Category Archives: Underwater Photography

A deep dive into inward lighting

Background

It was Christmas 2018 and my wife Helen hands me over an envelope with an unexpected gift: two hours tuition with Alex Mustard (on land). Alex was travelling and I was busy with work so I only managed to get the session arranged in spring 2019. At that time I had just returned from a Hammerhead expedition in the Bahamas.

Prior to boarding the boat I did two days diving at Blue Heron bridge. I must admit shooting macro is not my favourite discipline but the shots were very disappointing: they all looked flat fish ID style images of various critters on the sea bed.

I showed the images to Alex who gave me a session on inward lighting for macro and we took several shots of coffee mugs or other widgets on his kitchen table. I wish I had had that session before going on that trip, but things never quite work as you would think.

Since then, I have done mostly wide angle with the occasional macro or fish portrait. I have  not really had the chance to give this technique a proper go. Inward lighting for macro requires to position your strobes behind the subject or in line with it and this is sometimes not exactly practical. The same technique, that had been initially introduced by Martin Edge, can be applied, with some changes, to close focus wide angle images.

Inward Lighting Diving in Italy

During this summer I had the opportunity to visit the Sorrento Peninsula again and dive with the friends at Punta Campanella Diving Centre. On day one of diving, the plan was to visit the dive site called Banco di Santa Croce, a group of offshore pinnacles ranging from 12 to 50 meters depth where there is abundance of groupers, rockfish, anthias occasional eagle rays and plenty of gorgonians. Usually, the visibility is terrible in the first meters and then clears up after the thermocline around 15 meters, however, on the day the visibility was pretty bad until around 30 meters. After a set of pretty deep gorgonian shots and seeing that the groupers were very un-cooperative, I went above the thermocline on the shallower pinnacle to see what I could shoot. Visibility was pretty bad with murky green water and a high number of suspended particles and I had an 8-15mm zoom fisheye on my Panasonic GH5M2 (similar to a Tokina lens on APSC). All of a sudden, I see a large “scorfano” (rockfish a variety of scorpion fish) swimming over the reef to change its resting location.

I take the first shot trying to minimise backscatter.

While the backscatter control worked reasonably well, I was faced with another fish ID style fish portrait with some ugly background: an overall anonymous shot, at least for my tastes. At this point I thought of giving inward lighting another go even though I had a zoom fisheye lens and was attempting some kind of fish portrait, with the ambient around the fish looking quite ugly.

I moved the strobes in line with the focal plane of the camera pointing right at the handles and started with the strobes wide, getting closer to the housing until I got the level of light I wanted.

First attempt was quite dark but the image started to look more interesting.

Eventually I got the light I wanted on the fish

now it was the time to make the image more interesting, trying to get some attitude out of this cooperative rockfish.

After a few attempts I managed to get the shot I wanted before the fish decided to swim away in a position no longer suitable for the composition I wanted.

Inward Rockfish

As you can see, I kept quite a low f/number I wanted to make sure only the fish head was sharp and limit the depth of field through the frame. This is a fisheye zoom at 15mm on micro four thirds so f/5.6 still has some depth of field but not too much. In my opinion the position of inward strobes works particularly well with subjects that have depth and are not flat on the focal plane of the camera like in this example. The lighting creates very strong shadows and texture that gives the fish an attitude.

A few days later I am on another dive site shooting wide angle again and I notice a large hermit crab on the seafloor. I try a crossed strobe shot and with my horror I notice many large particles backscattering over the black background.

I change the strobe position for inward lighting wide angle and place myself so I would get some blue water in the background that would reduce the contrast of the particles.

The first repositioning works well: I get strong shadows and light more from one side as I wanted.

Then the hermit decides to go for a wander, first it is repositioned so that I get a more frontal shot.

Then it literally legs it so I get a shot that for me is quite funny, as you can see a group of breams swimming in the other direction against the blue water.

Hermit on a run

This technique has resulted in a few shots that are above average certainly not outstanding but decisively different that bring out the character of both critters in my opinion.

Technical Explanation

I want to try and provide some details and technical explanation of what I think is happening with the strobe positioning and the subject.

This is a standard position for close up frontal shots.

From the diagram you can see that the area where the lens and the strobes beams overlap can generate backscatter. As the strobes are aligned with the lens the phenomena can be really strong, as demonstrated in the first hermit crab shot.

There are two issues with this positioning: first if the subject is sitting on the sea bed and you cannot get water behind you will see the background no matter how fast the shutter speed goes. Moreover If you try to close the aperture you will need to increase strobe power which will result in more backscatter.

This is a position that I use for inward lighting when I use a wide-angle lens.

You can notice a few things. First is that the subject is only hit by the edges of the beam and only from one side of the strobe so the intensity of the light is greatly reduced. This can be a challenge if you have a true fisheye as you will need to have really strong strobes as you place them further away from you to cover a wider area.

The second Is that the light beams are pointed to each other which in turn means strong shadows and a lot of texture on your subject.

Thirdly any suspended particles will reflect away from the incident angle of the lens resulting in attenuation, but of course not elimination, of backscatter effects.

Finally, the area behind the subject is not covered by the strobes at all and lends itself to either dark background or ambient light as in my two examples in this article.

Here are some additional tips on the strobes; settings. I personally use diffusers in this set up otherwise the position of the strobes needs to go forward and this can create backscatter at the edges or you could even see the strobes in the frame. Second you need several attempts to work out the distance vs power vs aperture equation. If you are interested in a dark background you need to increase the shutter speed as far as you can but on the other end control the aperture so you get the visual effect you want, in my case open so that the background is not sharp in focus. If you want to have the blue water background in the shot then you need to reduce the shutter speed and increase the aperture so you get plenty of depth of field to show as much as possible of the environment, this may result in your strobes working at full power just to paint your subject enough to standout. It takes a while to work out how to proceed and it is better to decide at the outset how you want to compose the shot so that you do not spend too much time doing trial and error as your subject may decide to leave the scene and interrupt the cooperation.

