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Digital Underwater Photography


Ever since I bought my first digital camera back in 1998 I'd been thinking about the convenience of taking digital snaps underwater. That
(Sony Mavica) digital camera had a crappy, low VGA (640x480) resolution and used floppy disks as a storage medium so taking this underwater didn't make a lot of sense. I'd been getting my underwater slides scanned since 1996 so I could put them up on the web but the need to process film and then get the slides scanned at a bureau meant the procedure was neither quick nor cheap.

By late 2004 I'd decided it was time to make the switch from film to digital for my underwater snaps. I already had a Nikon D70 digital SLR camera and there were plenty of underwater housings available for it. After comparing the available housings I decided on a Sealux.

By March 2005 I was ready to start shooting digital underwater.

After having made 320 dives with my old Aquatica housing and film camera over a 15 year period I should have expected the new camera would take some getting used to.

On my first dive I had strobe problems with one strobe not firing at all and the other cycling (charging, then firing) continuously. For my first day's diving I was therefore restricted to available light exposures.

On my first dive with new digital camera housing in South Harbour at the Poor Knights Islands I encounter a striped boarfish (Evistias acutirostris) with a long-finned boarfish (Zanclistius elevatus). Cropped image taken with Nikon D70 with 10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye-Nikkor lens using available light, f/3.5, 1/50th second.

Later I solved the strobe problem when I discovered that the sync cord connector to one of the Ikelite strobes had leaked at the strobe end. After rinsing and drying the connector it seemed to work OK and the problem was solved. I don't like the Nikonos V connectors on the new housing. My EO wet connector system used with the old houisng performed almost faultlessly and I miss the convenience of being able to easily plug/unplug the sync cord at the housing and be guaranteed that there will be no leaks. The Nikonos V connectors in comparison seem fragile and prone to failure.

The first striped boarfish I'd seen at the Poor Knights Islands. Strangely, I saw another one on the next dive. If the dive sites (South Harbour and Northern Arch) weren't so far apart I would have thought this guy was just a fast swimmer. Cropped image taken with Nikon D70 with 10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye-Nikkor lens using available light, f/3.5, 1/50th second.

Taking underwater photos with the digital camera didn't take long to get used to and a number of major advantages became obvious.

To buy film and get it processed would cost me $20 to $30 per dive. With digital, this cost disappears. Sure, you need a decent computer but I already had one. I am no longer limited to 36 shots per dive. With digital, I regularly take 100 shots on a dive and have taken up to 300 on a dive where I had seal pups whizzing around me for an hour. I take a lot more photos now just because I can. I can be more experimental and more creative with the photos I take. Photography is to some extent a numbers game. You're looking to capture that unique moment in time and the more moments you capture, the better the chances of getting that fab shot. The National Geographic photographer with a Caddy carrying half a dozen cameras for him no longer has a big advantage over me.

With digital, you get some instant feedback on how your photo looks. Admittedly, it's a teeny little display on the back of the camera but it's WAY better than the nothing which you get with film. When taking pics of tiny nudibranchs about 6mm long I can zoom into the image after I've taken it and get a much better view of the thing than I can with the naked eye. On a liveaboard dive trip you can view your photos on a laptop computer after each dive or at the end of each day. Taking photos with film was more hit and miss because you usually didn't get to see your results for days or weeks.

Now, I can't imagine going back to shooting film with its associated cost, limitations and delays. I've still got the old film camera and housing but it will never ever get used again.

Strobes aren't needed to capture the beautifully subdued lighting inside Blue Mao Mao Arch at the Poor Knights. Nikon D70 with 10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye-Nikkor lens using available light, f/4, 1/15th second.


In The Old Days We Used This Stuff Called Film

I bought my first real camera in 1986. At the time I was ignorant of most things photographic so I think I was a little lucky when I decided a second hand Nikon FM was the camera for me. Although a very low tech model by today's standards, that old FM works today as well as the day I bought it and the model is still well regarded by some old schoolers.

