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Splurging

August 12th, 2016

Splurging

Before diving trip to Cozumel this year I splurged: Canon recently came out with Powershot G7x that is so well suited for underwater photography that I could not control myself and bought it together with Canon housing.

Spending over $1000 on equipment ($300 housing and $700 camera) for the type of photography that will never bring me a dime makes totally no sense. But G7x is so good for shooting moving subjects in low light environment (marine life underwater) that not having it would haunt me on every dive.
G7x beats my faithful Powershot S100 substantially in four major photography specs : Sensor size (3x bigger) sensor resolution (20MP vs. 12), lens speed at all focal distances, and continues shooting speed (6.5 fps vs. 2.3). That is huge.

To make long story short, I brought back over 800 images and practically nothing was out of focus or unacceptably noisy at ISO limited to 3200. That said, I found only 8 images suitable for posting to my website (15 shots from last year's trip using S100), but none of that was G7x ’s fault.
So what’s the conclusion? While Canon G7x beats three years old S100 in every aspect of photography, it is bulkier, heavier, loaded with features that has very little to do with picture taking (but we are paying for them anyway) and is 3 times more expensive. While S100 was always my take -everywhere camera, G7X will rip holes in my pockets before I even notice it.

So as it stand right now, my 3 years old Powershot S100 is with me all the time, G7x is staying home waiting for my next dive vacation, and I shoot sports and nature with my D7200.

I always believed that there are no bad cameras, just us, bad photographers.

Underwater Photography on Budget

August 12th, 2016

Underwater Photography on Budget

Almost everyone these days own a digital camera and Internet is overflown with snapshots of every kind. However high quality pictures are still rare and mostly produced by seasoned photographers. This is especially true for underwater photography.

Many articles have been written about the use of underwater photo equipment that few of us can afford. Most of them are written by very experienced amateurs or professional photographers who are simply on a much higher level of this craft than the rest of us. They seldom, if ever, use digital compacts underwater.

I shoot underwater using digital compacts for many years with no artificial light of any kind. Although National Geographic did not request my pictures for publication yet, there are some good enough to impress my diving and non-diving friends (www.redberryphoto.com/underwater).

Many vacation divers stay away from underwater photography either due to exorbitant cost of equipment or because they tried and failed to produce passable images. And that is a pity. A quality underwater images can be produced using almost any digital compact camera as long as dedicated underwater housing is available for it and as long as the diver has at least basic knowledge of photography. Camera itself obviously does not take pictures, we do, so a few tips listed below and a bit of practice will allow anybody to come back from diving vacation with pictures that are not blue and blurry, but sharp and colorful.

It is very important to keep in mind that underwater photography is for experienced divers only. In addition to keeping an eye on depth, air supply, currents, dive buddy and dive environment UW photographer needs to look for subjects, work on composition, lighting and camera control. This is multitasking at its best and your safety is at stake. Good picture should never take priority over safety.

After 25 years of diving and 10 years of shooting underwater just recently I found myself at 50 feet with under 500 psi and in need of decompression stop. Was too busy shooting a beautiful something and forgot to check the dive computer. Lucky for me conditions were ideal and all ended well, but the tank was near empty when I surfaced.

There are many reasons for producing less than satisfactory images on land or underwater. The lack of basic photographic skills and shortage of practice are among the most common. Notice how equipment is not mentioned. Just like buying a piano will not make you a good musician, expensive photo equipment won’t make your pictures better.

While no article is a substitute for practice, a cornerstone of any skill, few shortcuts offered here may help the reader to get good results a bit sooner.

1. Equipment Essentials.

Compact digital cameras offer a unique opportunity to bring home quality images from a dive without exorbitant cost, bulk and hassle. If buying a new camera, make sure the dedicated hard housing is available for it. It should be rated to a depth of 130 feet or more and should provide control of each and every camera function. The camera/housing combo needs to be neutrally buoyant. Canon makes a set of small weights that attaches to tripod socket of the housing to control camera buoyancy.

As for the camera itself, select the one with custom white balance setting, spot metering, continuous shutter release and auto ISO. Pick the camera with the largest sensor, fastest (f/2.8 at least) and the widest (24mm at least) lens you can get. These features are very important to the quality of pictures. Large LCD will be a big help underwater. Ignore the megapixels hype; all cameras have more than enough of them. Another important quality to look for when selecting a new camera is ability to access its functions without going to menu. In other words the more control buttons camera has the better. There is simply no time to go into menus to select correct setting when that whale shark decides to cooperate.

As mentioned above underwater strobes are not necessary for the type of photographers this writing is intended for. Digital cameras allow us to get away without additional cost, bulk and hassle of owning another piece of equipment that needs to be dealt with under and above the water. The term "compact camera" should mean just that.

2. Sharper Image.

Getting sharp images is one of the hardest hurdles to overcome underwater. Setting the camera to Auto ISO is the first defense against blurry pictures. ISO will automatically rise with the loss of available light keeping shutter speed at the highest possible value. The rising noise is the drawback of higher ISO, but it can be reduced in post-processing. Setting the camera to aperture priority mode and setting the aperture to the widest (smallest f/number) will also ensure the fastest shutter speed for available light.

