With over two decades experience shooting underwater stills with slide film, I'm a novice with digital media. Yet I know it's a technology I'll be forced to embrace one day. Pixels will inevitably be part of any pro shooter's arsenal, if for no other reason than the compelling advantages digital imaging offers:
- You see what you shoot, right away, while still under water.
For these and other reasons, anyone who takes underwater photographs should consider the digital alternative.
The Digital Red Sea
On a recent assignment to the Red Sea, I packed a Tetra housing and an Olympus C-3040 digital camera, courtesy of Light & Motion. What follows isn't a review of these products, but my first impressions of the challenges and rewards of digital imaging in the real world of underwater photography.
Size: David vs. Goliath
I'm used to transporting my location camera systems in a heavy backpack and a wheeled camera case for carry-on, as well as a Pelican 1620 hard case that I check through. This is the absolute minimal baggage I require to carry a couple of Nikonos RS and V bodies, spare lenses, Seacam housing and ports, strobes, arms and a topside camera system?not to mention the 100 rolls of film I have to hand carry because a bomb detection device will likely ruin them with X-rays if sent via checked luggage.
Excess baggage and backaches have simply been a part of my profession. Now the folks at Light & Motion have sent me a camera that can shoot above and below the surface in a housing that fits in the palm of my hand. Already they have my attention.
Setting Up: 4 Field Tips
If you can capture images on film, you can capture images on digital, but there are techniques, advantages and limitations that differentiate the two media and require a learning curve and careful reading of the instruction manual. The manual from Light & Motion contains a few semi-obvious suggestions that really make underwater digital easier.
- Use a 128mb SmartMedia card. The more images per dive the better. With the standard 16mb card, I could get one image at the very highest resolution (tiff) or six at "super high quality" (SHQ). Even the 64mb card yields 27 photos at SHQ, a reasonable number per dive, especially when you can delete the bad ones while under water. Lower-quality settings would give more images per card, but unfortunately at unusable resolution for my demands. The higher-capacity card makes perfect sense for any situation where quick card changes or downloads are impossible (like under water).
In-Water: 5 Lessons
The Tetra system is so small and unobtrusive that I was able to clip it to a D-ring on my BC. When I finished off my film cameras, I would begin using the digital system. My first impressions:
- The housing is very cool. All important functions are available via buttons and a dial. I liked the fact that the synch port is non-TTL conventional Nikonos. I could use my E-O wet connectors that I use on my other underwater cameras, and just plug in my strobe as necessary. Plus, there are wide-angle and macro accessory optics that are easy to mount. Light & Motion hit a home run on the housing execution.
AprA?s Dive: You're Cool
While the emulsion shooters were gathered around the light table examining analog images with a loupe, I found myself editing my digital images on my laptop. It is necessary to get the saved photos off the SmartMedia to gain capacity to shoot again, and the laptop is the logical repository. Other storage options include the Digital Wallet from Minds@work.com, which can store up to 20GB of data, and Iomega's Fotoshow which saves directly to a Zip disk and can connect to a television to view images or present a slide show.
I feel the Tetra housing and the Olympus C-3040 provide a wonderful entr?to digital imaging. The potential resolution is not high enough for my professional needs, nor is the angle of view wide enough, even with the available wide-angle accessory optic. Plus, there are questions as to the archival stability of digital media and which storage format will rule over the next decades.
But for many consumer and hobbyist applications, this is a wonderful tool. If I were just beginning to shoot under water, I'd look long and hard at digital before making the commitment to film. For a film dinosaur like me, that's a big admission. The technology is here already, and will only get better.