Entering the Underwater World on a Budget

SCUBA diving is something that I've wanted to get into for nearly as long as I remember. Now that I live in California, so close to one of the best recreational dive sites in the world (Monterey), I figured I should't wait any longer before getting my open water certification. After getting my open water certification a couple of months ago, I suspect that I asked myself the same question that many aspiring underwater photographers ask themselves: how am I going to make amazing photos under all that water?

Honu Bro (Tunnels Beach, Kauai, Hawaii)

I desperately wanted an underwater camera setup that would provide me with fantastic, publishable image quality, without breaking the bank. This is an extremely tall order, since underwater camera equipment tends to be outrageously expensive. For example, a housing, lens port, and dual-strobe setup for something like a Nikon D800 can easily run $6000+. Not to mention the risks associated with putting a $3000 camera, plus a presumably expensive lens inside a setup like that.

What's an enthusiastic underwater photographer on a budget to do? Let me introduce you to the best budget-friendly underwater setup available today: the Olympus E-PM1, 14-42mm lens, and PT-EP06 underwater housing... just $500! This setup is a steal for the money, and includes everything you need to get started: camera, lens, and housing. The PT-EP06 housing supports three different lenses: the included 14-42mm, the wider 9-18mm, and the 60mm macro. It also supports the standard fiber-optic strobe connections, it's easy to add on underwater strobes once you're ready.

Image quality and handling are a bit of a compromise. As with all of the cheaper Micro Four Thirds cameras, the lack of manual controls can be frustrating. These control annoyances are magnified when the camera sits in the bulky housing, and when you operate it underwater while wearing gloves. Image quality is good at ISO 200, but I don't venture past ISO 800 unless I really must. It's certainly no Nikon D800, but it's a surprisingly capable little camera.

I've augmented my setup with a Zen Dome Port, which is made of curved glass, unlike the standard flat port. This gives a slightly wider field-of-view underwater, and also improves image quality (sharpness) when shooting with wider angle lenses, like the 9-18mm. I've also added a Sea & Sea YS-01 underwater strobe for better color and light at depth.

Despite its few shortcomings and limitations, I feel very strongly about this kit. It offers significantly better image quality than an underwater point & shoot, while costing significantly less than a complete underwater DSLR kit.

The images that you see above and below are from my first few dives with this setup. Stay tuned for more underwater imagery as I gain more dive experience!

Striped Squirrelfish (Oahu, Hawaii)

Yellow-Striped Goatfish (Oahu, Hawaii)

Snorkeling (Tunnels Beach, Kauai, Hawaii)

Self-Portrait - Cheers!

Your Point & Shoot Isn't a Second-Class Citizen!

 "The best camera is the one that's with you." -- Chase Jarvis

This quote is constantly referenced in numerous photography forums, across all corners of the internet. As soon as the topic of discussion turns to camera size, traveling, or point & shoots, that quote is bound to appear. It's an excellent lesson for a photographer to remember, but the unfortunate problem is that the quote is often used as an excuse to purchase the latest and greatest form of small camera gadgetry. When a hot new point & shoot camera is announced, every DSLR-wielding photographer starts to have wandering thoughts:

If only I had a better pocketable camera to carry with me every day, then I'd be able to capture all those little scenes I see all the time just going about my daily business! Maybe my vacation photos will get better if I weren't burdened by all this heavy gear? Perhaps I could get some better street photos if I were to use a smaller, less noticeable camera?

I'm one of the worst offenders when it comes to this. In fact, when the revolutionary Canon Powershot S90 compact was announced back in the Autumn of 2009, I was one of the first to buy one. It was an incredible little camera, and I was very happy with it for three and a half years.

Canon Powershot S90

That little camera came with me on all sorts of adventures. I brought it hiking, snorkeling, into clubs & restaurants, and across foreign countries. It was my primary social activity camera, used to document all sorts of life events like birthdays, barbecues, and parties. It was fantastic for those things; I have countless photos of myself and friends that were taken with that camera. It's done a great job of documenting those memories and moments.