Another scorpionfsh this time from the Maldives

Post processing

I believe image editing is almost as important as making an image so I have included some post processing tips trying not to get too technical. To simplify, I will only say that the camera captures a lot more information than your image preview or your raw converter show when you import your images. Some of the inward lighting shots may look initially really dark, especially those at fast shutter speed. Do not despair if your camera has good ability to preserve colours in the shadows you still have an outstanding image potentially sitting there, so unless you did not get your focus right do not delete immediately images that appear underexposed.

The second suggestion is to avoid pressing the Auto button on your photo editing program because that will balance the exposure across the entire scene and take away any character from your image.

Generally inward images like the ones I have shot look fairly dark straight out of camera and you do not want to compensate exposure. My recommendation is to use a mask on the subject and adjust exposure very slightly and only if you got it very wrong. Instead pull up the whites and the highlights to make your subject stand out. I avoid any change of clarity, sharpening etc: the images have minimal, but selective, processing.

Another crucial consideration is that because you are using only the very edge of your strobe beams, the colour rendering index and warmth of your strobes may end up far away from normal conditions and using the white balance picker may result in strange effect as the lighting is not even across the frame. I recommend you increase the colour temperature and tint until you get something that you are happy with instead of going for recipes.

At the very end see if you want to clone out debris or some residual backscatter, this technique needs you to get very close to the subject and due to the strobe position backscatter on the focus point is minimised however it could still happen on the sides of the frame.

For what concerns cropping in a specific aspect ratio there is no hard and fast rule: I tend to shoot those close ups at 1:1 lately if the subject is somehow rounded but can go 16:9 if it is a fish sitting sideways on the seabed. Generally, I decide on the crop very early in the process but the good thing is that, as you will just make minor adjustment with masks on the subject, cropping will not change anything.

Closing notes

I have used a Panasonic GH5M2 with a Canon 8-15mm and Metabones smart adapter. My rig set up is described on this link. An APSC camera with a Tokina 10-17mm or a camera with a wet optics WWL-1 or similar or even WACP is adequate for shots like those described in this article. A full fisheye will have a much wider field of view and your subject may look very small or you may not be able to illuminate it correctly, a WAM (wide angle macro) solution may be better but that is an entirely different technique. I use a set of Sea and Sea YS-D2 despite the reputation for low reliability they have worked fine for everything I do until now. I am also convinced that shots like those described in this article can be taken with any camera type as long as you know how to and have adequate lenses and field craft, so if you have read up to now I recommend you give it a go and try and apply my suggestions adjusting the to your taste.

Diving Sorrento Peninsula 2022

It was time again to visit Gianluigi and all friends at Punta Campanella Diving in Massa Lubrense.

As I had already been in Egypt on a liveaboard I only did 4 dives:

  1. Banco di Santa croce
  2. Vervece
  3. Punta Campanella
  4. Mitigliano steps

The banco visibility was poor also at depth however I still managed to get a few interesting shots with inward lighting.

Profile
Inward Rockfish

Groupers were very shy but the anthias were performing

Deep Bommie
Wall

Consider that the anthias images are between 30 and 40 meters. I went there as I wanted the red gorgonian coral in the shots

The Vervece instead was a wonderful dive however the barracuda love to hang exactly on the thermocline resulting in hazy images

Thermocline

I could manage a good shot were you can see the surface staying right on the thermocline.

Vervece doppio senso

The second day had one of my favourite spots Punta Campanella conditions again difficult with limited visibility but plenty of options for interesting shots.

Eyes

In addition to the cardinal fish in the cracks there was an interesting hermit crab that started legging it when I set the strobes for inward lighting.

Hermit on a run

At the surface I manage a few decent shots of jellyfish

Stinger

I would have liked to go on the Isca caves however the divers were not experienced so we went to the steps of Mitigliano which is a great close up wide angle dive.

Gorgonia

Corals are not too deep and there is a good variety of fish on top the cardinals in the cracks

Damsel
Salp Uphill
Mullets

The visibility was a bit better but the light was decent so I took a variety of shots of salp, mullets and damselfish

That’s all for Italy for 2022. I feel I need more dives to get the best but am quite happy considering the limited number I could do.

For sure shooting wide angle here is a challenge but I think the shots worked out ok

Challenges of high dynamic range underwater scenes

A recent discussion on wetpixel with regards to mirrorless cameras vs DSLR seemed to highlight that electronic viewfinders are a major limitation vs optical viewfinders in high dynamic range scenes.

In reality an optical viewfinder does not have dynamic range is just the projection of what the camera lens is seeing through a mirror while an electronic viewfinder is a small screen limited to the 10 stops of dynamic range of the camera jpeg engine.

So there is no doubt that in certain cases the eye and the brain do a better job than a screen to manage certain scenes however to say that this is a limitation that cannot be overcome is a real stretch especially as now most images are taken with mirrorless cameras and have high dynamic range.

During my last Red Sea adventure I spent almost an entire dive shooting sunbursts. Sunburst can be tricky this is an excerpt from Alex Mustard Underwater Photography Masterclass

“At depth the overexposure at the edge of the sun ball is only in the blue channel, which creates an ugly cyan halo around the sun.”

Other situations for ideal sunburst are calm waters which I did not really have during my trip.