Keith in fresh water stream near Coroglen on Coromandel Peninsula. Nikon FM in Ikelite housing with 16mm f/2.8 fisheye Nikkor lens - Note vignetting in corners from the dome port shade
Click on magnifying glass icons for larger sized images

After four years of reading every book and magazine I could get hold of on diving, I had become desperate to start taking my own underwater photos and bought a second hand Ikelite housing in 1987. It was the wide angle photographs that I'd seen in the magazines which best seemed to capture the beauty and excitement of the underwater world so rather than investing immediately in an underwater strobe (flash), I bought a 24mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens. It was at Goat Island on April 17, 1987 that I submerged this equipment and took my first underwater photographs using Kodachrome 64 film and natural light.

17 April, 1987 - My 101st scuba dive and very first dive with underwater camera - Nikon FM with 24mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens in Ikelite housing, natural light, Kodachrome 64 film. At the time, I was very happy with this shot of two Snapper from Goat Island

My choice to buy Nikon equipment right from the beginning was a lucky one. Although more expensive than many other brands, the quality of the camera bodies and lenses is unquestionable. The popularity of Nikon gear amongst serious photographers has made second hand equipment relatively easy to find and has encouraged independent manufacturers to make equipment to suit Nikons. I've never been keen on buying anything other than genuine Nikon lenses but you have to rely on independent manufacturers if you want to buy an underwater housing for a Nikon camera.

Another thing about Nikon which makes it dear to the hearts of many underwater photographers is the Nikonos amphibious camera system. The quality of the Nikonos system and its widespread use amongst both amateur and professional underwater photographers has ensured that Nikon equipment, whether amphibious (Nikonos) or housed (SLR), is responsible for taking far more underwater photographs than any other equipment brand.

Aquatica 3 housing

After a few years of using the Ikelite housed Nikon FM I'd set my heart on bigger, more beautiful camera housings. I'd already previously purchased a Nikon F3 with MD4 motor drive and DA2 action finder in anticipation of one day having a housing capable of taking them underwater. In November 1990 I purchased what was then a Rolls Royce of underwater housings, an Aquatica 3, manufactured by Aqua Vision Systems in Montréal. For me, this was a big step up in the quality (and cost) of camera and housing and I hoped my photographs would eventually reflect this.

The housing can be purchased with an internal leak detector but I built my own which works wonderfully and illuminates a bright red LED beside the viewfinder when the contact probes located in the base of the housing become wet. I used instructions from Discover Diving magazine's January/February 1992 edition (part page 73 scan here).

My home-made viewfinder illuminator harness which clips to the front of the DA2 action finder. Not very pretty but it works like a dream!

The housing can also be purchased with a viewfinder illuminator but once again, I built my own by making a plastic harness which clips to the front of the DA2 action finder. On this harness I fixed two LEDs which direct light into the F3's viewfinder illumination window. These LEDs are powered by a pair of 1.5V AA batteries via a micro switch located above the F3's aperture dial which allows the illuminator to be left switched off before the dive by pulling the Aquatica's shutter speed control shaft away from the body.

Over the years I have made some other subtle refinements to my housing and camera including filing a corner off MD4 motor drive's plastic battery holder to allow it to be removed from the motor drive without removing the camera from the housing, turning (with a lathe) down the housing's aperture and focus control knobs to remove the harsh milled half-round grips with a smooth diamond pattern knurl which is much more comfortable on the fingers (I don't use gloves in order to get a better feel of the control knobs), and replacing some of the aluminium alloy control shaft glands with stainless steel glands. The replacement of these glands has been very successful in eliminating what for me is the only major maintenance issue associated with using the Aquatica.

Nikon Product Literature
Nikonos V Brochure (3 pages, 464 KB)
Nikonos V Specification Sheet (1 page, 47 KB)
Nikonos V System Chart (1 page, 72 KB)
Nikon Manual-Focus Lenses Specifications (1 page, 72 KB)
AF Nikkor Lenses Specifications (1 page, 48 KB)
Nikon F3 Brochure (3 pages, 556 KB)
Nikon F3 Specification Sheet (1 page, 42 KB)

Despite always giving it a good rinse in fresh water after dives in the ocean, there is always a slow process of corrosion taking place in these control shaft glands where a stainless steel shaft rotates inside an aluminium alloy gland. This necessitates the regular disassembly, cleaning and re-assembly of each shaft and gland. When I don't do this often enough, I am faced with the unpleasant task of having to brutally extract a seized control shaft from its gland and then carefully sand away (with about 600 grit wet and dry sandpaper) the oxide deposits.

