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|What the Pros Shoot 2006
With choices as varied as the stunning images they produce, 19 underwater photographers detail the gear they use today.
Text and Photography by Stephen Frink
One Nikonos V is fitted with a 20mm lens and a pair of Ikelite SS50 strobes perfect for reef scenics, although modified with a bore site of his own design so he can more accurately aim the non-SLR system. For even wider work, he has another Nikonos V with the Sea and Sea 12mm fisheye with dual Sea and Sea YS120 strobes. Diffused SS50s provide the light, but instead of 2 he has designed a bracket for a third strobe for top light. His housed cameras include Ikelite and Aquatica for the Nikon 8008, and as projects demand he has even modified an Aquatica F3 housing to accept the Hasselblad Xpan for UW panoramas. Jerry is a great enthusiast of the Sea and Sea Motormarines as well, finding the 28mm lens on the Motormarine III to be very sharp, and the system of 20mm and 16mm add-on conversion lenses for the Motormarine II to be brilliantly versatile. Jerry has created stellar images for half a century, and I have great respect for how his equipment choices have evolved.
The vast differences in the tools we each selected to capture our underwater photos made me wonder what was the consensus among professional underwater photographers today...what do the pros shoot?
The short answer is that there is probably no actual "consensus" for each has chosen their systems based on individual need. However, their choices are a fascinating insight into the state of the art in underwater cameras, housings, and strobe systems today.
Here’s what a select group of working pros are shooting today, in their own words:
I also still use the Nikonos III with the 15mm and 20mm lenses, which offer superb optics and are simple to handle. Both cameras, the Nikon RS and the Nikonos III, are very easy to handle and put together in any environment from the North Pole to Antarctica. Always reliable. These two cameras are superb to work with in blue water and in particular with big animals, as they are easy to handle underwater and in composing vertical images.
I’ve resisted moving to digital, in part because of cost. Editors of wildlife photography are not in as much of a rush to see images as news or fashion photography editors are. I still believe that film is superior to Digital, in particular against a strong source of light like the sun. Digital images seem to me to be two-dimensional while film renders a more three-dimensional feel that’s more appealing to me.
I am a recent Canon convert. I really like the full-frame sensor and small size of the 5D. Canon seems to have a faster more responsive autofocus and I also like the low noise and "smooth" look from their CMOS sensor. The 5D handles beautifully underwater in both the new Aquatica housing and the new Sea & Sea housing. I like the Aquatica’s handles the best of all handles in the industry and have heard that they will eventually produce a magnified viewfinder. The Sea & Sea housing just "landed" in the U.S. It is a little smaller than the Aquatica and will soon have i-TTL capability with the new Sea & Sea Canon TTL converter. The small size and weight of both of these housings make them equally great whether packing them for travel or swimming after dolphins.
My underwater lens choices for wide-angle are the 15mm full-frame fisheye and the 20mm wide-angle. I love the 180-degree viewing angle of the 15mm for reef scenics, wrecks and large animals like whales and whale sharks. It is also my lens of choice for diving at home in California since it works well even in limited visibility thanks to its wide view and close-focus ability. The 20mm is a favorite wide-angle at 94 degrees as it’s not too wide but forces you to work close to your subject. I like this lens for sharks and dolphins yet it’s wide enough for some reef scenics. I choose not to use wide-angle zooms any longer since I have found them to be lacking in corner and edge sharpness at f-5.6 or wider aperture settings when close-focused behind a dome port.
For macro I prefer the Canon 100mm USM IF. It’s got the fastest autofocus response in a macro lens that I’ve ever used. I’d use the new Canon 60mm macro but it’s EF-S only. I used it with my 20D camera in an Aquatica housing with good results and it is also very fast like the 100mm.
Since I travel a lot and compactness and weight are always an issue, I have room for only one telephoto lens. For this application, I have found the Canon 100-400 IS telezoom to be the best single lens that I could carry. It offers a long focal length with my 20D body, which is now my topside camera, and the image stabilization comes in handy when shooting in low-light situations where high shutter speeds are not needed. The rest of the time I use it like any other telephoto lens. This lens is also very fast in autofocus response and has captured shots I couldn’t have gotten from other lenses.
Strobes are a very important tool for me and I must have the highest reliability when out on assignment. Sea & Sea created the YS-120 back in the early nineties and that same reliable strobe design is at work today. I have never had one fail. I like the color temperature of the YS-120 (5100°K which is very close to daylight balance) and the fact that they put out a nice even wide beam and a lot of light energy for such a small strobe (UWGN = 36). Using AA Nimh rechargeable batteries I get over 300 full power shots with a two-second recycle time. I end up using them at half power most of the time where there’s no recycle time; you just fire as fast as you can. This comes in real handy during fast action shark feeds.
