Going down smiling

I got the chance to go diving in warm water again. This time it was in the Red Sea, and my first time on a live-aboard boat. This means living and diving from the boat rather than going out from shore each time. What it should mean is more dives in the day and being earlier at each dive site than the shore-based divers. This means there could be fewer people so less crowding on the dive site, fewer chances to lose your buddy in the throng, and less disturbed silt.

The down side is that there are fewer opportunities to hire kit. Basically, I needed to take most of my dive kit with me, within the weight limit of the flight. So that constrained my camera choice. The dive kit was a necessity – a second or third camera was not. I had 20kg hold luggage and 10kg cabin luggage allowance. There were also some gotchas, such as the requirement that all powered gadgets in the cabin allowance (other than mobile phones) have the battery removed. So my dive computer, that I was planning to wear as a watch, went in the hold and added to the weight. (This rule seemd to be void – there was no problem bringing the dive computer through in hand luggage on the way back). The plus side of being on a boat was that I needed minimal clothing – I would not be going out in the evening or visiting tourist attractions: I would be diving or sleeping. I could get away with a few tee shirts and a pair of shorts, but all the camera gear had to fit into the 10kg allotment.

So – what to take? It would have to be one compact camera with an underwater housing plus spare batteries and charger. The external flash would be nice, but I would be diving in clearer water than the UK and my torch could substitute. Second camera, just in case? If I can squeeze it in, yes, as it would mean I could cope with one flooded housing event. Loads of memory cards, but they weigh nothing. Video action camera and housing? Probably not, as the main camera can do video. A general use camera for surface shots? Not if I take a second camera for the housing – I can use one underwater and the other on the surface. So it’s coming down to a brace of Canon G9 cameras and one underwater housing. For safety I need to pack the batteries, with their terminals taped-over, in the cabin bag. That eats into the weight allowance too.

Lots of test packing and weighing took place. One of the most useful pre-trip purchases was a small weighing scale. I hung this up in the shed and weighed my main suitcase each time I added an item. First in was a full set of diving gear and a thin wetsuit. By reducing my clothes and personal gear to the minimum I got the case down to 19kg. That 1kg leeway was a safety factor in case my (or the airport’s) scales were out. There was also a chance that some of my kit could be damp on the way back, so heavier.

The camera housing is basically a plastic box – light but bulky. This went in the hand luggage with one camera inside it. The second camera and all the batteries went in the same bag. And I was inside the weight limit!

What I hadn’t figured was that the camera and housing were buoyant underwater without the external flash. This was a bit of a nuisance, as holding the camera in front of me tipped me head-up. It doesn’t sound like much, but we try to get as flat and level a posture as possible to reduce drag. It’s all about reducing air consumption – I can vary between 16 and 21 litres of air a minute depending on how much I am finning. Given that we want to surface with a 50 bar (50 atmospheres) reserve, anything that increases my air consumption is to be avoided. The solution was to hold the camera in front of my navel when I wasn’t using it, so that I stayed level.

The joys of diving in the Red Sea were the clarity and the critters. The visibility was 30 meters or more, compared to the 3-5 meters we typically get in the UK. There is much less silt in the water too. But the critters… most awesome! Fish ranging from smaller than my fingernail to bigger than me. Octopus changing colour and texture to hide between rocks. Moray eels like sock-puppets with teeth. Shoals of exotic and lurid fish. They do say that divers come in two types, depending on whether they like wrecks or critters. You can probably tell I’m a fan of the tentacled and wriggly.

But enough of the diving already, what about the photography? There was almost too much to photograph. I could have taken a hundred pictures of one coral outcrop, and missed the thousand other blooms in the coral garden. There was every possible type, colour and size of fish.

And then there are the things you only see by looking very carefully. Crocodile fish looking like bits of rock; scorpion fish like coral growths; octopus hiding in plain sight.

The weirdest was a Filamented Devilfish that looked like a bit of craggy rock but flashed open a pair of butterfly wings as a warning. It then crawled away using its front fins as legs.

There were bigger fish cruising at a distance, including a Silvertip Shark that slid past close enough for it to take a look at the strange bubble-blowing fish but too far away for an effective photo.

Not a shark: Napoleon Wrasse.

