Sometimes, It Takes A While

We’ve been back from our trip now for a full week and even while on the trip, I’m sure that we could have found time to edit and post some of our pictures.

But we didn’t.

No, we’ve fallen behind – yet again. Myself, it’s partly because I jumped right off the plane, so to speak, and went back to work. That tends to put a damper on recovery time and has really sapped my desire to do a bunch of “work” on our pictures.

Never fear, though. Eventually, we will get to them and put them up for all to see.

It just might take a while…

New Underwater Development Process

In order to make better pictures underwater, I’m not only fitting out a used case for my 5D, but I’m also learning a new technique for developing the underwater raw photos in Lightroom to better reflect what they should look like.

Normally, pictures you take underwater are extremely blue:


Previously, to fix this, I would import the file into Photoshop, run a custom action which would add a red layer, do some magic and then, I’d save the PSD file and adjust it some more and maybe it would look okay:


Now, I don’t know about you, but that looks a bit strange what with the purple water and all. So, I’m now working in Lightroom using a technique that uses white balances and black levels to make corrections. It’s non-destructive, doesn’t require a second PSD file and is very flexible. Much faster as well. Here’s that same picture with the new method:


Blue water, proper skin tones, over all, much better.

New Underwater Direction

After some setbacks and issues with the EOS M, I had an epiphany. We have two “old” EOS 5D cameras. Why couldn’t I just find a used housing for one of them? Sure enough, I found one for half price of what I would normally have to pay for a new case for a new model. I picked it up and have been finding used or on-sale lens ports to go with it.

This idea has several advantages as well as several disadvantages. First, the speed and responsiveness of the camera are incomparable to even a high-end mirrorless. Second, the pixel quality is one of the best in the industry despite it being a bit long in the tooth. The dynamic range is also much better.

The down side, though, is that the housing weighs eight million tons, and with all the accessories, it will be difficult to carry on a dive trip.

Well, I’ll just have to try it out and see.

New Underwater Camera

Over the years, we have tried several digital cameras for our underwater photography, some good some bad, some just passable.

As ironic as it is that the cheapest, oldest, least capable camera has turned out some of our best pictures over time [albeit with the very low resolution of 2 megapixels], I still must strive to have the best equipment that I can reasonably afford to do the job.

The first camera I have used was the Canon PowerShot A20 – a 2mpx camera with almost no manual settings and a hideously long shutter lag. Knowing when to shoot the picture meant pushing the button about 2-3 seconds before I expected my subject to be in the frame. That’s much easier when standing [floating] still. Even so, some of my best pictures underwater came from this camera. Either because of it’s limitations which I subconsciously took into account, or because of the environments in which I dove – which is more likely. The places we went with that camera were deeper and darker, which lent more to flash-based lighting and that just makes things look better underwater.

Ever wanting to be on the technological cusp when it comes to gadgets, I “upgraded” next to the Canon PowerShot S80. For a camera that was technically superior [it was 8mpx and allowed us to shoot in RAW format], it performed in a most substandard way. We had thought it would make better strides in shutter lag, but while a bit faster, it still had serious delay problems. Of course, when we took it diving, we didn’t go very deep or do night dives with it, so I couldn’t get the lighting to do what I wanted and it really didn’t perform any better than the old A20 did. It didn’t last long.

Next up is our current camera, the Canon G9. Now, with this one, I was determined to do better on properly planning the equipment. I at one point wanted to go with a low-end SLR, but the cost of the case alone (over $10,000) fast decided me against that. At the time, the G9 was the top of the line small form factor camera. I picked it up and the Ikelite case with strobe to go with. This is the first time that I had that setup, previously relying only on the built-in flash. Having the strobe off camera makes for better, more clear pictures free from underwater particulates. This camera did much better.

However, there are still some shortcomings, the focusing speed, the still present shutter lag, and most importantly, the sensor limitations of noise, ISO, and dynamic range. I was still getting blown out sections of my pictures in the highlight areas – the kinds of problems that don’t normally present themselves topside. All told though, it’s still a decent solution and even does some low-res underwater video.

