Underwater Strobes

Let’s start with a simple fact: you can’t take photos without light. I know, this isn’t a huge surprise for most people. But this has a lot of implication for underwater macro photography. What light you have is usually weak and it’s a funny blue-green color. There are just a handful of ways to counter this: shallow dives with an adjusted white balance, a handheld dive torch, a camera-mounted wide-angle video light (or several), and strobes.

My Inventory

I own 3 different strobes.

Sea and Sea YS-01. This is a small strobe with not a lot of power. I own only one of these and have for quite awhile. It’s great for underwater macro with a compact like my trusty TG-5 and TG-4. Its size is good to add on to my camera setup without adding much weight or bulk, and as my blog readers will know, small components are the name of the game when I take the compact on a dive. However, the strength of these isn’t so good for wide-angle.

Sea and Sea DS-02. These are my usual strobes for diving with my Lumix G9. They have medium-strong power. I’ve had to replace a couple of them over time because of corrosion in the battery compartment. They work awesome for macro if I use a dome diffuser and put then right up along the sides of the lens. These work well for wide-angle if you use two of them and you’re 2 meters or so away from the subject.

Scubalamp P53 Pro. These are my new video lights with a strobe capability. I added these earlier this year. They’ve been a bit of a trial to use just as strobes, but they are great video lights. They are heavy and need some flotation in water which isn’t much of a problem with a wide-angle setup and a huge glass dome but they’re very negatively buoyant on a macro rig.

Diffusers

Diffusers are a mixed bag of results, so you need to give some thought on when to use them. They’re a piece of plastic that fits on the front of the strobe. The idea is that they bounce the light as it goes through them.

So instead of having all the light come from one direction, it’s like having a bunch of mini strobes in many directions. This reduces the dark shadows and bright highlights in a photo that’s not quite as dramatic. This also had a side-effect of reducing some of the backscatter in your photos.

Diffusers also increase the angle that is illuminated by the strobe. I think it’s easier to shoot with diffusers since you don’t have to be as precise with where you aim the strobe.

However, diffusers have one downside: they reduce the total amount of light reaching the subject. This is around 1-2 camera stops which is a small limitation in how you shoot.

Diffusers come in flat or round shapes. The round shapes bounce the light in even more directions.

I have a set of Carbon Arm round diffusers for my DS-02 and I use them for macro. I don’t user a diffuser with the YS-01 although I’ve tempted to buy a dome diffuser for it. The P53Pro comes with a flat disk diffuser that fits under the front ring and I use those.

Signaling Strobes

There are 2 ways to signal strobes to fire: fibre optics and electronic cables.

I haven’t used electronic cables because they require that you have a hole, called a bulkhead, in the housing to put the electrical connection.

All of my shooting is done with fibre optics. They’re just a long piece of fiberglass with a plastic coating and some standard plugs. When light shines on one end, it shines out the other end.

For cameras that have a built-in flash–TG4/5/6 and my older EM10MKII– housings have holes right in front of the camera flash to hold the fibre optics.

For cameras that don’t have a built-in flash, you use a miniature LED flash, called a flash trigger, that fits into the camera’s hot shoe.

The strobes themselves have a plug for the fibre optic and a sensor that can tell when light comes through the fibre optic.

Strobe Layout

Single Strobe

For macro, you can easily use one strobe. You can experiment with distance from the camera body and light angle. This is a pretty easy setup to shoot with.

For cameras with a port, place the strobe on a medium-length (10-20cm) arm in the center of the housing so that it reached out over the end of the lens port. Point the strobe down.

For compact cameras, you can mount the strobe directly on the housing or on a small (5-15cm) arm for a little bit more flexibility.

Twin Strobes

I put my strobes up against the port at 9-o-clock and 3-0-clock and facing inwards a bit, maybe 20°. The diffusers are about even with the end of the port. This is more about getting the arms to work than the strobe and I don’t put too much thought into it unless I have extreme amounts of backscatter or I’m doing some weird style of shooting.

If I need to fit into a smaller area, I’ll move them up to 10-o-clock and 2-o-clock like Mickey Mouse ears. That lets me slide the lens front into smaller areas sometimes.

If I’m shooting a long-distance macro shot like little fish (blennies being a huge favorite), I’ll move the strobes out away from the lens port maybe 15-20cm. That limits the backscatter.

