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Saturday, April 12, 2014 

Complacency Kills

Mid-way through their 10 day live aboard dive trip, the large, experienced group of underwater photographers seemed to have a good rhythm down of diving, eating, resting, editing photos and hitting the water again in search of new subjects. After many days of rain and mediocre conditions, the tropical Pacific paradise of Palau beaconed them that late-afternoon with calm seas and sunny skies.

Setting out from the mother ship, the skiff was crammed with divers and photo gear, and quickly made it’s way out in the lengthening day towards an easy dive site, sheltered from the strong currents and seas that mark much of the intense diving in Palau. They would dive a shallower area with small bommies and rocks sewn along a sloping sand bar, ending in a small island marked with a light.

Everyone eagerly geared up and jumped in. As it was about 4 pm, there was still plenty of light for another couple of hours, so no serious dive lights were required, although many divers had focus or video lights on their rigs. All of the divers had been given a serious safety briefing first thing on board, and had been issued surface markers and some sort of sound signaling device if they didn’t have one. Having done 15 or so dives together, the group split off comfortably into pairs and smaller groups. Led by two dive guides, they spread out to be able to capture the macro subject matter they were after without interference.

Early in the dive, one diver, having brought wide angle gear along, was bored, and decided to signal the dive guide and head up. The guide watched the diver reach the surface and resumed herding the others around to new subjects to shoot.

After close to an hour, the groups of divers ended their dives and surfaced in the warm golden rays of a tropical setting sun. They remarked at the complete lack of currents during the dive.

The skiff when along the line of divers picking everyone up, and many remarked once on board, “Gee, where’s Jim? He’s usually the first one up”.

Jim had surfaced ok an hour previously. He saw the dive boat off a short distance away and waited for them to pick him up, it was a sunny afternoon with just a light breeze and clear skies, he was sure they’d see him in a minute or two. And it just seemed like routine for him to surface earlier than the others. But the crew on the boat never expected a diver to come up after 20 mins, and were relaxed after a long day, chatting with another skiff, comfortable in their routine that the divers would be down for another 40 minutes or so. After all, usually if somebody had a problem it was in the first few minutes of the dive.

Jim sat on the surface, and then slowly drifted away in the light wind. He inflated his surface marker and blew on his whistle. But he was silhouetted in the bright sun, and the wind blew his whistle sound away. He had some difficulty holding the surface marker upright as well.

He saw the boat start up and move a couple of times, but nobody saw him by then. He watched them start to pick up the other divers, then start to do searches for him. The boat did “S” sweeps around and around upwind from him, but nobody could spot him in the gathering darkness. He continued to drift uncontrollably away, even trying to swim a bit.

After it became dark, Jim turned on a small strobe light that he had on his BC desperate to be seen. He tried to swim a bit, but realized that impossibility. Frustratingly, he could see the boats looking for him, but none ventured far enough in his direction to see him.

The mood on the boat was one of frantically searching back and forth in a directed manner. After radioing the ship, long S sweeps were made by the well-trained crew in a lengthening manner, never realizing the distance downwind Jim had traveled in an hour. Twenty pairs of eyes were looking for Jim in every direction. The boat sat and listened for his whistle at times, not hearing any sounds. There was also the sand bar to search, as Jim had remarked that as a strong swimmer, he would try to swim to shore if he had problems.

As night fell, there were the guests on board to think about and the boat was out of fuel. Reluctantly, it returned to the live aboard. The authorities were advised, and several other liveaboards launched boats to take their place in the search, keeping in touch by radio.

His dive buddies and the trip leader got cleaned up and discussed the events in a somber manner. Many speculated that he had suffered some sort of medical condition after reaching the surface and had slipped back below. The easy routine enjoyment of the dive trip had turned into a nightmare.

After refueling, the Captain took the helm and they returned to the dive site to search. Finally, they saw a very small light downwind in the distance.

The boat drove at 29 knots for 6 minutes before they caught up with Jim and plucked him from the dark waters. He was tired but unharmed, and very lucky to be alive, after drifting a long 5 miles away from the dive site into the open Philippine Sea at night.

The lesson learned? Complacency can kill you. If you don’t carry all the safety gear you need to attract attention, on every dive, whether it’s a “no-brainer” dive or not, you can be lost at sea. If the boat crew doesn’t watch for divers surfacing early, divers can be lost.

Even if you’ve done 15 aggressive dives together previously and had no problems, don’t relax on the last dive of the day. It really could be your “last” dive.

See and Be Heard - Use What You Have

Even on a simple, easy dive, don’t jump in without a good light, surface marker and strong sound device.

Jim was prepared with a strobe light and it saved his life. But a better surface sound signaling device like a Dive-Alert would of gotten him immediate attention. Inflating his surface marker completely and waving it for attention may of helped too. But in the event that nothing else worked, or in adverse conditions, a Nautilus Lifeline with it’s GPS-linked digital VHF radio and strobe light would of made finding him much more assured.

A large surface marker buoy (SMB) is now required on most offshore dive boats. Some even have lights. Be sure you are familiar with their deployment and practice using them in easy conditions. Holding the end of them down underwater makes them stand up rigidly. Many guides deploy them at the safety stop for the dive skiff to spot and keep divers from being hit by other boat traffic. Try letting out a big burst of air from your octo just before you surface, then surface in it’s wake. The large surface boil will signal traffic where you are.

But what if you don’t have those great devices? Grab an old CD and put it in your BC pocket - they make a great signaling mirror. Most divers now carry some sort of light, and photographers have powerful strobes on their camera. Put your camera into “automatic” mode and the strobe will fire. Firing them in a burst of 3 shots every minute towards a boat should attack attention. Don’t have a surface marker? Take off your fins and wave them above your head, the idea is to make yourself “large” in the water. Remember to stick together, a larger group is much easier to spot than a small one. Conserve your strength, ditch your weights and other cumbersome gear if you have to. Relax, breath in the troughs of the waves, not at the top, where it breaks over your head.

