Published: January 18th 2006August 25th 2005
Powershot S1 IS with WP-DC20 underwater housing.
Part II of my various vague ramblings on travelling with a camera. Some links to good photographers near the bottom of the page, so if you just like looking at pretty pictures try out this section. A section on underwater photography with digicams is included at the end.
I would add the major caveat that I am self-taught and no expert, and so the opinions offered here are entirely my own and may well not be correct. Also, please don't assume I'm religiously devoted to Canon or Nikon or whoever, or to film or digital. I just want to take nice photos. Within that the camera is a tool which you have to learn and to which you have to adapt, nothing more.
Should people wish to add information, comments or suggestions that would be greatly appreciated. I will add anything useful sent by private email to the text, crediting appropriately.
I started playing around with cameras about four years ago, as a result of a knee operation that stopped me running for several months. I needed to find something to keep me sane. For most of this time I used a Minolta Dynax 7 film slr and was generally very pleased with the camera and the results I got, although the Minolta lenses I had were not as sharp as the more expensive Canon lenses I now own. The pinnacle of this was a pretty nice shot of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, Utah, at sunrise. a 50x40 inch print now sits above the fireplace in the dining room at home. It isn't as good as Joe Cornish's version
but it is a least as good as the Nike advert (minus the runner of course).
About two years ago I bought a second-hand Canon Powershot G1 (3 megapixel digital) in order to play around with infra-red filters (take a look at Kleptography
which is the site that inspired me). I got some great results until the camera packed in on me just as I was lining up a nice shot of Edinburgh Castle. The ensuing warranty debacle meant that although I now have a working camera I never managed to get going with it again before we came away. It is a shame as infrared is a fantastic creative medium.
I also bought a 3mp Canon Powershot S1 IS, a more modern 'digicam' in the 'ultra-zoom' category. I bought Canon as the company I worked for was a subsidiary of Canon so we got the occasional good deal, and I bought an ultra-zoom with half a mind to visiting Africa. Again we've got some nice results from it.
After about a year of researching and agonising, playing around with the two digicams and many technical discussions with the guru in my office (I'll call him Niffud Neil), I finally bit the bullet and bought a Digital SLR (DSLR) with the primary purpose of having a decent camera with me for our forthcoming trip. The results you can see on this website. Again I bought Canon, although by this time the subsidiary company had been sold to another industry giant so no cheap deals for me.
I also bought a second-hand small and distinctly dated looking Ricoh GR1s film camera as a backup should our camera gear be stolen. It may not look much but it packs a high-quality 28mm wide-angle lens.
Buying an SLR
If you are thinking of buying an SLR remember the most important thing - you are not buying a camera, you are buying a lens system. In practice that means most people look at either Canon or Nikon. Nikon are known throughout the world as the brand used by professional photographers but actually Canon are the leaders in market share. Take a look at any sports event or press event and you'll generally see more Canons than Nikons. So which do you choose? Well, both make good lenses and both make bad lenses, and the same probably goes for their cameras. The sad thing is that these brands dominate so much that other worthy contenders such as Minolta and Olympus struggle to compete, partly I guess because of people like me passing on this recieved wisdom. I owned a Minolta Dynax 7 which is a cracking camera body, with two Minolta lenses, which at their price point were probably as good as anything Canon offers. I've switched to Canon and spent a lot more money on lenses, which are notably better, but it was with some reluctance as I had been very happy with the Dynax 7 itself.
Two other things to mention. If you are looking at a prosumer camera (an expensive digicam with a good lens) you'd probably be better investing that little more and buying an entry level DSLR. You then have the beginnings of a system that you can build on and upgrade over time.
Secondly, if you can't afford a DSLR at the moment but are looking to take photography seriously, then get a cheap film SLR body from ebay or your local shop (no-one wants film anymore so you can get good stuff cheap). Again, you can build up your system step by step and switch to a digital body when you can afford it.
Digital vs Film
This is an emotive topic for many people and an accurate discussion is beyond my technical understanding. Here are some personal thoughts.