Another advantage of aperture priority mode setting is control of depth of field it offers. Although the depth-of-field and noise will be sacrificed to some extent, it is the out-of-focus images that are always deleted first. However depth-of-field becomes important when you want the background to be sharp, or your model is behind the beautiful coral. Just remember to use smaller aperture, but watch for shutter speed to avoid blurry images.

Another help in getting sharp images is continuous shooting mode. Film is cheap in digital photography and delete function should be the most frequently used anyway. But when four shots per second are taken instead of one the probability of producing a sharp image increases four times. Reduce the image display time or shut the monitor off completely to make the camera work faster.

If you camera offers image stabilization/vibration reduction disable it. In constantly moving underwater environment it will not help but will slow down autofocus.

3. Getting colors right.

Getting the colors right without strobes is a challenge. Built-in flash is nearly useless underwater.
Variation in depth even by a few feet will affect colors since the red part of the spectrum disappears and reappears very quickly with changing depth, turning whites into ugly pinks or blues. The camera needs to know what white color is at every depth in order to get the rest of the spectrum right. That’s why custom white balance is so important. Adjusting white balance before each set of shots is critical. Aim the camera at the palm of your hand or other off-white object and set white balance every time your next potential “model” appears.

4. Blown highlights.

On a sunny day, the difference between light and shadows (dynamic range) presents another challenge underwater . Setting the camera to Spot Metering and metering for highlights will produce somewhat underexposed images, but that can easily be corrected in post-processing, unlike the blown highlights. Blown highlights cannot be recovered. Another trick is to set the exposure compensation to -2/3 value.

5. Other Tips

It is a good idea to set as many camera functions as possible before the dive, leaving only a minimum of settings to be adjusted underwater. Dive with the camera turned on, but keep the LCD display off until the worthy subject appears. Display is the biggest power drain in compacts. Changing the battery on the boat better to be avoided. Actually I dive with the camera off most of the time, and turn it on when the shooting opportunity present itself. Then I turn the camera on, set the white balance and I am ready to shoot.

Once during a dive, I watched with horror as water droplets were collecting into a little pool inside the housing. Luckily the camera survived, but now I keep the housing with camera cool so condensation does not collect underwater. Wrap the housing in a towel on the way to the boat, and then keep it in the water bucket most dive boats provide. Soak the housing in fresh water after diving, and push every button several times to flush salt water out of the button o-rings. Maintenance of the compact camera housing is minimal and limited to applying just a touch of silicon to a single o-ring.

Image Stabilization (IS)/Vibration Reduction(VR)
These are not helping underwater. Turn them off if your camera has them.

Now to economics: digital compact camera and its housing is about four times less than just a housing for my Nikon DSLR would cost. Just housing. If DSLR housing ever floods ( they all do), the camera body and especially the lens will be damaged most likely beyond any reasonable repair. If the compact camera gets flooded, it can be replaced for a fraction of its original cost as they drop in price almost daily -- so much so that I am thinking of getting a spare one for my housing…just in case.


Why are we taking pictures?

December 6th, 2015

Why are we taking pictures?
Why are we as photographers striving for better and better image quality and willing to pay obscene amount of money for equipment that arguably is able to improve what we already have.
Let’s take professionals who need their tools to make a living out of this discussion. I am also not talking here about those who take pictures of Boston Harbor or the opening ceremony of Olympics at night with built-in flash (or any flash for that matter).

Let’s talk about those of us who (luckily) have jobs and take pictures as a hobby whether they make some money from picture taking or not. Lets call them “serious” photographers.
Most of the time they know well what to do with their equipment, know how to select a good picture and not afraid to delete the rest.

I am also talking here about myself who takes pictures for probably over 50 years. I knew about shutter speed and aperture, developing film and printing in dark room since I was a teenager. I knew the tools and the craft but I did not know about the art. When I look at my old photography I feel very sad. So many good opportunities have been missed. I am better now. Not great but better.

Here is a small dilemma that I lately struggle with: the end users of my landscape photography are vacationers who just happen to wander into the local gallery that have bunch of my prints. These are not bad images, especially for those who have never seen the work of real masters. In other words these pictures are good enough so that people are willing to pay for them. Not exactly my cash cow, but good for my ego.

I love shooting bike racing because I know and love the sport. It is tough to shoot and I love the challenge. I made one good sale of bike racing image in who knows how many years. One.
But after the race the traffic to my website skyrockets. It feels good.

I also shoot a lot of soccer and running races mostly because my grandkids are in them. It is fun and I like shooting sports. It is a challenge and it took a lot of learning. After I separate grandkids images from the rest, I sent the link to the game gallery to the parents and/or race organizer who post it on his website (maybe). These pictures are viewed on smartphones, tablets and/or crappy computer terminals. No mural size prints ordered yet ☺. And I almost never get even “thank you”. But as I said I love the challenge and the sport.

Back to dilemma: all this endless quest for the very best image quality that can be achieved using only the best equipment just to be displayed on smartphones? Or if we really lucky one day Mark Zukerberg will order a 20x30 print?