One thing I found interesting is that I was shooting like a film photographer – trying to make every frame count – while one person on the boat was shooting like a Hollywood gunfight. He had a GoPro- type camera on a long extension stick, and he had set it to take a still frame every half second. At the end of one dive he told me had had taken 3,500 pictures. Given that only amounts to 28 minutes and we were diving for up to 60 minutes and four times a day, I guess he had a huge editing job to do when he got home. It’s similar to a sports photographer I have mentioned, who shot thousands of pictures at each event. I suppose it comes to the question of whether you make single pictures mindfully, or play the odds to get one needle-sharp picture in your haystack? I can see a use for both methods, so I’m not saying I’m better. I did notice though that he was using the GoPro pole as a selfie stick. That is something I’m less sure about. There are already underwater drones that can follow the diver and take video, so it won’t be long before the influencers move in.

In the meantime I will be taking snaps of smiling fish and bashful octopus to remind myself of the joys of diving. It helps when I’m paddling around in the cold soup we enjoy in the UK.

Sea & Sea Motor Marine MX-10

This is the younger sibling of the Motor Marine II. It is more limited, but in some ways easier to use.

The first thing you will notice is that it is big. You are not going to lose it down the back of the sofa. But with the external ‘potato masher’ flash attached it becomes quite an easy package to handle.

The lens is fixed focus, set at the 2.5m mark. You get a table of depth of field versus aperture in the manual. I copied this out and made a laminated card. I also laminated a card rangefinder to make it easy to find the focus point. This only really matters when I’m using it underwater, as I need to get as close as the camera will allow to minimise the effects of soupy water. It’s also easier to judge 2-3m distance on land.

On the surface you get a fixed shutter speed of 1/100. There is a physical switch for 100 or 400 ISO and space for two AA batteries inside the camera’s outer shell. The camera’s built-in flash has a guide number of 10. The camera allows the use of two apertures with the internal flash – f4.5 or f11. And that’s about it for features. There is a light meter guide light in the viewfinder – you half depress the shutter and tweak the aperture dial until the red light goes out. The lens is described as a 35mm and f4.5 using four elements in four groups. You will not be buying one of these for creamy bokeh or biting resolution, but to survive a family trip to the seaside.

In use it is actually very simple. You can use it like a basic manual point and shoot with optional flash. Get to between 2 and 3m from the subject, frame and snap. If you can find it there is a wide-angle adapter and viewfinder available that makes it closer to a 20mm field of view (the adapter is shown fitted in the pictures above, with the matching external framer). With this adapter and the external flash it actually becomes quite a handy package for fairly close work underwater or in bad conditions. The flash makes a useful handle and even with it on the camera is not too unwieldy.

I have used this underwater and would certainly use it if I wanted to shoot film on the beach or in bad conditions. The external flash has a sensor to control its exposure and gives the choice of two apertures, one for 100 and one for 400 ISO. For underwater use I loaded it with fast film, set the apertures and got to the preset distance to take pictures. There was nothing to adjust, just turn the flash off when not using it. This actually makes it easier to use than the more capable (on paper) big brother model – the Motor Marine II.

On the surface it can flare if you shoot into the light, mostly due to the flat glass window in front of the lens. It’s worth keeping a tissue handy if you are out in the rain to keep the drops off the lens. Other than that it seems to survive most environments and handling. You can also pick these up quite cheaply if you look carefully. So what’s not to like about a cheap, simple and rugged camera?

Sea & Sea Motor Marine II

I started out with one of these when I was first learning how to take pictures underwater. It served its purpose, as I quickly learned what I really needed (and sold it). So why did I buy another one? Because it was cheaper than a roll of film and came with a flashgun, so it was worth a punt to see if the flashgun could work with my Nikonos (it doesn’t). But it could make sense if you needed to take pictures in really bad conditions.

What you get is a big camera that is resistant to sand, mud and rain (and any sense of style). Unlike its smaller brother the MX-10 this camera has a zone-focusing lens and retains the basic light metering. The main restriction for land use is the slow fixed shutter speed of 1/100. If you buy the Motormarine II EX model you get range of speeds covering 1/15 to 1/125. No real gain and it points to how this camera was intended to be used: with flash. But if I was using this thing it would probably be in poor light and bad weather, so I would be using the built-in flash or the (huge) external one. The external flash is more sophisticated, as it meters off the film. If you were going to use this for flash photography in grim conditions you should definitely get the external flashgun with the camera. The internal flash has a guide number of 10 and turning it on sets the lens wide open to f3.5. So on a sunny day you are likely to overexpose the background by around four stops. The big external flash allows for some adjustment, so it is possible to juggle the aperture and distance for effect. But that’s really not what this camera is for. It works best underwater with the external flash, it works on the surface without flash, or it will survive horrid conditions on the surface. If I had to shoot on film in wind-blown sand or salt spray, this would be an ideal tool.

