Saturday, March 21, 2015 

More New FREE Underwater Photography Handbooks

Five NEW FREE Handbooks join our Basics of Better UW Photography Series and are now in the Optical Ocean Sales Education Resource Center. These downloadable Acrobat files are easy-to-read with lots of photos and illustrations to help you gain basic skills and understanding of their subjects.

The first is for those wanting to get their feet "wet" with Underwater Photography. Titled "Choosing an Underwater Camera & Housing", it goes over basic things to look for for on both cameras and housings. Basic camera parts and their importance for underwater photography, classes of cameras, basic system configuration, housing considerations and materials, accessories and much more are covered.

Another new Handbook for video photogrpahers or wannabies is  "Video Tips for UW Photographers Handbook". Loads of great advice for those starting out, or for still photographers wanting try shooting video! Cameras, tips, techniques and settings will help you make the plunge into trying out that video button on your camera.

The next handbook is titled Photographing Animals and includes tips, tricks and help on getting great photos of underwater critters! How to improve your Luck, Skill, Knowledge, and Patience in taking underwater animal photos are just some of the areas shown and discussed.

An accompanying piece "Photographing People" is full of tips and techniques from staff writer Margo Cavis on working with divers and models, it will help you add a human element to your photography.

We've also published an accompanying article; How to Photograph People Underwater in our Articles section that gives more in-depth coverage.

Called Strobe Positioning this handbook is maybe the most important and everyone can get something from it. This guide goes over most aspects of using artificial strobe lighting underwater in photography. The Handbook discusses light theory and equipment. It shows how, why and where to use both one and two strobes in macro and wide angle photos. This new guide includes many illustrations done by our own Margo Cavis and is a great resource for new and old underwater photographers.

See the Optical Ocean Sales Resource Center for many more Handbooks, articles, trip reports, spec charts and reviews!

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Sunday, March 15, 2015 

Raja Ampat: Nothing More Needs to Be Said

Raja Ampat in Indonesia, has always held a lot of fascination for me. Customers on their way there, or just back, were awestruck by the area. “Best in the diving in the world!” they’d say, but having dove for many years, I’ve heard that before…

After several days of long flights and airline frustrations,  I was on the Damai II steaming down the straits in Raja, after a wonderful late-afternoon dive full of vibrant undersea life by Batanta Island, I was getting a massage, drinking a Bintang beer, and enjoying the sunset. I reflected that all of these divers’ comments were right! It was pretty hard to beat!

Over the next 10 days, eleven divers on the Optical Ocean Sales Photo Expedition concentrated their dives in the southern Misool area of Raja, as there had been wind and rain in the north. This is common in many areas in Indonesia, given that dive sites are so spread out; if the weather is bad in one place, another is fine.

The Damai specializes in small dive groups, so we were spread out amongst 3 boats. I ended up staying with one guide, Salim, diving with another couple of divers who rotated through. The other divers tended to go their own way a lot, so Salim and I ended up diving closely together most of the time.

I’ve been diving with literally hundreds of other divers over the years, some are just fine, others you tend to have communication or other issues with. Human nature I guess. Salim and I settled into an easy rhythm.

He spoke English, but we didn’t talk much between dives, other than to ID some weird nudibranch I’d never seen before, or to help him set up a GoPro he found on a dive. But we communicated underwater without difficulty, knowing what the other wanted, or where the other person was without guessing. During the course of some 30 odd dives spread out over 440 miles, there was no fuss, no muss. If we had a problem like my tank coming loose, we just dealt with it in a relaxed and purposeful manner. If I ran low on air at the safety stop, I’d grab his spare octo, without either of us even taking much notice.

I used him many times as a model, and he was eager to learn, picking up on my directions easily. He loved to see the shots of himself and tried hard to improve his positioning. I could concentrate on my photography without worry. He always showed me great wide angle options, and was a master at pointing out macro critters as well. We’d get excited about a rare find and shared that enthusiasm underwater as I took photos. The unspoken communication between experienced divers was easy and robust.

Misool has a great many world-class dive sites. Even though the visibility was limited in places, we had calm seas and very good diving. The sheer variety of the dives was amazing; muck dives, reef dives, drift dives, caves, undercuts, canyons, fans, soft coral and acres of hard coral - all were there and almost always surrounded by great masses of fish. The schools were so thick it actually was somewhat frustrating; “Can somebody get the fish out of the way, so I can take a shot of the other fish?”
And there were special places like the Blue Water Mangroves at Nampale Island, where gorgeous soft coral grew in 2 feet of shallow water. Or Window Rock, with the afternoon light streaming in onto fans and soft coral. Or the huge schools of barracuda, snapper, and many other fish that challenged Salim and myself to move in close enough with them for photos.