Remember good communication with the boat crew, your guides and dive buddies is probably the most important part of your safety. If you think you might come up early, tell the guides and driver to be on the lookout. Plan your dive and dive your plan; it’s a basic part of any underwater adventure.

Friday, April 11, 2014 

New Handbooks: Guides to Better Underwater Photography

We've developed some great FREE handbooks to help give you a basic guide to many aspects of underwater photography. Titled "Guides to Better Underwater Photography", these are easy-to-read articles with lots of example photos designed to get you out in the water trying new techniques quickly.






They give you basic concepts and practical tips that will help you get better photos; from how to get started, to more advanced lighting techniques. These are applicable to any type of system from compact to advanced DSLRs, whether you're just starting out, or have more experience - everyone will find some helpful information.

The Handbooks cover many different areas such as Starting Concepts, Composition, Choosing a Lighting System, Close Focus Wide Angle Photography and Maintenance. They are in .pdf format and are an easy way to quickly improve your knowledge and skills.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 

Housing & O-ring Maintenance

Underwater Camera Floods: Avoiding the High Water Mark

No subject scares underwater photographers more than having an expensive housed camera turn into an aquarium. Even a bit of water can turn electronics into a corroded mess.

Here are a few general tips on maintenance that should help you avoid finding Nemo in your housing:

1) Read the manufacturer’s instructions. Please carefully read through it. Housings all vary in care and feeding. For example, housings all have different depth ratings, or have varying ways of adding a sync cord. Some have all of the controls, but many have fewer housing controls than on the camera, with some controls doing multiple actions. Some o-rings are not removable but need to be wiped off. Some housings have controls that are user-serviceable, some aren't. Read the manual to find out.

2) O-rings are probably the most important and miss-serviced parts.
In addition to the large, noticeable o-ring on the back cover, every control has one or two, as well as the ports, and strobe or other bulkheads. Some are black, some are blue or grey, most should be serviced, but some should not.

If you don’t need to service an o-ring, don’t. A sealed o-ring will remain so unless disturbed, such as cleaning. A good example is a port: there is no need to service a port o-ring between dives if it is not removed or changed.

Following rule #1, you can generally service the rear, port and bulkhead o-rings as follows. Remove them carefully by pinching the o-ring at the corner and pulling it out/off. If it sticks, use the corner of a credit card to gently pry it up. Many housings come with a thin removal tool. A blunted wooden cuticle remover also can also be useful, but do NOT use tweezers, screwdrivers, needle-nose pliers, vise grips or any other sharp, medieval devices.

Then just wash the o-ring in warm water with a bit of soap. Pat it dry completely with a lint-free dishtowel; NOT a paper towel or used Kleenex. Try not to stretch it as you dry it.

Examine the o-ring in a bright light. Use a magnifying glass if necessary. Look for dirt, sand, cuts, dog, cat, rat, weasel or hamster hair. Be picky and meticulous; even the smallest hair can ruin your day.

O-rings can get cut or abraded fairly easily as salt crystals form and slice them with their sharp edges. Replace them from your spares as necessary, and order replacements.

You do have fresh spares don't you? O-rings need to be stored in an air-tight bag away from strong sunlight. Not a bad idea to pull them out of the housing when not in use and put them in a baggie inside. They get brittle with age, and should be periodically replaced.

3) If an o-ring is clean and in good shape, lubricate it with just a drop or two of the proper silicone grease. Put a couple of drops on your fingertips and gently pull the o-ring through them to apply. Do NOT use anything other than the grease that is from your housing manufacturer. For instance, using black o-ring grease on blue o-rings has been known to melt them, which generally results in you melting down when your housing floods. Use the manufacturer’s grease on the manufacture’s o-ring; they will not cover floods if you don’t.

Now repeat the mantra; OMMM... "MORE IS NOT BETTER...MORE IS NOT BETTER...". Do NOT over grease. Silicone grease is ONLY a lubricant, NOT a sealant. All you want to see is sheen on the o-ring, not globs of grease. If you apply too much, all it will do is act as glue for sand and dirt to stick to.

4) Carefully clean the flanges and grooves where they contact the o-rings. Use foam swabs, or a cotton swab with a piece of lens tissue wrapped around the tip. A clean used toothbrush also works well too. Blowing them off carefully with a can of compressed air is ok, but try to blow the dirt OUT of the housing, by holding it upside down. Again, examine all these surfaces carefully, they should not resemble "Beach Blanket Bingo" with sand everywhere, nor should there be any deep cuts or pinches that would result in a bad seal. Do NOT apply grease to the flat surfaces.

5) Now carefully install the clean, greased o-ring, making sure it is not twisted and lays flat in its intended spot. If it seems out of shape, let it sit there for a minute, then try pressing it into place again. They can get heated from your fingertips and become misshapen and enlarge slightly. With larger o-rings, start from the top with both hands and gently press them into place, without stretching them out of shape.

Examine the o-ring again, make sure there’s nothing that came off of a towel or your hands on them.

6) Install your camera with fresh batteries and a cleaned off card, then carefully close it. Always do an o-ring "sweep", running your finger along it's entire surface, just before you close the back.

Make sure the o-ring is seated and you haven’t pinched it out of position, and that there's not a sync cord or the edge of a silica gel bag stuck in between the surfaces. If you have a clear housing, check to see that there is a solid line where the o-ring seals. Breaks in color usually mean a problem.

Make sure the edges of the housing seem to be evenly spaced, and nothing looks out of position or warped.

7) If you have an electrical sync cord: Wipe off copper electronic sync cord contacts with rubbing alcohol (buy the 91% variety), and even use a bit of silicone grease on the threads when installing them. Then leave the cord connected for the whole trip. The contacts are fragile and if it's working, it does not need to be serviced between dives. Covers need to be immediately put on sync cord ends; copper and salt air is a bad combination.

8) Be sure to try your installed camera with the strobe before you go diving. Test a couple of frames to see if you’ve left the lens cover on, strobes are syncing, etc.