The camera runs off two AA cells and the external flash takes another four. The camera’s batteries power the wind-on, meter and the internal flash. It uses DX coding for film speed but only recognises 100 or 400 ISO. So far, pretty basic.

Aperture and distance are set on dials on the front of the camera, so the ergonomics are pretty poor. There is a built-in close-up or macro option of 0.5m, but framing could be a problem.

In use, and without the flash, you tend to set the distance and then look through the viewfinder while you twiddle the aperture dial until the red exposure light turns green. With the internal flash on you’re basically confined to 2-3m distance. You wouldn’t use the built-in flash underwater as it is close to the lens so will cause loads of backscatter. The external flash has a big extending arm and tilting head, so it can be aimed to give the best lighting.

The camera takes a range of wide-angle supplementary lenses made by Sea & Sea. They use a standard bayonet fitting and can be found quite cheap. The main reason for these is to bring back the narrowing of field of view you get underwater due to refraction, where a 35mm lens narrows to about the same angle of view as a 50mm lens. They can be fitted and removed underwater, but you tend to fit one and leave it to avoid dropping it. They also work on the surface so are useful if you can find them. Mine has a wide-angle adapter that gives me the equivalent of a 20mm lens. I’ve also got an underwater-use 16mm adapter. This is not as good as the legendary Nikonos 15mm underwater lens, but can at least be removed underwater to give you a narrower field of view if you need it. Coupled with the external flash the 16mm adapter actually works pretty well underwater. The depth of field is such that you really don’t need to fiddle with the focusing.

So what is this large lump of yellow plastic good for? It’s too much of a handful for scuba diving but is a cheap starter for something like snorkelling or other water sports. It works best with flash, either the built-in one for close work or the big external one. The zone focusing makes it a good candidate for a card rangefinder. I made one and laminated it, then attached it to the camera. For beach/ surf/ surface use I’d drop the external flash. For underwater use, the ideal setup would use the external flash and a wide or 16mm lens adapter.

The lens has square aperture blades. This is not a problem – Olympus did the same with their compacts. It can mean though that backscatter-lit silt underwater appears square. On the surface you’ll probably not notice it.

Why would you want one of these? If you wanted to shoot on film in the surf, on a beach or in foul weather and were happy using flash. But they are quite limited and outside of their narrow use-case will frustrate you. Indeed, most underwater film cameras were rapidly replaced with digital as the benefits of autofocus, autoexposure, a preview screen and after-shot review far outweigh any supposed quality difference. But, as a rufty-tufty camera it works well, and with the correct adapters and flash it can work well underwater.

So if you get down and dirty and you can find one of these at the right price, have a go.

Things are looking up

In terms of ease of use and quality of results, photography is so much better than it used to be. What brought this (less than genius) thought on was finding a copy of Lichfield on Photography in a charity shop. Whatever you may think of his work, he was successful for quite a few years. The book dates from 1981 and is printed on fairly good coated paper. So the pictures ought to be good. But they’re not.

It’s probably not his fault. Possibly a lot of the mono pictures were converted from colour slides. Perhaps the printing was poor, resulting in the lack of any shadow detail. Or perhaps this was the best we could do in 1981.

I shouldn’t be sarcastic – I have said before that grain and sharpness are not the most important aspects of a picture. But that’s not the point here – what I noticed is just how much better are the results we see now compared to then.

Then was shooting Polaroids to check the lighting. High ISO meant heavy and intrusive grain. Commissioned work meant shooting colour slide film, with no opportunities for post-processing or even cropping. Your shutter might top-out at 1/1000 and your lenses at f2, or smaller if you used a zoom. To get the best results you would be shooting at ISO 25 or 64. Chimping would mean sending a test film for processing or clip tests.

I can hardly criticise – this is grainy and it wasn’t even dark

Now is autofocus and face detection, low-noise ISO in the tens of thousands, large aperture lenses and magic zooms. Plus the ability to tell immediately if the picture worked.

You could say that it needs less skill to make a picture, but it also means that it is easier to get a good picture. See Lichfield – you have to agree that he had the skill, but you can see the limitations of his equipment and the process of printing. Even something as prestigious as National Geographic shows how the underlying technology has improved.