So possibly I had the worst conditions and most challenging for my camera, as you know I shoot a Panasonic GH5M2 and the micro four third format is frequently labelled as having very low dynamic range.

During lockdown I have practiced a lot of landscape and night photography and many sunrise and sunsets and I have learnt that actually my camera has a lot to offer if I do not fully trust the exposure tools.

The camera lies to you

The image displayed in camera and in the EVF is an output of the JPEG photo setting of the camera and shows what the manufacturer believes it is an optimal image. RAW converter do exactly the same thing and apply corrections to the raw data to show what they think looks good as a starting point for editing.

Red – LR Default

This image taken at around 18 meters so fairly deep shows a moderately clipped sunball in what was not calm surface water and a fairly dark foreground despite the strobe fired on the coal.

This image is instead the camera RAW data very close to linear and without correction. Note the cyan sunball and the very dark foreground.

RAW Linear data

This does look really dark indeed and to be frank the camera sees a lot in the dark.

The important part though is that this image is not clipped in the highlights and the darks are not crushed either.

The image can therefore be rescued to produce a decent result.

Red – Edited

Is this image as pretty as one where the sun rays do a perfect star in calm shallow water? No.

Does it have an ugly sunball of death? No

Is it noisy grainy or lacks sharpness? Definitely not

Would you have taken this image if you believed the camera exposure settings? Probably not

How to take good high dynamic range images underwater with a mirrorless camera

There are a number of challenges to be overcome:

  1. On some cameras the EVF may get so dark that you can’t see any of the foreground
  2. The camera metering system reflects a jpeg not a raw image file
  3. The image review afterwards may also be incorrect
  4. You do not know how to edit such image to find out if it was clipped or not

Let’s take those challenges one by one.

Normally with a mirrorless camera if you try to expose so that the sunball is not clipped the display gets so dark that you can’t see the foreground unless you have a light.

Some cameras like mine have a metering mode called highlight weighted where the camera calculates exposure not on the middle grey but the highlights. This in turn allows us to calculate how much headroom is built in the exposure tool of the camera. I have calculated that for mine is 1 full stop. So the first step is to set your camera to the fastest shutter speed your flash can sync to (in my case 1/400) the lowest ISO (in my case 200) and the smallest aperture that does not go into diffraction (in my case f/10) and see if you can match that 1 stop overexposed and work from there with your aperture. Set the strobes to match your aperture in my case I set them to f/16 to start and then move to f/22 if needed if I am reasonably close otherwise I may go all the way to full power.

The second step is to switch back the camera to a normal multi metering mode and ignore entirely any warning of clipped highlights so you can compose the scene and shoot.

The jpeg review will show blinking highlights in abundance but you know that is not actually true.

Later in lightroom we apply the setting to remove the program bias and see if the scene was clipped

Lightroom develop mode

As you can see the scene is correctly exposed!

After some editing we are at what I consider a decent result

Adjusted Image

Here another example later in the day in another dive site an even more challenging backlit situation.

Buddy diving

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the eye and the brain can do an easier job in those challenging condition to frame the shot however any camera including a DSLR will lie to you when it comes to the image review so ultimately you can push your equipment much further than you think if you know how.

Red Sea Image Makers 2022 Shot Report

Just back from a fantastic week. Cannot write a trip report on something I arranged however I am confident those will come from the participants.

The actual schedule ended up like this

DateTime inSiteLensVideo
31/7/2208:40TempleCanon 8-15mm
31/7/2211:40Jackfish AlleyCanon 8-15mmYes
31/7/2215.10Beacon RockCanon 8-15mm
31/7/2217:30Beacon RockCanon 8-15mm
1/8/2206:35DunravenPanasonic 8-18mm
1/8/2210:45Small crackPanasonic 8-18mmYes
1/8/2215.30MarcusPanasonic 8-18mm
1/8/2217:00Dolphin SnorkellingPanasonic 8-18mmYes
2/8/2206:20Giannis DPanasonic 8-18mm
2/8/2209:45CarnaticPanasonic 8-18mm
2/8/2215:20ThistlegormPanasonic 8-18mm
3/8/2206:25ThistlegormPanasonic 8-18mm
3/8/2209:45ThistlegormPanasonic 8-18mm
3/8/2214:10RM LighthousePanasonic 8-18mmYes
4/8/2217:30Sandbar trip

4/8/2206:20Shark ReefCanon 8-15mm
4/8/2210:00Shark ReefCanon 8-15mm
4/8/2214:00Ras GhozlaniCanon 8-15mm
4/8/2217:40Sunset SplitsPanasonic 8-18mm
5/8/2207:00Ras Za’tarCanon 8-15mm
5/8/2210:00Ras Umm SidCanon 8-15mm
5/8/2214:20TempleCanon 8-15mm
5/8/2217:40Sunset SplitsPanasonic 8-18mm

I would have preferred a more aggressive approach to some sites however I decided ultimately to settle on something that was challenging diving wise but not extreme.

I used my Panasonic GH5M2 with the Canon EF 8-15mm and the Panasonic 8-18mm. Surprisingly I found I had more keepers with the 8-18mm this is due to the dolphin dive for which I took the risk of using the rectilinear lens and continuous autofocus which worked well.

Day 1

The trip had a slow start at Temple followed by Ras Mohammed and some technical training on light at Beacon Rock.

