Friday, 1 May 2009

Here's How - Stephen Weir multi-story feature, published April 2009

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DIVINE DIVE PICTURES
Olympus Puts The Bite on Underwater Digital Picture Taking Market
For divers, swimmers and snorkellers

By Stephen Weir

3 May 2009 …By Man-Eating standards, this was a very small shark. She was as big as my two fellow underwater photographers swimming hell-bent-for-rubber towards her. But, what with the cameras in their waterproof housings, aluminum scuba tanks and chewy neoprene wet suits, there was far too much bulk approaching even for a hungry 2-metre long Ginglymostoma Cirratum.
After my strobe (underwater flash) fired, the grey Nurse Shark shook her large dorsal fin and leisurely swam through a cut in the living Florida Keys reef and headed into the gloom. Probably in Havana by now.
With only one large fish shot to show for an hour of diving, and my air supply dwindling, I quickly scanned the lush shallow reef for something - anything – big to shoot. There! Up above, hovering around the coral-encrusted bow of a WW2 shipwreck, were a dozen 2-metre long Great Barracuda.
Slowly rising, the Olympus Stylus Tough 8000 Digital Camera in front of my dive mask, I began to approach the school of predators.



As I neared, the pack, seemingly without moving a fin, drifted out of range of my camera. I kicked with my own set of fins in effort to get closer.
No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t close the gap. The barracuda are long thin muscular fish with too many teeth for their powerful jaws. They have a perpetually toothy derisive grin, which is irksome, especially when you have to give up and return to your personal underwater photography teachers with nary a picture to show for all that kick-ass swimming.
“No way you were going to get those shots,” said John McGuire, Product Manager for Olympus’ underwater and outdoor products. Sitting on the stern of the Key Largo scuba boat after our dive he explained.
“ The secret of taking underwater pictures is patience. Work a spot. Lot of ocean out there, but you do not have to try to photograph it all on one tank of air. We want to stay in one spot, and work it. Take as many pictures as it takes. No point in spending our energy (and our air swimming to A to B and back again), when there is a dive’s worth of pictures in one or two spots under the boat.”
“ What works best in taking critter pictures is to find a place where you see a lot of fish and set up an "underwater photo studio". Once you pick a spot, figure out the best composition for the pictures you want to take, patiently wait for the fish to come back into your "studio" (their home up to that point) and then take your shots,” continued McGuire. “ Let them come to you, it beats chasing sharks!”
Confession. I have been taking camera lessons for 30 years. I have taken courses below the water, on land and once in a plane full of skydivers dressed a la Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. No matter where I am on the planet my pictures are universally substandard. They are so bad (how bad are they?) that even the clerk at our local driver’s license office takes better pictures than I do.
I have also destroyed four expensive underwater cameras; three of them were actually mine. I accidentally dropped an underwater camera into the abyss off Nevis and I flooded a supposedly watertight Nikonis V while feeding stingrays near Grand Cayman Island. A just-out-of-the-box loaner’s strobe (for the review I never wrote) flooded the moment I stepped into Georgia’s monster-sized Whale Shark aquarium.
The last camera I ruined was at the ScotiaBank Caribana 2008 festival in Toronto. Walking down the parade route taking photos of costumed revellers, I was suddenly hit by a freak horizontal rainstorm -- my camera was soaked – toasted by fresh water in just 2-seconds. Ironically it was an underwater camera, taken out of its housing for the parade.


Now, Olympus has a camera for me. In fact two, and they came with a pair of the world’s foremost experts in underwater cameras to show me how to use them properly. These are cameras I can accidentally drive over. Cameras I can use in a torrential rainstorm. A waterproof stainless steel unit that even out of their housing will still work the next time I fall out of a fast moving boat. And yes. These are cameras and housings probably strong enough to withstand the bite of a nurse shark or a big barracuda that might object to me and my flashing strobe being up close and personal.
Andrew Bausk, Olympus’ Sales and Marketing Specialist -- Outdoor Products and his boss John McGuire, met Here’s How Magazine late in February in the Florida Keys, to demonstrate their revolutionary new underwater cameras and housings. They also promised, once and for all, to teach me how to take a good underwater picture, even if it meant swimming with the sharks. The results accompany this article, and, were for me, literally a religious experience.
“This is our Tough 8000 and the Tough 6000 digital cameras. We released them to the North American market only a few weeks ago,” said Andrew Bausk, holding up two palm-sized cameras. He was sitting on a park bench beside a Key Largo dive boat, getting a table full of camera gear ready for two-days of underwater adventure.
My eyes are drawn to the Tough 8000, a shinny silver metal covered digital camera. Although the camera experts will not tell me what it is made of or how it is built, I know from attending a seminar in Toronto that it is constructed out of a stainless steel alloy.
“ You don’t need a housing with it. It is waterproof and is good to a depth of 33 ft (11 metres). Snorkellers will love this camera because they can take pictures as deep as most of them can swim on a breath of air. You can also play with it on the beach and not have to worry about getting sand in it,” explained Bausk.


