Editor's Note: Recently, Scuba Magazine's Director of Photography Stephen Frink joined the Digital Shootout held in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, and gave us a real-time webcast of the event. Sponsored by Light & Motion, Backscatter, Olympus, Adobe, Ultralight and Rodale's Scuba Diving, this first-of-its-kind event provides a glimpse of the future of underwater imaging. Get information about the 2002 Digital Shootout to be held in Bonaire, Nov. 9 - 16, at www.theshootout.org.
For me, the Digital Shootout began with a call from my friend Berkley White at Backscatter Underwater Video & Photo in Monterey, Calif. He and his close associates at Light & Motion have had success with a series of annual shootouts in their local San Francisco Bay area waters. Combining an event that provides underwater photo instruction, excellent dive opportunities and an impressive portfolio of prizes, the shootout until then had been oriented to 35mm stills and video. Now they wanted to expand to digital photography and take it on the road.
A Long and Winding Road
Since the road led to Indonesia, Berkley didn't have to twist my arm too hard to come aboard as staff. Despite 30 years experience shooting film, I don't have a great deal of experience with digital. In fact, I was a little distrustful of pixels versus silver halide. But anyone who makes a living in photography has to know digital is the hot new technology. It was time for me to shorten the learning curve.
Host with the Most
This year's event was hosted by the Hotel Santika Manado in conjunction with its in-house dive operation, Thalassa Diving Center. With beautifully landscaped grounds, buffet dining (all the better to get to the dive boats and lectures quickly) and an excellent conference center, the hotel was an inspired choice by organizers. However, it was the high level of service and cooperation from Thalassa Diving Center that really made the difference. Dive boats were dedicated to our photo imperatives, and dive guides helped our shooters find the wealth of fascinating, yet highly camouflaged, macro critters that define much of the underwater attraction of the Bunaken National Marine Park.
Park It Here
The Santika Manado is located in the central coastal region of the Bunaken National Marine Park in the province of North Sulawesi. The park is quite large, nearly 200,000 acres, with depths ranging from reefs that break the surface at low tide to abyssal depths exceeding 6,600 feet. Water temperature ranges between 80 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit year-round and waves rarely exceed three feet. However, the tidal shift is eight-and-a-half feet, so current is inevitable, and most dives are done as drifts. There are 58 different coral species and 2,000 species of fish found within the park. Not shabby.
The central and southern sections of the park are comprised of coastal reefs fringing the main island and several other smaller offshore islands (including a large inactive volcano known as Manado Tua). The northern section consists of five islands cloaked with both hard and soft corals (about a 50-minute boat ride from the resort), and on the other side of North Sulawesi are the famed dive sites off the Lembeh Strait (home of Kungkungan Bay Resort). While separated by minimal distance as the crow flies, the Lembeh Strait is a four-hour drive on pretty bad roads, or an hour-and-a-half boat ride from Santika. Essentially this became an all-day boat excursion for a two-tank dive.
Generally, I found the nearby reefs very good for small creatures and reef fish, but not great for wide-angle. The northern islands offered terrific soft coral concentrations and were far better for pelagics or schooling fish like opal sweepers and blue-lined snappers. The trek to Lembeh yields the bizarre creatures known to inhabit the dark volcanic sands, creatures like the mimic octopus, pygmy seahorses and all manner of exotic scorpionfish. Having three such unique shoot zones provided a rare wealth of photo diversity for shootout participants.
Because of our photo obsession, at first it seemed the afternoon seminars might be an unwelcome distraction. But in reality, these lectures were every bit as compelling as the time spent under water.
Shootout staff gave talks specifically targeted to the art and science of digital photography. Dan Baldocchi of Light & Motion presented a workshop that helped shooters understand the specific options and controls of the Olympus 3040/4040 cameras and Tetra housings, the loaner systems from Light & Motion and Olympus being placed in the hands of digital novices.
Berkley White spoke of his experience capturing digital images with the Tetra system and about the specific discipline of digital underwater photography in general. Pro shooter Jim Watt was on hand to deliver fascinating lectures about digital file management, image manipulation, photo ethics and esoteric techniques such as remote-control photos taken with a polecam, over/under techniques and 360-degree iPix imaging.
However, I think we'd all agree that some of the most powerful lectures were by Julieanne Kost and Daniel Brown, who actually spoke little about the specifics of underwater photography. In fact, Julieanne and Daniel are new to diving and just got certified while at the Digital Shootout. But as evangelists for the Adobe Corporation, they distilled volumes of useful information about Adobe Photoshop into a half-dozen well-illustrated lectures. And since Photoshop is so clearly the dominant post-production software, learning how to fine-tune our digital files with the tools of Photoshop--histogram adjustments, corrections to hue and saturation, sharpening, basic image enhancement with cloning tools, special effects and even levels compositing--was massively beneficial.
The Daily Grind
We started our days with a two-tank morning dive to some preordained destination. There was only one boat fast enough for the trip north or to Lembeh, but there were plenty of photo-ops close to home so everyone seemed satisfied with limited expedition capacity. After lunch, we adjourned to the conference room where we would download our digital files from our Olympus cameras, either by card reader or USB connection, to our laptops. With images in the computer, we could use the Camedia software that came with the camera to enlarge the image and do basic edits.
One of the first things we learned is that digital files consume lots of memory, and it makes sense to be brutal in deleting marginal files. Considering the post-production time spent on each image and complicated storage issues for the files ultimately saved, it makes sense to start with the very best possible original and send marginal images back to the netherworld with the omnipotent "delete" key.
Once the best images were saved to the day's folder, the new knowledge we gained from Photoshop came into play. While some enjoyed the special effects that are part of Photoshop's offerings, most of us concentrated on slight density adjustments or color corrections, contrast correction and maybe a little backscatter removal.
The Reality of Digital Image Capture
On the downside, there is considerable lag between when the shutter is released and when the image records, making capturing peak action often very frustrating. The LCD screens are hard to view in high ambient light, making determination of exposure and critical focus sometimes challenging. And the dependence most underwater photographers place on TTL exposure technology is out the window, at least with these systems. But under the right conditions, and with the right subjects, the strengths of digital imaging can outweigh the problem areas:
Immediacy of review. The photo you just shot pops up on the LCD screen, making quick exposure adjustments easy. Too bright? Move the strobe back a little, go to a lower power setting or use a smaller f-stop. Too dark? Conversely, more strobe power or a wider aperture. Composition can be checked, and there is even a 3X-zoom function to get a sense of fine focus, although nothing that happens under water compares to the information from seeing the captured image on a computer screen topside.
More shots per dive. Depending on the capacity of the digital media used, far more images can be captured on a single dive than with film. Even with a modest 64-megabyte card, 27 photos can be captured at Super High Quality. The higher capacity 128 Mb card is obviously preferable for any situation where quick card changes or downloads are impossible, such as under water, allowing up to 88 images per dive. Combining the enhanced memory capacity per card with the ability to delete bad images while under water to recapture storage capacity, bottom time is likely to max out before your storage capacity does.
Powerful post-production options. As our Photoshop seminars demonstrated, a bad photo is still a bad photo, but great enhancements are possible with digital imagery. Photoshop is now a tool of photography, just like judicious dodging/burning and variable contrast printing papers were to the black-and-white photos of Brett Westin and Ansel Adams. The tools may be different now, and will inevitably be so in the future, but it's all about the best possible imaging, and the Digital Shootout is the ultimate looking glass to emerging technologies in underwater photography.