Pulsating reef life at Temple

Ghost in the Shell

Moray Burst

Day 2

After a dive at Dunraven and a better one at Small Crack where I took video we moved to Abu Nuhas where I decided to skip the last dive and go for a snorkelling trip hoping to get dolphins.

underwater explorers

Inside the Marcos

Wreck diving

Barnacle Bow

The dolphin came to play we had one hour with them swimming at speed around us and getting really close

Lone Dolphin

Spinning
Checking you

Dynamic Duo

Dolphin Photography

Day 3

It was the day of the wrecks including the Thistlegorm in order to support the group I was at the back which did not help visibility. We were mostly on our own though

Giannis Vertical
Red Coral
Giannis bow
Phantom Wreck

Wrapping cloth?
Exploring the stern of the Carnatic
Big fish

Ceiling

Cage

Day 4

Two additional dives on the Thistlegorm and we were back to Ras Mohammed after the adrenalin an easy dive at the lighthouse followed by sunset trip on a sandbar. This time I tried to get some better shots of the Thistelgorm exterior while I would say inside there was generally less fish to make the shot interesting.

Bikes trailer
Truck
Motorbike
The last Steering wheel truck

Headlights

Propeller
Machine Gun

Locomotive

Day 5

Two dives at Shark Reef the current was pumping. We missed the snappers on dive one but they were there in full force with the batfish on dive 2. The group however ran out of air very fast trying to get the shots. Last dive was at Ras Ghoslani to have a break and finally a session of split shot that was not very successful due to waves however I did produce a decent one with quite some fish.

Bommie of Jolanda
Head On
Arrow head
Green Turtle take off
Videography
Layers

Day 6

Usually the last day is a more restful however we had 3 dives and one sunset split session so actually a full day. Here dive one was focussed on sunburst but ended up also being dive two.

Mushroom

Swarming
Hidden burst
Red
Red Sea Fan

Bommie at Ras Umm Sid
Buddy diving
Ras Katy Tip

Conclusion

It was a great trip although I am not sure I took my best shots in all cases. The Thistlegorm was under par while the dives at Ras Mohammed and other sites other than Shark Reef were better than expected.

One thing that proved to be absolutely right was that the ability to influence the boat schedule and itinerary is essential. We were in the water always first, Egyptian boat have a tendency to get in the water very late for dive one and this means most of the following dives have the sun really high and not always the best conditions.

Environmental Conditions joy and despair of the photographer

A few weeks ago I went diving in Swanage with BSOUP the British Society of Underwater Photographers that I have recently joined.

I was looking forward to some local diving so when I found out that they were organising a trip I managed to get on.

I drove there the night before and I was number two on the pier the next day.

It was a deceiving clear morning with perfect conditions on land.

I had two cameras one in the housing and one for land use so I took a few snaps.

Once parked on the pier I was informed by two friends that dive locally all the time that it was better to wait when the water level was a bit higher.

At that point it did look like a great day however there was a bit of wind.

I had my GH5M2 with the Panasonic 45mm macro that I acquired last year and has become my favourite macro lens.

I jumped in the water one of the first to find out the visibility was well maybe 1 meter? I could not see the LCD screen of the camera due to the suspended particles and had to use the viewfinder

One of the first things I say was this corkwing wrasse with a massive parasite near its eye.

Unfortunately I did not have a snoot or strobes suited for the challenge so I spend the first dive training myself on how to get the least amount of back scatter. Mind you when there are particles you will have backscatter not matter what you do.

Static subjects are ideal for testing so I had a go at some really simple stuff.

And again some anemone the object was to get the cleanest possible shot.

When I was reasonably happy I moved to some more interesting subject I gave up on blennies as I knew everyone would have shot some and besides my strobes were not the best for the situation and I found a cooperating cuttlefish.

I can tell you that to get this clean shot it took me quite a while but on reflection despite being very low I could not even see a hint of the surface so bad the conditions so I decided to get really close.

I wanted to emulate a profile of a person or perhaps an elephant not sure but I took a number of shots waiting for the tentacles to be in the right position and this is my best shot for the day.

I would say it is quite creepy but after all I had something decent and when I presented the shot in the club review at the sailing club it got some good feedback.

Now with that in mind let’s have a look at some shots taken in clearer water this is from Sorrento Peninsula.

Blenny Gold

You can see that clearer water improves contrast and sharpness as you would expect however as the UK shot was very close the gap is not as big.

And this is a shot from last time I was in the red sea

This is super macro so again suspended particles are not as important.

However if we look at a mid-range shot similar to the whole cuttelfish the situation is very different.

Here we are in Italy.

The Look

And finally here in the red sea.

Napo Lips

For as much as we may love our local dive site there is a degree of adaptation but also a restriction on the variety of shots we can take.

When I was working as resident dive instructor I remember the guidelines we were passed one was really funny and said:

“if the visibility is crap you don’t say that to the guests what you say is today we are going to focus on macro” then you make sure you choose a site where there is some.

I am looking forward to my boat in the Red Sea end of July remember if you follow me on instragram there may be some voucher codes to be used for discount.

If like me you have been trying to make the most of your local dive site you deserve to get yourself in clear water where you can actually see further away than your arm. Of course we do have some good days in England sometimes 5 even 8 meters but I tale Egypt and their 25+ meters any day of the week!

A closing thought on conditions and land photography, in fact even if visibility is not an issue most times unless you have fog, overcast days, excessively clear days do not make great land pictures either so we can say we are always on a quest chasing light and conditions.

Mirrorless Cameras Opportunity or Necessary Evil?

I believe we have finally got to the point where users are moving from DSLR to Mirrorless camera in mass. The release of the recent Nikon Z9 and Canon R5/R3 has definitely shifter land photographers to mirrorless.

Underwater photographers have been lagging mostly because of optics compatibility more specifically lack of compatible fisheye options for mirrorless. Some classic lenses like the Tokina 10-17mm do not work properly when used through an adapter and releasing fisheye lenses has not been a priority for Canon or Nikon. The good news is that 1st party full frame lenses like the 8-15mm fisheye do work through an adapter and generally all DSLR optics 1st party can be adapted to a mirrorless camera of that brand.