I have certainly taken advantage of this in my diving. I started with a 3mp camera and rapidly found I needed better. I moved to an 8mp camera that has better features and image stabilisation. This wasn’t a deliberate choice mind, it was what was available on eBay. Eight megapixels was pretty good but then I bumped into the jaggies again. So the next step is up to 10mp with a camera that can save raw files. And the technology also brings me image stabilisation, automatic flash control and a macro mode. Compare this with the analogue cameras I have wrestled with underwater and I can’t see myself ever going back. Yes, the technology has made it easier and you could say it has removed the need for technical skill (Lichfield was also saying this in 1981 about cameras with auto-exposure). But it has also allowed me to concentrate on taking pictures rather than juggling the camera settings.

This is at the limits of what my 8mp camera can do and won’t take much enlargement

So I think a few things have happened: better kit has lowered the trade-craft barrier to entry; better kit has raised picture quality generally; good photography is no longer the preserve of photographers. Where is it going? I don’t know. But post-processing software can correct mistakes, smooth skin, replace skies and add mood. Cameras can focus on faces or even eyes and take a blizzard of shots to capture the perfect timing. But there is still a difference between good and bad pictures, if a good picture was your intent.

But basically, bring it on! I will take all the cleverness the camera people can give me (or I can afford) because it generally gives me better results. Or fewer chances to be rubbish. And it gives me the space to go back in time in an area of my choosing to gain an effect – things like using old lenses or shooting in mono rather than colour. Same with cars – my current car is far more advanced than my first one. Do I miss the ability to start the engine with a handle? No. Do I like heating? Yes, and I can turn it off if I want to get nostalgic. So if the purpose of photography is to make pictures rather than drive cameras, then things are much better now than they were then.

Modifying cameras

Have you ever modified a camera to make it work better for you?

I’m not talking about cosmetic changes like changing the leatherette (although I love what Peggy does with these), but functional changes. I know one of the frequent improvements is to add a grip. But these are finely-crafted and removable, whereas I’m talking about hacking the actual camera.

I’ve basically made two sorts of changes: for handling and for protection. You have to not care about resale value though. Speaking of which, who are these people who can sell a pristine old camera on eBay? How does anyone manage to use a thing for years and leave no visible marks of use or wear?

Back to the plot – for protection I mainly use Sugru. It’s perfect for creating bump corners – I’ve wrapped a small waterproof camera in it to protect the corners and the lens from being dropped or put down badly.

Sugru to protect from bumps, grip tape to avoid giving it the bumps

This is ideal, as I most often use this camera with cold wet hands on an open boat. The camera lives in an open plastic tool tray so needs all the protection it can get.

Before finding Sugru I used two-part epoxy putty to make things like a replacement for the plastic piece that fell off the end of a wind-on lever.

Although I no longer have it so can’t share pictures, I did make a remote release adapter for an autowinder. This was a bit of brass sheet that I bent and maimed until it fitted around the trigger button on the autowinder. I drilled a small hole and used a cable release to form a thread in the soft brass. This let me fit a long air release that ran inside my overalls and put the bulb in my hand. The camera was mounted on a bracket on the side of a crash helmet. The result was Heath Robinson’s version of a helmet-mounted camera. And yes, it worked.

Next to Sugru the other great find came from an article by 35hunter, and this is to use the sticky-backed grip tape that is used on skateboards.

This stuff is very good and could even be reversible, if you wanted to change the grip or sell the camera. I added a strip and a patch of tape to a Canon compact to provide grip for my fingers and thumb.

The tape has just enough ‘tooth’ to be grippy without being uncomfortable.


So since the grip tape came as a sheet large enough to cover a skateboard deck, I couldn’t just leave it at that. The obvious next step was the underwater housings for my diving cameras. Like the little Fuji compact, I’m usually handling these in water and wearing gloves. While the camera is usually on a tether, it’s useful not to let go of it in the first place.

What’s next in my mad plan is to replace the whole leatherette on a camera with grip tape. That’s a possible for the future though – I’ll wait to see which one starts peeling first.

So ok, not major modifications but practical, and they can be done without needing a 3d printer or workshop.

Kissed with a seal

This was written prior to the latest lockdown.
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Back in the water for some socially-distanced diving! Yay!

I should explain. There’s a group of us. Our reason for being a group is to take people diving who have physical and learning disabilities. Because you may not be able to walk on land but you can fly underwater. Covid stuffed that, as it did so many other things. We can’t safely do the necessary close contact and the pool we use has had to close. The side effect was diving withdrawal. I was showering with a scuba mask on. I was diving in lakes. We all needed time in the brine.

