Published in "Sport Diver" June 2011
I've been taking underwater photographs now for over 8 years, once I became more interested I started feeding my habit I joined relevant internet forums, that’s where the addiction started! Being a perfectionist, with a big trip coming up to Indonesia in 2009 I still wasn’t too happy with my results, I decided to look into an upgrade to my wide angle converter lens, it was very costly for what I had already spent on my G9 and Ikelite set up at the time, eventually sought the help eventually of Martin Edge, he seemed a good bet as I’d already read his book, and was only 50 miles from me. Once I read his course syllabus I saw that he offers a play with a dSLR, I usually don’t like hanging around with opportunities and soon put 2 and 2 together and realised this was the best option to go. At that particular time, the cogs started turning and it all made sense to me then to make the move, within 2 months I had my new dSLR system and had sold my old one. I went for the Nikon D90 it was a slight mark up from entry level and the make was Martins recommendation. I chose Aquatica to house it as that was, again, just slightly up from entry level housings. I also took a SLR for beginners’ course with Going Digital, another good move. I also took another course at Visions 2009...before too long I was all good to go!
A month later I was on the A380 to Singapore bound for Manado. The first thing I noticed was how much time is consumed in putting everything together, I felt like a hitman and his rifle with all these bits! It was just the same after the day was done, having to take it all apart to charge batteries, change your lens and get your SD card, this never had to be done everyday as the battery was about 3 or 4 times the power of a compact battery, but if you want to make sure your photos are backed up, god forbid you have a camera flood, all your camera gear may be backed up with insurance, but your pictures are not. I had 2 lots of batteries for my camera and strobes, so I didn’t have to wait more time for them to recharge, and if I did, it every night I was guaranteed a full days diving without any changes.
My first dives were on the local house reef at Tasik Ria, Hey! Were they good! I couldn’t believe the difference in life here, this was the first time I’d ever come further than Thailand to dive. I certainly made the right choice when to go SLR. Shutter lag was now non existent, focus was quick, I couldn’t believe the critters to be seen there, and how close I could get with good focus. I now found the buzz of shooting macro The only downfall I had made a firm agreement with myself to stick with manual settings, including the strobes, I was manual for a while before, but adding the strobes into the equation as well, meant there was a lot to consider. Previously I used TTL on my Ikelite and was advised against this as you cannot control your desired effects as good. As TTL conversion was extra, I took their word for it!
Using my fisheye lens was a feat on its own, controlling such a huge mass of equipment once you are in the water, positioning the flash arms, was a challenge, its amazing the field of view from a fisheye lens and how the dome part lets it all in, even the strobes despite the length of the arms. The last dive of the day always ended up a macro dive, I was rather dubious of taking my camera equipment apart on the boat, but soon got the hang of it in the cabin, you’ve just got to remain calm, patient and very meticulous, not easy for me! Luckily with the Aquatica you only have to take the front port off and there is a lever that releases your lens off the camera for you, then quick changeover to macro, and all set.
Wide angle subjects were pretty sparse in Bunaken, so I looked into my next trip as soon as I got back, now becoming a hard choice as I no longer wish to be in a group doing the follow the leader thing. Time is needed on each subject, looking out for a chain of divers is not on the priority list, a good picture is. My wife doesn’t dive (that’s one reason why I can afford to go SLR! No children helps too!)
With these factors in mind I knew of an online friend visiting the Similan Islands without a buddy so that was top of my list, I went here 2 years ago with my G9 and saw dozens of Manta rays so this was ideal for my next trip so I could upgrade my collection. I went the same time of year too, in March. There are so many bits to remember for each trip,
I thought I had a fairly decent plan I could build on, but alas not! Once I had boarded the Thai liveaboard and started to set up my kit I had this ghastly discovery (or not!) that I had forgotten the camera saddle (it holds the camera in place in the housing). Well that put me right down in the doldrums, my US buddy lent me his compact back up which was very good of him, but it still just didn’t help, if you know what I mean, a couple of days passed and there was word on the radio that Mantas were up ahead, I got my best thinking cap on and eventually came up with a replica saddle made from 2 taped up AA batteries and lots of tissue paper. Yes it worked! The settings were not easily to adjust but I could still take photos within reason! So there we were waiting for Mantas amongst a shoal of rainbow runners. Sadly they never turned up for us, not once. I learnt form this that just because it’s the same time of year as last time you will not always get the same fish in the sea, yes there are plenty, but there’s more sea, than there are fish!
I also dive in the UK, so I had plenty of opportunities at home too, living on the South coast I usually was diving for photos every other week, a decided to make a trip to Lundy again to visit the seals, finding that the seals were a great wide angle subject for the UK. I was happy with my results, but a lot to learn still with my shutter speed, and aperture, and even focus, especially when the seals move quick, its not too easy, sometime they were below me, sometimes they were above; so I learnt from this that I either had to stick looking up or down for each dive, either that, or use shutter or aperture priority, it was too much work for someone who is still getting used to the settings, it take more time than I realised – reflexes take their time, well at my age they do!
My next trip was to the Maldives for my wife’s 40th, funnily enough it was a resort near Hanifaru, home of the manta aggregation, what sheer coincidence I surprise her with a trip to here, I’m so happy she has her birthday in August now!
As soon as I got here I heard the mantas were gathering, I didn’t waste time and checked in ASAP. I’ve seen mantas on about 5 trips before this one, but never! Have I ever seen them like this, most of the time I have seen them they were at cleaning stations, here they were feeding, so much more active, they were tumbling from left right and centre, and didn’t seem to care divers were very close to them. The main problem I found was the visibility, tough call, my photos required a lot of post processing to make them look anywhere close to decent, even though I tried my best to keep the strobes pointing just away from the subject. My best surprise here was snorkelling with a whale shark, my first encounter, absolutely awesome.
I decide to do another trip to see some seals, but this time to the Farne Islands. Due to terrible Autumnal weather we only managed to dive 1 day out of 3. But I was rather happy with that, there were a lot of young pups about and they were so playful and they came really close to me, it was after this days diving that I realised it wasn’t just having a SLR camera that improves your shots, it’s the fact that you have a 8” reflective dome in the front of you! These creatures are so inquisitive to see another one of them looking at them. Such a lovely experience in the Farnes, my favourite place in the UK so far.
My last trip of the year was a shark trip to the Bahamas. The same thing happened with the dome port, the lemon sharks just seemed to be attracted by their own reflection, but as they got closer, they turned away, so I started moving my camera last second into their path so I could get even closer.
I had 3 problems on this trip with my set up, Aquatica said if I pay the postage to Canada they will sort it all out for me free of charge, I couldn’t get fairer than that!
I just cant wait to do all these trips again, maybe not in exactly the same places, the worlds too small for that, mainly just to continually improve my final product, as I said I am a pref3ctionist, a really expensive habit I know.
One last thing, On our journey back from Manado, I was charged $50 a kilo excess baggage for 7 kilos, one of the main problems with SLRs. I now have a big coat with 9 pockets, and a pair of cargo pants, one of the pockets includes a dry bag, so after check in all my pocket contents goes in that. An alternative is to fly BA (I found a return flight with them direct to Miami for only £550) as they don’t have weight restrictions on your hand baggage (just a generous size limit) and you’re also allowed a good sized laptop bag too. I always carry my camera round my neck too. If you do this make sure your hand baggage wheels are strong enough, as I had about 15 kilos in mine on a trip and they just and so lasted!