9) A piece of thin sanitary pad usually fits in most housings and provides a bit of "oops a few drops got in" insurance. It’s a good idea to tape it and any silica gel packets in place with a bit of electrical tape. It’s really a bummer to see the words “Dry-z-Air” when you are trying to focus on a whale shark.

10) Always test your housing in the dunk tank on the boat. That's a plunge, swish-swish, watch for bubbles, dunk...NOT a toss-it-in-until-I'm-ready-to-dive dunk.

11) Go diving! Have fun, swim around slowly, take lots of pictures!


12) Later soak the entire rig in warm fresh water, even if you’ve done it on the boat. 15-20 minutes is all you need to do. Again, work all the controls to get the salt out. Let it dry out of the sun and heat.
Disassemble handles from trays if you ever intend on moving them again. Salt water can act between dissimilar metals through electrolysis and weld them together; i.e. your stainless bonds to your aluminum handles.
If you're having some sticky controls, or something is "welded" together a warm bath with vinegar can help dissolve salt and corrosion safely. There is also a marine product called "Salt Away" that can work. If the part is small, you can put it in an ultrasonic cleaner.

Once a year or so, you should send your housing into the manufacturer's repair center for servicing. Those small o-rings in the controls generally are not user-serviceable and need periodic replacement. Springs, latches and controls get worn as well. Don't pack the housing and take it on a long trip without servicing the o-rings and checking the system on a test dive first.

The above doesn't have to take a long time, and a complete cleaning is not necessary every dive, but take your time and examine your housing carefully before you get in the water. Be meticulous about your equipment and it will last you for many years of diving!

Some General Dos and Don'ts:
Do:
  • Be meticulous and careful when setting up your rig. Good time to tell your friends and family you need some alone time without distractions for an hour. Concentrate and develop a method for putting things together. Do it the same way every time and you won't forget a step.
  • Use a dab of anti-seize compound, or even silicone grease, on any stainless to aluminum bolts. Most are anodized, but some anodizing is better than others.

  • Clean, inspect and service your o-rings if in doubt. If you've been diving off a beach that's sandy or gritty, it's a good idea to be very careful. Off a boat or liveaboard your serviced o-rings can probably just be inspected carefully and continue to be used.
  • Close your cover or port carefully. If something seems off, it usually is. A latch that's hard to close may mean something isn't loaded correctly. Rotary housing latches can be sand traps. If you've rinsed the housing and still find sand, then you may have to disassemble it. Usually it's just a small screw or two; clean it out and reassemble.
  • Always do an o-ring "sweep", running your finger along it's entire surface, just before you close the back. You'll feel any grit you missed.
  • Always do a test of your camera and strobes. Make sure your settings are correct, go over anything you don't understand about their operations - while you can still look at the manuals.
  • Always test your housing in the dunk tank on the boat. Better to find out there that you have a problem.
  • Always do a test dive without the camera in the housing if you are worried there might be a problem. Go down to depth, and work the controls. Adding a small soft weight as a counter-balance is a help, as is a wad of tissue or paper towel inside to help spot where a leak is occurring.
  • Consider getting one of the new "Vacuum Check" leak detection systems. These new systems allow you to pump a bit of air out of the housing and let it sit. If the pressure drops, then a light changes color to allow you to fix it or abort your dive - before a bad flood can occur!
Don't:
  • DON'T leave your camera in the rinse tank between dives, or for longer than a couple of minutes. MOST floods happen in the rinse tank. Cameras get dropped in on top of each other and latches get sprung, etc. Scratched ports are the least of your worries. Also, during your dive the housing and controls get compressed. Coming up from the bottom and then putting the camera in a non-pressurized tank of water can allow some controls to weep a bit. So just rinse it well, take it out and leave it under a towel out of the sun between dives.

  • DON'T let anyone clean their mask out in the camera rinse tank. Anti-fog solutions have been known to be hard on o-rings.
  • Never jump in the water holding your camera rig. The fast pressure can pop things open, along with it getting bumped and scratched. Including your head. Have a deckhand hand it to you, or suspend it from a line, then retrieve it once in the water.

  • Dried salt water is your housing’s enemy. Salt crystals form in the controls and they can cause leaks. If you don't have access to a fresh water rinse, leave it in salt water. As long as it doesn't dry, it's fine.
  • Try not to let water dry on the glass ports, especially in the sun. You'll get some cosmetic water spots on the port's coating if it does. There's nothing you can do to remove them once they're there. They won't hurt the photo quality at all, but it's nice to avoid them.

Sunday, March 09, 2014 

Choosing an Underwater Photography Lighting System

What’s Right for You? by Denise Kitchel

Why do I need a lighting system?
That might seem like a silly question, but it is not always obvious to people what factors are involved in determining how much lighting they need. There are a few things that determine the amount of color saturation and image clarity in underwater photography: depth, ambient light, and water clarity. Obviously you're not in control of the depth that your subject is at, or the water clarity, but you do have some say in the amount of light. By adding to the available natural light, you’ll be able to improve the color saturation, sharpness and clarity of your photos.

Underwater Depth and Color
Think about rainbows; they are a vision of light refracted into individual colors through rain (drops of water). So, it’s only natural that when we’re under water, colors change based on the light from above being refracted and absorbed by the water. Each color is a different wave length and energy level, which means that each color absorbs at a different rate.

Colors vanish underwater in the same order as they appear in the color spectrum.  

  • Red – The first to disappear, you may see a noticeable difference in red at 5ft and a complete loss at 15ft.
  • Orange – The next to go, oranges will be lost at between 25 and 30ft.
  • Yellow – Next are yellows, which fade at 35 to 40ft
  • Green – The last to go are greens at anywhere between 50 and 75ft.

Keep in mind the impact of horizontal distance as well. If you are 10 feet underwater, and you are viewing an object that is 10 feet away, you are viewing the light that has reflected off of that object, which has actually travelled 20 feet to reach your eye. At that point, all of the reds will have been filtered out.

Similarly, the light from your system will have to travel 10 feet to the subject you’re shooting and reflect 10 feet back to the camera lens, for a total of 20 feet. Keep this in mind when setting up your shots. The closer you get, the better the color.

