UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY

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Getting started

My first digital underwater camera was the Fuji F100fd I received for Christmas in 2008 (It was very much appreciated, as I'd already bought the housing). It lacked any serious manual controls -not that I would have known how to use them- and it would only offer up JPGs rather than RAW files, but it was more than enough for my needs at the time. I even managed to get some reasonably well-lit shots with the onboard strobe, though this was decidedly hit and miss. Fortunately it was pretty decent in low-light situations. As I slowly got better at composing my shots I found myself, like many other British underwater photographers before me, favouring macro to avoid taking in too much backscatter. I could only get in so close however, and after nearly ten years of casual snapshots I began to start thinking about a replacement.

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Seeing the light

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Whilst I was still using the Fuji, I went through a phase of action cameras: the 2014 Gopro HERO, and two iterations of the Apeman a80, the last one with 4k. However, I wasn't really doing much with the clips of wobbly video I took, despite acquiring underwater video lights. What's more, I found a fixed wide-angle lens was not the most helpful for the underwater profiles and macro I was doing more of. The appealing compact form factor of the action camera limits the amount of light hitting the (necessarily smaller) sensor. Owing to the popularity of the Gopro brand, there were (and are) numerous ways to work around the shortcomings I've mentioned. The popular US dive shop Backscatter developed their 'Flip Mount' system to add filters and a macro lens, INON of Japan brought out a similar cage and lens mount. More powerful video lights were also an option. I liked the results diving friends were getting with their Gopro macro lenses, but there was always this trade-off with blurry edges. Once I realised such thing as a 1" sensor compact existed, I started doing my research on compacts again and I was quickly steered toward the Sony RX100 (and the Canon/Panasonic equivalents).

'Perfect' I thought, upon picking up an rx100 second hand in November of 2017, a bigger sensor, 20.1 megapixels, better still in low light than my Fuji. I was indeed really happy... until I managed to flood the housing and camera a few short months later. I would like to blame the housing for this error, but truth is I had sealed it far too carelessly and, despite a DIY screen replacement, my first RX100 was toast. Being absolutely skint and on paternity leave at the time (2018) I had no means to buy another one, so it was back to the trusty old fujifilm for the rest of that year.

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Adding the first strobe

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Getting Closer

Even before I started dabbling with strobes, I felt the need to try and get a bit closer to my subjects. In May of 2019 I was able to pick up my first wet-contact optic, INONs popular UCL-165, which acts as a +6 diopter in water, offering 2.5x magnification and my first proper crack at underwater macro. Prior to this, my efforts with the rx100 would result in blurry images up close, whereas (with a little concentration) I could get crisp close-ups almost on top of my subject. The anemone shrimps I'd been finding all over Chesil Cove suddenly came to life. It felt like a real jump, and I'd definitely still recommend one to anybody starting out with underwater photography. Another plus of the UCL-165, in addition to its (relatively) cheap price, is the fact that you can stack two together to produce a +12 super macro image. In application, this doesn't actually work so well, mostly because the 'sweet spot' of focus is so challenging to attain, any bit of surge or waft of wave could spoil your shot or blur the edges. It was certainly difficult with the 28mm Sony rx100 and a real nightmare with a subject moving at any speed. I kept at it, but started looking around for dedicated super macro alternatives. It wasn't long (September 2020) before I lighted on the Nauticam CMC-1, which has a well-deserved reputation for crisp edges. Alex over at the UK Nauticam dealership, Underwater Visions, was very helpful and offered some handy tips on care and cleaning- which I was grateful for as this was my most expensive bit of underwater photography gear to date . Many friends reading this will find that last observation hilarious, as it's well known that underwater photography is not a cheap hobby. For my part  (as you can probably see) I like to try and get the best I can from a modest budget. That, and there's a chance my wife might be reading this.

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I was lucky enough to pick up a replacement RX100 off ebay by the end of 2018, yet before long I felt I was reaching the limitations of what I could do with my (albeit cheap and cheerful) video lights. I could either double down on video lights or teach myself how to use an external strobe. Being a mostly stills guy, I went with the strobe, first a god-awful Fantasea Remora which was dead in two months (luckily, I'd only wasted £50 on it) and then a far more robust INON s-2000 with a proper (Sea & Sea style) optical bushel connector.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It took some time, but I finally started 'freezing the action' and losing that annoying soft blurring associated with taking pictures under video light. Sadly I was still not proficient enough with the strobe to take it out with me when I had the incredible fortune to see a Torpedo (electric) ray in Chesil Cove, along with a large mobile crawfish on the same dive. Using the strobe meant much more fiddling with settings, not to mention a better grip on the exposure triangle than I had necessarily required before, fudging along with auto modes as I had been. Advice from other photographers, books on the subject as well as lots of trial and error with my frequent photography buddy (who had already made the jump to a strobe prior to me) helped me improve, but I'm certainly not there yet.

