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The state of the photographic art
Appeared in DIVER February 2012
It has been claimed that since the digital revolution, underwater photography has become the main driver of the diving industry.
Pity those put-upon turtles!
JOHN BANTIN rounds up recent trends
IF YOU COULD GET AN UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPH correctly exposed and nicely lit, you stood a very good chance of winning any underwater photography competition.”
It was Peter Scoones, veteran underwater photographer, wild-life cameraman and British Society of Underwater Photographers founder, who said that a mere 20 years ago.
Underwater photography at that time lay in the hands of a small number of optimistic enthusiasts, often referred to as the Nikonos Flooders Club. Few people managed to get consistently good results, which is why Swiss national Kurt Amsler tended to win every international underwater photography competition. He had the knack.
Enter the computer whizz-kids. I remember Frank Fennel, then boss of Nikon Underwater Products, telling me in the mid-1990s that the latest camera from his company had more computing power than Apollo 13.
Thanks to this, it gradually became easier to get decent results every time you pressed the shutter release. There was a cost penalty, however. Underwater photography using film remained the domain of the seriously dedicated.
This was in the days when I might have been writing this on a computer with 32k of RAM.
Today’s laptops commonly have 4Gb of RAM and around 500Gb of storage space. Progress has not simply marched on. It’s hurtled down the runway and taken off.
WE USED TO LAUGH AT THE JAPANESE with their cameras. Now everyone photographs everything all the time, with cameras, phones, tablets et al. The world has turned into one big photo-shoot, and nowhere is that more true than under water. The digital revolution has replaced everything that went before it.
They used to say that if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Well, underwater photography is now easy, and they are. Someone even suggested at the recent DEMA trade show in the USA that the underwater photography segment of the diving industry was now its main driver.
Almost the first thing people do after booking their initial exotic dive trip is to buy an inexpensive digital camera for use under water.
It seems that little skill is needed to bring back pictorial souvenirs of dives, although those who want something better soon start asking questions, and many embark on underwater photography courses (see panel).
Nearly every dive centre and liveaboard today now has a freshwater rinse-tank cluttered with photo hardware after every dive.
Camera work-tables crowded with kit are common, and boat saloons are filled with people busy on laptops between dives.
So what are the trends in underwater photography as we reach the end of the first decade of this digital revolution?
Well, apart from the savings in not using film and processing, one thing is certain – it’s not getting any cheaper!
A little more than 10 years ago, the first one-million megapixel (1Mp) camera hit the shops. The pixels equal the light-sensitive pick-ups on a camera’s image-making sensor, and at that time it was thought the more the merrier.
The reasoning was that the more pixels you had, the better the resolution of the photo.
A million sounded a lot, but it wasn’t enough for more than a very small final picture.
Camera-shop customers would agonise over one compact with features they liked but with only a 6Mp output, against another with 6.3Mp. They would never be able to tell the difference, but one photographic pundit, Alex Mustard, coined the term “measurebating”.
Manufacturers and users alike have now concluded that the megapixel race is over.
More important are characteristics such as dynamic range (the ability to record deep shadow detail alongside bright highlights) and lack of the electronic noise that can equate to graininess in the final picture.
The bigger the sensor, the easier it is to overcome these possible drawbacks. The top-end manufacturers (with Nikon and Canon being the main protagonists) offer near-professional cameras such as the Nikon D700 and D3X and the Canon 1Dx with sensors (full-frame or FX) as large as a piece of old-fashioned 35mm film.
These work at stupendously high ISO settings for use in poor light without producing digital noise, but cost from £1800 without lenses.
The very capable D700 is only a 12Mp camera but it works efficiently at 4000 ISO, which is around 40 times more light-sensitive than a typical old colour-transparency film.
This said, the idea that these cameras could be used to take pictures under water by natural light at depth foundered once it was realised that the colour of the light at depth was still unacceptably monochromatic. An independent source of white light (one or more flashguns) was still needed. The very high ISO settings that were possible became redundant.
“Most serious underwater photographers have stuck with digital single-lens-reflex cameras that use a smaller sensor (APS or APS-C) more or less equivalent to half the size of a 35mm frame of film,” Steve Warren of retailer Ocean Optics tells us. “They use lower ISO settings (typically around 200 ISO) to compensate, and get pictures without noise.”
Examples of such cameras are the Nikon D300 series and the Canon 60D, both costing in excess of £1000 without lenses. Then there’s the more compact and increasingly popular Nikon D7000, which is slightly cheaper.
These enable good macro pictures to be taken using standard 35mm camera macro lenses, but with a 50% magnification over a conventional full-frame camera.
When it comes to wide-angle work, one lens alone makes cameras with this size of sensor (sometimes called DX) a sensible choice.
This is the Tokina 10-17mm fish-eye zoom. There is no equivalent for a full-frame camera.