Mind Games
The interesting thing is that our brains are wired to compensate for the loss of color. We see a familiar object under water and we see red, because we know it is red, but when we take a photo of it with only natural light, there is no red. So, you actually need lighting when you don’t necessarily think you do.

Where do I start?
To choose the right underwater lighting system, you will have to think about a number of things: What kind of photography will I primarily be shooting, stills or video? What subjects will I be shooting? What will the available light be like where I dive? What kind of camera, housing and lenses will I be using? Why am I taking photos and what do I plan to do with them?

Once you have answers to these questions, you’ll be well on your way to picking out the right components you need in order to put together a lighting system that will take your photos to a whole new level!

What do I have to choose from?
There are several components that go into a lighting system: one or more types of lights, arms, trays, handles, clamps, adapters, mounts and sync cords. Below is a description of each and how they work together to make one awesome lighting system!
                   
Types of Lights - Lights generally fall into one of two categories:

Continuous Lights – These are lights that you turn on and they stay on until you turn them off. Their output is measured in lumens, which defines the total amount of visible light emitted, and can range anywhere from 300 to 18,000 lumens. Focus lights and video lights fall into this category.

 

  • Focus Lights
    Focus lights are lower lumen, continuous lights. They help you to see while setting up a shot, and help your camera lock in focus on subjects in the somewhat dim lighting conditions found underwater. They are essential for night diving, in that trying to hold a dive light for visibility and take pictures at the same time is nearly impossible.

    Some have built-in red lights, or a red filter, which is great for shooting shy creatures (like crustaceans or octopus) that can’t see the color red. It also means that you won’t be the one swarmed by krill while trying to get a shot of that gorgeous manta, but your buddy shooting video with high-lumen white light certainly will!

  • Video Lights
    When shooting video you’ll need a strong light, at least 800 lumens, but 1200 or more is recommended, with a wide beam angle. Video is all about capturing movement, so think about needing to light up a large space with even light out from edge to edge.

    When shooting video with a wide angle lens, you’ll want 2 lights in order to have even coverage. For macro video, a single 800 lumen light will do the job, but a minimum of 1200 lumens is necessary if you’ll be shooting both still and video.

Strobe Lights – These are lights that emit a short burst of intense, extremely powerful light, providing crispness, sharpness and color saturation to your photos. They are usually connected to your camera housing with a sync cord, allowing the camera to signal the strobe to fire. Their output is measured in underwater guide numbers that range from 12 to 32 or more.

Strobes are essential for still photography. Yes, your camera has a built-in flash, but that flash was intended for above water photos, where you don’t need to worry about things like refraction of light through water and reflection from backscatter. It’s also built-in, which means it is in a fixed position on the inside of your housing, where it will be shadowed by the port on your housing, and the light it emits will always be straight ahead. It will light up the particles in the water really well, meaning lots of good shots of backscatter, but not light your subject too well at all. With a strobe, you can position your light in a way that reduces backscatter, and give yourself some creative lighting options.

Manual and TTL Exposure: Strobe can have two different exposure control systems; manual and auto-TTL. Manual is just that; a control to change the power (duration) of the strobe's output. TTL (Through The Lens metering) is a method for the strobe to either be controlled directly from the camera with an electrical sync connection, or by using an optical sync, to mimic the camera's flash. This is also sometimes refered to as D-TTL, or slave TTL.

Can I use a high-power continous light instead of a strobe? The answer is not really well. Even the smallest strobe puts out thousands of candle power of light intensity instantaneously. This very quick, high-powered light gives you the color saturation and sharpenss desired for still photos. If you use a continous light for still photos, you'll have to shoot at high ISOs, with slow shutter speeds and open aperatures, as the light just doesn't have the same intensity. Your photos will tend to be soft looking and darker, without intense colors, sharpness or detail. In a recent test we conducted, an 18,000 lumen video light put out about what a small strobe could, and it really only worked well for macro or close up photos. This is an area of some debate, and again, it depends on how you're going to use your photos.


Things to Consider

When choosing lights, you’ll want to consider several things in order to make sure that you’re getting the best light for the money.
  • Construction – Look for anodized aluminum, or high-quality plastic construction with double o-rings. For strobes, look for a sealed battery compartment.
  • Features – Look for additional features like battery life indicators, power settings, swappable batteries, varying beam width, Red or UV color. For strobes; a target light, ready and/or TTL indicator lights, a test function, and the number of pre-flash settings are the features to look for.
  • Batteries – Does it use standard batteries or lithium rechargeable? How many? Does it come with a spare set? What is the capacity/runtime? What type of charger does it use? Can it be "wet-charged" and not use an external charger?
  • Controls – Look at ease of use, readability, the number of brightness settings and filters. For strobes, also look at power settings (duration of flash) and TTL vs. Manual control.
  • Mounts – What type of mount does it have? Ball or YS-mounts are generally used. Does it come with others for wrist mounting a dive light, etc?

Trays
A tray is the base for connecting all of your components together. Most DSLRs will come with a tray and handle, so you may not need to choose a separate one. If you do though, you’ll need to consider a few things. The size of your housing is the biggest determining factor for which trays you’ll have to choose from. After that, your options will be narrowed based on the mount for the type of housing you have. Next, you’ll want to look at how adjustable they are, so that you’ll be able to configure it best for your fit (the size of your hands with gloves on or off) and so that you’ll have a better chance of being able to reuse it if you buy a new housing.

Handles
Trays can be single handle or double handle. Some trays come with handles attached, and some you purchase separately. In any case, you’ll want to choose handles that have a comfortable grip for your hand size.

Arms & Clamps
Once you’ve got your tray and handles figured out, you’ll want to think about what kinds of arms you’ll need. There are flex arms, float arms (to offset the additional weight of your system), and rigid arms that come in several different lengths. You’ll connect them together with clamps that allow you to position your lights however you’d like and lock them into position or allow them to be easily moved.