For most people, excluding professional landscape photographers, architectural photographers and possibly studio and underwater photographers, the benefits of digital likely outweigh the disadvantages. I still think if you want absolutely the best quality you are likely to get this using film, although I haven't seen the results from medium- format digital backs. Many people state that the resolution offered by the sensors in the professional Canon SLR's is greater than that from a medium format film camera which may be the case, but I'm not sure the printed results actually look quite as good - there is a lot going on to create those pixels and it doesn't always seem to work as well as it might. However I'm prepared to be shown to be totally wrong in that.
For your average punter like me, there are two significant areas that digital falls down over film - one is easily rectified the other not so. The vast majority of professional lanscape and increasingly travel photographers use Fuji Velvia 50 (or 100) for their pictures. This transparency film delivers beautiful colours, which are more saturated and vivid than reality but somehow remain believable. Bot all Digital SLR's deliver these same punchy colours out of the box, but achieving them with a little editing is really quite simple.
The more difficult problem comes with one of my favourite genres, the moody black and white. Digital imaging has revitalised Black and White photography as it is a very easy to use Photoshop to desaturate a colour image to produce a range of different black and white styles. A wide range of toning can easily be applied and the end result can be an artistic masterpiece from a really rather ordinary colour original. However what I have not been able to reproduce well in photoshop is the high contrast grain effects found with faster black and white films. I shouldn't complain - I like Black and White and digital has enhanced this experience for me greatly, but I'd really like to know how to get those really great effects (I've searched the web for a decent example of what I mean but cannot find one :-( )
One big advantage of digital that may not be obvious to all is the enhanced range of options made available by the ability to change the ISO setting every shot, instead of having to carry around bags of film of different speeds and continually change them mid-range. Suddenly you can get shots that you couldn't get before (unless you had lots of gear with you), at the flick of a switch.
Perhaps the biggest inherent danger with digital is exemplified in the following story. We were on top of Glacier Point in Yosemite, waiting for sunset. Along with several others we were trying to get some nice shots of the tree made famous by Ansel Adams, now sadly deceased (both the tree
and the photographer). Some dickwit of an American was prancing around shooting hundreds of pictures with a little digicam with no thought of composition, light, exposure or anything. Even though non of us wanted to hear him he still merrily sang out "you see, that's the advantage of digital, I can shoot lots of pictures and get the best one when I get home." Well, thanks for that piece of unsolicited, unwanted and useless boasting you ridiculous prat. Now shut up and let the rest of us enjoy what we came up here to do.
But did he get any decent pictures? No, of course not. I bet none of us did. Taking more photographs doesn't mean you are taking better photographs and it doesn't mean you are likely to get a better photograph (unless you are doing something time-dependent like a baloon exploding, or a portrait - "work it baby" ). The problem I have with digital is that you become an empirical opportunistic photographer, not a thoughtful photographer who plans what they are doing. In orienteering terms you start running "ground to map" not "map to ground". You take the photo, look at it, adjust a few things and take it again, rather than searching for the best composition, setting your camera up, waiting for the light and then calculating the best exposure using all the know-how, experience and guesswork you have. The thing is, for landscapes and most travel photography at least, the latter method is going to produce vastly better results than the former method almost every time. Digital makes everything a bit to easy, but unless you know what you are doing you won't get great results. It is like skiing on fresh snow that is packed down but still slightly soft. Suddenly everyone on the piste is a good skiier carving beautiful turns, but once it turns icy or slushy those with bad technique are quickly found out. Sadly, in all these pastimes I'm still working far too much "ground to map" whilst juddering down icy mogul fields with arms flailing.
To illustrate this I like the story of this photo
by Claude Fiddler. It is my favourite of his. If I remember rightly (his website is being constructed) he found this location late in the day. He only had three exposures left (using a medium or large format camera each exposure costs at least 1 gbp in film alone, much more for a large-format camera). He sat and waited several hours for the light and, judging by this, chose his moment just perfectly. Thankfully his technique was up to it also.