“ Our dealers like to throw one onto the floor in front horrified customers, just to show them why we call it Tough,” he said. “We were contacted by a television station that wanted to see just how tough the Tough 8000 is. They drove over a camera with a truck, picked it up and took a picture with it. It worked. Show me any other dive camera you can do that to.”
The Tough-8000, has been designed for adventurous people, it features an impressive 12 million pixels of image resolution. It can survive a 2.3-metre drop, withstand 100 kilos of crushing pressure – like me accidently sitting on it -- and function outdoors in winter in most Canadian cities (Winnipeg in January doesn’t count) to a temp of –10 C.
Don’t slam the Stylus Tough 6000 onto the pavement or make it into a Firestone sandwich on Breakfast TV. It is not as tough as the 8000, but it is not as expensive either. The 6000 can be fully submerged to a depth of 3.3 metres and is impervious to sand, dirt and salt water. The 10-megapixel camera can take a drop from almost 2-metres and withstand temperatures to -10 C.
“Both cameras come with a built-in flash and a 2.7 inch liquid crystal display,” explained Bausk. “We call it the HyperCrystal III, it displays twice as bright as previous versions so that you can see the details more clearly, in direct sunlight and underwater too!”
“ The mega-pixel race is over between the camera companies. The face detection race is finished. So is the battery life race for that matter,” said McGuire. “Olympus has gotten into niche markets, producing cameras that no one else makes but everyone wants. Our competitors don’t make a waterproof camera that is this tough, or this good looking. We are marketing heavily to the adventure market … kayakers, hikers, skydivers, cyclers, water skiers, scuba divers and snorkellers. People who play hard in the great outdoors.”
Snorkellers will not have to buy many of the accessories that come with both the 6000, and 8000. Divers, on the other hand should consider purchasing a housing, a strobe light and a tray to put it all on.
“ On scuba we recommend putting the 6000 and 8000 into underwater housings,” continued Bausk. “All of our camera housings (they build a different housing for each of their compatible cameras) are rated to 140 metres … far deeper than sport divers go.”
Think of an underwater housing as an Iron Man Suit for a camera. It is waterproof, strong and custom fit for the specific camera placed inside it. The camera, with a myriad of control buttons and a LCD screen, performs the same dry inside the housing as it does above water.
The housing has the exact matching buttons on its exterior that line up perfectly with the camera. In the case of the crush proof PT-045 housing (used by the Tough 8000) and the PT-047 (Tough 6000) there is a large hooded port so that you can review your pictures in any light.
Olympus has built two underwater strobes -- the UFL-1 and the UFL-2 to be used in conjunction with the housings. No surprise, UFL stands for underwater flash and while their primary job is to provide enough light to take great shots underwater, they also bring colour back into the picture.
Our subsurface camera seminars were conducted in the waters around Key Largo’s protected John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. We dove and took pictures on shallow reefs eight to ten kilometers off the east coast of the Keys (A necklace of islands that begins just south of Miami and stretch to Key West). On one occasion we dove the 72-year wreck of the Benwood at a depth of 13 metres.
Now that isn’t very deep. Most snorkellers can free dive close enough to take a snapshot of the disintegrating iron hulled Victory Ship. But, at depth many of the colours of the spectrum can’t be seen. Water absorbs colours, on the Benwood the only way to capture the blood red of the sponges that have fixed themselves to the deck, is by illuminating the animals with a strobe.
“ One of your biggest problems is how you use the strobe,” said Bausk, lifting his head out from under a big fluffy brown towel. We were back in the boat again after the Benwood dive, and he was blocking out the burning Florida sunlight so that he could critique my wreck shots.
“You did the right thing by setting up your Tough 8000 in a wide underwater mode (there are four underwater scene choices), and you are also correct in having the strobe set for TTL (through the lens) but you didn’t consider dialing back or checking the angle of the strobe.”
What Bausk was talking about is the power setting on the underwater flash. Both units have various settings that allow you to reduce or increase the intensity of the flash. I had been using it on high and bleached out the colour of the soft corals I had been photographing (lime green became ghost white). A simple dial back would have solved the problem.
The UFL-2 I was using was attached to an articulated arm that let me adjust the angle that the light hit the stuff I was pointing at. My flash was too close; a photo of a twisted piece of metal looked like it was emerging from a red-hot volcano.
“Don’t forget, if you are getting back-scatter (the flash illuminating particles in the water) you have to back off with the strobe and play with the angle,” advised Bausk.