Adapters & Mounts
Any number of adapters and mounts are available to connect together components from different manufacturers. Some are necessary to mount lighting on top of housings instead of arms, others adapt lighting to different arms. Just know that if you’re buying separate lighting system components, rather than purchasing a lighting package, you may need to purchase adapters and/or mounts as well.

Sync Cords
Sync cords provide a connection between the housing and strobe to fire it in sync with the camera's built in flash. There are two types of sync cords: Electrical and Fiber Optic.

Electrical sync cords can provide the best performance and save the camera battery. However, the housing must be able to support them by providing a connection into the camera, which can be another source for floods.

Fiber optic sync cords are the newer method and are preferred for ease of use. One end of the cord connects to the strobe, and the other end is connected to the outside of the housing, over the camera’s flash, by attaching it to  a built in port on the housing or simply with Velcro. When the flash fires, the light travels through the fiber optic cord and signals the strobe to fire. The beauty of this is that there is no hole drilled into the housing, so no worry about flooding.

How about a Lighting Package?
Want to make it easy on yourself and get the biggest bang for your buck? Consider purchasing one of our lighting packages. We’ve put together what we think are the best configurations for various housings, based on the needs of our customers, at a reasonable price. Take a look on our website!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 

Palau: Photography in Paradise

Fourteen underwater photographers joined Optical Ocean sales owner Jack Connick on an expedition to the Rock Islands of Palau in late November of 2013. After a long flight, they joined onboard the Palau Aggessor liveaboard on an extended, 10 day cruise.

With the weather wet and warm, the comforts of the ship were welcomed. Spacious cabins, sun deck, a large camera table, salon and dinning areas let the large group spread out comfortably.

Diving was from a skiff, with all dive gear left aboard. It was lifted from the water after each dive, so divers just had to step onboard, cameras were loaded onto the skiff's camera table by the crew. Besides Captain Marc, there were 2-3 guides and drivers onboard, as well as chief, stewardess and stewards; all-in-all treating us to great, professional service.

After getting organized and well briefed, we headed out of port to enjoy the outer reefs. No hour-long day boat rides for us, dive sites were within 15 minutes, more or less. Palau is in danger of being “over-loved” by divers and sites can get crowded. We were generally first on the sites in the morning and having lunch while the day boats were diving. Continuing to avoid the crowds, we dove into the late afternoon with a few night dives after that.

Multiple dives on many of the sites let the expedition try various lens combinations and techniques. Many times, varying currents allowed divers to also try different directions and depths as well. For the most part, currents were very light, even on sites like Peleliu and Blue Corners.

Palau is famous for having nearly every type of marine animal in abundance, and one never quite knew what you'd see; sharks, turtles, giant wrasse, eels, enormous schools of Jacks, as well as macro life; with nudibranchs and small fish, like Square-spot Anthias, challenging our photographic abilities. Dives were set up especially to shoot Reef Mantas, which came zooming up German Channel late in day. Walls were decorated in vivid hues of sponges, anemones, huge fans, corals of every shape and kind, as well as many other colorful invertebrates.

Starting on the outer reefs, we dove the Turtle Cove, Blue Corner, German Channel areas. Then we continued down to the island of Peleliu for a couple of days. While there, we enjoyed a tour of this battlefield, home of some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific theatre of World War II. Bomb disposal teams are still actively working to clear ordinance from the area - 60 years later.

Returning to the Turtle Cove area, we dove some of those sites as well as Ngemelis Wall - enjoying a little more sun for better wide-angle photos. We also dove Blue Hole on a couple of occasions, enjoying the dramatic lighting and framing afforded in those caves.

The next day, while the Aggressor moved up to anchor as close as she could to Ulong Reef, the skiff departed for a sunny morning of snorkeling famous Jellyfish Lake.

Conditions couldn't of been better as the group hiked over the steep ridge, with a sunny day giving us lots of color to work with. As we could afford the time, Captain Marc led us on a long swim to the other end of the brackish lake where there were more of the yellow, non-stinging jellyfish to take photos with many different techniques being tried. I had envisioned a shot utilizing a type of refractive physics called "Snell's Window" that focuses the sky and surrounding area behind the subject clearly in a circle. Aiming my rig by sight at arms’ length, it took many tries, but I got a few keepers in the end. The lake also is home to a species of cardinalfish. Snorkeling amongst the mangrove roots along the shore they were completely tame to my camera lens.

That afternoon, we started diving Ulong reef. Ulong Wall, Ulong Channel, the Coral Gardens on top and Siaes Tunnel were enjoyed repeatedly. Siaes is a cavern at a starting depth of 90', but it's long entrances made for some great photos of the divers and fauna there.

A nearby sand bar was also dove late in the day to shoot some macro subjects there. Unfortunately one diver became separated from the group. Luckily the crew responded with great professionalism and skill, finding him after several hours, but only after he had activated a strobe light. (see a separate article written for Alert Diver about this incident.

Heading back into the lagoon, and enjoying a skiff tour of the Rock Islands, we dove a couple of large WWII wrecked ships and a Japanese seaplane there. Visibility was very poor, and a crew was surveying the crashed "Jake" plane to see how it had deteriorated. But it was something different; certainly another attraction of the diving in Palau.

After arriving back to Korror, we went on a land tour, driving out of town to he north a couple of hours, stopping to view farms, scenery and old Japanese gun emplacements, we went on a tour to a huge waterfall in the dense jungle.

Palau certainly was an adventure, and the longer cruise was worth the extra time and expense to truly enjoy this amazing South Sea paradise.

Photo Notes: I was shooting my Nikon D800 in a Nauticam housing with a variety of lenses. For macro I shot a Nikon 105mm VR with a +5 diopter. Also experimented with a 60mm macro, but found it really didn't have enough power. For wide angle,  I shot a Nikon 17-35 f2.8 (which I like over the 16-35, because of it's speed), a Sigma 15mmFE, both behind a smaller Zen 170mm dome port. I found the Zen 170mm dome to work quite well, shooting about the same as the larger 8" acrylic dome I shot in Fiji earlier. It packed very well with my entire system fitting in a Seahorse rollaboard case.