Fear and Loathing
To be honest the idea of taking all this expensive camera gear backpacking filled me with utter terror. We're about half way around now and the fear has lessened but it is still there. I'm also quite pleased with some of the results I've gotten, and I'm particularly happy that Sken like a Ribble fluke
introduced me to travelblog, as now I feel we'll have a good record of our trip. Neither of us are the journal-keeping type. In terms of security travelling as a couple helps, not least as you can book the more secure double rooms as opposed to dormitories. We were perhap safest whilst with Exodus, simply because there were lots of other people around. But other people have their own agendas which are probably not photography, so on such a trip you have to go with the flow and fit in.
So far it seems that conditions and wear and tear have caused more problems than theft (touch wood, fingers-crossed etc). Dusty African roads and even dustier Mongolian deserts have punished most of the equipment to a fair degree, and getting it back into saleable condition is likely to cost me a fair whack. We'll see. Hopefully all the equipment will make it back to the UK with us in working order, although we're a long way from that point as I write today, and I guess the expense will have been worth it to have some great memories.
The other problem is that on a long trip one can become weary taking your camera everywhere and spending the whole time thinking about how to get a good photo. For the last couple of months I've hardly touched it, dragging it out reluctantly at times during the day and enjoying the odd sunset over the sea or a city. Hopefully by the time we move on to Tasmania I'll feel more motivated again.
Ideal future camera
They always have this in photography magazines so I thought I would add it. I much prefer taking pictures of landscapes rather than people (even if more people like looking at pictures of people rather than landscapes). To me the wide field of view available with panoramic format cameras seems to offer great possibilities for striking composition that just aren't there with 35mm. Used carefully and creatively, even drab locations can produce interesting photos. So my ideal camera would have to be something like a Fuji 6x17, as used by the likes of Colin Prior
. Today this is a film camera, but if it came with a high resolution digital back, then even better. [h3>Insurance
Most travel insurance won't cover this level of gear, particularly not long-trip travel insurance. After seeing some bad reports about another British-based camera insurance company I chose to go with Photoguard
who offered worldwide cover at a bit less than 10% of the value of the equipment. There are lots of exclusions, particularly if the gear is kept in a vehicle. Outside a vehicle the basic premise is there has to be some evidence of forceful entry to make a claim. Interestingly they were good enough to offer to insure the gear on an Exodus truck, provided the truck itself wasn't stolen and the gear was kept inside locked secure lockers with a specific type of padlock. I haven't yet had reason to claim but as far as it goes I can recommend them.
Being a backpacker photographer
As a backpacker with a camera, you are to a large degree going to be limited to being an opportunist, unless you have a big enough budget to do location research on the internet, in books and on the ground as you go round, hire transport to get you to the best locations and to hire locals to act as photographic guides and subjects. You also need to be prepared to lug around the camera gear you need, and perhaps spend several days at a location to get the best conditions. Most backpackers are going to be limited to taking what shots they can, when they can, and making the best of it.
If you are good with people (and languages) and are prepared to invest the time to butter people up, then you will get some fantastic shots with even the simplest and cheapest of cameras. Most travellers, including myself, don't seem to be, and often resort to telephoto shots of unsuspecting innocents. This type of shot often appears in guide books, but you'll rarely see a professional offering up such fare in their portfolio and you'll never see them on the pages of National Geographic. For myself I don't like this kind of approach - if you are shooting people as subjects then they should engage with the shot, which generally means they will be looking at the camera somehow. This tends to mean you have their co-operation, which then means you've put some effort in to communicate with them. I find this quite difficult to do, and is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of people photography for a lot of photographers - which is why travel guides and websites such as this one are full of sneaky long-lens shots where the subject isn't aware they were being photographed at all.
One exception to this (of many) is the 'false subject' concept, where you are really taking a picture of a famous object or location but use a figure or person as a 'false' subject to add scale and interest. A lot of great travel photographs use this idea, but it is harder to do effectively than one might think (unless of course you pay someone to be an 'actor' on your 'set'.)