Then, Canon went and released the EOS M – a new “mirror-less” SLR camera. That just means that it has the guts of a large body camera, with focusing and viewing through the lens, but without the heavy mirror/prism mechanism present in most SLR cameras today. Not that I mind using the optical mirror viewfinder on my big camera, but for underwater, it becomes cumbersome and cost prohibitive.

With the EOS M, though, you have a “full” [APS-C sized – not full 35mm frame, but the more consumer friendly size] sized sensor in a tiny camera body with 18mpx and high ISO range. This means that we should be able to get better shots in the deep with a lower-noise, higher dynamic range, and crisper detail – and use it underwater WITHOUT a $10,000 case premium. Looking at the options out there shows at present one case for $1,500, but there should be an Ikelite one out in the near future. [That’s my opinion not based on any information from them.]

So, we found a used one at B&H for $200 or so off the $799 retail price including the more flexible lens we wanted. This camera also does an amazing high-def video capture and we’ll be using it on not only our future dive trips, but our upcoming north Atlantic cruise. Plus, it’s lightweight and easier to pack.

I’ll let you know how will it performs.

Travel Planning

Planning a trip is hard. Planning a dive trip is harder. Planning a dive drip with good places to do dive photography while worrying about luggage restrictions, cost, and other photographic considerations is even harder.

I’m trying to figure out the best place to go and the best dates so that we can both relax and do some diving photography. Our last trip [the diving portion at least] was unsatisfactory due to water conditions and my general “blah” feeling about it that particular week.

Before that was Belize, and while the trip as a whole was magnificent, as was the diving, I was unable to produce any stellar pictures from that trip.

I think I need more practice. Hence, the dive trip planning that is so frustrating.

It’s hard to do underwater photography when you’re caught drifting, like in Cozumel, or is cloudy cold water, like Cabo. So – what you need is a calm place, deep wildlife [so that sunlight won’t interfere with the camera’s flash and turn everything blue] and of course nice accommodations. Hard to find.

I’m thinking Hawaii or Roatan or the Bahamas or… well, there’s tons of places, but making the decision is hard.

And then, of course, there’s the price.

Gotta keep that in mind. 😐

Fun With Macro

We [and by “we” I mean Laura] found a guy on Craig’s List who posted a ton of Canon photography equipment, most of which we couldn’t afford, but some of the items have been on our list for quite some time. A new 580EX II flash, complete with stand, mounting bracket and umbrella was a great plus, but the big ticket item that we’ve been wanting for a while is a new 100mm F2.8 L macro lens. It’s awesome! We can get some great up-close and personal pictures that are very hard to do with other lenses. So, I took it upon myself to play around a little. Now, I’ve been getting back into playing guitar, so it’s sitting out for me to take pictures of and a guitar makes for good “macro” shots. Here’s a picture taken just a few inches from the end [and yes, that’s a spot of dust on my camera sensor]:


Not stunning at first glance, but let’s zoom in a bit and you can see more detail [maybe even some you didn’t want to]:


Still not impressed? How about this one:


All of these are sections of the same picture. Look at the amazing detail!

This lens is actually for Laura, but she let me play with it. I suppose I have to give it back now. 🙂

Fun With 1.2

Laura and I recently picked up a wonderful portrait lens to add to our collection: the Canon 50mm F1.2 L lens. It can do such a shallow depth of field, that the plane of focus is much less than an inch deep [0.84 inches, to be precise] even over a distance of several feet. To illustrate this, here is a sample picture of the inside of our Media Center PC, which I was repairing the evening the lens arrived:


If you look closely, you’ll notice that the one place I focused is the screw and tab right above it. Everything else in front or in back is out of focus.

Of course, this has some challenges, as well. The lens is great for low-light situations and shooting without artificial light – especially where we can get the shutter speed very high. However, using regular strobes it is a challenge – we can’t set the shutter very fast due to the fact that our strobe setup won’t allow us to fire any faster than 1/160. This means that in the studio, the largest aperture we can use even at ISO100 is f13. Oh, we can probably get away with f9 and push the exposure down in Lightroom, but adjusting exposure is tricky and we’d run the risk of the image not being properly exposed in some places due to some digital compression at the edges of the histogram [at the extreme ends of the dynamic light spectrum, that is either very light or very dark sections of the image] caused by the overexposure and resultant digital manipulation.