It costs around £400.
It’s a lens that has little application on land, but underwater photographers discovered that
it was a marvellous tool to use once behind a dome port of an underwater housing.
It focuses very closely, and has become almost standard issue for serious work.
This said, APS or APS-C DSLR cameras are little smaller than their full-frame big brothers, so once in a suitable housing they can still represent quite a big lump to push through
MEANWHILE, THE POPULAR COMPACT ranges have evolved. These have sensors hardly as big as the nail on your little finger, but technical advances have allowed manufacturers to
squeeze more light-sensitive pick-ups (pixels) into a smaller space.
Provided you don’t expect to use them in low light, 8, 10 and 12Mp images can be easily obtained, depending on the camera.
Combined with an independent white-light source so that low-sensitivity (ISO) settings can be used, very high-quality grain-free underwater photographs can be achieved with these cameras.
Of course each needs to be installed in a suitably watertight underwater housing. Recently popular cameras have been the likes of the Nikon Coolpix P7100 (£500), the Canon Powershot S95 (£300) and G12 (£400), the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3 (£350) and the Fuji Finepix F600 EXR (£250).
Such is the pace of development of the compact camera market that, even as I write, these cameras are likely to have been superseded by newer models.
The thirst for higher performance at lower light levels has led to a new category of compact camera – those with the Micro Four Thirds sensor, or the slightly larger APS-C-sized
sensor, just like their bigger DSLR brothers. “This is the fastest growing sector of the underwater photography equipment market,” says Mario Vitalini of Ocean Leisure Cameras.
Many of these new system-compacts are able to accept top-notch interchangeable lenses and offer the same quality of result, too.
The upside is that they represent a smaller and less intrusive item of hardware to use under water, while a feature known as “live-view” allows the user to see the potential subject using the LCD screen, as with a more modest compact.
Popular examples include the Olympus PEN series (from £650) and Panasonic GF/GH series (from £550 according to lens) with Micro Four Thirds sensor, and the Sony NEX5N with its APS-size sensor (around £500).
The downside is that there is still a slight delay as the camera reverts from writing to the LCD
to writing to the memory card, whereas a DSLR is more or less instant in its operation.
Even now, Nikon has a new-format (CX) V1 of this type about to arrive. It has a 1.44-million-dot electronic viewfinder and interchangeable lenses. Burst shooting will be possible at a full
10 frames per second with auto-focus enabled, and a whopping 60 frames per second if the focus is locked from the first frame.
It is expected to cost around £850 with a wide-angle pancake lens.
Live-view is also available as an option on many of the latest upmarket DSLR cameras. This offers the ability to shoot video sequences while viewing the subject on the camera’s LCD screen.
One brand, Canon, represented by the full-frame 5D Mk11 (around £1500 plus lens) or APS-size sensor 7D (some £1200 plus lens) models, has been adopted by many professional video-makers.
It can, in the right circumstances, produce broadcast-quality material in high definition.
Meanwhile, most of even the most modest compact digital cameras can shoot video clips, and many users enjoy downloading these to their home computers and onto YouTube.
The flipside is that many high-end HD (High-Definition) video cameras, such as the near-£5000 Sony HDR-XR550 that records onto a hard drive, can be used to capture very reasonable quality still shots, using the right edit software such as Premier Elements.
Presumably the technology will eventually come within reach of those with smaller budgets.
“The byword with today’s underwater camera equipment is ‘convergence’,” suggests Peter Rowlands, editor of the online Underwater Photography magazine. “Compact cameras have always been able to shoot both stills and video, and now most SLR cameras have that ability too.
“However, shooting quality stills and useful video requires two completely different approaches, and if you are to do either well you would be advised to concentrate on one rather than both.”
However good your hardware, it needs to stay dry. Compact-camera users are well served with a choice of both proprietary and third-party housings from around £200 upwards.
More expensive cameras need to be housed in one of a range of purpose-built housings made by what is in effect an independent cottage industry.
The problem is that camera models change so often that manufacturers need to redesign equally frequently, and production runs are short.
Aluminium housings have to be individually machined, making them expensive. A typical price might be £2000-3500. Housings for system compacts come in slightly less, at around £1500 including lens port.
Housings are made in Austria, Belgium, Canada, the USA or China. A less-expensive Perspex housing comes from the USA and costs less than half the price of the aluminium alternatives.
Once you’ve invested in a housing, you’ll want to stick with your camera for as long as possible.
You also need a front port specifically matched to the lens you choose. These can cost from £150 to £1200 each.
Accidentally flooding a very expensive camera and lens can be heart-breaking. Hugyfot uses a unique system that tests for leaks using non-destructive air rather than water. It won’t be long before we see other manufacturers adopting some similar system.