Free-Range Strobes

I know several photographers that mount strobes on small weighted tripods so that they can place them anywhere they want. They either keep the strobe connected via fibre optic or they have a fibre optic cable that plugs into the strobe and has an exposed fiberglass end that will catch the light from their on-camera strobe.

Troubleshooting

I’ve had days where I was not happy with my strobes. There are many things that can go wrong, and when they do go wrong, you shoot black photos. I have a lot of these on my network storage drive. I’ve seen my wife lay her camera down on the sandy bottom and swim away from it and I’ve felt like that myself.

Is the Strobe Flashing?

Hold a hand in front of the strobe to reduce noise from other lights and take a test shot. You should see the strobe fire into your hand. This is part of my pre-dive camera setup routine. If the strobe doesn’t fire, then the rest of the troubleshooting tests apply.

If the strobe fires but your photos are still black, then it’s one of 5 things:

Camera is set to use TTL but strobe is not. Easy fix is to set the stove to TTL mode and see if that exposes the photo properly. Harder fix is to check the camera settings to turn off TTL. TG4/5/6 calls this “RC” (remote control). Lumix calls this “Flash Mode”. Also one warning here: I don’t know of any flash triggers for Micro Four Thirds that do optical TTL.

Camera is set to “second curtain”. This is where the flash fires at the end of the exposure. In some cases this will mean that the strobe fires too late. Try first curtain and see if that works.

Shutter speed is too fast to “flash sync”. Set shutter speed to something like 1/125. Most strobes can’t sync faster than 1/250.

Camera exposure is too dark. Bump up the ISO to 400, appetite to F8, and shutter speed to 1/125.

Lens cap is on. We’ve all done it before.

Is the Camera Flashing?

If the strobe doesn’t fire, the first thing to check is if the camera is making a flash. Most of the time you can do this by removing a fibre optic cable and watching the now-empty hole while you take a test shot.

If the camera won’t flash, then there are several reasons why.

Camera is set to “quiet mode”. This turns off the shutter noise and the flash. Great for wildlife photography, bad for underwater macro.

Flash trigger is not turned on, doesn’t have batteries, or isn’t seated properly in the hot shoe.

Flash is set to “automatic”. Setting it to “fill-in” forces the flash to fire regardless of how bright the photo exposure is.

Is the Fibre Optic Broken?

This is very common, they don’t like much abuse. Check the connectors for obvious damage. Pull the plug off of the stove, fire a test shot, and see if you get a flash coming it of the cable.

Always carry extra fibre optic cables. Swap them out and see if that fixes the problem.

New Batteries?

Strobes seem to get schizophrenic when their batteries are low. My DS-02 need the flash power turned down when the batteries are half used, otherwise they don’t fire at all. Changing batteries fixes this.

The Backup

I always have a focus light of some kind on my camera and I try to carry a cheap video dive torch when I dive. In instances where I am having troubles with my strobes and I can’t figure it out after a couple of minutes, I’ll switch to using torches and keep the dive going. Things like that are usually better to sort out on the surface. Best to keep calm and carry on with taking shots.

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

Manual Exposure Settings Underwater Macro With Lumix G9

One of the things to keep track of is a set of starting exposure settings that you can set your camera up with before you get into the water.  Add it to your pre-dive and camera setup checklists.

Macro

My starting setup for macro with the Olympus 60mm macro lens:

  • Speed: 1/125
  • Aperture: F8
  • ISO: 100
  • Strobes: +0.3

Supermacro

My starting setup for supermacro with the Nauticam SMC-1 and the Olympus 60mm macro lens:

  • Speed: 1/125
  • Aperture: F22
  • ISO: 400
  • Strobes: +0.3

Notes

Shutter speed of 1/125 is a tradeoff.  At 1/80 and slower, you get streaking from backscatter and camera movement.  However, at speeds above 1/250, the flash won’t sync.

Stacking wet lenses/diopters gives you a thinner plane of focus.  So with the diopter, I use as small as aperture as possible to give me as much focus depth as I can get.

I’m somewhat surprised how much brighter my photos are without diopters.

On deeper, darker dives, you might have less ambient light so you need to use a focus torch.

 

Learning to be Shallow

Shallow macro dives are awesome!!!  Some of the best times that I’ve had have been in the shallows with a camera.  And by shallow, I’m talking 5-8 meters.  Why?  Let me go through the reasons:

Long Long Long Dives.  Since divers don’t consume air quickly in the shallows (you should know this from your basic open water class), we have more time to shoot.  Like 80+ minutes from a single 11.2 Liter aluminum, even more if you’re a tiny person.  That’s a lot of photos!!