Moving to the north Dampier Straits area, the weather improved, but the visibility was more limited. Still, we had excellent diving - muck dives at Deer/Kofiau Islands, with wonderful afternoon lighting at famous Arborek Jetty. On a deep dive off Blue Magic, Salim showed me a few white tip sharks. As we went along the edge of the slope at 120’, we found a huge ball of hundreds of Sweet Lips, packed tightly together over a rock.
Riding the current, I swam through them several times to take photos and they quickly regrouped tightly around me back into their school. Low on gas, and without much more than a quick fist pump to my chest, Salim led me back up the slope behind coral outcroppings to do deco and a safety stop.

On our last day, we opted for a dive at Cape Kri. It wasn’t that impressive sort of a lot of rubble on a hillside, and I struggled to find something interesting to shoot. But then, at the end of the dive, in shallow water, was a bommie with fans and a huge school of glass fish swarming all over it. With the early morning sun streaming through clear, calm water I was able to take one of my favorite shots of the trip.

Sometimes you just have to keep on shooting and trust that things will work out. No need to talk about it.

Monday, June 30, 2014 

Mirrorless in Mexico

On our recent shop trip to The Sea of Cortez, I left behind my trusty, but large, D800 Nauticam rig and decided to try a new mirrorless camera: The Sony a7 full-frame camera in a NA-A7 Nauticam housing.

It was much smaller to pack and handle and the results were better than I hoped for. The Sony a7 with an old Nikonos 15mm FE amphibious film lens shot remarkably well, sharp and was quite small to handle compared with large domes normally used for a full-frame rig.

The Sony a7 (and a7r, a7s) are very impressive; the first full-frame camera in a mirrorless body! With it being much smaller and lighter than the D800, it was easy to carry around. Performance was very good, the camera is very comfortable and solid to shoot.

The controls to change ISO as well as other features are right under your fingertips on the Nauticam housing. One big advantage of the Sony over the Nikon is that you can program several function buttons and use them on the housing to bring up other screens providing convenient access to various functions that otherwise are buried down in the menus.

Besides the Nikonos 15mm FE, I shot  the a7 with the kit Sony 28-70mm lens behind the Nauticam flat port. This lens works pretty well as a moderate mid-range lens, fairly sharp for it’s modest cost, with good imaging characteristics. In low light at deeper depths, I was still able to catch focus and it shot fish portrait type shots quite well.

The legendary Nikonos 15mm FE film lens, mounted in an adapter, lived up to it’s reputation. It delivered stunning wide angle, even though it has manual aperture and focus controls. external Nauticam 180 viewfinder to good result with a wide range of displays offered in both. A nice feature of the electronic viewfinder was that you could turn the image lighter or darker, something you can’t do with the optical viewfinder of the D800.
By setting it to f/9-f/11, I had a large depth of field for focus and only changed it when changing from long distance to close focus wide angle. It was also easy to use Sony’s focus peaking feature to “fire when you see the red of their eyes” and know you had the shot nailed. I used both the large, sharp rear view screen and the electronic viewfinder with an

One area where the Sony a7 was a standout is shooting at high ISOs in dark environments. I shot the very dimly lit holds inside of the Fang Ming wreck at ISO 3200 and got good results, even with the older Nikonos 15mm lens. Not much noticeable grain, and I’d say it was better at that high ISO than my D800 was at ISO 2000. Dynamic range was pretty good, comparable to the Nikon.

I shot it with two electronically synced Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobes in manual. TTL is not currently available, although Nauticam has come out with a new optical sync trigger that simplifies things quite a bit.

Compared to the Olympus E-M1
We shot the Olympus E-M1 with the Panasonic 8mm and Olympus 9-18mm lenses quite a bit in an Aquatica AQ-EM1 housing. (We hadn’t brought any macro lenses, expecting to be shooting all large animals.) The 9-18 behind Aquatica’s new SW8 dome was quite impressive, allowing for a nice range of focal lengths from close-focus wide angle to more moderate shots. It was very balanced and rugged, with easy to reach controls. Port and lens changes were easy, and the cam latch made access to the camera literally a snap.

Right now, if you don't need the extremely high ISO shooting characteristics and dynamic range, I think the OM-D E-M1 is a more mature platform with a lot more lenses to choose from. It has easy to use functions and is easy to shoot well and is less expensive.