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Reaching for APS-C

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Truth be told, I'm very much at home with a compact underwater, and the idea of taking anything meatier down there with me had not even crossed my mind. To this day, my rx100 probably gets taken underwater twice as much as my bigger Sony. I ended up getting an APS-C camera because my focus on the principles of photography underwater was steadily creeping out on land. I mean, the interest had clearly always been there, but now I started thinking of the kind of landscapes and creature portraits I could pursue above sea-level. It was also noticeable that I had transformed into one of those bores that carries a camera around with them almost everywhere (much like diving). I started seriously considering the pros and cons of Canon and Nikon DSLRs and I very nearly bought a Nikon D3500 early in December of 2018. The size bothered me though. I wanted the flexibility of an interchangeable lens camera, something I could add a telephoto lens to for bird and nature shots, yet I had to be able to move the thing about easily. Quite how I had remained utterly ignorant of the Sony Alpha line of mirrorless interchangeable cameras is beyond me, but utterly ignorant I was. 

 As soon as I saw the α6000, it just made sense to me, given the way I like to shoot. It's understated, I never feel like I'm some paparazzi with a massive hefty DSLR, etcetera etcetera. I mean, they always say the best camera is the one you have with you, and here was one scarcely bigger than my rx100 that had 179 more AF points and the 24 MP APS-C sensor on a par with any of the DSLRs I had been considering. The α6000 was, and still is, a phenomenal amount of camera for the £285 I picked one up for.

 

That's not to say there aren't any downsides to buying into the Sony E-mount system. I had an inkling of the breath-taking sums the truly decent G series lenses cost when I bought the camera, but I quickly despaired of being able to own a telephoto lens with any range, and the selection of glass for the E mount was heavily biased towards their bigger full-frame brothers.  Perversely, I found APS-C was the poor relative. The menu too, is the least intuitive jumble of associated commands and options that anybody could conceive. Reading the photography forums, I'd heard how that alone was enough to put people off the α series. Lucky I started with the rx100 really, as I'm not used to anything different! In addition, I gradually understood there were ways around the glass situation too, making do with macro tubes in place of a dedicated lens and picking up the value 55-210 prior to a trip looking for puffins on Skomer in May of 2019. Other acquisitions included the superb APS-C only Samyang 12mm NCS CS f2.0 (See Astrophotography section) and I also picked up a retro Helios 44-M (for the swirly bokeh) and a Minolta 50mm prime 1:2. The crispness of the latter in comparison to the (perfectly adequate) kit 16-50mm zoom blew me away. That is one of the real bonuses of the mirrorless platform to my knowledge: the correspondingly shorter distance to the sensor means you can attach literally anything to an α series and be assured of a result (albeit, not one you necessarily want!) the flexibility of the whole system really appeals. Not just that, but going manual with the retro glass really made me concentrate on what I was trying to achieve. 'Zooming' with my feet again became oddly refreshing, f-stops are pretty obvious when they're a massive dial that clicks in front of you! I digress. This was supposed to be about how a simple 2008 point and shoot Fuji got warped out of all recognition into this monster: 

By June of 2019, despite my resolve not to risk my 'land' camera in the way that had dished my first rx100, I somehow found myself picking up a barely used Meikon a6000 housing. The previous owner had attempted some surf photography with it before relenting, and now (after a few dives empty to confirm a seal) I suddenly found myself with more options. As expected, stacking Inon 165s was no-go owing to the larger sensor, but I was later pleased by the performance of the kit 16-50 with the Nauticam CMC-1 when I picked it up last year. The real revelation however, was the compatibility with the Sigma 19mm DN 'Art' wide angle lens, which just squeezes inside the fixed glass housing. Couple with a cheap import 4" dome I was at last able to get some (approaching) wide-angle shots of the Royal Adelaide and the Nor prop, despite all the refraction.

 

So that is pretty much my UW photography kit as it stands today, with the rationale (that may be generous) behind it. The beauty of all those 1" ball mount arms and trays is that everything is so very interchangeable and flexible. A few investments in, and what I have can readily be transferred to the next thing.

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The Next Thing

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My wife isn't still here is she? What's that- 'she stopped reading after the third paragraph?' Good. Goooood. Well, truth be told, I have very little idea of what the future holds for me in underwater photography, except that I understand I'm addicted and I don't anticipate relinquishing that feeling any time soon. I suspect I may be done ebaying for a while at least, as I save my pennies and my soul for Underwater Visions to consume later on. I do imagine a Nauticam housing of some kind hovers in the distant future, though the camera that will go in it has not been invented yet. It might not even be a Sony (I haven't spent that much money on glass-yet) as Canon are now finally reaching out for a proper share of the Sony-dominated mirrorless market.

 

Unless I get better (and quickly) at framing my shots I suspect I will get suckered into full-frame just for the promise of resolution, like that offered by the A7r family and the Canon equivalents. Who knows, it might yet be an APS-C, given my love of macro shooting. I know it won't be a DSLR. Despite the attachment of many of my friends to mirrored cameras they will undoubtedly go the way of the dinosaurs. But all that is some way off yet. I drastically need to spend some time learning how to properly use the compact gear I have amassed first, and I'm heartily looking forward to the next opportunity.