 

Friday, November 01, 2013 

Free Handbooks: Basics of Underwater Photos

We've just revised and published several new FREE handbooks in a series Basics of Better Underwater Photos. These .pdfs cover basic overall techniques and approaches, as well as various types of shots like macro, wide angle, close focus/wide angle, sunballs and much more. There's lots of good info here for beginners and experts; starting exposures, lighting diagrams, composition, etc. These are a "fast-read" using photos to illustrate. The first eight are posted, we're working on adding more soon! Download them here. Enjoy and pass on this link!

 

Photo Expedition to the Socorros May, 2014!

For those of you who enjoyed my photos and article on the Socorros Islands, please join us on a Photo Expedition there May 23- June 1st 2014.

Optical Ocean Sales has organized a trip to go at a perfect time of year to find baitballs; schooling small fish that the predators encircle and feed on. These swirling “balls” of fish are attacked above and below water by sailfish, sharks, and dolphins - and are a mass of action for underwater photography.

The Revillagigedos Islands, also known as the Socorro Islands, are located 250 miles offshore southwest of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. They form an oasis for pelagic life amongst their volcanic shores. Many hammerhead and silky sharks, giant manta rays, dolphins, sailfish, schools of jacks and tuna come to feed, mate and get cleaned by small pandemic Clarion Angelfish.

These animals tend to be quite friendly towards divers at times, allowing for fantastic interactions and blue water photo opportunities.
This is also the time of year that huge schools of silky sharks are found at Roca Partida Island. These schools can literally block out the sun with their immense numbers.

Our expedition will be on the Solmar V, a luxury liveaboard, which has been sailing these waters for many years, with probably the most experienced and friendly crew around. Best of all, our head guide will be Erick Higuera, a biologist and photographer, who just won the Beneath the Sea “Stan Waterman Award for Underwater Video” for his film “Baja”. He has worked for many years on the Solmar and has extensive experience in the islands.

Both Martin Heyn and myself will be on board and we plan on being available to help you get the most from this fantastic photo opportunity.  The cost is $3395/$3495 and is all-inclusive; just get yourself to Cabo San Lucas and we do the rest! Our trip flyer is here. Get more details and sign up today at the webstore!

Saturday, February 09, 2013 

Blue Water Diving: It's All Good

Went down to Cabo for a few days and then out on the Solmar V to the Soccoros for a week in mid-January. It can always be a crap shoot, and the last trip I made (this is my third) was in January and was spectacular. This time we had wind and cool weather in Cabo for most of the 5 days before the trip.

The islands really had gotten beat up with the hard rain and wind. Fortunately, it had improved as we left. Unfortunately the seas were choppy and the wind was still bad for the first couple of days. The viz, was pretty bad, worst I've seen, normally it's 80-100', but we had more like 20' horizontal and 40' vertical. We couldn't see our fins at Cabo Pearce. Frustratingly, there was pretty decent animal interactions, with lots of hammerheads and even a small Tiger at Canyons, but pretty much impossible to shoot!

Roca Partida had a bit better viz, but lumpy seas and strong currents. There was a small school of Galapagos sharks, but the group scared them away. Normally it's crystal clear and can have an amazing amount of animals.

Finally, we got back to San Benedicto and El Boiler was pretty good, although very hazy, pretty bad in the afternoon. But the mantas were playing and over the course of 8 dives I managed to get some images I liked, by getting within a few feet.

Oh well, that's blue water diving for you. The next couple of week's trip reports afterwards had the viz back and conditions excellent. The crew on the Solmar V is fantastic, the old boat still works out quite well, great food, huge camera table and everyone had fun.

We do have a charter in 2014 at the end of May concentrating on shooting bait balls and the huge schools of silky sharks that seem to congregate around Roca Partida that time of year. I'll have an announcement up soon.

Here's a few shots. They were taken with a Nikon D800, Sigma 15mmFE, in a Nauticam NA-D800 housing and Zen 230mm dome port with 2x Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobes. This system is very easy to use underwater as it is neutral and fairly compact for it's capabilities.

 

A Tale of Two Cameras: Photo Expedition to Taveuni and Rainbow Reef


Fiji - D800Fourteen brave folks came along on our first shop trip to Taveuni, Fiji this October. The long flights from LAX through Nadi to The Garden Island Resort went smoothly, and the friendly staff greeted us with warm welcomes and traditional songs. Our rooms were spacious, with fresh tropical flowers, and spa style bathrooms. We were anxious to get in a check-out dive right away, but the dive shop wasn’t prepared for our arrival, so things were bit disorganized. Having had a lot of experience in running dive trips, I was able to quickly get them back on track.

Diving the rest of the week went more smoothly, with two dives in the morning and one in the afternoon. Rainbow Reef, in the Somosomo Straits between Taveuni and Viti Levu was a short 20 min run out, and had a great variety of dive sites, from top-of-the-reef hard corals, sandy slots, to short/deep walls and caves. Currents were up and down, and really took the experienced guides to figure out. They would be running one way on one side of the reef and reverse direction on the other side. Many times we would drift down, then up and over and come back. The wall entrance to The Great White wall was a swim-through that started at 35’ and came out at 80’, then ended with another short swim-though from 65’ back to 30’. Our dive profiles were pretty zig-zaggy as a result, and it played havoc with some divers’ ears.

Fiji has amazing soft and hard corals, gorgonian fans and other invertebrates with Technicolor hues. These incredible vistas left all sorts of subject matter for photography. There are also large amounts of small and medium-sized fish, with a few larger ones wandering by from time to time; white-tip and bronze whaler sharks, a large napoleon wrasse, turtles, etc. The Somosomo Straits doesn’t have as many large animals as other spots, but there certainly is  a variety of life.

Our surface intervals were a treat: we were able to pull up to a beautiful park on the other side of the straits that had a wide sandy beach and shady palm trees to take a quick nap under. Fresh coconuts that the guides broke open accompanied our snacks and clouds of small fish were fun to snorkel with.

