Tuesday, January 30, 2007 

Getting Started in Underwater Photography

I’ll be writing a monthly column for Northwest Dive News on underwater photography, one of the most popular activities in diving today . I’ll be concentrating on cold-water dive photography which has it's own set of skills and equipment. Tips, tricks, gear and local dive sites, I’ll try to touch on them all and more.

I’ll re-print them here monthly in my blog, with a little more room for explanations and photos.

Your Experience Level and Guarding Against Task-Loading
Before we "dive" in, lets do a quick review of dive skills and experience necessary for your safety and the protection of the natural environment that you want to photograph. You need to have excellent buoyancy skills with intuitive, well-practiced, abilities as a diver to get into dive photography. I feel that it takes most new divers between 50-100 cold-water dives, because you will be adding a lot of task-loading and additional skills.

Not having this experience can result in damaging a reef, or more dangerously, an unsafe situation for you. You should feel that diving is intuitive to you and not have to think about it too much.

That doesn't mean that you can't buy your camera and become just as intuitive with your camera skills while you gain diving experience. It's a little tough to read a manual when you're 60 feet under water, so knowing your camera well really helps.

A hidden danger to a dive photographer, particularly in cold-water, is task loading beyond your experience level, or what the diving conditions can dictate. If in doubt, leave the camera topside, explore and shoot another time. Dive safety and protection of the underwater environment must come first!

Getting Started
Diver-photographers are faced with a bewildering assortment of cameras and options when it comes to buying a camera. Digital camera technology seems to change every day. Rather than just buying something that looks cool, or that a salesman recommends, I’d suggest a more methodical approach.

  • What do you want to do with your photos?
    Use them on a website or in emails? Print snapshots, or large wall-prints? Maybe see your work published?
  • How much do you want to grow your system? Are you starting out with a digicam and thinking about growing into a DSLR system later, or is your use more casual, capturing a few shots from a dive trip for fun?
  • Where are you going to be shooting? Tropical or cold water? Working controls with gloves on, strong strobes and having durable equipment is important here in the Pacific Northwest. In tropical waters a lighter, smaller system may work fine for you and be easier to pack and carry.
  • What do you like to shoot?Macro? Fish-portraits, maybe a close up of your buddy? Or do you want to “shoot up the reef” and do wide-angle shots?
  • Do you want a camera for above-water, as well as underwater, use? How well supported is it, can it take good top-side photos as well?
  • How much are you planning on upgrading in the near future?What strobes will it connect to? External lenses and other add-ons? Can they be used with other cameras and systems?
    And, oh yeah, how much are you able to spend? This is not a cheap hobby, and you pretty much get what you pay for.

My Recommendations
I generally recommend a camera and housing as opposed to an amphibious camera, or dedicated camera/housing solution. Canon, Olympus, Fuji and Nikon build an amazing amount of cameras and many can be used very successfully underwater in a housing. The competition between these companies means that their feature-sets and technical advances are changing much faster than dedicated underwater cameras. Plus, there are more housings, external equipment and third-party solutions available, that can be moved to an upgraded system later. Simply put, they are a better value and can be used well above water too.

There are some very good, dedicated amphibious cameras; some have good controls and a sharp lens. They are smaller to carry and simpler to use, but you'll be at the higher price range to get the control and quality you want. I think housed systems offer more quality for less money.

My company Optical Ocean, is an authorized dealer for Fantasea Line underwater photography products, which makes housings for Nikon CoolPix digicams and DSLR housings for Nikon, Canon and Olympus. I really like the CoolPix P3 and the Nikon D80 or Canon xTi 400 for underwater use.

Make sure whatever camera you buy, that you have as much manual control as possible. Why? Because most automatic camera features are not designed for the low light conditions you find underwater. Also with an external strobe, you’ll need to use manual or aperture/shutter priority modes to adjust your strobe exposure.

Whatever camera you have, my best advice is to get out there and shoot! Practice does make perfect!

