Trip to the Aquarium testing new DSLR Cameras for Underwater Photography

Part of my pre dive briefs include that you have to smile, as one of the most voracious underwater photographers in the club it is easy to spot me as you just follow the Strobe flashes. I have been using my trusty Olympus C50-50 prosumer camera since 2003 however the world of digital photography has moved on and I’ve been thinking over the last 2-3 years about upgrading to a digital SLR system underwater.   As you start to research this it becomes a bit of a minefield as this is a niche area of photography where most of the major manufacturers of underwater housings are small family run businesses and therefore support for mainstream products is limited.

I had been humming and arring about whether to go for a DX or FX Format camera in particular Nikon D7000 (DX) or Nikon D700 (FX), What is FX and DX you may ask?  This the size of the Sensor that the camera uses FX is equivalent to 35mm Film camera and is what professional photographers use, DX is about 1.5 times smaller than the FX Format and is mainly aimed at Enthusiasts and Consumers each. Cost is the main difference with FX Cameras typically starting from £2000 and then add the cost of professional lenses which cost over £1000 each.  FX sensors have larger pixels than DX Sensors and hence they have better low light capabilities also the “Crop Factor of 1.5” has impacts on the focal Lengths of lenses for example a FX 100mm Lens on a DX Camera will be the 150mm and also each format has its own specific lenses such as the excellent Tokina 10-17mm Fish eye lens which works best on DX cameras  (This is discussed at length on many review sites).

For diving photography in the UK (Green Water Diving ) creates a set of issues / problems to overcome to get the good shots:

visibility – this is typically 5-7 Metres although occasionally 30 Metres can be had both on the East and West Coasts.

Loss of Light:

  • Reds are lost in the first 10 metres by 30 metres a lot of the natural light has gone so you need to use a Strobe (Underwater Flashgun)
  • Camera’s Automatic Focus ( Infra red doesn’t travel at all)  and range finder doesn’t work very well, so you have to use an additional light source such as a torch to light up your subject which can put them off.

Sand and silt in the Water:

  • This causes the dreaded back scatter suspended sand, silt and detritus act like tiny mirrors underwater so when you use a strobe the light bounces back from the particles in the water giving you a dandruff effect in the picture.

Few tips for the new underwater photographers.

  1. Get closer – even powerful strobes only work up to 2-3 metres so if your subjects are appearing Green or Blue (In Warm Water) with your Flash going then you are too far away.
  2. Use macro setting and get closer than 20cm to your subject – be careful not to disturb it.
  3. Using a wide-angle lens allows you to get closer to your subject
  4. Try shooting slightly upwards this allows more ambient light into the frame
  5. Move your light source away from the camera ie. buy a strobe (Or use a torch) which can be used or a arm 40cm – 60cm to the side or above, this will reduce back scatter so you can angle the light to not bounce straight back at the camera, be careful not to set the strobe too close to the edge of the picture otherwise you will get a bright spot from the Flash.
  6. You can use a Green or Blue water (Tropics) filters which brings back in the natural colours of red, this works only for depths to about 20 metres and for slow or static subjects not in shadows, you need good light.

Well last weekend thanks to our local photography shop in Perth, I was able to borrow a Nikon D700 (FX Camera) and a F2.8 24-70mm Nikon Lens to compare against my Nikon D7000 (DX Camera) and my Nikon 20mm F2.8 lens and I also tried my Nikon 60mm Macro Lens (Nikkor Micro).  To make the trip more challenging and fun I invited my two nephews along and Tara for crowd management.

Shooting Photos at an Aquarium has its challenges Low Light and you can’t use flash as it bounces off the glass ruining the shot, it is a good idea to shoot close to the glass straight on and you may have to switch to manual focusing if the lens locks on to the glass rather than the Fish or Crustacean.  I use aperture priority on my camera opening the lens up to F2.8 which allows the most light in and then as fish tend to move you need a fast  shutter speed 1/60th or ideally 1/125th  so the image doesn’t blur.  In this low light not using a flash the ISO (Speed at which the film or Sensor absorbs light) wash pushed up to 3200+, unfortunately the faster the ISO the more noise occurs in the image. The developments the last two generations of digital cameras in low ISO capabilities has been huge and I now wanted to see how the best DX Camera stacks up against a professional FX camera.

Using the wide angle lens, I noticed that both the Nikkor F2.8 24-70mm and the Nikkor F2.8 20mm both had issues with automatic focusing and I set the focusing manually.  Both the cameras performed well at ISO 3200 and on the wide angle the D700 when zoomed in showed slightly less noise, but not much in it.  After taking the boys through the aquarium and buying them a few toys and juice I headed back around the aquarium with my 60mm Macro (Nikkor) Lens on both cameras I was happy with the results from both cameras see below:

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The wrecks of Bonawe quarry, 4th September 2011

There was quite a lot going on this weekend. Hamish and Bethan went off down to Hawes to successfully complete a BSAC Regional PRM course under the watchful gaze of a National Instructor and other Advanced Instructors. This sets them both well on their way to completing their Dive Leader training. Worth noting comments that these events have been under subscribed and we should perhaps support these guys more as they invest a lot of their own personal time in providing this training.