Then we got the opportunity to dive with the seals at the Farnes. The first attempt was cancelled due to the weather – we have to be able to get back on the boat so the waves can’t be too high. But then Poseidon smiled and we got to do some safe, well spaced and properly masked dives from an open boat (we’re missing it, not dying for it).
It was an auspicious start, looking at the rolling waves, as we left from luxury.nothing.twitching. Getting back on the boat is a serious business – we went to the outer group of islands near the Longstone lighthouse. Even the shortest swim to shore from there would be three miles. On the open water on the way out we lost sight of land when the boat was corkscrewing between wave crests. (Follow the link to the Farnes above and see how many ships have run into them).

We do try to get to the Farne Islands each year when the new seals are born. We are not there for the newborns but for the youngsters – probably last year’s babies. They are inquisitive and fun and both they and the adults seem to be comfortable with divers in the water. (Serious aside – if you do visit one of the places where the newborns are on land, do not disturb or bother them. It’s unkind for a start, and then realise that the mother weighs more than you and has teeth and claws. So take the longest lens you own.)

Sealed with a kiss
Sealed with a kiss

How close you get and how much interaction you have are totally controlled by the seals – they are beautiful and sleek swimming machines, and I’m a fat old bloke in a rubber suit. But if you’re lucky they will come over to see what you’re doing, nibble your fins and try to steal anything shiny. The yearlings behave just like puppies and mouth at you in the same way.

Farnes

 

I have dived there before with a video camera as it’s small and has nothing to fiddle with but an on/off switch. This time I wanted to get some stills as well. So it’s my working-man’s dive camera – a humble Canon Ixus 750 point and shoot in a housing with an extra external flash. I’ve been fighting with this for a while to get the lighting balance right between the external and built-in flashes, but I think I’ve finally got it.

It’s a joy though, both to be back in the water and interacting with the seals. These are wild animals but they are inquisitive and happy enough to come up and nudge you.

Farnes

 

There were a lot of seals in the water. Even some of the mature seals came over for a look, which is rare. They must have missed the taste of diver during these lockdown times.

Farnes

 

Yes, it’s British diving, so it’s cold and murky. But who would want to miss an opportunity like this?


And for the photographically inclined, this is where autofocus and auto flash exposure pays off. Despite being in a quite kinetic environment, the majority of my pictures worked. I could never have done this with a Nikonos.
You also want the widest lens you can, to get as close as possible, to reduce the amount of murky water between you and the subject.
And just occasionally, you need a camera that you can work one-handed so that you can fend off a seal who wants to steal the shiny thing. I haven’t shown it here because it’s just a blur, but I have one shot of a seal pressing its nose against the end of the lens.

So that was my first and probably last sea dive this year. It reminds me why we do it.

Compact vs SLR

I want a new camera. Well, new to me. It has to be able to do some specific things, chief amongst which is the way it handles. Perhaps strangely, I need a camera I can use one-handed. So this means I need a compact and not an SLR.

This camera is to be used underwater as a replacement for the Nikonos. It will spend its working life in a housing, tethered to me with a lanyard. I will typically want to work the camera with my right hand and hold a big torch in my left, or use my left hand to brace my position.

SLRs are great, but I don’t want to have to use my left hand to work the zoom. Nor do I want to buy a housing that is specific to one range or model of lens. If you thought classic Leicas were expensive, try an underwater housing for a good-to-decent dSLR.

So I want a compact digital camera, as they usually have the zoom control somewhere under the right forefinger. I also want a Canon, as they make the best compact cameras.

OK – contentious. Let me explain best. Canon had (and have) a habit of putting top-range sensors and processors in their compacts, but disabling some of the functionality depending on the model. Enter the hacker’s kit – CHDK. Run a temporary firmware update from the memory card and you get back some of the hidden features, like saving RAW files, motion detection, timelapse and so on. So you can often buy a lower-range Canon compact and add back to it some of the features missing from more expensive cameras.

If you are happy buying second-hand you can also get some real bargains. My current underwater rig uses a Canon Ixus 750. The quality is quite good and I got a second camera as a spare from eBay for £5. Since there is always a risk of flooding the thing with salt water, the spare camera was cheaper than insuring the original.

But I’m pushing the performance and capabilities of the Ixus, so I want something a bit better. What I want is a wider ISO range, image stabilisation, a wider maximum aperture if possible, better macro capabilities if I can get it, better control over the flash (as I will be using a second external flash), more megapickles, and the lens to be wider at the wide end. Oh, and world peace.

So off we go to the shops. Or eBay. Up pops a Canon Powershot G9 with housing at a good price and soon it is mine (Precious). More features than Netflix and more knobs than a political rally. The housing is taken for a swim sans camera but packed with tissues to check the O ring. The camera is parked on the kitchen table while I read the manual and make ooh ooh noises.

