Retra LSD “light shaping device” turns up the wow factor in a big way. The LDS or “snoot” allows me to shoot a tiny, focused beam of light on the subject. This in conjunction with a very high shutter speed allows you to separate the subject from it’s background. While this is indeed cool, some underwater photographers overuse this technique giving all of their photos the same overall feel.
Pro Tip: Mix it up. Bring multiple lenses on the boat, shooting wide on the deep dive and macro on the shallow dive is a great way to keep the creative juices flowing.
People often ask me, “how much does it cost to get kitted up for underwater photography?” I always answer that question with another question, “How long is a piece of string?” It all depends on your level of commitment. And just when you think you have everything one could ever possibly need, the next new thing comes out and you’re forced to buy it….”Panasonic GH5”..Ugh!
I think it’s time to break out the credit card!
About the Author: Jason Washington is the managing director of iDive Global Ltd and the co-owner of Ambassador Divers, a PADI Five Star facility located at the Comfort Suites Resort on Seven Mile Beach. Living and working on Grand Cayman as an underwaterphotographer/SCUBA instructor for the past 20 years, Jason’s work has been featured in numerous documentaries and feature films.