Alan and family were across in Oban with a few divers and went exploring the Garvellachs where they found disappointing vis but exciting diving. Paul and I were planning on a quick shore dive.

For once the weather was kind and we had a glorious drive across to the West. Paul and I bimbled our way around to Bonawe quarry on the Northern shore of Loch Etive.

Paul parked up on the concrete standing close to the entry point and we kitted up for what was planned to be an extended exploration of the site with opportunities to play with photography lighting. As it turned out my new toy was being temperamental and had other ideas.

Entering the water we descended a steep slope picking up a cable that led us past mooring blocks and a derrick to the wreck of a small clinker built fishing boat in about 12m. The boat was sitting upright and had obviously been there a good while as it had been eaten away and was fragile to the touch. The wheel house provided some fun but I couldn’t get in with the tanks on. Having swam around the wreck and kicked up the silt we decided to explore elsewhere and continued the outward leg to look for some life, the floor of the quarry being bare save some worms, gobbies and a solitary gurnard.

Finding rocks at the mouth of the quarry we came across this little solitary jewel.

Eventually it was time to start the reverse leg and returning back to the entry point we diverted towards the western edge and came across an old car amongst the boulders. It looked a little like a A-series MG but covered in rusticles and brittle to the touch its days are numbered. No souvenirs to be found this time. Nearing the end of the dive we found a discarded net that gave an amazing spectacle, an underwater sculpture and the chance for a few more photos. I unfortunately picked up some fishing line here around my fins and Paul was able to demonstrate the value of a pair of shears as he set me free !

Hopefully Paul will add some on his photos

As it was a very pleasant afternoon and getting rather warm, we decided to follow the coast round past Castle Stalkers and try out luck on a new open water site opposite Balnogowan Island but first the surface interval. Paul had been planning and had brought a disposable barbecue and a couple of burgers so we settled down to enjoy a delightful hour or so in the sun overlooking Ardgour.

The second dive of the day was the Telephone Exchange site, neither of us had dived it before so we were both looking forward to something new. Parking through the gate at the telephone exchange on the old road, we lugged our kit across the main road, down a banking to a cobbled beach and a walk in entry. Sand with the occasional scallop gave way to mud and seapens at which time we turned and retraced our steps keeping an eye out for rays that frequent this site. None today though.

On the way back we had to rely on the compass as the tide changed and tried to push us along the beach across several confusing banks. Just below the kelp line we came across another delightful nudibrach busy laying eggs on its food source.

All that was left was to lug the gear back along the beach, up the slope, cross the road, through the gate to the car (pant, pant, pant!) and call it a day after a couple of really cracking dives.

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The Lochs, 28th August 2011

"I don't do shore diving"

Another horrendous forecast had the East coast in heavy rain and strong winds so we thought we would try and sneak a dive in in the Lochs. Driving across the weather did little to impress us but apart from a few spots we remained rain and wind free all day.

Sea loch anenomies
The first site was the outer reef at Furnace quarry or what has become known as ‘Dogfish reef’, no dogfish today but sea loch anenomies getting ready to spawn.

The dive descended down the sunken concrete pontoon to the base of the boulders, out across the mud for a while then back to the base of the slope which we traversed until bottom time was exhausted and a diagonal rising line taken to reach the outer mark where we turned and made our way back to the entry point.

Limacia clavigera

As we completed a safety stop came across this little chap, a bright orange spotted nudibranch.

Back at the car we lit a small disposable barbecue and burnt sausages while we chatted the surface interval away. A pair from West Lothian SAC who were going in, asked us if we would be shore cover, which we duly did, hanging around munching hotdogs until they surfaced 2 minutes before their planned time.

It wasn’t one of those glorious afternoons we have got used to this year (ha ha!) and we had chilled down , so to get the ball rolling again I suggested a change of venue and we moved to Loch Long to have a look at ‘The Caves’.

The culvert entrance is a little daunting if you haven’t done it before but if you take your time it’s easy enough especially if a rope has been left in situ.

Entering into green oily water we rapidly dropped down the steep mud slope beyond the 30m mark where the visibility improved but the light had all but gone. A good torch was needed to pick out a field of Firework anenomies. All too quickly the bottom time was spent again and we moved diagonally up the slope to find the boulders and walls of Peacock worms that amused Bethan as they snapped shut as she waved her hand over them. About here my torch, the half sun one, went out, luckily just the battery running down but an interesting experience. My buddy, attentive as ever, thrust her spare into my hand before I could reach for mine. Excellent torch too.