It is hard to get good shots when you only visit a place once. There arises a conflict between the traveller and the photographer. An example of this was on the Great Wall of China. I was up there, on my own, at sunset, and it was going to be a good sunset. I was on my own so I can't blame Kim for not being in the right place at the right time to get the best shot. As I got near to the top of the wall there was a picturesque old watchtower, slightly decrepit, slightly overgrown, but very Great Wall.
I could get the watchtower in the lower right foreground of the shot and the setting sun in the upper left background. But, rather than setup and wait, I decided to carry on to the top of the wall to see what was there. I made it to the top, but, caught short on time I ended up sprinting down the wall with my tripod and all my gear to try to get to the watchtower in time. I failed, and the sunset photos I got were only a patch on what they would have been had I waited.
Patience is also a virtue that I lack but after this experience I have tried to take more care to get one good shot rather than several patchy ones.
The other big problem with photography is that it is a fairly time-consuming, intensive and generally exclusive activity, suitable for pursuing with other photographers perhaps, but unlikely to appeal to non-photographers. I have to pay homage to the long-suffering Kim, who time after time waits (fairly) patiently for me to finish what I'm doing, and on many occasions even helps out, blocking crowds and passers by, helping assembling and disassemble kit and scouting ahead for locations and good shots. If you are serious about getting the best quality results you need to be on your own, or at worst with a like-minded cohort who is looking for similar kinds of shots to yourself.
If you are shooting digital, or shooting film and scanning, then you need to know a fair bit about software, what it does and how to use it. This is a distinctly non-trivial learning curve, although there are plenty of programs for beginners that will allow you to do some basic editing to enhance, or possibly destroy, your photos. If you buy a DSLR or even a more expensive Digicam, you may get some decent software with it, such as Photoshop Elements, the cut down version of Adobe's highly popular Photoshop. It is worth taking the time to learn to use these packages, although decent tutorials on the web seem to be few and far between.
There are some other useful tools as well as straight image editing you will probably need. Perhaps the most important is a tool for minimizing the noise in high-ISO images. I've had a play with Noise Ninja, reviewed here
along with two other interesting packages, and it works pretty well. You lose some image sharpness, but generally it is worth it.
If you really want to learn how to correct your digital images properly then I can recommend Michael Kiernan's excellent book Photoshop Colour Correction
. This book is designed to teach you how to correct and enhance the colour, contrast and sharpness of photographs in such a way that the viewer cannot tell that you have done so. It does not cover using image editing to make birthday cards, airbrush zits or replace dull looking skies with exciting meteor-packed ones from the movie "Armageddon". This is not a book to be entered into lightly. Whilst straightforward conceptually, to implement these techniques in the real world requires practice. You'll probably want to skim read it, and then go through it chapter by chapter, doing examples on the computer as you go. However if you do you'll probably quite quickly find yourself near the top of the tree in the use of Photoshop for correcting photographic images.
Don't bother buying an inkjet printer. Take your digital files to your nearest *good* print lab such as Harrisons Cameras
if you live in Sheffield. Ttalk to them, ask them some questions, see if they understand what they are doing. Alternatively send them to a good mail-order company - for example Peak Imaging
(also based in Sheffield).
Inkjet printers these days are amazing things and can deliver amazing quality. They are also extremely inexpensive - that is until you start buying the ink and the paper. Don't be fooled by cheap(er) compatible inks - they are not going to give you the quality of the manufacturer's ink on the manufacturer's paper, whatever they say. If you are printing pictures straight from the camera without editing, and your colours aren't that subtle - pictures of your kids, or holiday snaps or whatever, then inkjets are fine. However as soon as you start getting into more subtle tones of red and blue you might well start running into trouble - the print you get is very unlikely to match what you see on the screen. This doesn't matter if all you are printing is a picture of "little Willy" because you probably won't notice, but if it is your glorious tropical sunset then you will notice when the reds start looking a bit too bright or start to include some spurious non-red colour. And if you are trying to do decent Black and White, don't bother.