Compared to the Nikon D800
The D800 has many more lenses available and with the new D810 coming out with even better low-ISOs and other features, I’d give it the edge over the Sony a7. but it is a much larger, heavier system to use, and the Sony a7 was easier to swim with than my D800, certainly for free diving. The same advantage goes to the D800 for availability of lenses, even more so as it can use old Nikon film lenses that are comparably cheaper than the new Zeiss Sony lenses.

I think the Sony a7 will come into it’s own as new Zeiss and other third-party lenses come out, and it certainly sets a precedent for smaller, lighter professional level cameras to come.

Saturday, June 14, 2014 

Sea of Cortez: The Only Sure Thing is Whale Sharks

Twenty-one underwater photographers boarded the Solmar V dive boat in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, on June 23rd expecting to steam the next 25 hours to the Revigadagos Islands, aka "The Socorros", 250 miles offshore. Alas, "Amanda" had other ideas.

Having built up to a Category 4 Hurricane, Amanda was an early violent storm a few hundred miles south of Socorro Island and heading straight for the area we were to dive. Needless to say, the Captain told me that we had to make a big change and head north into the Sea of Cortez. I had taken several trips to the Sea of Cortez ten years ago, but I hadn't enjoyed the long runs to the dive sites from shore. This would be a great opportunity to re-explore it from the comfort of a large live-aboard.

The good news was that the diving there is pretty good, and we could be diving the next morning in Cabo Pulmo.

After a checkout dive, we dropped on the wreck of an old tuna boat, descending right through 9 large bull sharks. Enjoying large schools of grunts and snappers. We explored what was left of the old boat, really just a few large pieces, seeing the large sharks circling in and out amongst our group in somewhat murky conditions.
Continuing north towards La Paz, we dove La Reina and Swanee Rock, both teaming with life. Diving in the Sea of Cortez is very "fishy" with huge schools of grunts, snappers, goatfish and others on nearly every site. Friendly pandemic green morays also greet you from almost every hole. Corals are mostly hard, and not all that colorful, so the aquatic fish life is what you go for. Yellowtail sturgeon fish, puffer fish of every variety, colorful hawk fish, and grouper abound on nearly every site.

However, with a boat load of photographers bent on looking for large animals, we decided to take some chances. Whale Sharks are found in La Paz bay in the Spring; but there had been no reports so far. Would we spend a half-day to cruise the bay and most likely find nothing? A multi-cultural debate raged that evening over dinner, as the French contingent felt the whale sharks weren’t guaranteed, but were finally out voted.

Good thing too, as the next morning we arrived at the bay and no less than 5 Whale Sharks were waiting for us to free dive with! We broke into the pangas and with our guide Geronimo acting as a drill instructor – “Swim!! You guys want to see whale sharks, you have to swim faster! Over there…, swim!” We all had a lot of laughs and got run over by these 25’ gentle giants while taking photos. Using available light and wide angle lenses, it was “gun and go” - no time to compose, just shoot shutter priority and hope for the best. In the end, we all got a lot of great shots and had a great time in the beautiful bay that morning.

Continuing north, we finished the day on the wreck of the “Fang Ming”, an old freighter that had been confiscated by the government and sunk many years ago. A large green turtle swam into the wreck and pandemic Cortez Angelfish were playing along the sides. Visibility was poor, but I was able to shoot some video and some interiors.

The next morning, we traveled north to the EL Bajo sea mount, hoping to find hammerhead sharks. We tried on a couple of deeper dives but had no luck, so we came back to the small islands of Los Isolotes. They are home to a large sea lion rookery, as well as swim throughs, and another shallower seamount called El Bajalito. The next morning we had sunny skies and many dives with the very frisky sea lions. The young ones love to play with divers and snorkelers and make great photo subjects, hamming it up for the cameras, but watch out for the bulls!

After a day and a half there, we again went south to La Paz to try for more whale sharks, as they were a “sure-thing” at that point. Succeeding with a few, we wore ourselves out again swimming with these huge fish. Next, we repaired to Swanee Rock for shallow dives on the reef. Huge schools of spot-tail grunts swarmed over the divers and followed us around. “Can someone get the fish out of the way? I can’t see the reef…” Some divers also found a few sea lions to play with.

On the way back to Cabo the next day, we hit Cabo Pulmo for another morning’s dives on the tuna boat wreck, but the sharks were even more shy. Arriving back in to port, we reflected on what a nice week we had in the Sea of Cortez. Even though Amanda had had her way with us, we rolled the dice and came up with a winner!