I have sold my last DSLR in 2016 and generally never looked back. I believe this can be a harder move for a bird shooter or a sport photographer but the latest flagship cameras have performance for everyone.

EVF vs OVF

In terms of image quality there are no significant differences between a mirrorless camera and a DSLR camera. Improvements in image quality are mostly related to sensor improvements regardless of the system that runs that specific sensor. There are however some significant differences between an optical viewfinder and an electronic one.

Nikon Z7 and D850 have the same sensor and identical performance

An optical viewfinder literally means looking through the lens with your eyes, the primary benefit of an optical viewfinder is the lack of lag. Some people say that optical viewfinder have higher dynamic range but that is not actually correct as an optical device does not really have dynamic range limitation and neither is true that the human eye has 30 stops of dynamic range and all those fantasies.

The key problems of an optical viewfinder is that when is dark you cannot see things until your eye adapts and this happens slowly so most DSLR users switch to live view which essentially means using your DSLR camera as a mirrorless camera and watching a video stream on your LCD.

The other ergonomic difference is that you don’t know how your shot turned out until you review it after you shoot as the OVF can’t play back images being an optical device only.

An electronic viewfinder instead is nothing else than a micro LCD or OLED screen that is showing you a video of what is going on and is also able to playback the images.

This has the great benefit of not needing to take your eye off the viewfinder as the image is played back as soon as you shoot. The price to pay is a small lag between reality and what you see on your EVF.

While an OVF is real time an EVF has a lag that depends on how fast the sensor is being read. This can mean a delay of more than 30ms on very cheap cameras with just an LCD down to 5ms for the fastest reading Nikon Z9 and the likes. In general below 20ms is normally good enough for underwater use but for fast moving subjects like birds in flight less than 10ms is better.

The other benefit of an EVF is that in dark scenes it can boost the display so you can see better than your eyes in the dark.

Electronic Viewfinder Myths

One of the biggest myths about EVF is that they give you a what you see is what you get view of the image before you take it.

This is unfortunately untrue and it is important to understand why.

In a photograph we have two exposure settings the aperture and the exposure time. ISO maps the amplification of the system and is not an exposure setting however it can be useful to brighten an image that is too dark by amplifying electric signal after light has been converted into current by the sensor.

Normally a camera operates with the lens wide open and with a fixed exposure time determined by the sensor readout frame rate.

Imagine that your camera has an f/2.8 lens and the sensor is reading at 60 frames per second. You have set your underwater shot for f/11 1/250. However your camera will not close the aperture to f/11 until you press the shutter and it is actually operating at 1/60 exposure time.

In order to simulate the image the camera will try and adjust the brightness of the EVF to make it lighter or darker so that you can see properly what you need to shoot. This has actually nothing to do with the shot that will come out.

Some cameras Sony, Canon, Nikon and Panasonic have a preview or exposure simulation setting that will close the aperture to the value you chose and simulate the shutter speed chosen in the video displayed to your on screen and if you operate in full manual the display will actually change brightness as you change your exposure settings. However this does not actually show an image exactly identical to the one you will shoot because of the limitation on the exposure time. It will show something close to that image and only if you select the option to simulate the exposure. Some cameras are actually unable to perform a full simulation and the brightness of the EVF will not be adjusted and may give the impression the image is very bright when it is not.

If you shoot with flash of course all of this goes out of the window as the camera assumes the flash will always sort things out and the display won’t be affected unless you force it too but of course it won’t be any near to the image you will take. In essence you need to wait until after you have taken the image to see very much like a DSLR.

Are mirrorless better for the underwater photographer?

Despite beliefs of hard core DSLR fans mirrorless are a better option for the underwater photographer for a number of reasons:

  1. The EVF lag is no longer an issue as it used to be on old compact camera and the refresh is faster than your eye and brain can react to
  2. You can see the image preview without having to take the eye off the viewfinder
  3. If you need to shoot in ambient light you have exposure aids that will make sure your image is correctly exposed without trial and error

Is there a disbenefit to EVF? The EVD is a small screen and needs power to run this means that given the same battery capacity a mirrorless camera will have less autonomy however almost all decent cameras have over 300 shots autonomy and can get easily to 500+ so really there is no reason to hold back to DSLR.

In 2022 it is definitely time to move on.

If you are a DSLR shooter and see other disbenefit from a mirrorless camera leave a comment I want to hear from you.

Back in the water Sorrento Peninsula 2021

Although COVID-19 vaccinations are starting to make a difference and travel is resuming is fair to say that we are still far from where we were in 2019 and it may take some time to get back there.

This means our diving travel destinations have been changing and there is much more local diving than before. Big countries like the US have a lot of diving and Caribbean destination on their doorstep those travellers have still quite a lot to choose in comparison to others.

For Europeans, in the geographical sense, there are options for short haul travel. Those do not compare to your macro trip to South East Asia or pelagic trips to South America or Maldives or similar, however you can get some pretty good shots.

In 2020 I had my first experience in Massa Lubrense and this year I was back there.

I wrote about it last year if you are looking for more details on the logistics so in this post I will focus on photography.

Getting back into RIB diving

After 1 year of forced stop from boat diving getting back into a RIB diving with 15 liters steel tanks was a bit of a shock, certainly better than shore diving but yet not exactly streamlines especially as I decided to get a semi-dry suit. Due to stock shortages in UK I was only able to fit into a Scubapro Nova Scotia 7.5mm that has a lot of buoyancy. The suit was definitely toasty but required a lot of weight to go down as it was brand new. Temperatures range from 26 degrees at the surface to 17 at depth in certain sites so after a chilling experience last year this time I was definitely ok.