Then you might start to read about colour management, and ICC colour profiles and how to profile your monitor and printer to ensure the colours are consistent between them. Don't bother unless you are really keen - it is an expensive business. If you do go down this road you'll probably be very happy with the results (Niffud Neil showed me some stuff he did before and after profiling his setup, using an old Epson printer, and the improvement was startling) but you are entering a whole new world of complexity. You can also go down the road of specialist black and white inks and low gamut inks from companies such as Lyson
. Again you'll probably be very happy with the results but this is a serious investment in time and money.
For most of us the results from a lab that prints digital files will be good enough, if not very good, and the cost will be similar or cheaper to using your own inkjet. Ok, you don't have a profiled system here either, and it may take one or two prints to get the best results if your images have more subtle colours, but the professional printers they are using are likely to have a much wider gamut of colours available than your little desktop inkjet.
I've tried both and the professionals win hands down.
Just as with the availability of electricity with which to charge batteries, we have been pleasantly surprised at the availability of internet cafes. Most times, if you persevere, you can find somewhere to upload your images to travelblog. If you are lucky, you'll find a place like I found in Cape Town, with new 19-inch flatscreen monitors, fast broadband and faster machines. Alternatively, you might end up sweating away in some steaming-hot cockroach-ridden room trying to upload photos on the slowest connection you've ever imagined - even pigeons would be quicker. Make sure you use the Mihov Image Resizer provided by travelblog to resize your photos as described before uploading. I always download it before I need it - it only takes a few seconds - or just keep it on your USB stick (best not to keep it on your flash cards as you'll be re-formatting those regularly, won't you).
Highs and lows of internet cafes have been: China, where prices were generally cheap and we found many hotels/hostels that offered internet access for free; Singapore Airport, where internet connections are free but they kick you off every 15 minutes - I wrote much of the Yangshao section from there ... great fun; East and Southern Africa, where it is amazing that they have them at all, but they generally do; Nungwi Beach Zanzibar, where they are paranoid about you stealing their software so you can't connect via USB, Australia, where Internet Cafes can be very very expensive relative to the 'developing' world - a bit of negotiation was needed here; Ubud, Bali, where we only found a couple of places with fast broadband and they are expensive and finally Russia, where they all seem to have ACDSee installed should you want to edit some images.
The workflow I use for uploading pictures is as follows:
a) Create a dummy traveblog entry
b) Edit pictures and download the image resizer (if you can't get this far don't bother continuing)
c) Unzip the resizer and check it runs ok
d) Connect your USB reader or hard disk with your photos
e) Copy the ones you want onto the PC in a new directory - I always use "rbtemp"
f) Resize them with the image resizer
g) Move everything except the resized images to a subdirectory e.g. "rbtemp/temp"
h) Upload the images
i) 'Hard' delete rbtemp with SHIFT-Delete
j) Log out of travelblog, or add all text etc and publish.
Most people we have met are regularly burning their flash cards to CD's keeping one CD with them and posting the other one home. This seems a good practice and most places are geared up to it, although you will generally be charged for the privilege.
Favourite and other photographers
A selection of people we liked before we started travelling and galleries we have visited on this trip and others. Hopefully we will update this further as we go around.
UK Joe Cornish
A favourite of UK photography magazines, I was absolutely stunned when I saw one if his pictures of Glencoe from somewhere just off the Aonach Eagach ridge, sadly not on his site. Based in the North East, near Roseberry Topping, he has taken some stunning pictures of this area in particular, along with, of course, the rest of the world. Has now released his first book, "First Light" and looking at his website a new book, "Scotland's Coast", which I haven't seen. David Noton
Another UK magazine favourite. This image of Buttermere
is probably the best I have ever seen of the area where I grew up. Charlie Waite
As above, with a stunning and varied portfolio.