Prime lenses rule.... but zooms still rock
Subal D2X Housing
Sea & Sea YS-350 Strobes
Lowe Pro and Pelican Travel Bags
I’m traveling on my own a lot, so I try to pack fairly light. This gear lets me get the job done without too much baggage.
My lens arsenal is always being fine-tuned. As I shoot primarily big animals and wide-angle scenes, full-frame fisheye, 17mm, 20mm primes and the 17-40mm zoom see the most action.
Like many others, I’m on a quest for wide-angle lenses that hold up to the demands of full-frame sensors. Austrian-made Seacam housings remain my first choice to keep cameras dry. When I need to bring the sun underwater, I turn to Ikelite DS-125 and 200 substrobes for their reliability and the company’s stellar customer service. 4 GB Sandisk compact flash cards capture my RAW images, which I process primarily with Canon’s DPP software on Windows computers. Photoshop, Breezebrowser, Flash Renamer, I-Match, and Pixort round out my list of commonly used programs.
A good share of my in-water work is split-perspective (part in the terrestrial world and part underwater) so my choice of housings is influenced by that type work. My last four housings have been Seacams with nine-inch glass ports and a 45-degree optical finder that swivels quickly and easily for horizontal or vertical orientation. This 45-degree finder also allows me to shoot many of the under/over images with my head above water. When working with an art director who wants to get wet, he or she can see what we are shooting in real time. I switch to a straight-through finder for normal underwater.
Lighting is critical, deep or shallow, and I’ve been extremely pleased using multiple Ikelite DS-125 Sub-Strobes in most situations. I tend to shoot fast, and the DS-125s have extremely short recycle times. My lighting is mostly subtle and close; so 125 watt/second units work well. DS-125s are also small and light; important considerations as 50-pound checked bags become more the rule than the exception.
Oddly, photographers have come full-circle and we are again seen with black cloths over our heads. My three- by three-foot black cloth is weighted at the four corners, has vent holes near the center and is a material that dries quickly. It is standard equipment on wet or dry digital shoots in high ambient light.
As important as the shooting hardware, is software and the digital workflow employed. There is no single answer to workflows and they are evolving rapidly as more functional and faster software is developed.
My current favorite software for workflow step No. 1, after downloading RAW files from 2-4 GB media cards from the Canon system, is Adobe Bridge. Its powerful and instantaneous Re-Name feature does exactly as I need for a tried-and-true shoot-folder-based numbering system. A few keystrokes and every image record is filled with template metadata containing my complete contact and copyright information. Once the metadata is part of the image file, it is there forever unless someone intentionally strips it out. Bridge also allows me to quickly edit a shoot revising/tweaking color temperature, exposure, contrast and a host of other image parameters.
A new product currently in pubic beta, Adobe Lightroom with its open architecture (a critical feature requirement), is a workflow product to watch. Other mission-critical software is Adobe Photoshop (the feature-rich CS2 version) and currently, for image cataloging and management, Extensis Portfolio.
iView Media Pro is a strong new contender for the leader in image cataloging and management, and I’m seriously considering migrating to it. At issue is whether Portfolio Scripts which automate copyright office registration, stock agency submissions and a host of other business functions will migrate easily to iView.
There is other software for the workflow process, but I covered the basics.
The final cog in the wheel is the computer, either a PC or a Mac. Again, no single solution, but I live by a single mantra, "buy the fastest machine with the largest hard drive the budget will allow."
For me, now, this is a dual-processor Mac G5 in the studio with a 2.7GHz clock, 16GB of RAM, two internal hard drives and eight external hard drives (with a total of 3TB of online storage; mostly for image files). On the road, an Apple MacBook Pro with a 2.1GHz clock, 2GB RAM and 120GB internal hard drive is adequate. For important shoots, I carry a PowerMac G4 laptop for computer backup. Additionally, I carry three 2.5-inch Firewire hard drives in small enclosures which give me 240GB of storage for multiple backup copies of everything shot on location. The external drives are stored apart from the computers in a padded waterproof box.
All of this, of course, is a right-brain work-in-progress having to co-exist with the left-brain clicks of the cameras.
Over the past six years I have transformed Fin Photo into the fully-fledged digital operation it is today. For my photographers I provide an arsenal of D70S’s housed in Sea & Sea with YS-120 strobes; these systems dive four dives daily and are as affordable as they are robust.
When it comes to rental cameras, I believe in Sea & Sea’s DX8000G which is virtually indestructible. For its size, this little gem delivers consistent performance, superb image quality and value for money.
For teaching photo classes, my first choice for an entry level DSLR is the Nikon D50 in a Sea & Sea housing - so incredibly compact it is bound to attract attention and turn all point-and-shooters into SLR junkies!
(text by Jennifer Hayes)
His film-related gear has been modified to Nikon F100s, F4s in Nexus Housings and the Hasselblad X-pan Panoramic in a custom housing. David still relies on his favored Sea & Sea YS-200 strobes equipped with wet connectors and backs them up with Sea & Sea YS-120’s.