Canon
Is this the new legend?

The first question is why it has a separate knob to set the ISO? Because it can. This is digital, not film. There is no need to set the ISO once when you load the camera and live with it – you can change it for every shot. So having a dedicated control makes more sense than burying it in a menu system. What stumped me for a bit is that the flash controls are in a menu system, which you get to by holding down the flash button and not by pressing the menu one. Hence all my first test shots were done using slow-sync flash and second curtain triggering. Sharp with a blurred overlay – nice!

It has an underwater mode that adds a virtual red filter. The usual trick is to then put a blue gel on the flash, but I need to see what happens if I’m shooting RAW.

There are also a bunch of settings for the autofocus to try, plus working out how to balance the built-in flash with the external one. The Ixus 750 was not very good at this – it kept seeing the external flash and quenching the built-in one. Even masking things with some highly technical plastic and gaffer tape didn’t cure it. Early tests with the G9 look promising.

So there you have it. For me, a reasonable compact camera beats a dSLR hands down. Or one hand down, anyway. Right then fishes, smile!

(And if his doesn’t work, perhaps I need a Diveroid?)

No more heroes any more

I wanted to love the Legend but I can’t. It’s not that I discovered my hero had feet of clay: it was more that we didn’t get on. It may well be the most competent camera in the world, but it doesn’t do what I need. I find myself saying “it’s not you, it’s me”, and it’s true.

What the Nikonos V does is rugged and sharp film photography underwater. It has a dedicated flash with off-the-film metering. Mine also has a close-up lens with a frame-finder. You don’t even have to look through the viewfinder – just place the prongs either side of the subject and shoot. Which would be perfect if I was shooting things that kept still and didn’t mind being surrounded by metal prongs.

However, this is not what I do. What I need is a camera that can do macro work and general context scenery. I need a zoom so that I can frame subjects that would flee if I got closer. I need autofocus that will allow me to lock on the subject and reframe. I need a screen on the back of the camera so that I can operate it at arm’s length, so that I don’t scare the critters or I can get the camera into small and awkward places.

Flabellina Affinis. Nudibranch, Gozo
I need to be able to do macro (this is about the size of my thumbnail)

I did get carried away with the romantic notion of shooting film in a classic camera. And then I realised I would be spending so much attention working the camera I was likely to ignore things like my dive buddy or my own safety.

The telling thing is that I took the Nikonos on a diving holiday and never used it. I didn’t want to struggle with it getting in and out of the water. Underwater, I didn’t want the restrictions of either fixed-distance macro or having to remove and stow the close-up lens to do general pictures. Basically, it was going to be too difficult and too restrictive, so what was the point?

Comino caves, Gozo. 7th October 2019
And general context shots

I’m not alone – Martin Edge talks about using Nikonos gear in his book The Underwater Photographer. And then he says he switched completely as soon as cameras with autofocus became available.

Comino Caves, Gozo. 7th October 2019
To accurately-framed shots at mid-distance

On my recent diving trip, instead of the Nikonos I used an old and cheap Canon Ixus 750 in a housing. It has many limitations, but it is small and moves easily between macro and scenic work and takes reasonable pictures. To be fair, it took great pictures. What it lacked are things that I now know I really do need: not the fancy gadgets and features they list in the adverts, but the things you find yourself wishing the camera could do better. So I will be replacing the Canon with something that has more of what I want and saying goodbye to the Nikonos that doesn’t really do anything I need underwater. I could keep the Nikonos for surface use I suppose, but I have better and lighter cameras. So the legend will be leaving.

I did manage to buy it at a good price, so I should hopefully get more for it than I paid. The surplus will go towards a more capable digital camera plus housing that has a better ISO range, hopefully some image stabilisation and higher resolution.

So mark this one up to experience.

So, was my dream shattered by reality? No: it turned out that my reality was different to my dream. The dream is still a valid and highly capable camera system. My reality is needing something more flexible.

Rufty-tufty film camera review

Sand. Seawater. Dirt. Rough handling. Foul language. OK, maybe not the last one. Although the full set does sound like a good weekend.

Maybe these are the things you want your camera to handle. I’ve shot stuff in the past that meant I had to put the camera in the airing cupboard for a week to dry it out. Rain is one thing, but wind-blown sand is a horror. This stuff leaves you with scratchy focusing or crunchy cameras. You need something that laughs in the face of danger.