Southwest USA Michael Fatali
His website doesn't do him justice. We visited his gallery in Springdale just outside Zion National Park in Utah and were simply staggered by the beauty of some of his images, in particular the quality of the printing. Evenings Edge
was my favourite. The attendent turned down the lights and the bright highlight on the sand ridge glowed thanks to the cibachrome (?) printing he uses. [I got some of my own pictures printed by BPD Photech
in the UK who also use Cibachrome and the result was similar (noting that they were working with significantly poorer material!)
Fatali spends a lot of time wandering the deserts of Utah seeking new locations. This is one he turned up, but after the deluge of people who now want to visit The Wave
he is keeping this place
as secret as he can. Tom Till
A Moab based photographer with a great portfolio. Can't really argue with the images here. Claude Fiddler
Based in Bishop, East of the Sierra Nevada and north of Death Valley. His web site is down at the moment sadly but you can see some of his images at the sky factory
. This one
is my favourite.
Queensland, Australia Peter Lik
Came across this chap's gallery in Cairns. He clearly has some money behind him looking at the locations of his galleries. What we found interesting was that the colours in his large gallery prints were over-saturated - almost like a painting or cartoon. Apparently he shoots with Velvia but to us he had done something to increase the saturation of the prints. Kim hated it. Some I liked and some I didn't. This kind of thing can work if you have red desert sand and blue sky. However once you start getting a greater range of colours in the image the false manipulation starts to stand out and jar. What is odd is that we saw some of his prints for sale in a camera store and they hadn't been manipulated - they were straight prints from velvia, just like you get with all these other great photographers listed above.
I guess strong colours sell, but it seems sad someone who is clearly a great landscape photographer has to resort to what seems almost amateurish trickery to shift his work. Rik Steinegger
Another gallery in Cairns, longer established than Mr Lik. Most of the postcards you see of the barrier reef from above water are likely to be this chap. Also some great "Australiana" photographs.
In my view Tasmania is one of the most beautiful places in Australia, and indeed the planet. I'm not biased because many of my relatives live there - far from it. You just have to get out into the Tasmanian wilderness to see what I mean. If you can't do that then take a look at the work of Peter Dombrovskis, a photographer who entered my consciousness long before I took up photography and discovered the likes of Joe Cornish and David Noton. Dombrovskis followed on from the pioneering work of Olegas Truchanas. I couldn't find much available on the net about Truchanas but there is an ABC website celebrating the work of both photographers and their attempts to help publicise and save the Tasmanian wilderness through their photography. Olegas Truchanas Peter Dombrovskis
For me these photos typify the Tasmanian landscape: Lake Oberon Mt Geryon from the Labyrinth Cox Bight
Whilst in Tassie we saw a number of great pictures from Tasmanian and Australian photographers. Sadly the likes of Chris Bell, Grant Dixon, Jeff Jennings, Ted Mead and Wayne Paps (tragically RIP, another victim of Tassie's treachorous wilderness) don't appear to have done justice to their excellent portfolios on the web. Rob Blakers
In my view the best of the talented bunch of current Tasmanian landscape photographers. Hold your mouse over the image to see a larger version. Dennis Harding
Also good, but Blakers has a definite edge in terms of hunting out the best locations and making the most of the light. Karen Gowlett Holmes
This marine biologist has some stunning photos of Tasmanian sea horses etc but few seem available on the web. The Weedy Seadragon on the link is definitely worth a look though.
Western Australia Christian Fletcher
Thanks to "Liz" for pointing out this chap, who has a stunning collection of images, particularly panoramics, from Western Australia plus a number from other Australian locations and North America. I've never been to Western Australia so I've selected a couple of others I really like Mt Beauty, home of the really good pies My Buffalo
. An eeriely beautiful composition from a place that is not easy to tease good photos out of.