Go Large or Go Home
While most photographers who travel are moving to smaller rigs I seem to be moving in the other direction. Having started with a small Sea & sea film rig, I moved through the range of Fuji compacts on to larger Nikon DSLRs. I was very happy with the size and performance of my Nikon D7000 until I had a chance to shoot a full-frame D800 camera. My feeling now is that I don’t mind the increased size if I can get better quality, a much broader dynamic range and have faster performance with better control. It’s all going to go in one bag anyway, so you might as well fill it!

Great White Wall - D800I had brought two complete Nauticam DSLR systems to Fiji, my trusty Nikon D7000 and a new D800 full-frame, thinking to try one against the other – size vs. performance. I also thought that the other folks might want to try one out. However, no one took me up on the offer; they all elected to stick with the cameras they brought with them.

I had rented the D800 body and Sigma 15mmFE and heartily endorse the idea of renting a camera or specialty lens for a trip, especially if you aren’t sure what you want, or won’t use it very often. (I wanted to also look at the new D600 later on.) Moving from cropped-sensor DX to full-frame FX will entail changing several lenses, as most DX lenses simply don’t have enough resolution to use with a 36MP sensor. I plan on trying out professional quality lenses, and buying them only after I have enough experience to justify their expense.

I shot the D7000 the first day, with my usual Tokina 10-17 and then switched over to the D800, shooting with a Sigma 15mm fisheye lens, which for a relatively inexpensive lens is very sharp and focuses much closer than the 16mm Nikon FE. I later added a Kenko 1.4x teleconverter to the Sigma wide angle (while adding a 20mm extension) and really liked the magnified sharpness that the 21mm rectilinear format setup provided. You lose a little image area, but it seems to pull in and focus the fine details of the corals with less distortion at the corners.

The 105VR macro shoots about like the 60mm macro does on DX, with a bit more reach, but subsequently it is harder to lock focus. I would recommend using at least a +5 diopter, maybe more, depending on what you want to shoot. This allowed me to get much closer and eliminate some water between the subjects and myself. I did find that it wouldn’t lock focus at distance on the D800, unlike using it on the D7000, where I like to shoot fish headshots.

Fiji Squat Lobster - D800One unexpected bonus was how large and bright the full-frame viewfinders are. You not only get a third larger sensor, but you also get a third larger, 100% viewfinder!

The difference in dynamic range, detail and overall image quality with the D800 was much greater than I expected on full-frame, and after reviewing the images on my computer, the D7000, while an amazing camera, just didn’t compare. All of a sudden this became an expensive dive trip!

Where the D7000 is nice and small, the D800 is more of a “voluptuous” size and weight. Surprisingly though, the D800 with an 8.5” dome port, was very light in the water, maybe even lighter than the D7000, while out of water it is a bit of a tank.

But a larger physical-sized rig has advantages. The Nauticam D800 has incredibly nice controls, many moved out to levers, they are spread out and fall right under my hands. Even better when using gloves in cold water. My favorite is the ISO: flip it down, scroll with the main control wheel and pop it back up. With the D7000, and most Nikons, if you select menu item “hold button until released”, it can work the same way, but with a push of a button instead of a lever. It saves having to use two hands to make an ISO or other change.

The one thing I really would miss from the D7000 is the small Zen 100mm dome port, along with the Tokina 10-17 FE zoom lens. You can really cram it into smaller spots when shooting CF/WA. With full-frame, you really have to shoot a larger dome, and I was using the 8.5” acrylic dome on this trip. The advantages of a larger dome are many: better corners and overall quality, the ability to use more wide-open f-stops and the ability to shoot over-and-unders. I would probably switch to a Zen 200mm or large 230mm mega-dome glass port for a little more crispness.

Getting used to shooting in high ISOs was the biggest change for me. It felt really “wrong” to use ISO 800 in the caves, as I’m so used to getting a lot of noise as a result. The D800 and other new FX cameras can be shot at very high ISOs without penalty. ISO 800 looks about like 200 on a DX camera and even higher ISO settings of 1200 or above show little noise. As I progress, I will find that shooting in available light, and maybe experimenting with filters at higher ISOs will be a huge sea-change and will open up a lot of new avenues for shooting shallow water, deeper wrecks, caves, or at night.

“Batting” It All Around
Every night at Taveuni we had hundreds of huge fruit bats come home to roost in the trees. Chirping, chattering and the occasional full screams accompanied our nights’ rest. Like the difference in technology between my cameras, the contrasts between the colorful soft corals and primal bats, the modern hotel in its eco-friendly surroundings and the primitive local houses, made for an interesting cultural experience.

D800 Photos:


D7000 Photos:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012 

Purchasing a Mirrorless Camera System

Many people are upgrading from a compact camera to one of the new mirrorless cameras like the Olympus or Panasonic micro 4/3rds, or Sony Nex cameras.

There are some differences from buying a compact camera, mainly in terms of now having interchangeable lenses. You don't just switch from macro to wide angle with the one lens that's on the camera, you use different lenses and ports, and need to think through what kind of shots you're going to want to take while setting up the camera before a dive.

If you are going to buy a mirrorless camera, you are buying into a system. And that includes lenses, ports gears, tray/arms and strobes. The camera is going to end up being the least expensive part of it - and the part you are going to change out in a couple of years. You want to think about where you are going to be then in terms of what you can reuse and upgrade, and what the resale value is going to be like.

The Sony Nex5N is a great camera. There are very good wide angle options for it behind a dome port, and the lenses are fairly inexpensive. You just buy the 16mm and then add on the w/a or FE adapters to it. All three fit the Nauticam dome and you don't need a zoom gear. I would agree that the macro lenses are a bit limited, the 30mm hasn't worked out all that well underwater, but the wide angle shooting is very good.

Panasonic m4/3rds cameras have some very good lenses and shoot excellent video. We have found their cameras to be fussy when when working in optical sync with external strobes, particularly TTL. They are also more expensive. But they have more direct controls and better specs in many cases.