Something is not right here. I own 7 years old DSLR and fast zoom circa 1997 that I use a lot. If I upgrade them to today’s equivalent it will cost about $4-5K. New equipment will shoot well in low light and autofocus faster. So as result I will have fewer sports blurred images in low light. But most of the sports I shoot happen during the day, bright sunny day when the problem is not blurry pictures but people with raccoon eyes. Probably not much help in that from the new equipment.
Probably I will have more sharp shots in the cloudy day at the end of soccer season, but I never post more than 20 best shots from each game and that is from the shoot of about 800.
Also what looks a bit out of focus at 100% will look perfectly sharp on a smartphone or even small print.
And it is all totally mute for landscape work.

So what is the point of an upgrade? I asked this question a few Internet gurus, instructors and pros. I never received any answer. Maybe because manufacturers who need to sell us new equipment (whether we need it or not) sponsor them one way or the other?

And I did not even mention underwater photography that I do a few times a year totally on budget. The equipment for this hobby is ridiculously expensive and bulky to travel with. An average shooter has no chance of producing anything half decent unless he dives constantly.
I am a diver with inexpensive compact camera, and not an underwater photographer. I dive seldom and have no chance to practice as much as necessary to produce something to brag about. It took many years to learn how to get around the deficiencies of inexpensive compact cameras to get a passable shot. I mean passable for average viewer who does not look elsewhere to find the work of real masters.

So the question remains: what’s wrong with equipment I (we) have today and what are we going to gain after spending those thousands of dollars?

Cheat Sheet

May 31st, 2015

Cheat Sheet

Here is my cheat sheet for using digital compact camera without flash or strobes while scuba diving:

EXPOSURE:
Select spot or center exposure metering mode on your camera. Aim at a brightest spot, push shutter release button half way, recompose and push the shutter button all the way. Hold it down to make several exposures (providing you previously selected continuous shooting mode). Film is cheap these days, good images are priceless.

SHOOTING MODE:
Select aperture priority (Av on Canon) and keep the lens wide open all the time. That will ensure the maximum available light will pass through the lens and keep shutter speed at a minimum for given conditions (and will make more sharp and less blurry pictures).

Keep your zoom at the widest and zoom in when you see the subject on your LCD. Here and during post-processing keep unrelated stuff out. CROP, and when in doubt, crop again. Photography is the art of exclusion, less is always better.

AUTO ISO.
Set your ISO to AUTO. There is never enough light underwater. You may get a noisy image but it will be as sharp as possible under given light. Blurry pictures are always deleted first.
When shooting lazy subjects that not moving much, use a footing for the camera, like lean it against something and shoot only after camera in immobilized.

WHITE BALANCE.
White balance needs to be reset every few feet of depth to compensate for the loss of red part of spectrum. Camera cannot do it by itself unless they begin to equip them with depth meters (not yet to my knowledge). Your "underwater" WB setting is nothing more than a setting for snorkeling depth (that is what most people do).

When you have a strobe this is not an issue because it delivers white light with full specter of colors (for a short distance). Flush will do the same, but built in flashes of compact cameras are too weak for land photography, never mind UW and due to their proximity to lens give a lot of backscatter. I never use it.

IS (Image Stabilization/Vibration Reduction)
Turn IS Off. It is useless under water.

For images visit www.redberyphoto.com/underwater.

Camera Died...so What?

April 14th, 2015

Camera Died...so What?

It finally happened.
While diving off Cozumel my one year old Canon Powershot S100 has died. Diving without a camera is very frustrating because that is when the best photo opportunities appear. Just like on land, when you do not have your camera with you.

This is my 4th Canon Powershot since 2004 and none of them ever failed. They all have been gradually upgraded after many years of use, thanks to e-bay where old cameras went with their housings.

The solution was found at once. Reservation office of the hotel we were staying in found a person who was coming down in two days, I ordered the replacement Powershot S100 to be delivered to his house overnight and in two days I was shooting again.

It took no time, the person was not inconvenienced by a tiny camera and all that for a whopping $200 for camera refurbished by Canon and I can keep using the housing.

Update: The "broken"Powershot S100 camera apparently had a manufacturing defect that Canon fixed for free. So now I have a spare.

Underwater Strobe Experience

January 10th, 2014

Underwater Strobe Experience

Before leaving to Fiji for a week long diving trip on liveaboard Nai'a I decided to purchase a strobe (underwater flash). Liveaboard is a dive boat that you live on and dive non-stop at sites not accessible from land. It offers real opportunity for unlimited practice of underwater photographic skills and in my case to learn well how to use a strobe.

Despite extensive reading about using strobes (the flight to Fiji was long) and almost unlimited time underwater to practice I did not come up with a single image made with the strobe that was worth keeping. After coming back I returned the strobe.

Shooting underwater gave a new twist to my diving. However I am and most likely always will be a vacation diver with camera and not the photographer with scuba tanks. I cannot spend enough time under water to really learn this craft, hence I have a hard time justifying the absurd cost, bulk and overall trouble of dealing with elaborate UW photo equipment. Just a good compact is all I need.