In other words, the picture wouldn’t quite be as good as it could be.

Mainly, this is due to the fact that our lights are “budget” lights – fairly inexpensive in the grand scheme of things. They’re not adjustable for output like the more expensive units, but we bought these for the “constant light” capabilities that allow us to plug in some [now] huge 50-watt daylight balanced fluorescent bulbs to replicate window light. The problem with this end, however, is that these are too dim. We have to use ISO400, f4.5 and 1/160 to properly expose. This has the positive effect of completely blurring the background, but the negative one of making the focal plane too narrow for more than one person’s portrait, or more especially a moving child [and they move a lot!]. This is much better than it used to be when we were using the 27-watt bulbs which forced us at ISO400, f4 to use 1/60.

In summary, our constant lights are too dim, but not as bad as they used to be and the strobes are too bright. After a shoot with a mother and child in the constant lights with the baby squinting into the soft box [which I had previously thought might be better for the baby since it wouldn’t “explode” with light when we took a picture], I’m much more inclined to use the strobes on people and the constant light on objects.

Although, the strobes work great on objects, too [ISO100, 50mm f13, 1/160]:


[I guess that dust on the helmet means I need to go for a ride…]

Imaging USA 2010: Pure Chaos

But not as bad as last year!

We spent part of the second week of January this year in Nashville for the annual Imaging USA event for PPA [Professional Photographers of America]. We drove the whole way there from Virginia, and while it’s only one state over, it was about a 10 hour drive.

This year, we opted to go to some pre-convention training and it was very good, except that there seemed to be too many people. Once the main event started, it was clear there were WAY too many people – 3000 or so more than there should have been in fact. Almost 10,000 people attended this year, or so we were told. It was incredibly crowded, but even so, there were some gems to be gathered.

This year, unlike last year, we actually fared fairly well in both the Expo and the sessions – not getting overwhelmed by too much information, or buying too much [well, not TOO too much] stuff we didn’t need.

The most important things we picked up this year were several pieces of advice and new flash units for our lights. Oh – and we got a couple of new backdrops for a great price.

The most important piece of advice was “practice, practice, practice”. And I intend to do so with the new lights. If anyone wants to model, just let me know!

Of course, the best part of the conference for us was the chance to reconnect with someone who not only has very quickly become a dear friend to us, but now a mentor who we hope to learn as much as we can from: Angela Carson. In fact, we spent so much time with her on Wednesday morning, that is wasn’t morning anymore – we were supposed to leave at 10AM, but ended up leaving close to 1PM. It was well worth the time, though.

Step Three: Diving With Sharks

Late Wednesday night of our cruise, we arrived in Nassau, Bahamas – our first shore experience began shortly after. We docked around 9PM and were able to push our way out of the boat a half hour or so later.

Everything was closed.

Well, not everything. The Atlantis resort was open. We all piled in a taxi and went to go see it. I have to say that it is an amazing place and the aquarium is … well, amazing.

After that evening, we got up very early the next morning [breakfast at 5AM is early, yes?] and met our dive boat owner at the front of the docks. She drove us to the other side of the island and we hopped on the boat and went out to sea.


I have to say I don’t think I’ve had another dive as relaxing and fun as this boat trip was. We originally asked for a two-tank dive, but they arranged it so that we had one deep dive and one shallow dive which used up only half of our air. There were quite a few lion fish in the water there – not natively, but accidentally introduced there.


Then, they took us to a spot where we could swim with sharks.

A previous boat had fed the sharks and they were clustered around the boats when we got there. That boat left and we dove in – well, I dove in, while the rest of the team followed slowly.


Some of the sharks came quite close.


I wanted to pet them… well, maybe not, but it was tempting to reach out and touch them.

The dive master said that there were about 30 sharks around us, but only a few were close at any given time.


I really like this one of Laura and our friends. Notice how they are tightly clinging to the rope while the sharks circle behind them… 🙂


This  was a dive that I will likely never forget.

Then, we got out of the water and back on the boat. If the rest of the trip could have only been so good!