Lots of modern digital cameras have weather sealing, and you can buy compact cameras that are sealed and waterproof to five meters or so. But this is a review of the cheap-ass end of the market, based on stuff I own and use. The stuff that I don’t have to take special care of or dry out after use.

First up, the Sea and Sea MX-10. This is a very basic yellow plastic housebrick with a dedicated flashgun. Basic, because the lens is fixed focus and the shutter fires at 1/100. You have the joy of controlling the aperture and there is a rudimentary built-in meter that works for 100 or 400 ISO.

It’s a child’s toy amongst cameras – big, simple, strong. I printed and laminated the table of focus ranges for each aperture and then just get close enough to put the subject in the sharp zone. On land the lens is focused at 2.5m so you use the aperture to control the depth of field around it.

The only real drawback is the cheap two-blade aperture that forms a square hole, so turns your bokeh into cubes. It’s big, tough, very simple to use and (if you shop carefully) cheap as chips. A nice feature is that the lens front has a standard bayonet fitting common to Sea and Sea that lets you use their supplementary wide-angle lenses. You need these underwater as the refraction reduces the angle of view of the 32mm lens to nearer 45-50mm. On land it lets you get more in or keep bigger subjects in the sharp zone of the lens.

For a camera this crude and simple it actually works quite well. Plus you can drop it in the sand or the sea, take it swimming or go out in a British summer. Just don’t pay a lot for one – this is not a sophisticated camera.

MX10

Prior to this I had its big brother, the Motormarine II EX. This has a focusing lens controlled by a dial on the front of the body, that also includes a close-up setting. The EX model also includes a choice of shutter speeds, but they only run from 1/125 to 1/15. Frankly, I found it a bit of a handful. While you can scale-focus the lens you have no indication of the depth of field (unlike the Nikonos, of which more later). The camera uses DX coding but only recognises 50, 100 and 400 ISO film. Granted, it works, but the aperture and focus dials are hard to read underwater, particularly if you are of a certain age and need reading specs. Above water it falls into the gap between Lomo and hi-fi – it has some controls so you need to fiddle with it but not enough to make it worth the effort. I got some good pictures with it and learned a lot, but sold it on with no regrets.
Tech specs
35mm f3.5 lens. My copy of the manual says 34 elements in 3 groups, but you’d only get that if you dropped it. I reckon they meant 4 elements in 3 groups, making it a Tessar.
Focusing down to 0.5m.
Built in flash with GN10 at 100ISO.
DX coding for 50, 100 and 400ISO.

For a while after the EX I had a Minolta Weathermatic 35DL. I thought this was going to be the answer. It had autofocus and a dual-lens setup that gave you 35mm or 50mm. It was waterproof to 5m. But the focusing broke, even though the camera kept working. I only found out after shooting a whole roll of impressionistic fuzz. Late 80s electronics to blame, I expect. Verdit? Fragile.

Charlie chased

Next up is a Japanese oddity – the Konica Genba Kantoku 28WB. I admit to buying one of these when I read a review on 35mmc. This was the replacement for the Minolta, and it seems to be working better. It’s basically splash and dirt-proof rather than waterproof. The sharp wide-angle lens was meant for recording building projects. It’s chunky and has just enough controls to be useful – you can force the flash on or off and use a macro mode. If you keep the sun off the glass cover in front of the lens it takes a good snap. You also have the joy of a camera that can be thrown in a bag, used in the rain or dragged through as much dirt as you can eat. It also looks rather funky, like an overgrown point and shoot. This gets used a lot on beaches and it works well.

Genba
Tech specs
28mm F3.5 lens of 8 elements in 7 groups. Minimum focusing distance of 0.5 meter. Shutter speed range from 1/4 to 1/280 second. Metering by a CdS sensor with a range of 5.5 to 16.5 EV (ISO 100). The built-in flash has a range up to 5m at ISO 100 and 10m with ISO 400 film. Film loading and advance are automatic with a motor drive. Film speed set by DX coding.

At the top end of the range comes the Nikonos. There are two basic types – the ones up to type 3 that were manual and came apart for loading and the later types 4, 4a and 5 that had a conventional opening back. You can spend a lot of money on these if you go for one with a flashgun or wide-angle lens. Be aware though that lenses wider than the standard 35mm will usually only work underwater. For surface to damp places stick with the 35mm. There is an 80mm lens for it, but this is a scale-focusing camera so unless you also carry a rangefinder about with you, stick with the 35mm. So if you want one, go for the 35mm lens, no flash or extras and in orange rather than the optional green.