New Zealand Craig Potton
Craig Potton is the big daddy of New Zealand photographers and now runs an extensive publishing house. For a long time his postcards and posters have defined New Zealand’s most visited places. Andris Aspe
He has also been taking photos of New Zealand for a long time, and publishes some of his work through Craig Potton. His website has an extensive collection of beautiful images, many in the panoramic format, that will really get your mouth watering if you are intending to visit. Rob Brown
One of my favourites from the current crop of Kiwi landscape photographers, Rob Brown’s style is closer to that of Tasmanian legend Peter Dombrovskis. Sadly I cannot find any web site for Rob but this image of Key Summit
at the start of the Routeburn track is one of my favourite images of his, and is typical of the postcards that we saw by him.
Chile Pablo Valenzuela Vaillant
This chap has published several books of Chilean photographs and his website seems to have a good selection and is well worth a browse. Andres Morya
Also has books and calenders of Chile in print, although sadly the website is more designed as a stock library. Still worth a look though. Augusto Dominguez
Also presented as a general stock library of Chilean pictures, but take a look at the Banco de Images anyway.
Wildlife Andy Rouse
A favourite wildlife photographer from the UK, who also went to college with my old boss, apparently. Uses digital heavily. Franz Lanting
One of the great wildlife photographers working today. Some of his images of African wildlife, taken in the days before autofocus, are incredible - especially if you like penguins
. Steve Bloom
More incredible piccies of your favourite cuddly carnivores. This chap has moved to digital and unashamedly edits his prints - something still fairly rare for the chaps at the very top. You'll find his new book Untamed
in the shops but you might need a new coffee table to support it. Dave Watts
Stumbled upon this site which is a Tasmanian-based chap who specialises in Australian wildlife. Some good stuff in here. Strasthspey Wildlife
Perhaps not normally associated with the likes of Franz Lanting and Steve Bloom, but this chap conquered the almighty climb to the Rwandan gorillas with us.
For all you UK-based orienteers reading then many of these photos have been taken in areas you know and love well. Nick Brandt
Stunning Black and White photographs of East African Wildlife. Look out for his book, "On this Earth".
Useful web resources
Again thanks to Niffud Neil for pointing me to many of these. Jeber Photo Clubs
New site related to Travelblog based around the idea of photo clubs - showcase your photos and discuss photography with like-minded people. DP Review
Detailed reviews and news about all the major non-professional DSLR's and digicams. Steve's Digicams
As above but focused on digicams and accessories. Luminous Landscape
Fascinating site covering all aspects of lanscape and nature photography from a digital perspective. Lots and lots of useful and thought-provoking information here. Photosig
Users submit photos and other users comment on them. A great source for inspiration. Petteris Pontifications
All kinds of thoughts on all aspects of photography, again mostly from a digital perspective. Some useful lessons included also, particularly levels, curves, sharpening and layers and masks. Hmmm, must have another read of this. 7DayShop
Cheap web shop in the Channel Islands with something of a mixed reputation. If you are in the UK a great place to get cheap accessories from. Take care with more expensive goods as they may be grey imports, but if you are happy with this then prices are very good.
We had brought along with us a relatively compact Canon Powershot S1 IS superzoom (now replaced in the shops with the 5mp S2 IS). Although only a 3mp camera the 10x zoon plus image stabiliser made this a good camera for wildlife, and we thought it small enough to take in a backpack when walking (or running). As it is I have always either taken the 20D with me or nothing at all, so this camera was starting to become a bit redundant. However in Singapore we decided to buy and underwater case for it and try our hand at taking photos whilst diving. This was the first time either of us had tried it, and the learning curve is steep.
Canon Powershot S1 IS
This assessment is mainly related to how the camera performs out of water, although I've added some underwater-related comments. Good points
- Long zoom - 38 - 380 at 35mm equivalent focal length (I think)
- Image stabiliser on all shots - I think this must help on underwater shots where the subject is still although I'm not entirely sure.
- LCD screen mounted on angled pivot so can be viewed at different angles (no use when sealed in an underwater case though).
- Excellent video quality particularly with Image stabliser. Great for underwater scenes.
- No filter thread built in, and lenscap comes off very easily (no clips, just friction)
- A bit bulky, particularly with the lensmate attached
- Noise at high ISO, although this can be removed fairly effectively with Noise Ninja
- Reasonably long shutter lag - up to 1s when flash enabled, which is a problem underwater.
