On Batteries

ABC: Always Be Charging

–Mike

Batteries are my personal nemesis that I’ve learned to work with over time, and I think that most underwater photographers also have a love-hate relationship with them.

My problems with most batteries:

  • Chargers take up space in your bags
  • Different types of devices have different batteries
  • Battery chargers usually come with a power cube of some kind
  • Some chargers have “fixed” plugs that don’t let them pack nicely
  • Batteries are heavy
  • Batteries have to be in your carry-on baggage
  • Batteries usually can’t be seen through on x-ray because they contain metal
  • Batteries heat up when they charge
  • Hot batteries in a sealed device create vacuum and offgas issues
  • Batteries will last for 2.5 dives on average and that third dive might run out
  • You can’t take photos with a camera that has dead batteries
  • You can take photos if one or two of your 4 light sources dies

Out of all these considerations, I have this strategy for batteries:

  • Have enough batteries for 1.5 days of photography
  • Minimize the amount of chargers that I have to take with me by standardizing on just a couple of battery types
  • Whenever possible, have chargers that plug into USB
  • Always Be Charging: batteries on the charger are one of the first things that I do after every dive
  • Take an extra set of batteries on the dive boat
  • Have 2 containers next to the charging table: one for empty batteries and one for full batteries
  • Whenever I’m not taking photos (hunting for subjects or waiting or on the boat), I shut off my camera, strobes, and focus light
  • I try to resist the urge to look at photos on the boat unless we’re headed back to the dock although sometimes I fail at resisting
  • I carry 2 spot-beam dive torches for tech-diver redundancy and to use as a macro torch
  • I have redundancy between my strobes, focus/video torch, and handheld dive torch so I don’t really need a full set of extras for strobes
  • If you’re diving with a guide, you will take more photos and will use batteries faster
  • If you’re doing 3 dives plus an early morning or night dive, you’ll need more batteries because they won’t charge fast enough
  • Chargers can go in checked baggage

And finally, my dive trip packing list:

  • 4x 18650 (2 handheld dive torches plus maybe the ScubaLamp MS-30 snoot torch)
  • 2x 26650 (1 focus torch)
  • 1x 14500 (dive computer)
  • Nitecore 4-bay charger for 18650, 26650, 14500 (it has a straight cord with no power cube) (in checked bag)
  • 12x Eneloop Pro (2 strobes and each holds 4 batteries, I don’t take a full set for 2 days because it’s just too many to carry) [See Note Below]
  • 2 Eneloop 4-bay chargers with folding US plug (in checked bag)
  • 2x Camera Battery (either TG5/LI92B or G9/DMW-BLF19)
  • USB-powered single-bay charger for camera battery
  • 2-bay USB charger for phone, tablet, batteries
  • Waterproof bag or box for the boat: I have a dive mask box that seals and is the perfect size for batteries and my phone
  • Extra bag for batteries in my carry-on so I can can just put them into an x-ray tray at airport security

 

 

See You Underwater

–Mike

 

[1] You’re maybe not supposed to put Eneloop batteries into a sealed device: opinions vary on this.  You can read more at WetPixel.  I hedge my bets by never ever using batteries right off the charger that are warm.  This is why I get them on the charger early so that they have time to cool.

To Tray or Not to Tray

A friend of mine messaged me the other day:

Checking with you, I’ve just bought a TG-5. So can I start shooting UW already or I need to add on any “lens”?

You have housing?

Yes, I’m on Ikelite housing.

For macro, you’ll need a light source. Also for wide-angle but you can also go without.

I have a video light, no budget for strobes yet. 😅

That’s ok. How do you mount it? Check out my blog post for TG5 setup here: https://underwatermacro.blog/2019/01/03/my-tg5-setup/

My housing will only reach next week, will send you a photo after I have mounted it. Also, about the tray: single handle & double handle, which is better?

Honestly, none. Best is a cold shoe mount on top of the housing. Trays are good for a couple of things. To mount light arms. For double hand holding on the housing to steady during wide videos. For a shutter trigger. For when you can’t fit your hands around the housing.

And they’re bad at some things. Having to reach further to reach the shutter. Making a wider camera that you can’t fit into spaces for macro. Getting hung up on your dive gear.

My G9 has left and right handles because it’s a bigger camera.

My TG5 has a handle on the right side because it holds a trigger. Makes it easier to fire a shot without twisting the camera. I took off the left side handle because I don’t need it to mount lights and because it makes the camera wider. If I need more lights and versatility, I’ll use the G9.

TG5 is my light travel and “exploration” camera. I want it lightweight and small.

The trick is: know where you are good and where you have to trouble and optimize the camera for your style. I will tell you this. A good photographer with a TG5 and a handheld dive torch can always do better than a poor photographer with an expensive camera with all sorts of shit hanging on it.