Olympus has very easy-to-use cameras and reasonably priced lenses. The new Olympus OM-D EM-5 camera is making many people sell their big DSLRs and move to this small, high-quality camera with great specs and imaging. They are filling in some gaps in lens offerings with new ones like the 12-50mm which does offer the ability to go from macro to a moderate wide angle view with the right port. The cameras seem to work very well in manual and TTL sync with external strobes. Bang for the buck, I really like the E-PM1 and PT-EP06 housing.

But really, I would almost consider the housing before the camera; The Olympus housings are inexpensive at $599-799ish, as are the cameras - the PM1 is only $399. But adding ports to them is expensive. Your best options are the Zen dome at $499-799, plus the lens. that port may/may not fit a new housing. Although they do seem like they'll fit the new Oly OM-D housings, that may not be true in the future. And they are limited to 135', have plastic construction, will wear out much sooner and need service or replacement. Resale values are going to be much less percentage-wise.

10Bar and some other lines make good value aluminum housings. They have a good lineup of ports and features including a depth rating of 200'. They come with a 2 year warranty and can be serviced in Hong Kong. Their controls and construction aren't as good as Nauticam, the ports not as specific to certain lenses. But they do seem to work well for many divers wanting to keep costs down. However resale values are pretty low.

If you spend a bit more on a Nauticam housing, you are buying into a much broader system; many more ports and gear combos, both Pany and Oly lenses fit all the housings. They usually have a leak detector. The housings are rated to 200-300' and are much more rugged. They can be easily serviced and will last a long time.  They tend to be less bulky, have a much more ergonomic design, better, smoother controls and usually support all camera functions (the Oly's tend not to have the rear dial control). The ports have a locking bayonet mount that is almost impossible to mis-mount. They come in flat, dome and semi-dome designs. They tend to be less expensive as well. They will be a popular option on the used housing market and you'll be able to transfer your lenses and ports onto the next system, making it a much better value in the future.

The Nauticam housing for the OM-D ($1350) is very competitive with the Oly ($995) with all the above advantages. The Nauticam Panasonic GX1 housing is very reasonable at $1200. And you are much more likely to be able to resell it at a decent price, and re-use all the lenses, ports and gears when you upgrade.

All of these manufacturers are constantly upgrading their lines. The cycle used to be one year, but now it's 6 months! There's nothing really wrong with saving a bit on a camera that's 6 months old and spending it on a better housing too.

Lighting is the most critical thing you will spend money on. Buy more than you need, start with one good strobe and add another. We like the Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobe a lot - all of us are shooting it now.

So be sure to think through your new system, think though how you want to expand it and upgrade it in the future, and what you want to do with your photos. It may give you better ideas towards where you want to take your present purchase.

 

Optical Ocean Sales Has a New Website!

Optical Ocean Sales
After patching together our old site for 8 years, it was time to make a change to an entirely new Optical Ocean Sales webstore! We've redesigned and reorganized the store so that it's fast and easy to find products and systems to improve your underwater photography.  

A Few New Features: New Home Page: Bright graphics greet and direct you to the main store pages. At the bottom, you'll find additonal information will help you including: Customer Care, and our all-new Education section (check out our new articles on the Panasonic G1X and YS-D1). You can also translate the site into several languages and currencies.

On our Graphic Categories Pages you'll find our new Housing and Port Locator. Just type in camera or lens to find recommended options.

Navigation is always available from the top tab "Shop Store" drop-down and left-hand Category menus on all pages.

Categories, Subcategories and Product Filters: All items are shown at the top level, then can be broken down by sub-categories, or by product filters. You can sort these results, or display them in 3 different modes. There is a "Quick View" of each item as you scroll over it.

We've updated product information and added hundreds of new, up-to-date items, with a "What's New" category of highlights. We've greatly expanded and updated our "System Packages" and added SEACAM offerings as examples. You'll find photographs, details, product options, prices and tabs with additional information on the Product Pages. There is a personal "Wish List" that you can add products to.

Our Checkout is now all on one page! There are four sliding sections that open and easily guide you  through the process, with additional options for shipping - now FREE for orders over $200 in the US.

You can log into your account to see orders and open an order communication with us.

Wow! Too many improvements to even show you. Just visit the store today and try them all out!

Saturday, April 14, 2012 

Optical Ocean Sales Becomes SEACAM Dealer

SEACAMUSA, the exclusive North and South American distributor for SEACAM underwater housings and submersible strobes, is proud to announce the appointment of Optical Ocean Sales as a SEACAM dealer.

In recognition of their 9-years service to the local Northwest diving community and the passion for underwater photography by owner Jack Connick, SEACAMUSA owner Stephen Frink comments “We are very pleased to have Jack and his staff as members of the SEACAM team. We welcome their expertise and commitment to customer service to underwater photography in general, and the SEACAM product line in particular. We look forward to making SEACAM available to ever more consumers by their regional presence and contagious enthusiasm”.

Optical Ocean Sales retail showroom is located in Seattle, Washington, the only dedicated underwater photography equipment store in the Northwest. But their reach extends far beyond, with their online e-commerce store. Jack Connick has been a life-long photographer, with experience including over 25 years of experience as a professional graphic designer, art director, and underwater photographer. He has extensive diving and photographic experience, both in the tropics and in his cold home waters in the Pacific Northwest.

SEACAM is a premium line of aluminum housings and strobes designed and built in Austria by Harald Hordosch. Known for their quality optics, superb ergonomics, and robust performance; SEACAM is the brand preferred by professional photographers and discerning enthusiasts around the world.

For more information contact Optical Ocean Sales, LLC at 1800 Westlake Ave N., Suite 201, Seattle, WA 98119; or by phone at 1-800-359-1295 or 206-284-1142. Contact via OpticalOceanSales.com and email


About Jack

  • Adventurer, diver, sailor, photographer, writer and sometimes graphic designer. Proprietor of Optical Ocean Sales, LLC. Enjoy the blog, check back and please leave comments!
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