After a while the housing's original white paint finish had become rather scratched and shabby looking so I stripped off the old paint and had it repainted in a swanky looking metallic silver. On one rough boat trip back from the Poor Knights Islands the poor old housing fell from a bunk and landed on one of the handles which broke off. I carried out repairs with help from Keith by machining up a new alloy base for the handle which was then fixed to the housing with set screws.

To date, my Aquatica housing has logged over 310 dives without any significant leakage. Although the Nikon F3 is now a rather old and unsophisticated camera, I don't feel a strong need for autofocus or other advanced features while taking photographs underwater and am happy to continue using it for the time being. It is likely that it will be a digital camera that will ultimately force my housing out of service and into retirement.
Already, I look on enviously at other divers with cute little digital cameras in plastic housings. The size and weight of my housing is starting to make it feel like a dinosaur and up against an amphibious or housed 12 megapixel digital camera with quality fisheye and macro optics, it wouldn't stand a chance.

Lenses

Nikkor 15mm f/3.5 - expensive and sexy but not the best wide angle lens choice for underwater use

With the Aquatica's big 8" diameter dome port, a range of wide angle lens options exist. I already had an 18mm f/3.5 Nikkor lens and was initially happy using this as my wide angle lens. At 100° angle of coverage from corner to corner the 18mm is an ultra wide angle rectilinear lens and generally performed very well for me. However, with me and wide angle lenses, it was like wide was never wide enough and on my way back from my travels around the Indian subcontinent in 1992 I succumbed to my wide angle and Nikon obsessions in Singapore and purchased the rather expensive 15mm f/3.5 Nikkor lens. Before taking this beauty underwater I purchased a 1.279" extension ring which spaces the Aquatica 3's dome port away from the housing body in order locate the lens and port at the optimum optical position.

My underwater experiences with the 15mm lens turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. The lens really isn't a whole lot wider than the 18mm and suffers from the major disadvantage of being much more prone to lens flare. This can be a major problem when aiming up towards the surface and getting a sunburst in the top corner of the frame as you often do when shooting with very wide lenses underwater. The solution to my need for an ultra wide angle of coverage had not really been satisfied by the 15mm lens but the solution was obvious; fisheye.

AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 D - underwater love made easy

My friend Keith had had a Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 which I'd played with on many occasions over the years. I'd taken it underwater several times and was delighted with the underwater images it captured. The exaggerated barrel distortion of the fisheye makes it unsuitable for many topside applications where the distortion would be obvious but with few straight lines underwater, this is seldom a problem. The relatively low cost (compared to ultra wide rectilinear lenses), large maximum aperture (f/2.8) and excellent control of lens flare make it a very practical lens for underwater use. However, the extreme angle of coverage, 180° between opposing corners of the frame, does require the use of some special techniques.

Most of the best wide angle underwater photographs incorporate a close focus component in the foreground blended with a background focussed at close to infinity. The extreme depth of field of the fisheye generally makes focussing reasonably easy but to get the close focus component you do have to get very close to the subject or the exaggerated perspective of the lens will make any object appear very small and insignificant in the frame.

This B-17 wreck on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands shot with a 16mm Fisheye-Nikkor illustrates the need to carefully position strobes when using a lens with such an enormous angle of coverage. In this shot, each of the twin strobes is visible in top corners of the image

The other major concern with the fisheye is strobe positioning. Unless the strobe or strobes are positioned well back from the camera body, a strobe body, a burnt out hot spot, or a plume of backscatter (brightly illuminated particles) can easily be accidentally included in the frame.

AF Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 D - high quality optics ideally suited to underwater use

The choice of lens for macro photography is a much easier one than the choice of wide angle lens. Nikon's Micro-Nikkor lenses focus from infinity down to reproduction ratios of 1:2 or 1:1 and as such, allow the underwater photographer to take large fish portraits where the subject could be 10 or 12 feet away as well as close up shots of tiny subjects just a few inches from the lens port. This kind of versatility simply isn't possible with Nikonos system where a choice between fish portraits or macro photography at a fixed reproduction ratio has to be made before the dive commences.