His gear bags of choice are Lightware cases and Pelican series 1600 gear boxes and Tamrac carry-on.
Doubilet’s field equipment pile
I tested out their digital TTL 125 substrobes when they first perfected the electronics with the 20D and I was so impressed I’ve been clicking away with the same system ever since. When I first got digital cameras underwater I left TTL behind and never really thought twice about it again. If the image was hot I saw it right away on the LCD screen and closed my aperture or turned down the strobes. I didn’t think I was missing anything until Ike got back to the TTL. When I look back at shots I had with sharks that were shy, but occasionally would dart in to make a close, dome-port-scraping pass, found I often would not be quick enough to change my settings to nail the exposure-but now technology does it every time. TTL has come a long way in the camera bodies too.
I now shoot most of my wide-angle in TTL and even when the subject does not fill the frame, the TTL strobes still get it 99 out of 100 times. The Canon 5D is in my very near future and I’ll put it in an Ikelite housing again. I miss my true full-frame fisheye and will go for the 5D to get it back.
As a videographer, I shoot with a Sony HVR-Z1U HDV Camcorder housed in a Light & Motion Bluefin HD underwater housing. Similar to earlier choices, I chose the Bluefin because it is designed to provide easy access to the most useful camera controls without forcing me to move my hands away from the handles. It also has a revolutionary, internal trim weight system that makes it easy to adjust how the camera sits underwater - regardless of what accessories are attached.
By the time you read this I will have updated to a Nikon D200 and a Subal housing. I’ve been shooting a D2X topside, and the D200 offers the same fast, accurate autofocus and metering, along with 10-megapixel resolution which the agencies are now requiring. Features like high-speed crop are of minimal use underwater, so I won’t be giving up anything significant by using the D200. D2X will continue as my topside camera.
I’ve been using Ikelite strobes ever since the 150, and these are the best yet. Soft, even, warm light and incredibly quick recycle times. When shooting great white sharks at Guadalupe, I fired off eight to 10 shots (at half power) as quickly as I could press the shutter, and the last one was exposed as well as the first. They recycle quickly and are virtually bulletproof. I carry three, and have never had to use the spare.
Ultralight arms are rugged, dependable, easy to position, and will hold the strobes where I aim them.
A good modeling light is essential for low-light autofocus and night diving. Nocturnal Lights has a wide, bright beam. I use it for a primary light at night and for 105mm macro.
I am using a D2X Nikon in a Nexus housing and am very happy with it. I have changed systems every year for the last three years, D100, D70 and now D2X. The big files and bigger buffer, about 17 frames in RAW, really make a difference. Being down deep on a free dive near a whale and waiting after shooting four frames got pretty old. Also on the D2X housing, I can see through the viewfinder very well. The D70 was terrible, lucky for me that whales are big and I usually shoot pretty wide. I use big ports with extenders to match them up well with the lens. I love digital photography.
As soon as digital came around I took the leap of faith with the D100 and now I have finally settled with the D2X which is a marvelous piece of engineering. It is more than a camera-it is an extension of my brain. Really. It is that fast and accurate. The quality and size of the files are enough for all my current commercial and editorial assignments. I see no returning to film and although I am the first to miss the simplicity of the medium, I am also a forward-thinking individual who sees the clear advantages of digital.
I have used Aquatica housings, ports and accessories for over 20 years and have trusted them exclusively with protecting my cameras underwater. My new Black Aquatica D2X is a gem of a housing, plus, well, it just looks cool!. In addition I have always relied TLC arms by Aquatica to secure my Lights. These arms will simply never fail or corrode! I have used Ikelite strobes exclusively and continue to use and rely on my Ike 200’s for all my work with a few small MS-50s for backlighting, yet I am looking at the new Inon Z240 as a new smaller workhorse possibility.
For focus and modeling light, I use the Light & Motion MOD as well as the new Fisheye HG20 light and love them both. I am in the water to create images using aperture, speed to mold the light to create a specific mood or to tell a story. I use what works and what works for me is usually a mechanical housing and lights with full manual control of all its functions.
In the end it, its my vision that created the image. I can never loose sight of this fact.
Two years ago, I switched to the Seacam 1Ds and 1D housings with the fisheye port, superdome and macro port. These are no doubt the Bentleys of underwater housings but for the first time in a long time, I am loving taking underwater pictures again. The ease of use, the incredibly sharp images with the mineral glass domes and, mostly, the unparalleled 180- and 45-degree viewfinders make this housing an underwater photographer’s dream.