Mirrorless in Mexico
On this trip I left behind my trusty, large, D800/Nauticam rig and decided to try two new mirrorless cameras: The Olympus OM-D EM-1 m4/3rds camera in a new Aquatica housing system, and a Sony a7 full-frame camera in a Nauticam housing.

They were much smaller to pack and handle and the results were better than I had hoped for, particularly with the Olympus and Panasonic 8mm combination and the Sony a7 with an old Nikonos 15mm FE amphibious lens. Both of these were much easier to swim with than my D800, and although the results aren’t quite as impressive as the professional formats, they were pretty darn good.

We, my friend Jim Boon and I, shot the Olympus EM1 with the 8mm and 9-18 lenses quite a bit. (We hadn’t brought any macro lenses, expecting to be shooting all large animals.) The 9-18 behind Aquatica’s new SMC dome was quite impressive, allowing for a nice range of focal lengths from close-focus wide angle to more moderate shots. It was very balanced and rugged, with easy to reach controls. Port and lens changes were easy, and the cam latch made access to the camera literally a snap.

The Sony a7 (and a7r) are very impressive; the first full-frame camera in a mirrorless body! Being much smaller and lighter than the D800 made it easy to carry around, and I shot it with the kit 28-70 as well as the Nikonos 15mm FE. The kit lens works pretty well, but is average in focal length range, like most kit lenses. It probably works best as a close up lens, but again not having one along I could only shoot fish portraits and moderate wide angle.

The legendary Nikonos 15mm FE, mounted in an adapter, lived up to its reputation by delivering stunning wide angle, even though it is a manual aperture and focus film lens. By setting it to f/9-f/11, I had a large depth of field for focus. It was also easy to use Sony’s focus peaking feature to “fire when you see the red of their eyes” and know you had the shot nailed. I used both the large rear view screen and the electronic viewfinder with an external viewfinder to good result with a wide range of displays offered.

Video is one-touch on both cameras, and they shoot very smoothly with continuous auto-focus.

Choices, Choices, Choices
Which did I prefer? Well, the Sony a7 is definitely better in low light, and it delivers a wide dynamic range of color and detail, but I really liked the lenses available on the Olympus EM1. Its dynamic range and sharpness was excellent - Jim and I both felt it is as good or better than the DSLRs we have shot. The Sony a7 will come into its own as new Zeiss lenses come out. So maybe the edge goes to the Olympus EM1 right now, which is the less expensive format as well.

Created with flickr slideshow.

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, April 01, 2014 

Kona Variety Pack

We went over to the Big Island for a week of “cillaxing” in February. Staying in a condo, we enjoyed several long drives around the island to visit the Volcano National Park, Hilo and the north end. Weather was up and down, the second night a huge storm blew through with pound rain and wind. But in the tropics the weather changes pretty quickly and we had as many warm sunny days as overcast or rainy.
Denise caught a cold, but I managed to get out with Jack’s Diving Locker on one of their limited load trips one day. They did a great job with only 4 divers on a boat made for 8 or 10, for photographers it’s well worth the extra cost. Unfortunately the swell was running, so options for dive sites were very limited. The first place we went to really had little life, although the old lava flows underwater were pretty interesting.
One the way back we did a dive at Captain Cook’s Bay, where he was killed. Although there were a lot of day boats with snorkelers, we enjoyed the huge coral slopes and pretty had the site to ourselves. It was a nice day on the water with whales rolling around us on the boat on the way back.
I went up the “Sanctuary - 2 step” for a shore dive one afternoon and really enjoyed it, lots more life and good macro subjects nearly everywhere. Spent quality time with a little jeweled moray. Even spotted a turtle (of course with a macro lens couldn’t get much of a shot). As it is a protected park, the fish life there is abundant.

I also went with Jack’s on one of their famous Manta Night dives. Having done several trips to the Socorro’s with the giant mantas, I wasn’t sure what to expect amid all the hype. But it turned out to be as exciting and fun as it was built up to be. We had something like 29 mantas show up and swoop close up over and around us from all directions, feeding on the krill that had gathered in our lights. I kept getting some weird reflections from some of the bright dive lights in my dome port when I was shooting stills, but my video turned out pretty well. Definitely a must do.
Kona provided a lot of good photo subjects that week; big and small.

Kona Manta Feed from Optical Ocean Sales on Vimeo.

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:
  • 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 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?

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.

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.


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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