One thing that you do want to add is a lanyard. You can see mine in the photos. I don’t like how long it is when it’s clipped off. I just clip it when I’m descending and ascending. During a dive I undo the short clip and hand-carry it by grabbing the handle with my right hand. I either put it along the right side of my body, in my hands crossed in front of me like a tech diver, or underneath my crotch. 😁

Depends on what I’m doing at the time: hunting, traveling, waiting, etc.

Noted. Will read through your blog & digest as much as I could. Thank you so much for your advice.

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Gear Optimization

Always keep working on your gear and optimize it to take better pictures.

How to Optimize

After every dive, I ask myself a couple of questions:

  • What pieces of my gear did I have problems with?
    • Takes 2 hands to operate?
    • Have to adjust several times to get positioned?
    • Fell apart while I was swimming?
    • Was so annoying that I wasn’t shooting relaxed?
    • Increased my breathing (SAC) rate?
  • Is there anything that I didn’t use that I can safely get rid of?
  • What non-shooting tasks did I spend the most time on, and can I find a way to reduce this time?

There are 3 key things that I am always trying to optimize: Getting setup for my first shot of a subject, getting that first shot right, and getting faster repeat shots.

Time to First Shot

What I’m looking at here is the time that it takes to go from swimming and hunting to set up for a shot. And then the opposite: to go from shooting to hunting for more subjects.

My Techniques.

Learn to hunt. Hunting is the biggest non-shooting time that I have during a dive. Anything I can do to locate subjects more quickly vastly improves my shooting time.

Control your clips. Clipping and unclipping your camera takes time. Experiment with holding it by hand on a longer lanyard. Experiment with different positions of carrying. Experiment with different clip-on points (I use the right shoulder d-ring).

Torch. You’re usually hunting for subjects with a torch. When you find a subject, you have to transition to holding a camera. I normally use a simple torch with a bolt snap (dog clip) tied on the end of it. I do one of three things to switch to a camera: clip the torch to the camera on the lanyard, clip the torch to my right shoulder d-ring, or set the torch on the ground to mark the subject so that I can find it again.

Take a quick peek. Have a good look at the subject before you place your camera. This can tell you what the best shooting angle is. Positioning and repositioning yourself takes a lot of time, so try to get it right the first time.

Camera placement. I find that when I shoot supermacro I spend a lot of time trying to get the lens in the right place for the subject. Then adding a 45° viewfinder makes this even more difficult until you get used to it. There are several tricks to this. If you use manual focus or back button focus, set up the camera at the same focus distance. If you’re using autofocus, get the camera in position but further back, use autofocus to get an initial fix, find the subject, move into the subject, and refocus. You can also set focus lock and move the focus in closer if you want to. Memorize the area around the subject to use as landmarks so that if you see the landmark you know which way to move the lens.

First Shot Accuracy

By this, I mean that when you take the first shot it is exposed properly and in focus.

My Techniques

Remember your settings. When you set up your camera before a dive, use the same settings for exposure: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, strobe positioning, and strobe strength. If you’re using manual focus, get your first focus fix on a test object that is approximately the same distance away from the lens as your “typical” macro subject.

Take a test shot. As soon as you descend, take a test shot of a rock or something else to verify your exposure settings.

Use a viewfinder. For some housings, 45° viewfinders are worth their weight in gold. They allow you to see exactly where your focus is by angling the image upwards so that you can get closer to see your picture.

Turn on focus peaking. This setting gives you a zebra stripe in the viewfinder for areas of the picture that are in focus. This drastically increases your accuracy in placing the focus.

Stabilize your camera. By anchoring your hands and elbows, you can keep the camera from shaking.

Breath control. When you breathe out fully, there is a natural pause before you start to breathe in. Also there is a smaller pause at the top when you fully breathe in. These pauses are good for shooting photos and for shooting firearms. A more advanced version makes mini-pauses in the middle of the breath. Don’t hold your breath for longer than 5 seconds because it makes you shake.

Handle with trigger. A shutter trigger reduces the amount of camera shake and “wrist twist”when you take a photo. Both of these mess up your framing and your focus point.

Time to Repeat Shot

The last optimization is to reduce the amount of time between shots on the same subject.

My Techniques

Focus lock and manual adjustment. If you’re skilled at this, you can fire multiple shots very quickly when you’re on a subject. You can practice this on land before you get in the water.

Faster strobes or no strobes. Strobes use capacitors to hold electricity and discharge it quickly to make a flash. Filling up those capacitors takes time. Better strobes have a shorter recharge time. Better yet, try shooting without strobes and use a video light, handheld torch, light ring or natural light: they are faster techniques.

Handle with trigger. Triggers are fast when you want to repeat a shot.

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Which Camera For Which Dive

I have 3 camera setups that I’m using now, and I use them (or not) at different times.  Like most things in life, it’s all a tradeoff between simplifying the dive, flexibility in photography, and image quality.

