Underwater photography in the Channel Islands
By Peter Korn on Apr 14, 2008
Just before this year's CSUN conference (blog trip report to come), I went diving with my "friend in the news" Mark Epstein for two days with Truth Aquatics in the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara. I brought my new Canon G9 camera (bought in part because I thought it'd make a great underwater housed camera), and a new underwater lighting rig: the Brightstar Darkbuster diving torch mounted on their camera arm set.
You can see the photos at this slideshow of my Truth Aquatics dive trip.
The typical underwater digital camera is a housed camera with a flash and perhaps a focusing light (as is shown in this photo of Mark with my old rig + his HID light). The best underwater photos these days are taken with SLR cameras in special custom housings with multiple large flashes. Such a setup can cost more than $10,000! This gets you something like a Canon 5D, a housing for it, and then strobes and arms (ideally 2 strobes!).
For this dive trip, I tried to put together an effective setup at 1/10th the cost. I went with the Canon G9 in order to have something small, but with a bright 3" LCD screen and pretty fast focusing. And then the big experiment: going with the new and incredibly bright 24W HID light from Darkbuster in "video light" configuration (plus diffuser) in the place of a flash. Going this route allowed me to save on buying a bright and expensive flash (the cheapest good underwater flash is more expensive than the Darkbuster!), and meant that I didn't need an electrical sync cord (which requires a more expensive housing and significantly increases your chances of getting a leak) or a fiber optic flash trigger cord (which I haven't found to work that well and getting the right amount of light is always more of a challenge).
I'm pretty pleased with the results, especially for macro photography (check out all of the nudibranch photos). So long as I took the time to adjust the light, and made sure to zoom in a tad so that all of the photo was within the cone of light from the Darkbuster, I got pretty good results. If I do a lot more of this, I'll probably get a second Darkbuster in order to achieve more even lighting results (and use my makeshift "lens cap" - PVC pipe end fitted over the light with holes drilled in for water cooling - to cover one for more dramatic side-lighting - like in this shot). The biggest challenge will still be dealing with surge underwater, which combined with even 1/10th of a second of shutter delay means a high percentage of slightly-out-of-focus photos. My old housed film camera never had this problem...