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

Video: TG-5 Manual Focus Assist

Today we’ll be going over 2 manual focus assists built into the TG5: focus peeking and manual focus magnification.

Focus peeking is when the camera shows a color on the LCD for parts of the photo that are in focus.  You can set it in Big Menu => Gear Icon => A => MF Assist => Focus Peaking and then set the color of the peaking in Big Menu => Gear Icon => B1 => Peaking Color.

Focus magnification is when the camera magnifies the center of the screen while you adjust focus so that you can see the focus better.  You can set it in Big Menu => Gear Icon => A => MF Assist => Magnification.

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

TG4/TG5 in Microscope Mode with Sea and Sea YS-01 Strobe

This is a very common gear combination and has proven to be one of the biggest pains in life to get this working.  It shouldn’t be this hard.  I’ve seen a diver throw their camera on the ground and swim away from it because the strobe wasn’t doing what they thought it should.  I picked the same camera up and took pictures, no problem.

There are 2 core problems:

  1.  The settings you need are poorly document and are not intuitive by any means.
  2. The the camera and flash use optical TTL which most people don’t know even exists.  I myself had to experiment and reread old forum posts about different models.

Optical TTL is an interesting thing.  Most people know electrical TTL which uses waterproof electronic wires between the camera and the strobe.  In optical TTL, the camera turns on its own built-in flash, monitors the exposure that it’s shooting, and when it has received enough light, it turns off the on-board flash.  The strobe turns on when it receives light via the fibre optic cable, and turns off when there is no light coming through the fibre optic cable.  The signaling between the camera and strobe is a simple on-off instead of pre-flash and monitoring that most people are used to.

The Camera Setup:

Turn on TTL

Inside the main menu, second camera icon, choose “Accessory Settings” and set “Remote Flash” to RC.  This is an abbreviated form of “Remote Control”.  This turns on optical TTL.  Why they can’t call it TTL, I don’t know.

20180831_212739.jpg

Second Camera Screen, Accessory Settings

 

20180831_212747-1.jpg

Use the Right Flash Mode

Inside the quick menu (from shooting mode, hit the lightning button to the right of “OK”) there are 3 modes that you can use.

“Fill” works to turn on the strobe but without TTL: you manually adjust the strobe power.  “Fill” means that no matter what the camera meters the scene at, it should fire the built-in flash anyway, and this will trigger the strobe to fire.  Fill is designed to add light to foreground objects in an otherwise-lit scene such as people in the shade with a sunny background.

20180831_212806-3182660801-1535766418916.jpg

Fill Mode

“RC” Uses TTL and sends the start-stop signal to the camera’s built-in flash. “RC” only appears after you turn on “Remote Flash: RC” in the main menu as described above.

20180831_212818.jpg

RC Mode

“Slow” fires the flash and keeps the shutter open, this gives more time for light to reflect off the background.  Think of it as “front curtain sync” if you’re used to flash on land.  I was unable to tell if the camera uses TTL for “Slow”.

20180831_212825.jpg

Slow Mode

The Strobe Setup:

Use TTL

Turn the power knob to TTL.  Done.

20180831_213851-3860630082-1535766371849.jpg

Set to TTL.