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

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

Review: Underwater Macro on the Lumix G9

In March, I bought a new Panasonic Lumix G9 to replace my EM10 MkII.

So far, I like it, both on land and in the water.  It’s worked out pretty well for me.  I’m at the end of a month-long trip consisting of the following:

  • 8 days in Raja Ampat and Misool
  • 10 days in Bali: Padang Bai, Tulamben, and Ubud
  • 5 days in Santorini (no diving, lots of donkeys and white buildings)
  • 5 days at home in Massachusetts (no photography)
  • 5 days in Athens (no diving, lots of buildings made of rock)

I think I’ve carried the G9 every single day on this trip except for when I went home.

Some notes in no particular order….

Housing.  Since the camera was just released in February, it’s still early for the housing to be in the usual dive photography shops.  I went to the Nauticam booth at the Asia Dive Expo in Singapore and bought their demo model.  Nauticam is starting to make their mirrorless housings more like their DSLR housings.  This is a shift in price and features: $1400 for an EM10II housing v/s $2600 for the G9 model.  There is a fully-removable back on the G9 v/s the hinged back on my EM10II. And the G9 housing has 2xM14 and 1xM16 bulkheads (one M14 has the vacuum system valve) v/s the single M14 bulkhead (where I put a vacuum valve after purchase) that was on the EM10II.

Accessories and Lenses.  I went from one Micro Four Thirds camera to another Micro Four Thirds.  That means that my lenses, housing ports, strobes, arms, etc still stayed the same.

I’m still using the Olympus 60mm Macro, Nauticam port, and Supermacro Converter (SMC-1) for macro and supermacro.

I’m still using my Olympus 7-14 Pro with 180mm glass dome for wide angle.

Flash Trigger.  I did lose an onboard flash (the EM10 has a built-in flash that I used to signal the strobes), so I needed to get a flash trigger.  I got one bundled with the housing.  Sadly, it doesn’t do optical TTL, so I’m running my strobes in manual mode.

Image Stabilization.  The G9 has some serious image stabilization.  What that means to photographers is that you can run a slower shutter speed without blurring the photo because of your own motion.  This is cool on land, but only 25% as awesome in the water because our subjects are moving.  That is, if you’re taking pictures of a nudibranch in a current, image stabilization helps where you’re moving but not where the subject is moving.  Still, it’s a good thing to have.

Back Button Focus.  This was fairly easy to set up: assign the F1 button as the AF Lock button and turn off half-press AF on the shutter button.

Joystick.  The housing doesn’t have controls for the joystick.  It’s OK, I don’t miss it underwater.

EVF and LCD.  For macro, I use a Nauticam 45-degree viewfinder.  The Electronic View Finder (EVF) of the G9 is awesome and works great with the Nauticam viewfinder.  Although folks with glasses might want to try setting the EVF resolution (v.mode button on the right side of the EVF) to a smaller size if they need to.  The housing doesn’t have a button to set the EVF.

I use the LCD for underwater wide-angle photography.  The LCD seems to be a little bit darker than the actual picture.  After awhile you’ll get used to it.

For switching between EVF and LCD, the F3 button to the left and below the EVF works great.  There are 3 modes: LCD, EVF, and switch back and forth using the sensor built into the EVF.  In the last mode, the housing will always set off the sensor, so it’s functionally the same as EVF.

Filming Video.  4K60P video is awesome, and the housing has a button for it.  Just film away.  However, I have yet to figure out how to do playback of videos on the camera underwater because the “play” button is on the LCD as a touch control.

Red-Light Focus.  The camera has some problems with focusing while I was using a red focus torch and point-focus.  The phase-detection software in the autofocus engine gets confused by so much of a single color.  So I switched to back-button focus, moved the camera off of the subject, locked focus on the bottom using white light, and switched back to red light for the real subject.

High-Resolution Mode and Focus Stacking.  It’s like HDR but for high resolution images of 80MP (by the way, high-resolution files are huge) or for extended depth of field.  On land, you need a non-moving subject and a tripod.  It doesn’t work in underwater photography unless the camera and the subject don’t move.  However, on land it’s awesome for the sunrises and sunsets and landscapes that crowd around dive sites.

Burst Shooting.  I forgot to try this underwater but I’ve used it quite a bit with my wife and niece while they were swinging on giant swings or jumping on beaches… the usual fast-action tourist shots.  It would work underwater provided that you turn off your strobes and take the photos with either natural light or focus/video lights.