No Decompression Limit.  This is the biggest benefit.  Since macro divers have longer dives than most divers, nitrogen saturation and NDL are a bigger issue.  But when you’re less than 10 meters deep, it’s impossible to breathe enough nitrogen to run into mandatory decompression.  In fact, the entire dive is at a normal decompression depth.  This means less surface interval time.

Better Ambient Light.  This means you can hunt subjects without a torch.  This means that in some cases you don’t even need artificial light for your subject.  The picture below of the blenny was taken at 4 meters deep with a low-power fill strobe to add color.  However, you can see the background is also not as blue as in deeper dives.

Shorter Swim Times and Smaller Gas Reserves.  On shallow dives, it takes less time to swim down to the bottom and then up at the end of the dive.  This means more time on the bottom looking for subjects.  But more importantly, when you dive deep you need more of an air reserve.  Say, from 25 meters deep you might “turn the dive” and start swimming up to the shallows at 80-85 bar so that you get to the safety stop at around 50 bar.  Any less doesn’t give you enough gas to deal with emergencies at depth.  On a 5 meter dive, “turning the dive” means that you surface.  You only need 5 bar (if that) to surface from 5 meters, so you head up at 30 bar: the gas reserve can be a lot smaller.  Just be kind to yourself and don’t run completely out of gas: it adds quite a bit of risk if you can’t make it immediately to the surface and it is bad for the cylinder because it could let water inside.

Surface Swims.  On a shallow dive, you can save air by doing a surface swim without using your regulator set (protip: a snorkel comes in handy).  Because you can see the bottom, you can still navigate.

Extend Your Deep Dives.  You can get in a shallow macro dive as part of a deeper dive by simply extending your safety stop if you’re near the bottom.  Instead of sitting around motionless for 3 minutes at 5 meters like most people do, try looking around for subjects and snapping photos for 15 minutes or until you get low on air.  This comes with a warning: sometimes non-macro-diving divemasters freak out when I surface with only 20 bar of gas. (Hi guys!!)  =)

3rd and 4th and Night Dives.  Usually when you do 2 deeper dives earlier in the day, it’s safe to do one or two shallow macro dives.  Even if you started the day out doing wide-angle, you can take a break, get lunch, reconfigure your camera for macro, and go do a relaxed shallow dive.  No stress + no NDL + macro photography = fun!

 

 

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

A Catalog of Macro Mistakes

In the interests of Tony and Chelsea Northrup’s Photography Screwups, I present my own screwups.

But first, the video:

Now, my own list of underwater macro oopses…

The first time I used an Olympus TG4 underwater, it was a borrowed camera and housing.  I didn’t know that they took the o-ring out of the housing for travel and that I needed to put it back in before the dive.  Took 2 seconds to flood the housing and stopped the dive immediately.  Protip: you can get adapters for your BC inflator hose that are a blower to get the moisture out of your housing. =)

I have a one-way vacuum valve on the top of my Nauticam housing.  I’ve dived without putting the cap back on it.  That’s not catastrophic.  However, when you release the vacuum, it sucks any water in the valve into the housing and sets off the moisture and water alarm.

I’ve dropped my supermacro diopter on the sandy bottom at Seraya Secret dive site when I was trying to hold too many things in my hands at the same time.  I had to chase it as it rolled down the slope and started to gain speed.  Protip: use a flip adapter (highly recommended) or a mount on a bar arm that you screw the diopter into.

I’ve bumped the viewfinder diopter on the camera before I put it into the housing and then had no idea why I couldn’t focus underwater.  Protip: for a workaround, either use autofocus or use the LCD/Live View instead of the viewfinder.

The first dive that I used strobes on, one of the guys on the boat sat on my camera and broke the fibre optic cable.  Plenty of room to sit, I don’t know why it seemed like he had to sit on the camera.

However, all this failtalk brings us to a fantastic point….

The most important photo is the photo you take before each dive to make sure that the camera works and is set up properly.

While you take that photo, check the following:

  • Camera, strobes, and focus light have batteries.
  • Can use the viewfinder.
  • Can focus at a macro and supermacro distance.
  • Can write to storage card.
  • Strobes fire.
  • Can use the menu system.
  • Focus light turns on.
  • Can use zoom gear.

See you underwater!!

–Mike