Reaching the end of our outbound air we turned and ascended to the top of the boulders where giant plumose anenomies provided colour as we bimbled back to the entry point.

A couple of really good dives today and to celebrate we ended up in the Drovers Inn to introduce Bethan to the bear before travelling back to Perth.

Loch Leven, Wreck and Slates, 13th February 2011

Sea Pen (Virgularia mirabilis)
A small group of winter divers equipped with the latest gadgets went in search of wrecks in Loch Leven this Sunday. Sidescan sonar perhaps, GPS, ROV, none of that, we’re talking heated waistcoats ! Toasty was the expression of the day. Being toasty however did not stop us getting soaked before we started the dive as we changed in heavy sleet.

So back to diving: The site , known as The Old Cemetery site, is easy enough to find and the wreck, or what is left of a small sailing skiff, lies on the bolder slope between 4 and 7m. Just enter a little left of the burn below the picnic benches, head straight out and when you get to 5m turn left and continue along that contour. You will find the wreck within 5 minutes.

We missed it first time finding a group of large worked stones further out at 12m but found it on the way back

Video of Hamish finding the wreck

The site is a very pleasant dive, a small boulder slope to 8m and then onto muddy bottom with Queen scallops galore, sea squirts and tube worms. Would be better in summer in high light but we had a very reasonable dive.

Queen scallop

When we surfaced it was still raining so we decided to go in search of a warm pub. Ballachulish was closed so a quick run round to the Holly Tree Inn at Kentallen resulted in a rather excellent bowl of soup, a great view across Loch Linnhe and the sight of divers exiting from their dive. Now it is important to get a good surface interval and I can’t think of a better place to do it !

Second dive saw us at ‘The Slates’ where we met Paul, Frank, Alistair and Dave, some of the people from Saturday’s Regional training session at the tea Rooms. Changing back into damp suits, always a pleasure, never a chore, we headed into the gloom in search of dogfish. Unfortunately a technical problem with a torch (did we carry a spare ?) kept us in the first 15m where we could use ambient light. Finding two enormous anchors and various chains we drifted East at 15m before ascending back into an eddy that brought us back over occasional boulders covered in encrusting tube worms, tunicates and a solitary King scallop.
The weather had cleared somewhat by the time we came out but everything was damp and another warm up session was required where amongst other thing we discussed the best place to keep Hamish’s hat

The badgers hat

A few more photos can be seen here These are Hamish’s first attempt at underwater photography and I am assured that they will improve. My attempts are demanding a better use of light source or I am told a diffuser whatever that may be.

Diving the West side of Kerrera. 7th February

A challenging day
A big thank you to Alan for organising this Sunday’s trip to Oban.

After Fridays storms it was unlikely that the diving around Oban would be up to much and it was with a certain amount of amazement that Paul and I arrived at Puffin Dive Centre to find a calm sea. We were a little late and Alan’s boat was just about ready to be put in the water for the first time of the season and Alan, Dave and Phoebs waited ‘patiently’ as we quickly got ourselves changed and the kit ready for two dives off the SW tip of Kerrera.

Kerrera Island by Oban

A quick ride down to the area of Bach Island saw a tidal rip around Rubha na Feundain with fresh ‘clear’ water from the West pushing into the Sound of Kerrera. A reef, an extension of the point produced a small standing waves and promised a terrific drift dive.

Rubha na Feundain from the west
Rubha na Feundain from Alan's rhib

David and Phoebs went in first and reported very poor visibility with a layer of fresh water on the surface and an uncomfortably strong current and suggested that we went in around the corner towards Port Dubh. This we did, dropping onto kelp and found that the visibility improved with depth and the current encouraged us downwards onto sandy slopes, the land of scallops! Energetic finning had the contents gauge falling at an alarming rate so we clawed our way cross current up the slope with our bag of booty, it became clear after 20mins that an open water ascent would be required and the DSMB was deployed to lift the scallops and we soon followed it. Rather a challenging dive.

We had lunch at the pebble beach of Barr-nan-broc Bay and the weather remained clear, calm and mild.

The second dive was at Rubha na Lice on the Western side of the Island. Alan joined David and went in first followed shortly afterwards by Chris and Paul who found a shallow reef with a small 5m wall.

Good life on the sheltered reef

This wall gave shelter from the current and held a good assortment of life ranging from cup corals to deadman’s fingers and plumose anenomies and a good smattering of scallops that had gathered at the base of the wall. The visibility on this dive was much better and had good ambient light at 20m. Ascending to the top of the wall, slabs continued upwards into kelp and coarse sand where white burrowing anenomies were found. All in all a much better dive !

Paul has published his photos here

Second dive profile

Dive site 1: Rubha na Feundair , Kerrera Isle, Oban. 56°22’50N 5°35’19W
Dive site 2: Rubha na Lice , Kerrera Isle, Oban. 56°24’32N 5°33’45W

credits: all underwater photos taken by Paul