Burst shots do make a lot of files very quickly.  Each file is 18-20MB in size for RAW files.  I go through and delete the rejected shots in Lightroom Library Module to save hard drive space.

Reading Raw Files.  MacOS and Windows can’t read them natively yet, so you have to manage photos in LightRoom.  This will eventually change with updates from the operating system vendors.  I did keep on “Save as RAW and as low-quality JPG” for awhile so that I could manage files with the OS, especially where I forget to format the SD card.  However, it slows down the SD card writes so I eventually moved it to write just RAW files and my camera operator (ie, myself) was trained enough to remember to dump files off card and format card at the end of each day.

S-Curves.  For macro, I use +5 to highlights and -5 to shadows to add a lot of contrast to the photo.  Because strobes sometimes kill the contrast: they work too well.  Back on land, it’s a bit too extreme and the family complained about how this looks in their tourist shots.  So I have to go back to a normal curve for land photography.

Settings for Underwater Macro.  I have a couple of things that I set for macro:

  • Photography Menu
    • Quality: RAW.
    • Photo Style: Vivid.
    • Metering Mode: Spot.
    • Highlight-Shadow: +5 Highlights, -5 Shadows.  Because strobes kill contrast sometimes.
  • WrenchC
    • Focus/Release Shutter
      • Shutter AF: Off.  Turns off focus at half-press.
      • AF Assist Lamp: Off.  Doesn’t work inside a housing.
    • Operation
      • Fn Button set
        • REC Mode
          • Fn1: AFL AEL.
  • Mode Dial: Manual

Settings for Underwater Wide-Angle.  Yes, I do wide-angle sometimes.  I set the following:

  • Photography Menu
    • Quality: RAW.
    • Photo Style: Natural.  Because vivid amplifies the blue-green look underwater.
    • Metering Mode: Spot.
    • Highlight-Shadow: +3 Highlights, -3 Shadows.  Because water kills color and contrast.
  • WrenchC
    • Focus/Release Shutter
      • Shutter AF: On.  Turns on focus at half-press.
      • AF Assist Lamp: Off.  Doesn’t work inside a housing.
  • Mode Dial: Shutter Priority

Settings for Dry Photos:  Even more amazing, I even take photos on land.  Here is what I set:

  • Photography Menu
    • Quality: RAW.
    • Photo Style: Vivid.  Because I like it.
    • Metering Mode: Area plus spot.
    • Highlight-Shadow: +0 Highlights, +2 Shadows.  Because outside photos with the subject in the shadows.
  • WrenchC
    • Focus/Release Shutter
      • Shutter AF: On.  Turns on focus at half-press.
  • Mode Dial: Shutter Priority

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Protip: Also Take an Action Cam

As I talked about in my Why You Should Take Macro Pictures Underwater blog post, having a camera rigged for macro is the best way to find a whale shark/manta/mola mola/tiger shark/sea turtle/etc.  Why?  Because they can tell when you can’t take a picture of them and they just show up.  It’s very unsporting of them to do this.

If you have a compact camera, the solution is easy: just flip it to wide-angle mode and take pictures.  It might take 15 seconds, but you can do this.  This is one huge advantage for the TG4/TG5 or a handful of other compact cameras.  They can do macro and wide-angle without having to change lenses.

But on a mirrorless or DSLR, there are different lenses for each style of photography, and that requires that you know what kind of shooting you’ll be doing prior to each dive.  You have to commit to macro or wide-angle for each dive.  You *could* use something like the Nauticam World Wide Lens to convert a M67 flat port to a dome, but you still need a semi-wide lens.

So I cheat.  I like to carry a small action camera with me that is rigged for wide-angle shooting.  Even better if it can do video shooting.  I’ve used a Paralenz and a GoPro Hero for this.  Either one works well.  For the Paralenz, when I’m diving the tropics, I stuff it into the left-hand sleeve of my rashguard so I can just pull it out and film.  For the GoPro, I use a small handle and stuff it into a pocket.

I’ve thought about mounting action cameras between float arms using a small arm and 3-way ball joint but haven’t done it yet.  That way, I just have to tip the big camera down and shoot.  When I try it, I’ll let you know.

 

 

See You Underwater!!

–Mike