The need to shoot with a full spectrum of light under water has usually meant taking flash with you. The electronic flash market has enjoyed some realignment of brands recently, and Jenny Rosenfeld from Cameras Underwater told us that at the time of writing “the main market is shared by the Japanese companies INON and Sea & Sea, and the US company Ikelite”.
Prices vary from £150 to £1000 according to performance. DIVER features a comparison test of these products next month (March 2012).
There is a tendency now to move away from electrical connections between camera and flash to synchronise them, and use the camera’s on-board flash to fire the off-board flash via a waterproof fibre-optic cable.
However, for live action a constant light source is needed. The recent revolutions in both lithium battery technology and the development of high-output LEDs have seen many suitable high-output lamps in a compact format reach the marketplace.
A lamp suitable for recording video sequences must be exceedingly bright, and very evenly lit across its beam.
The Light & Motion range of Sola lights comes to mind. The Sola 1200 costs around £600, and a new, remarkably bright, 4000-lumen output lamp is on the way. We hope to be reviewing one soon.
Other suitably high-output lamps for video are made by the likes of Green Force, Keldan and Tillytec.
One thing that has not changed during all this evolution of equipment is the quality of the water in which you might be shooting.
If you could see 30m under water you might call that “gin-clear”, but with 30m visibility on the runway at Heathrow no aircraft movements would be allowed.
The secret of underwater photography is to get as close to your subject as possible, eliminating a lot of that water.
Macro, or extreme close-up, photography is perhaps the easiest to achieve for this reason, and it is no coincidence that the popularity of muck-diving and small critter photography grew at the same time as the advent of digital cameras that could easily record such subjects. Most compacts have a very efficient macro-mode.
Close-focus wide-angle photography is also a popular route. Even the most modest compact camera in its housing can usually now be fitted with an ancillary wide-angle lens (usually about £350) that will allow the photographer to get closer without cropping out part of the subject.
The interchangeable-lens facility of DSLRs and the more advanced system-compacts can be used to advantage, though for optimum results the best-quality lenses should be employed. These cost around £300-1000, according to make and focal length.
Images are stored on memory cards (XD, SDHC, CF) that are gaining ever-bigger storage capacity. It is not uncommon to see cards with 16Gb or larger capacity in use, and the bigger the capacity the less often they need to be downloaded.
Prices seem to come down as possible capacities go up, and a 2Gb XD card may cost £12, whereas a 32Gb SDHC costs £80 and a 16Gb CF card can cost £100.
Once you have your camera safely inside its housing, you’ll be reluctant to break the seal to get it out. You’ll need to do that to download the pictures but, more likely and more often,
to recharge the battery. Lithium batteries last longer than ever before and some underwater photographers can go for days without disturbing watertight seals.
The software to process your pictures on computer has been developing as fast as anything else, examples including Photoshop CS5, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom and Aperture. Files recorded several years ago can be improved purely by reprocessing them with a later version of the software.
Most basic compacts do the computer processing in camera, producing a compressed file known as a jpeg. This can be manipulated by computer later, though data is cut in the process. Those of you shooting jpegs in camera will need to get the white balance and exposure spot on at the time for satisfactory results. The less done with a jpeg in the computer later, the better.
Cameras that shoot RAW files give the underwater photographer an edge. These files record all the data picked up by the camera’s sensor and, by selectively rearranging this data using a RAW converter associated with the picture-processing software as a plug-in, you can make many picture-making decisions later, when time is less precious.
This is done without degrading image quality. Unfortunately RAW files tend to be large, take up space in the media card and, unless the camera has a suitable buffering device built-in, there will be a delay before the next picture can be taken.
For this reason the designers of inexpensive compact cameras tend to eschew the RAW file-recording facility.
Live action can be handled using the same software used by professionals – Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, Avid DS or something similar. It’s amazing that even full feature films today are being post-produced on the equivalent of PCs.
The flipside to this quest for better and better quality is the pursuit of convenience.
Tiny cameras such as the latest Hero GoPro HD2 (£300) and Contour Roam (£237) offer high-definition results from the tiniest package, which means that divers can take a pocket-sized camcorder diving wherever the light is bright enough.
Many people store their pictures and movies on their PC. Computers have massive hard drives nowadays, but hard drives are mechanical and can fail.
Clever people back up their files on a second storage device, and the really clever back up theirs on a third off-site drive. External storage devices get cheaper every year.
Economic solid-state storage devices are on the horizon and we’ll all be going for this option eventually.
Full-frame (FX): 24 x 36mm
APS (DX): 25.1 x 16.1mm
APS-C: 22.7 x 15.1mm
Four Thirds: 17.3 x 13mm
Compact: 8.8 x 6.6mm to 3.2 x 2.4mm
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Hugyfot housing with full-frame Nikon D700 camera and Hugycheck – handy to avoid flooding
Canon S95 with proprietary housing
Twin INON Z-240 flashguns and DX camera in a Sea & Sea housing