Action Cam: “Small and Wide”

I have a Paralenz and my wife has a later-model GoPro.  They just clip onto your BCD and you don’t need to worry about it unless you find something to shoot.  They’re good for wide-angle point-and-click shots and the GoPro with a Backscatter Flip magnifier means that you can take pretty decent macro video and OK macro stills if you add some torch light.

When to take:

  • Non-intense dive classes with minimal practice skills.  Like Advanced Open Water or a deep diver specialty.
  • Group dives.  You don’t have much time to take photos anyway.  And the pictures you usually take are of other divers.
  • New gear where you feel OK with buoyancy and trim but still want more practice dives.
  • As a wide-angle backup to a dedicated macro rig.

Protip: most divers have pictures of everybody else.  Try diving with other photographers and make a “photo sharing pact”.

Olympus TG5: “The Recon”

I had been borrowing my wife’s TG4 with Olympus housing (OK, it was originally mine but then I traded her for her EM-10II because it has a fully manual mode).  Now I have a TG5 with a Nauticam housing and light ring.  Both of the TGs are pretty cool cameras and if you have the experience and skills you can take some really good pictures.  In fact, a good photographer with a compact camera can blow away lesser photographers with a $25000 camera setup.

When to take:

  • Learning a new area or looking for new critters.  The name of the game is covering more distance underwater to learn the layout.  You’ll swim more than take photos, and you’ll swim faster if you’re not pushing a large camera through the water.
  • Lobstering, trash removal, or other activities where photography is secondary but you know that there are good photography subjects in the area.
  • Dives with heavy current or surge.
  • Areas where you’ll be taking both wide-angle and macro on the same dive.
  • Trips where you have a long flight and don’t want to carry a heavy suitcase full of camera gear.
  • Solo dives where you want to minimize weight getting in to and out of the water.  For example, in cold water I have a drysuit, 30+kg of weight, 14L HP cylinder, and a 5.5L stage cylinder.  That’s heavy for a shore entry.

Protip: take a SMB, tie it down where you find a good subject, and come back on the next dive with the big camera.

Panasonic Lumix G9: “All the Things”

The G9 is a mirrorless Micro 4/3 camera that does awesome macro.  With a Nauticam housing, it can take all sorts of accessories.

When to take:

  • Dives where the main purpose is macro photography.
  • Tiny subjects perfect for supermacro where you need the magnification that 15x worth of wet diopters will give you.
  • Times when you need bigger resolution for cropping or printing.
  • Dark and deep conditions where you need all the flexibility in lighting that you can get: dual strobes, focus light, video light, etc.
  • Dives where you have a spotter and you can get as much “trigger time” in as possible.
  • Easier diving conditions.  Low current and surge.  Shorter swims.  Shore or boat crew to assist with entry and exit.

Don’t Take a Camera: “Enjoy the Dive”

There are even some times when I don’t take a camera.  *gasp* *cue shock and awe*

When to not take:

  • Serious dive classes.  You can’t do drills and carry another diver out of the water if your hands are full of camera.
  • Your first 30 dives.  Learn buoyancy first, OK?  That way you’re not killing coral or animals on the bottom.
  • Major adjustments in gear or environment.  For example, going from tropics to drysuit in cold water.  Times where your buoyancy and trim are going to be messed up and you need to focus on that for a handful of dives and the less extra gear you have the better.  It reduces your task-loading and stress.  Later on, I’ll switch to the TG5 if I’m more comfortable and once I know that I can dive in that setup without problem, I’ll start carrying the G9.

 

 

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Macro Diving Truisms

Deep macro diving is awesome, shallow macro diving is better.

Surface swims–both out and back–save you gas in your cylinder and make for more photos. And more photos is better!

If you can’t see anything to shoot, go slower and closer to the bottom.

Whatever camera you use, back-button focus makes it better. Research how to do this for your camera type and practice it.

In photography, light is always the most important thing. In underwater photography, light is absolutely everything.

A good photographer with a compact camera and a handheld torch will be better than a mediocre photographer with an expensive set of gear: full-frame DSLR with strobes and snoots.

If your macro photos are bad, get closer. If they’re still bad, get more light.

You can extend your safety stop for quite awhile if you find a good subject or 3 to photograph. Going from 60 bar of gas to 25 bar takes a long time when you’re only 5 meters deep.

Have a goal for each macro dive: learning a new drive site, using a piece of new gear, or practicing a new technique.

Good dive guides save you time hunting for subjects and are worth their weight in gold. While you’re working on a subject, they find the next one for you.

You should have 30+ dives before you start shooting underwater macro. If you can’t control your buoyancy and pay attention to your surroundings, you have no business diving with a camera.

A dive buddy shooting macro isn’t really a dive buddy. I can’t even take photos on land with my wife and find her again.

See you underwater!!!

–Mike