I did 2 sets of 3 days diving clocking a total of 16 dives. The dives were all close to 60 minutes (time to get back on the RIB by procedure) and depth of 33 meters. I have to say I avoid decompression dives but really this destination does require you to dive deeper than what you expect in tropical destinations.

Camera Equipment

I had the new Panasonic GH5 Mark II that fits in the housing of the Mark I and two Sea and Sea YS-D2 strobes. I took only two lenses the Canon 8-15mm fisheye with metabones smart adapter and the new (for me) Panasonic 45mm 2.8 macro.

The zoom fisheye rig looked exactly like the one in the site menu.

Wide Angle

The visibility can be an issue on the Italian coast however you can mitigate the issue with good technique and photoshop. Interestingly water is always clearer at depth where of course you lack light so strobe power is important to get a good shot.

Banco di Santa Croce is the best spot to meet large grouper and has many sea fans and also macro life, eagle rays and other things to be found.

Grouper resting between red gorgonians
Two groupers chasing

I find also very interesting the schooling fish even if this is usually not well behaved Barracuda who never spin around or a variety of sea bream

Barracudas at Scoglio Penna
Saraghi (breams) at Scoglio Penna

For me the most interesting wide angle though are the cave shots at Scoglio dell’Isca and Punta Campanella

Halloween: multiple entrances to the Isca
Zoom on the lower entrances
Schooling cardinal fish at Punta Campanella

Sunburst opportunities are abundant and due to the depth relatively easy scorpionfish or small sea fans are ideal.

Sunseeker

The performance of the Canon 8-15mm on micro four thirds is just legendary!

Close Up and Macro

Afternoon dives at Puolo but also dives in Santa Croce or Mitigliano offer lots of close up opportunities.

It was the time of testing the Panasonic 45mm 2.8 on land I had the impression it gave better rendering of the Olympus 60mm and I definitely prefer it underwater.

Male Anthias in breeding coloration
Blenny with shrimp on his head standing on a cuttlefish!
Golden Blenny
Mating nudibranches

It is not just macro a long lens gets interesting closeup of large groupers

Tompot Blenny Head On

Wrap Up

Diving in Italy delivered again. I am seriously thinking a group trip would be worth it next year based on the itinerary I sketched last year.

Dates for 2022 would be 4-11 September outside of school holidays the diving is really calm as most Italian divers are back to work and the conditions are usually superb. If you are interested leave a comment and I will come back to you with costs and planned itinerary.

Travelling light – Part II on the field

Disclaimer: there are many USB power banks on sale however most of them do not declare the maximum output current and therefore you cannot be sure that it will work in all situations I describe. The equipment I use does work and is proven by my daily experience, the suggestions are not prescriptive but if you choose your own parts you do do at your own risk

It has been some time since my post on chargers and recharge facilities. During the pandemic I have done a considerable amount of land based photography including wildlife, landscape and astrophotography so I have had the opportunity to develop the concept of portability further on the field. So I wanted to share my experience with you all as some of the findings are beneficial in every day situation.

Charging your camera battery

Today some cameras can charge the battery in camera using USB. In almost all cases the camera needs to be turned off to allow charging, as a complete recharge of your battery can take a few hours I never use this method. I always rely on spare batteries typically 3 and a dual battery charger that can be powered using USB. I use Newmova they are cheap and cheerful for both my Panasonic and Olympus cameras.

Newmowa Dual USB Charger for Olympus BLH-1 and OM-D EM1 Mark II, OM-D E-M1X Camera £9.99

Newmowa Dual USB Charger for Panasonic DMW-BLF19 and Panasonic DMC-GH3,DMC-GH4 DMC-GH5, DC-GH5S(DMW-BLF19 Dual USB Charger) £9.99

With 3 batteries you can have two in the charger if needed and one in the camera which means uninterrupted shooting for a long period of time depending on your use.

Battery Grips

I also use battery grips in particular for my Olympus camera. Battery grip provide the most benefit when you are not wanting to interrupt shooting while swapping batteries. I usually set the camera to use the grip battery first and the camera as back up which means you can then insert another battery in the grip and keep shooting. I do not recommend using a battery grip as a sole source of power as at the end you can can go through 2 batteries relatively fast if you use quick burst shooting. The other dis-benefit of the grip is the one battery is always locked inside the camera so you need to increase your total battery stock to 4 if you use a dual charger. The grip is very useful to shoot verticals and provide weather sealing but overall is not my favourite option and I only use it for specific session on my Olympus camera because I only have 2 batteries.

There are some working 3rd party battery grip like this one that function AS LONG AS YOU USE ORIGINAL OEM BATTERIES.

Neewer Battery Grip Compatible with Panasonic Lumix G9 Camera Replacement for DMW-BGG9 with Shutter Release Focus Point Control Joystick £59.99

I have not seen versions for Olympus camera and the original battery grip is expensive. I got mine second hand for a good price.

Again if you only have two batteries or you want to rotate 4 batteries a battery grip is a good option if you don’t mind the extra weight.

Power Banks

I use a relatively simple USB power bank as I do not have PD capable cameras. This power bank has a decent capacity but more importantly it can output 4.5A using two outlets.

RAVPower Portable Chargers 16750 16750mAh External Battery Pack 4.5A Dual USB Output £24.99 

This power bank has also a light included very useful for your night photography. You can also use it to charge your phone but with two outlets means you can power two dual USB chargers and effectively charge 4 batteries twice until it runs out (typical battery less than 2000 mAh).

This power bank can also be used as constant power supply for cameras that take a dummy battery and do not support powering through USB.