The 1D Mark II system works perfectly with the Canon 16-35mm/2.8L and I use the 17-40mm/4.0L on the 1Ds system. For both of these lenses I get great results with either the superdome or fisheye dome. I also shoot the 15mm fisheye on either housing and like both the Sigma 50mm and Canon 100/2.8L macro lenses. I have tried numerous strobes and with my film housings I always used Ikelite SS200’s and Sea & Sea YS-300’s. With the ease of changing my ISO settings underwater and the ability to see what my strobes are doing, I no longer lug around huge strobes. These days, I am very happy with my Ikelite SS125 digital strobes. Underwater photography is becoming so much fun that I almost feel guilty, but I don’t.
Like many, I started out with an Olympus fixed-lens two-megapixel digital in an Olympus plastic housing, using the internal camera flash. I was soon using a four-megapixel (wow!) Olympus in a Light & Motion Tetra and a single Nikonos 105 strobe. My how times have changed!
A longtime Nikon shooter, I have progressed from the D100 six-megapixel DSLR to the D2X, Nikon’s top of the line DSLR. In fact, I have two D2X cameras for underwater and one D200 for general-purpose use. While some prefer cameras with a full-frame image sensor, I like Nikon’s smaller DX sensor technology.
The smaller sensor means that the angle of view of a particular lens is decreased by a factor of 1.5. A 60mm = 90mm, a 105 mm= 157mm etc. Considering that Nikon has created wide angle lenses specifically for the smaller DX sensor (10.5 fisheye, 12-24 zoom, and the 17-55 zoom) I feel I get more bang for my buck when shooting macro and still have all the lenses I need for wide-angle situations.
With my D100 I used several housings including Sea & Sea and Light & Motion’s Titan both of which produced excellent results. But at the time I moved to the D2X, there were few available choices and I opted for a Subal housing. Extremely well-built with virtually every camera control available, a very convenient removable camera tray, easy-access lens release, and what I consider to be the easiest-to-use latching system, I felt that I had made a good investment. I love this housing especially for macro work.Recently I added a Nexus D2X housing to my arsenal, primarily for wide-angle use. This is an extremely small housing and has a newly designed glass wide port that measures only six inches but will accommodate all of the Nikon wide lenses. This makes for very easy packing and reduced weight. It’s great for one-hand shooting.
Since I never shot film, I did not have to change my shooting workflow and adjust old habits to new technology. I never used TTL strobes and don’t feel there is any advantage given the instant feedback of digital. I’ve been a confirmed Inon user since the first 220 series strobes were introduced. Half the size of a Nikonos 105 but with more power, multipower settings, and 100-degree coverage, I can easily pack four strobes in the same space that two larger strobes might take. And since they are so small, I actually use three strobes when shooting wide-angle, which gives me better lighting control in the center of the frame. (I use one double sync cord and one single sync cord instead of slaving the third unit). Recently I added the new Inon 240 series strobes to my system. They have a higher guide number and a built-in pointer light that is completely separate from the camera shutter electronics. I get at least one and a half stops more power with these new strobes and they run on four AA batteries and have almost instant recycle. These strobes along with my Ultralight arms and clamps complete my system.
Stuart and Michele Westmorland
Was making such a leap daunting? Certainly. But here are a couple of the upsides. Today’s digital equipment renders not only superb results, but also a degree of creative latitude that goes well beyond the darkroom. Processing costs are a thing of the past, as is the dependency on a lab, and waiting one to three days to see your results.
There are a few tradeoffs, however. Digital imaging at the professional level requires one to become something of a computer geek, and in addition to the learning curve required to master the process, there is a significant investment in computer hardware and software.
My transition from film to digital took place in early 2004, and had me saying goodbye to Nikon, and investing in the Canon’s1D MK II series Digital SLR’s. It was a carefully studied decision, as I’ve always believed that when it comes to camera equipment, the various brands should be looked at as tools, not treated as a religion.
Adding complexity to my transition was the fact that I’d be taking the equipment underwater-which can be a very demanding and difficult environment. Electronics are deathly allergic to water-especially salt water-which makes the choice of housings a very critical decision. Among the criteria I used in the housing selection process were the overall balance, weight and size of the housing, the construction and operational ergonomics of the camera controls and the availability of optics that would allow for expansion and maximum versatility.
Because I am now shooting with Canon’s compact 12.8-megapixel powerhouse, the 5D, Subal’s just-released housing was the most obvious choice. It’s small and lightweight, making it relatively travel-friendly. Furthermore, its balance and access to the camera’s controls are very good. But most important of all, it includes premium -quality ports. Between Subal’s 7-1/4-inch FE2 optical grade glass dome port and macro port with a couple of extensions rings, I am able to use premium optics such as Canon’s 15mm full-frame fisheye, 17-40mm wide-angle zoom, 24mm f1.4L prime and 100mm macro. The transition to digital hasn’t changed my lighting needs. I still run dual Sea & Sea YS-120’s, set on a pair of Technical Lighting Control (TLC) arms.
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