My macro photography using the Aquatica housing started off with a Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 lens which focussed down to 1:2 without the use of supplementary extension tubes. This lens performed flawlessly but when Nikon updated it with a 60mm model which focussed down to life size (1:1), it became impossible for me to resist the temptation to replace the 55mm lens with an AF Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 D.

Film

Right from my early days as an underwater photographer it was obvious that slide film was the thing to use. I could see in the magazines that all the serious underwater photographers were using slide film and I'd been using Kodachrome for all my top side photography.

In those days, Kodachrome was the undisputed king of slide films. It had been around for many, many years and it's fine grain structure, fidelity of colour reproduction and archival qualities were well proven. At 25 ASA, Kodachrome 25 was painfully slow, so slow that its use was impractical in many situations but its fine grain was regarded by most as unsurpassed.

The rule of Kodachrome 25 and Kodachrome 64 continued for me until a small coup occurred in my world of underwater photography with the publication of an article by Chris Newbert in the winter 1990-91 edition of Ocean Realm magazine. This article by one of the world's most prominent underwater photographers identified the new Fuji film, Velvia, as having sharpness and colour saturation to rival or better the Kodachromes. For many, the exaggerated, bright colours of Velvia and other new E6 chemistry films were an inaccurate record of nature's colours. To me, the Kodachrome colours were much more accurate than those of the new pretenders but when put side by side, a Velvia slide would almost always look a lot more appealing with its vibrant colours than a Kodachrome slide.

The dropping of Kodachrome and adoption of Velvia by underwater photographers seemed to happen fairly quickly and it's now many years since I've used Kodachrome or seen anyone else using it. It remains a fine film though and I look forward in the future to sorting through the many Kodachrome images taken by my parents and grandparents decades ago.


Strobes

Underwater flash guns are commonly known as strobes. For underwater photographers, unreliable strobe operation can be a constant source of frustration. I have a collection of three or four old strobes which I have given up on and will never work again, but for several years, I have had very few problems with strobes.

It's usual for a strobe to be connected to the camera with a sync cord. This carries a signal from the camera to tell the strobe when to fire. With the sync cord comes the need for a waterproof connection to the strobe and camera and it is these connections that are frequently the source of strobe problems.

At least part of the reason for my relatively peaceful relationship with strobes is the Electro-Oceanic (E/O or E-O) connector system I use. These wet connectors are completely watertight, whether plugged together or not, and seem to provide a highly reliable connection.

In my early days I used a Ikelite Substrobe 150 but in more recent years have almost exclusively used an Ikelite Substrobe Ai/n with an Ikelite Substrobe 50 or Sea & Sea YS50. These strobes aren't particularly large or powerful but have provided me with quite satisfactory lighting and a high level of reliability.

Digital Image Conversion and Manipulation

I started scanning the best of my slides and displaying them on web pages in 1996. In those days, the only cost effective way to obtain good slide scans was to use a bureau service. For several years I used the Kodak Photo CD bureau service provided by EIC Digital Studios in Auckland. Later, high quality desktop slide scanning machines became much more affordable and in mid-2002, I finally bought myself a Nikon Coolscan IV ED and started doing all my slide scanning myself.

At a maximum resolution of 2048 x 3072 pixels, Photo CD scans are of ample resolution for most web page requirements and can also provide good quality prints of reasonable size.

I use Adobe Photoshop CS2 to crop, re-size, touch up and sharpen images in preparation for displaying them on web pages. Although Photoshop does a poor job of handling the Photo CD (pcd) file format, I find the colour and contrast can be much better preserved by importing the pcd images into Photoshop using Kodak's Photo CD Acquire Module.

These pages are created with Macromedia Dreamweaver MX.

Oh, and I have an Athlon XP 2000+ with 512MB RAM, 21" monitor and enough CAT5 cabling running through this drafty old house to connect Vibi, Sally and me with the world via an ADSL router.

2001-2006 ianskipworth.com

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