DMW-DCC12 USB Power Cable kit DMW-DCC12 DC Coupler Dmw-Blf19 Dummy Battery (BLF-19 Battery Replacement) Compatible with PANASONIC DMC-GH3 DMC-GH4 DMC-GH3K DMC-GH4K DC-GH5 GH9 and more Digital Cameras £22.99

Using the power bank with this fake battery kit means I can run my GH5 in video for days (8.72x batteries equivalent charge).

IT IS VERY IMPORTANT THAT YOUR POWER BANK OUTPUTS MORE THAN 3A OTHERWISE IF YOU USE MECHANICAL SHUTTER THE CAMERA MAY GO IN SHUTTER VIBRATION AND SUFFER PERMANENT DAMAGE

Some well know power bank from respectable brands like anker and even rawpower themselves only outputs 3A current total so when the mechanical shutter is used and the camera draws more current you run into issue. This also happens when you set a custom white balance and the camera triggers the mechanical shutter. So if you have such power bank you are limited and hence I do not recommend them.

If you also use flash you can use the same chargers I already linked in the previous article

Prices have dropped to £7.99 for the micro USB and £9.99 for the dual USB C and micro USB input. Note that despite the misleading description the two chargers are identical except one has micro USB and the other also USB-C. The USB-C version is slightly bigger (70x90x23 mm USB version vs 97x114x34mm USB C). The USB C version has a stronger output for AAA batteries that I do not use and it does not charge faster standard AA so don’t be mislead.

EBL 40Min Smart Fast USB Battery Charger for AA AAA Ni-MH Rechargeable Batteries
EBL 2-hour Super fast AA AAA Rechargeable Battery Charger with Battery Intelligent Auto-detection Tech for 1-4 NiMH Rechargeable Batteries

Dew Heaters

Another useful accessory if you do astrophotography in humid or cold environment is a lens warmer. There are two versions I recommend the one with the temperature regulator as the strip gets to 50 C and this can increase dark current noise in your shots.

COOWOO Lens Heater Warmer Dew Heater with Temperature Regulator Strip for Ice Fog Universal Camera Telescopic Bottle Heating (Black)

Amazon.com links for my American followers

EBL 40Min Smart Fast USB Battery Charger for AA AAA Ni-MH Rechargeable Batteries

DMW-DCC12 USB Power Cable kit DMW-DCC12 DC Coupler Dmw-Blf19 Dummy Battery (BLF-19 Battery Replacement) Compatible with PANASONIC DMC-GH3 DMC-GH4 DMC-GH3K DMC-GH4K DC-GH5 GH9 and more Digital Cameras

Neewer Battery Grip for Panasonic G9

RavPower 16750 mAh 4.5A dual USB power bank

NewMowa Olympus dual charger

NewMowa Panasonic dual USB charger

COOWOO Lens Heater Warmer Dew Heater with Temperature Regulator Strip for Ice Fog Universal Camera Telescopic Bottle Heating (Black)

Olympus vs Panasonic for Underwater Use

I have been shooting MFT underwater since 2014 coming from compacts but I have also owned DSLR cameras for land use. As I initially focussed my underwater imaging on video I adopted Panasonic MFT cameras as they have an edge in terms of video use coming from Panasonic long established video and broadcast legacy.

Recently, just days before the divestiture announcement, I have purchased an Olympus OMD EM1MKII. I have decided on this camera as during lockdown I have been attempting pictures of birds in flight and the autofocus of my Panasonic G9, that I was using since February for land pictures, was not satisfactory.

I have since pondered if it made sense to switch to Olympus also for underwater use and I have considered the pro and cons of this choice compared to Panasonic semi pro models GH5 and G9. I thought of sharing my thinking with you so that if you are considering an MFT system as your next investment for underwater imaging you have a point of reference.

Note: I am only considering the top range Olympus cameras as others do not offer in my opinion any benefit over Panasonic range.

Strengths of OMD System

Olympus OMD Auto Focus system

At time of writing the OMD EM1 series and the EM5 Mark III use an Olympus specific on sensor phase difference detection auto focus system. Note this is different to DSLR phase detection and more similar to Sony hybrid AF system.

I found this system to be very effective with birds in flight once locked on the subject and much faster in locking on subjects as long as the background was clear; with this I mean this system still struggles if there is a busy background to acquire focus. In particular the CAF with tracking is very effective for birds that do not move too fast in the air or are about to take off from a fixed spot. It also effectively tracks at higher frame rate any type of object in motion. This system is superior to Panasonic CAF that is based on motion estimation for shots following the first one of the burst. More specifically it is harder to acquire focus for the first time with Panasonic and the following shots are estimated using a motion prediction algorithm without  continuous autofocus. This feature is the one that sets Olympus camera that have phase detection AF apart from Panasonic and from more economic Olympus model such as the OMD EM10 series. Another useful feature is that in review mode it tells you what the camera focussed on.

Example Birds in Flight Shot OMD EM1MKII
This shot is taken on a Panasonic G9 using the Pre-Burst functionality

Other features of OMD system for land use

If you shoot at night another very useful feature is live composition, this is very useful for fireworks or star trails but not effective for real astrophotography for which you need a star tracker or use stacking. Other features that are present in the newer EM1MKIII like starry AF are in my opinion not useful if you know how to focus on stars.

Milky Way with Panasonic GH5 shows no tangible difference to OMD Shots

Olympus Housing Costs

As Olympus bodies are smaller and simpler the housing cost compared to Panasonic G and GH series is 30% lower this is material in the scheme of things as Panasonic Pro housing are almost as expensive as an APSC DSLR. This for me is the single most important factor.