Mine is a type 5 and what you get is a heavy and robust camera with autoexposure, shutter speeds up to 1/1000 and a very nice 35mm lens. The focusing is by guesswork, but the lens does have a lovely pair of markers that show the depth of field for each aperture. It couldn’t be simpler to set an aperture, set the point of focus to give you a useful range and let the camera handle the exposure (unless you confuse the metric and imperial distance scales).
The viewfinder has a high eye relief as it is meant to work with a diving mask. The frame lines are well within the visible area, so it’s easy to see things coming into frame. Given that you keep the seals clean this camera will survive just about anything. They were used by photographers in Vietnam, which is where I understand the desire for an 80mm lens came from. Probably the low-vis green paint option too.

This is the expensive and heavy end of the range of tough film cameras. It can be cheap though, especially if you look for mis-spellings and partial names.

So, what do I recommend? If I’m going where I need a water and dirt resistant camera my first choice is the Konica. It’s not heavy (it’s my brother), it’s easy to use quickly and the lens is sharp.

Next would be the Nikonos. Great lens and more control over the camera. No flash though. Well, not a sensible flash that you could carry about with you.

If there was a risk of destroying the camera or things could get hectic, it would be the MX-10. With the flash attached and the aperture set there is nothing to fiddle with. Get the subject in the sharp zone and go. And if they attack, you can fend them off with it. An anti-zombie camera.

Or forget all this nonsense and buy a nice ruggedised digital point and shoot.

Drop in the ocean

We’ve all seen Blue Planet, but what could you realistically get with amateur kit in unexotic places?

First – amateur kit. Going any deeper into water than being splashed requires an underwater housing. If you thought cameras were expensive, look at housings. They are specific to the make and model of the camera, so any thought of changing your camera becomes at least twice the investment. I regularly dive with someone who uses a video camera, and the housing alone cost more than both of my family cars.

But, there are plenty of people who give-up the sport and sell their kit, or who do upgrade to something better. So the usual online markets are your friend, if you are happy to use a modest camera. There is also the ever-present risk of a leak, so I am happier risking £40 than £400 or even £4,000. I’ve got a second-hand Canon Digital Ixus 750 which was originally advertised as “With its sleek Perpetual Curve design, the contoured all-metal body of the Digital IXUS 750 represents the pinnacle of Canon design excellence”. Does make you wonder why Canon didn’t stop right there and not build another camera. It has a 7mpixel sensor, which is adequate. It also has a built-in colour correction mode for underwater, of which more anon. This, with housing, cost about £20.

Next – unexotic places. I regularly dive in a flooded quarry and off the cost of East Scotland. The quarry plays host to large groups of training divers, so the bottom gets very stirred-up (the quarry’s, although I’m sure some of them also feel the tingle). Visibility in the quarry can be less than two metres. There may be less silt in the water in Scotland but it also gets darker at depth.

The answer is to get close. The less water there is between the camera and the subject, the less silt and haze. So most underwater photography is done through wideangle lenses or as macro. The little Canon camera has a half-decent macro mode enabled through one button on the back.

The other problem is dark. Water absorbs a lot of light, and not all the colours are absorbed at the same rate. This is why the Canon has an underwater setting – to boost the red part of the spectrum and make up for the losses. For snorkelling depths this works pretty well. Any deep than a couple of metres though, and you need flash.

The little Canon point-and-shoot has one of them too. Right next to the lens. This is the ideal position for illuminating the silt in the water. Get in very close in macro mode and it works reasonably well. Try to take a picture of a person and you get the ‘diver in snowstorm’ look.

peasoup.jpg

So you get as close as you can.

Sea urchin, Eyemouth 15 June 2019

I found a second-hand underwater flashgun on that usual online market. This one was ideal, as it had a built-in slave cell. This means it can be triggered by the weedy built-in flash, or even used as a second fill-light. It’s a reasonably handy rig – small enough to hold out one-handed at arm’s length to get close to a fish without scaring it with your body bulk.

Sturgeon, Capernwray
Sturgeon

Perch, Capernwray
Perch

And sometimes you get lucky and find the entire seabed covered in a carpet of starfish.

Brittle stars, Eyemouth, 16 June 2019

So, surprisingly, you can use modest kit to take reasonable pictures. The limitations are that you probably can’t enlarge much from a small sensor, but the muck and refraction can make that a challenge even for big cameras. Lighting can be a problem, as can getting close and using very wide angle lenses.

It will never be a challenge to the BBC, but it will do for me.

UPDATE

A lobster eating a jellyfish. Never seen this before. Taken on cheap kit.

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