Yet, over the course of those four years, I have less than a handful of images taken with the little S90 that I'd be happy to print and put on display. However, over the same period of time, I made dozens and dozens of images with my DSLR that I would be more than happy to display. So, what's the problem? Why was my camera so underutilized for serious photography? Was the hardware simply not capable of producing what I wanted? Well, point & shoots will never have image quality as good as their equivalent-generation DSLR counterparts, but most that have been made since around 2010 are more than capable of producing beautiful images. Sure, they may not be quite as detailed or as noise-free as the latest DSLR, but that's not what photography is about. Photography is about creating or conveying feeling using imagery, and modern point & shoots are more than good enough for that task. If the issue isn't one of hardware or equipment, what is it then?

Red as Roses, October 2010, Toronto (Canon S90)

The Hike up to Mittersill (Sony RX100)

"Every photograph you've ever admired was taken with past equipment, not the thing you're waiting for someone to announce." -- Thom Hogan

The real problem with picking up a point & shoot instead of a DSLR, is that the mind dismisses it as a toy. It is immediately compared to a serious DLSR, so the mind turns it into something that's not up-to-par for serious photography. Of course, it's not a toy. It's precision photographic instrument that's incredibly capable when placed in the hands of a proficient photographer with the right mindset.

The key to using a point & shoot effectively is having the right mindset. Picking up a point & shoot shouldn't turn you into a snapshot shooter. Adopt the right mindset, and stop treating your small camera as a second-class citizen to your DSLR - it's simply a different type of tool to be considered when something lighter and more compact is necessary.

With this in mind, here are two things that I regularly do when using a DSLR, which I nearly always forget to do when I use a compact camera:

  • Previsualize: What story are you trying to tell? What feeling should be conveyed or triggered? Consider the positioning, framing, camera settings, and all elements which are necessary to make it happen.
  • Work the Scene: Don't just put the camera away after a first attempt. Slow down and work the scene, taking multiple photos, trying to improve upon each previous shot.

It all boils down to this: to take fantastic photos with your compact camera, then slow down, and use it just like you would your DSLR.

Mountaineering: Gearing Up for the Hike

Mountaineering, Mt. Washington

The photo above was taken in February near the summit of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire. My friend (pictured above) and I hiked on an unseasonably warm winter day, when summit temperatures were around 10 F (-12 C) and winds were less than 20 mph (32 km/h). It's not unusual for temperatures on Mt. Washington to drop well below -20 F (-29 C), with high winds causing wind chills well below -40 F/C. For many years the observatory held the record for the highest wind speed measured on the surface of the earth: 231 mph (372 km/h). Because of the extreme temperatures and winds, Mt. Washington is often referred to as having "the world's worst weather".

The round-trip summit hike takes between 6 and 10 hours depending on hiker fitness, route selection, weather, preparedness, and other factors. Crampons are a must at higher elevations during the winter. An ice-axe is recommended for certain routes. Emergency gear (shelter, extra layers, extra food, extra water, etc) is a must since the weather can turn quickly and rescue services aren't as rapid during the winter. All of the extra winter gear required for a winter hike of this caliber can weigh significantly more than the equipment for the same hike during the summer.

What's a photographer to do? Any hike or climb longer than a few hours is taxing enough on the body, without the extra complication and weight of carrying camera equipment along with you.

My advice: less is more when planning a photography-oriented hike. I carefully evaluate each piece of potential equipment to bring, and ask myself two important questions about it:

  1. Am I very likely to use it?
  2. Is the extra weight that it adds to my pack really worth it?

Only when the answer to both questions is a resounding YES, do I end up taking the peice of gear. That 8mm fisheye might make for some cool photos, but if I'm unlikely to ever mount it up then why bring it along? The same goes for that 300mm f/4. Sure, I could get some great wildlife photos with it, but maybe I can get some photos that are almost as good using a much lighter lens? Using this method, I took a very minimalistic set of equipment with me on the Mt. Washington hike:

That's it! If I thought I might have encountered some wildlife as well, I'd also have brought a fairly light telephoto with me (like the Nikon 55-300mm VR).

Remember: packing light doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to miss the shot. Plan and evaluate your needs carefully, and you should be able to maximize both your hiking enjoyment and the quality of your resulting photos.