OMD EM1MKII €1,856 list price Weight 1.95kg Dimensions 305mm (W) × 175mm (H) × 116mm (D)

Drawbacks of Olympus Cameras

Lack of on Screen Manual Focus Guide

The most evident one for macro shooters is the lack of on screen MF guide as displayed in Panasonic cameras. This very useful for macro but also for astrophotography and video as you know if your camera is at the macro or tele end. For macro underwater photography this means you know if you have hit the minimum working distance and maximum magnification so now you can focus on getting the shot using peaking. 

Olympus does not offer a guide but you can pre-set a mode called Pre-MF to minimum distance however I found the on screen peaking to be really poor and ultimately getting less magnification in macro shots.

AARGH!
Typical Macro Shots where the MF Guide feature is useful to ensure maximum subject size

Exposure Aids

While Panasonic offers customisable Zebra on screen Olympus only offers a red and blue colouring and the levels only offer limited customisation on a 0-255 8 bits scale. This is OK for checking clipping in absolute but not good for specific exposure targets.

Video Mode

The video modes of the OMD are simply poor and the codec quality just good for your occasional video. The lack of exposure aid and support for manual focus make the whole video experience very very dissatisfactory.

Framing

With Panasonic you can set framing guides on the screen for 1:1 5:4 whatever you like without changing the image aspect ratio, this is useful if you want to frame a shot for a specific platform. Olympus lacks this feature entirely.

Image Quality

I can confirm that for underwater and land use I see zero difference in performance between my OMD EM1MKII and the GH5 in the range ISO 200-1600. It is true that the Jpeg settings are different and the color rendering is different for Jpeg however shooing RAW files this becomes irrelevant and I can’t distinguish the shots when the calibrated adobe profiles are used in Lightroom. I believe at some point that Olympus images were sharper however this was due to the images being better in focus when it comes to birds and subjects fast moving.

In terms of JPEG rendering Olympus choices are better for nature and landscapes with more saturated colours, for portraits I prefer the Panasonic rendering. Again those settings are not relevant for RAW files.

Nauticam GH5V a whopping €2,862 due to the M21 Valve weights 2.36 Kg

Conclusion

In my opinion the most attractive feature of Olympus cameras for underwater photography use is actually the reduced cost and size of the housing. While the extra strength are surely worth for land wildlife photography I truly do not think they make any difference underwater. For sure it would be better to do a field test, this so far has not been possible and if anybody gives me an OMD EM1MKII housing to test I would be very happy, however using the tools made available by Panasonic I do not get almost any shots out of focus and those there are blurred are because I forgot to change a setting on the camera.

For video I cannot recommend the Olympus system at all, Panasonic is way ahead on this on a number of accounts. 

In conclusion if you are 100% focus on photography and just take an occasional video the OMD system is light more compact and less expensive. It will not give any edge to your images as the sensors are identical. If you shoot a mix of video and photos the choice is Panasonic. Rest assured none of the AF strength of Olympus will improve your hit rate, if your shots are blurred you are likely using the wrong settings with your camera. The housing costs tho are higher and the rigs are less portable.

Sorrento Peninsula 2020 UNDERWATER IMAGE MAKERS

In light of Covid-19 many long haul destinations are still closed and may potentially be for a long time so your UW photography gear may collect a good amount of dust…unless you join me for this wonderful trip, on the gulf of Naples, in the marine protected area of Punta Campanella.

Strategically located and fronted by the island of Capri Punta, Campanella offers exhilarating dives with schools of snappers, large groupers, thousands of barracudas as well as wonderful red and white gorgonians. It also offers caves, macro and amazing night dives.

Barracudas at Scoglio a Penna

More information on the website of Punta Campanella.

The area is also home to Mimmo Roscigno, a super talented local underwater photographer, who published a book on the fish life found in the area.

Jellyfish photography is possible near the coast

On top of that the area offers amazing food and views. Capri, Pompei and Positano are nearby if you fancy a trip during the degassing day.

Spaghetti with clams
Capri on the background of the RIB

Accommodation will be at Sea Breeze Residence that is 2 minutes walk from the marina and meals will be at the Paguro restaurant on the jetty, serving fresh food with local produce and fish.

Planned itinerary:

13 September Arrival in Naples. Transfer to Massa Lubrense. Light Lunch. 1530 Mandatory Check Dive. Transfer to Massa Lubrense. Check in at Sea Breeze Residence

14 – 18 September. 8.00 Double Tank dive. Lunch. 1530 Optional afternoon Dive. 20.30 Dinner.

19 September. Degassing day. Free time to explore the area (Capri, Positano, Pompei are nearby)

20 September 6.30 AM departure to Airport. 10:35 Departure to destination

Extras:

Night Dives €40

Diving Baia Archaeological Park (transfer costs only, dependant on number of participants)

Flights (average price at time of writing is under £100 excluding luggage)

Price €1,350 excluding flights includes 15 litres tanks

Due to the heavy discounts involved, a non refundable €350 deposit is required by 31st of August to block the rooms.

Covid-19 disclaimer: all operations and the hotel adopt regulation as mandated by local authorities. Room rates are based on single occupancy, double occupancy is allowed for member of the same household but will not grant any further discount on the quoted prices. In case of lockdown of the area of additional UK restriction towards Naples the trip will be postponed at no extra charge.

Other Sample Shots from the Trip

Soglio a Penna
Large resident grouper on Banco di Santa Croce
Eagle Rays are resident at Banco di Santa Croce
Stalactites in a local cave
Red coral starts at 25 meters in the area while in other site of the mediterranean is at 40 meters and deeper
The optional trip at Baia offers unique photo opportunities

Book your place here