“You are great diver, but did you know keep your head down when you move through the water?” asked John McGuire. “ Keep your head up and try to always shoot upwards, that allows whatever sunlight there is into the picture.”
“Underwater the lens of the camera magnifies everything by about 20% (the physical nature of how light refracts in salt water). Trouble is when you look at your pictures things are smaller,” continued McGuire. “Once you have set up your shot and you think that you are the proper distance from the subject, cut the distance by 20% and you will get what you are after!”
“One last recommendation. The great thing about these digital-cameras is instant gratification. You camera has a high-capacity media card. Practice and Shoot, Shoot, Shoot!”
Discouraged? Never. In the Keys there are hundreds of mooring sites where you can go to follow McGuire’s pearls of wisdom.
In fact the Florida Keys is the most popular snorkel and dive destination in the world. And, many of the 600,000 people who annually get into the warm salt water here, make at least one underwater pilgrimage to the planet’s most famous underwater works of art - the Christ of the Deep statue.
Created by Italian sculptor Guido Galletti, the statue stands on a 20-ton concrete base in 8-metres of water. 3-metres tall, the bronze statue has become the most photographed subsurface sites in the world and is a to-drown-for spot for underwater weddings.
The Saviour stands amongst the living coral with His hands raised towards Heaven. At times during the day, when the sun is high overhead, a natural halo of light appears around His head. Visited daily by snorkel and dive boats, it is not unusual for people to describe their swim to the statue as being inspirational and uplifting.
For me, a visit to the statue was an assignment; another chance to follow the advice my teachers.
Frame the picture. Shoot upwards. Make sure the flash is positioned carefully. Get close. I think I prayed to remember all the directions shouted to me when I strode off the stern of our dive boat.
After taking 60 images of the statue, I returned to the surface to show my instructors what I accomplished. I think there might have been some divine intervention-taking place. For the first time in my diving career I was able to get pictures that looked honest-to-God inspired. Olympus has a new convert.
CUTLINE: Christ of the Abyss, Florida Keys, Cruising the Reefs, Key Largo low reef, Andrew Bausk sets up cameras

1 comment:

The Camera Fanatic said...

Outstanding blog. My personal favorite camera is the Canon PowerShot SD1100IS. I wrote a review for it, please let me know what you think:

UPDATE: This camera is currently on sale at Amazon. You can find the link here:

http://tinyurl.com/canonpowershot1100

If you need a solid, reliable, and stylish point-and-shoot ultracompact digital camera that produces high-quality images, then the new Canon PowerShot SD1100IS may be right for you.

I am an advanced amateur photographer and own 2 Canon digital cameras (G2 and 20D). Both have served me well over the years but recently I have found myself needing a decent ultracompact camera that I can easily carry with me at all times for unexpected photo-ops.

Other current Canon models that I also researched before my purchase of the "bohemian brown" SD1100IS included the SD950IS and the SD1000.

Here is my take on the SD1100IS:

Strengths:
- 8MP CCD sensor with DigicIII processor (excellent resolution images with good dynamic range)
- Solid construction (most of body made of anodized aluminum)
- Feels sturdy and well-balanced in the hands
- Easy to use (logical user-interface) with minimal need to consult owner's manual for basic operation
- Multiple shooting modes to fit variety of situations (action/sports mode is a glaring omission but read section below to see possibly why)
- Advanced metering system with accurately exposed pics in even "tricky" situations (great balance of highlights and shadows)
- Tack-sharp images (much more so with sufficient lighting and use of built-in flash)
- Macro mode can result in stunning close-ups with outstanding level of detail
- Optical IS feature helpful when shooting in either low-light conditions with flash off or at telephoto lengths
- Fast start-up with acceptable shutter-lag (when not using flash)
- Bright 2.5" LCD monitor (100% coverage, 230k pixels) made of polycrystalline silicon; fairly scratch-resistant (can't vouch if this applies to keys and coins)
- Optical viewfinder (though only a tiny peephole, it is essential when LCD glare and washout become an issue shooting in bright sunlight or when LCD cannot be used as battery power is nearly depleted)
- Camera made in Japan (at least those from the 1st shipment; this easily may be subject to change)

Limitations:
- Lack of manual control over aperture, shutter speed, and focusing (for the obssessive control-freaks)
- Noise is noticeable beginning at ISO 400 (ISO 800 still useable but probably for only 4x6 images; ISO 1600 mostly unuseable)
- Fastest shutter speed is 1/1500 sec (not fast enough to stop action for some sporting activities)
- Auto-focus speed inadequate to follow fast-moving subjects
- Shutter-lag accentuated with flash on (precious Canon moments lost while waiting for flash to recharge)
- Cannot adjust focus or optical zoom while shooting in movie mode (focus is fixed for distance selected at first frame, and digital zoom is permitted instead, resulting in significant image quality deterioration)
- Battery/memory card cover and hinge made of plastic (no safety latch that needs to be de-activated first before sliding cover out, in order to prevent accidental opening)
- Minor vignetting and chromatic aberration (albeit, difficult not to expect from compact p&s)
- Pincushion and barrel distortion at the extremes of the focal lengths
- No RAW shooting mode

Battery power in camera mode with LCD monitor on is mostly as advertised, allowing for approximately 240 images. If your budget permits, I recommend investing in a few spare batteries as backups and replacing the supplied 32MB memory card with a pair of 4GB SDHC memory cards--vital purchases if you plan to use the movie mode frequently.

Overall Impression:
Even with some serious limitations inherent to virtually all digital cameras in this class, I am recommending the Canon PowerShot SD1100IS. It does what it's supposed to do. This camera allows one to take beautiful photographs in an ultracompact, reliable, and elegant device that is both easy and fun to use.

http://tinyurl.com/canonpowershot1100