Next Column: 5 Tips for Better UW photos

Wednesday, January 24, 2007 

Seattle Aquarium Expansion Construction

Windows on Washington tank
I was privileged today to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the expansion and renovation project at the Seattle Aquarium where I am a volunteer diver. Because of safety issues, it's been a closed door to all, but the director John Baden led some of us through so we could get a better idea of how things were progressing, and what the $42 million project was going to look like when it opens in June. Here's a description from their website:
The impact of the New Currents Campaign will expand the Aquarium by 18,000 square feet to include a fresh new exterior, new Alaskan Way entrance and exhibit hall. At the heart of the expansion will be the Puget Sound Great Hall, a three story, light-filled building with interactive educational kiosks, sea life art and thought-provoking conservation exhibits focused on Puget Sound ’s ecosystems. Visitors will immediately be drawn to the end of Puget Sound Hall by the Window on Washington Waters, a 17-foot by 39-foot, 120,000 gallon showcase exhibit evoking Neah Bay’s rock blades filled with salmon, colorful rockfish, vibrant sea anemones and other marine life swimming amid a kelp-filled sea. New visitor amenities will include a full-service café and gift store, member entrance, additional ticketing stations and second floor viewing platforms for a three-dimensional look into Window on Washington Waters. A separate school group entrance will provide quick access for the increasing number of students and teachers who visit the Aquarium. The transition hall between the Windows on Washington Water exhibit to the tidal waters of the Life on the Edge exhibit will feature an open 40-foot by 8-foot Wave Tank allowing visitors the opportunity to hear the surging waves and observe how marine animals and plants survive in swirling, rough water.
Yes, we're going to dive in that tank!
See photos: Seattle Aquarium Expansion Construction

Monday, January 22, 2007 

Rusty? Nah, Not Us!

My Dive buddy Ed "Doc" Kay rounded up the six of us for a boat dive last Saturday to Waterman Wall on the west entrance to Rich Passage, near Port Orchard and Bremerton. We loaded up and got underway at about 10am and made quick time in calming conditions across the sound. The cloud cover came over us, but it was pretty nice overall, considering we'd had snow as late as last Monday. Definately "wait-a-minute" northwest weather.

Waterman Wall a very nice dive, but has some strong currents and can have a downdraft on the ebb, so it's an advanced+ dive. One story goes that a guy was lost there and the only thing they found was an empty "spare air" on one of the rocky shelves. Normally I've dove it from the east side on the end of the flood, this time we were diving on the end ebb, so we anchored on the west side of the light.

We got suited up "and waited just a bit for the tide to turn. I gave a quick brief, I knew the wall extended to the light from the east, but wasn't sure how far past it west it extends - turns out it keeps going for a while. We probably could of gotten in a little earlier, but "DiveAlert" Dave got in with his rebreather and scooter first, followed by another team of Kevin and Delores. I was being a good guide to the site and had helped Delores not to forget her drysuit inflator hose connection.

But Paul, Ed and I were just a bit rusty getting into our gear, not having really dove in a couple of months. The best was Paul; he jumped in without his fins on, then after getting them on we turned around to find him trying to hand up his tank, as the BC dump hose had gotten cross-threaded and wouldn't hold air. That was corrected and he was finally ready for his second attempt to dive. Ed fussed around for quite a while with crossed hoses and lights, while I found that my canister light had been left at home. Luckily Ed had a good spare on board.

Now it was my turn to jump off, everything seemed fine, but as I descended I kept punching my chest inflator to find that I had left my inflator hose disconnected. I put it on after a good squeeze at 35' with Paul's help. Gees, the 3 Stooges Go Diving...

Our team shared a scooter and I easily pulled the 3 of us out to the wall making up for some lost time. It was completely slack. Paul peeled off and Doc and I continued our dive, enjoying the craggy wall. Vis, while pretty good up shallower, was very poor at 70' on down, probably because of the big mornign tide exchange. We hit 98 feet for a few minutes and made our way back up to 70-80' for most of the rest of the dive.There were lots of huge male Lingcod on eggs, some easily in the 5' range. We saw one bright vermilion one in a hole. Lot of rockfish and invertebrates. The other teams found the one resident old wolf eel at 85', but we missed him.

The tide had turned and I again pulled us up-current for a while with the scooter, then we drifted back. Ed and I shared the scooter and he found out the hard way that it's easy to get task loaded with the bulky device, as he floated away from me and didn't stop his ascent until 20'.

I continued solo back up to the east bay where we had anchored and spotted a very nice Bay Pipefish and a few nudibranchs in the shallows.

Back on board we found that while we had dove the sun broke out and we sat on the boat enjoying a few beers with our lunch while a pair of eagles stood guard. What a treat, after the awful winter we've had!

Photos at: Wall Surface Shots

Monday, January 08, 2007 

New Flickr Group: Cold Water Diving

Tube Worms & Ed
Originally uploaded by Pixel Letch.
I've started a Flickr group to discuss and post photos taken in temperate to cold water conditions. Dealing with a dry suit and shooting photos can be tricky. What are your tips and tricks? Post your best shots!

It is public, but you have to be a Flickr member to join.

Flickr: Cold Water Diving Group


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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