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.

TG-5: Adding a Light Ring

As I wrote about already, I got a TG-5 and the Nauticam housing for it specifically for the light ring so that I could have a more compact (pun partially intended) camera setup. This article is a compilation of everything that I know about using the light ring.

Screws Onto the Housing and Over The Lens

The light ring screws into the 52mm threads on the housing itself. This requires that you take off the adapter that fits over the camera flash and holds fibre optic cables for strobes. There are 2 hex screws that hold the adapter in place. Then you place the light ring over the lens glass and over the glass where the adapter previously was. The center of the light ring screws into the housing with a special wrench.

Remove this with a hex wrench:

And screw this onto the center of the lens port:

One of the downsides to the light ring is that you lose the ability to add any diopter or other “fun stuff” like a magic tube, magic ball, etc. That’s OK, using the toy adapters is fairly infrequent, and with the macro mode on the TG-5 and manual focus set very close to the lens, in my opinion you don’t really need to use magnification diopters unless you’re looking for subjects that are <5mm in size.

Uses The On-Camera Flash

The light ring is a fairly simple thing. It’s just a channel for the flash from the camera. The one bad thing about this design is that the camera has to put out more light than normal–water “eats” normal flash–so that the subject is well-lit. I’ve had to mess around with camera settings to get this to work at longer distances, but the general rule is to get closer to your subject. But this also applies to normal macro anyway, since if you get closer to the subject, you can also fill the shot with it. That is, use manual focus, push the focal point as close to the lens as you can, and gently slide the camera in close to the subject.

However, some camera settings….

Full-Strength. From the quick menu, use “Full” flash mode. Then change the flash exposure compensation (EC) to +2. This is because water “eats” flash, and the further away the subject is, the more flash gets eaten. I use this setting maybe 95% of the time when I use the light ring.

Slow Flash. For shots at a longer distance, you can use the “Slow” flash setting. This fires the flash early on in the exposure so that the flash has time to reflect off the background. this setting is made for use inside a room where you want to use a fill-in on some of the darker areas of the room. What this does for me underwater is that it gives more time for the flash to reflect off the subject. (sidenote: I should try using this full-time for the light ring.)

Can Still Use a Strobe

One of the nice things about the light ring is that it still has a hole for a fibre optic cable. So one of the setups that I’ve used pretty well is to add a single Sea and Sea YS-03 mounted on the top of the housing. That gives me the reach out further for larger subjects like fish. But most of the time if I’m shooting true supermacro subjects like nudies, little shrimp, little crabs, etc, then all that I need to light up the subject is the light ring and I leave the strobe turned off.

Hole for fibre optic cable:

However, when I use a strobe, I change the flash mode to “RC” which turns on the optical TTL setting of the camera. At that point, the strobe does most of the work and the light ring acts as a “fill-in”.

One problem with using a strobe is that the light ring still works. That does create up-close backscatter when you do wide-angle photography. IE, the light ring does its job and lights up any objects near to it which means sand and dirt in the water.

I Sometimes Use My Focus Torch

Using a light ring with the housing means that I can use my torch in a couple of different ways.

In one mode, I can use it for UV light for the black light effect combined with the light ring that does the job of making the right exposure. I don’t think it’s a secret anymore… I love using the UV feature of my focus torch to make white subjects pop out.

Or I can use the torch as supplemental lighting when the light ring needs a little bit of help. Or as the prime light and then

One thing that I haven’t tried is using the torch in red light mode with the light ring as flash for shrimp and crabs–they hate white lights but strobe is OK.

Or I don’t have to use my focus torch at all if I have enough ambient light to frame and focus. Just let the light ring do its job.

Uses Battery Faster

One thing that I’ve noticed is that running the on-camera strobe “very hot” means that I use the camera battery a lot more than I normally would. So I can get 2 long (60-minute) dives out of it and I’m done… have to change the camera battery for the third dive. So I take every effort that I can do to not use battery power. Shut off the camera when I’m hunting for subjects, don’t look at photos on the boat, etc.

Less Shadows

Since the light ring creates a flash all around the lens, it does have a tendency to “flatten” subjects by reducing the amount of shadows that are created. The answer is to add a strobe or torch from the top and/or increase contrast in post-production.

Strange Effects

I do get some strange effects where the light ring doesn’t travel far. And by that, I mean that while the subject is well-lit, the background keeps an unlighted white balance. And where I add in other lights like UV or red from my torch, far subjects keep that coloring instead of reflecting the light ring light which normally happens for strobes.

The bad thing is that it’s hard to see if this is happening unless you do some serious pixel-peeping during your dive.

Alternatives

Weefine makes 2 light rings that screw into a 67mm mount. You’ll need a 52-to-67mm step-up ring to use them. They work well–one is a strobe triggered by fibre optic, the other has a simple on-off button like a torch–and have more light than the housing light ring. They hold their own battery, which solves some of the problems about light ring power. They also are bigger, which creates new problems in getting close to the subject. Alas, everything in photography is a tradeoff….

See You Underwater!!

–Mike

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

My TG5 Setup

There are a handful of photos there, be sure to check them all out.

The buildout:

  • Olympus TG5
  • Nauticam NA-TG5 housing
  • Nauticam light ring for NA-TG5
  • Nauticam flex tray with handles
  • Nauticam M10 ball
  • Scubalamp F24
  • Nauticam clamp
  • Coil lanyard with clip

What I Like

Light Ring.  I’m a big fan of light rings.  That’s why I got the housing at $800 instead of the $300 Olympus version: it had an optional light ring (also at extra cost).  What the light ring means to me is smaller, more portable size, both in the water and in my pack.

Right-Side Handle.  I’m doing a lot of drysuit dives here in Boston.  The thick gloves make it hard to hold the camera and push down on the shutter button.  A handle gives you much more positive control over the camera.  More importantly, a handle lets you work the camera with just one hand and reduces task loading so you can do other things with your left hand while you shoot.

Trigger.  I love my triggers.  Nauticam handles do a good job of having a trigger mechanism.  The trigger gives you much more fine finger control for shots and it isolates the firing motion from how you hold the camera.  This means better focus because you don’t move the camera while you fire the shot.

What I don’t like

Width.  With the two handles, it makes the camera wider.  That makes it harder to fit into some cracks and get close for some shots.  It isn’t an issue with my G9 because it has a port that sticks out towards the subject instead of a flat camera body.  However, the left handle on this setup can be removed, which is how I’ll be trying this setup for a handful of dives.

Lanyard Length.  I use this same lanyard with my G9, which is a bulkier camera with arms and strobes.  It works because that camera needs more space.  But with the TG5, I want to hover close to the bottom to look for subjects or even tip head-down and look at things closer more often.  It seems like the camera is hanging down too much.  The TG4 setup I have also does this.  This means that I need to hold the camera with my right hand and that’s less than optimum.  So what I’m going to try is to just add a ring and bolt snap to the back of the right handle instead of the full lanyard.

Dedicated to Light Ring.  The light ring is screwed into the M52 mount on the front of the lens glass.  You can’t really take it off during a dive.  You can’t use any other accessory like a diopter with it.  I think this is a minor issue.