- Electronic View Finder not always the easiest to see - about time Canon started using this one.
- Video compression not as good as it could be - tends to eat up memory cards.
Video on digicams is an interesting phenonemon. It is a useful feature but it only suits certain types of events - babies are always good, skiing, so you can see how daft you look, and now diving, so you can watch those nice turtles and sting rays sailing through the deep blue of the ocean. The S1 IS VGA (640x480) video mode is fantastic, particularly as you get that ultra zoom and the image stabiliser, both of which are useful underwater for video. So sad that it doesn't use mpeg4 compression and so tends to chew through memory cards
Lensmate Filter attachment
A big flaw with this camera is the lens cap, which just keeps coming off, leaving your lens exposed to dirt and scratching. This is pretty scandalous on behalf of Canon considering the lens can't be replaced. You can't attach filters to the lens without buying an expensive filter attachment from Canon, or a cheaper one from Lensmate
. Once you've got one of these you can attach a UV filter and lens cap to protect your lens and go creative with macro filters or whatever you fancy (Infra red doesn't work to well with this camera though).
The only problem is that the lensmate filter holder doesn't fit inside the WP-DC20 underwater case (well, it does at a squeeze although I've not been brave enough to try it yet). However I doubt the Canon adapter does either.
WP-DC20 Underwater housing
We bought this Canon made housing in Singapore at a significant discount to the UK. Such things seem hard to find in the UK but seeem fairly readily available in areas where there is a lot of recreational diving at hand e.g. Singapore and Cairns. The main plus point of the housing is that it pretty much does what it is supposed to do. Downsides are it's bulk, the fact that Canon don't include a flash diffuser as standard (which they do on some other models) and the fact that the shooting button is a little stiff, which becomes problematic when you are trying to pre-focus to avoid indecent shutter-lag. The other major problem is that the casing itself causes a flash shadow when taking very close up shots, which is somewhat disappointing as otherwise decent 'macros' would be possible with this camera/case combination.
Using the Powershot Underwater
From what I can tell a number of unique problems face the underwater photographer compared to our drier brethren:
- Water filters out light, filtering the red wavelengths first. Hence life underwater tends to look very blue, and the deeper you go the darker and bluer it gets.
- You are most likely to be floating, not standing, which makes keeping the camera still to get a sharp shot something of a chore.
- It is very wet. All around you. Not a favourite environment of expensive electronic equipment.
- Compared to other types of photography not that many of you are doing it.
What is the upshot of this ? Very simply, if you want to get great shots underwater you are going to spend a lot of money - at least two to three times what you would need to spend on land - and you are going to have to invest a lot of time in experimenting with equipment to see what works and what doesn't.
Lets look at the points above in turn. Water filters out light
So all your shots look blue, or even worse blue/green. What can you do?
You are most likely to be floating
- Ensure there is as little water between you and the subject as possible, but don't get bitten or stung. In practice this means having either a macro lens (a facility that many digicams have but the S1 IS doesn't) or using
a wide-angle lens (wide-angle lenses tend to allow you to focus much closer to a subject than telephoto lenses).
- Carry your own light source i.e. a flash unit, or a strobe if you use 'fins' rather than 'flippers'. Light from flash units tends to be 'daylight balanced' and hence can restore some colour to the proceedings, although obviously this drops off very quickly underwater. Your digicam will almost certainly have an on-board flash but using this has two drawbacks; backscatter, where the light from the flash reflects on particles suspended in the water straight back at you, pretty much ruining your photo; and strength - internal flashes aren't that strong and so the light doesn't travel very far. To remedy this you can upgrade your system for something in the order of US $1000 and attach an external strobe, which will be driven by the flash from your camera (since your digicam won't have an interface for the external flash). If you are smart you will block your internal flash so that the light used to trigger the external flash doesn't also cause backscatter. If you are sensible you'll buy a strobe that can be used when you upgrade to a better camera. If not you'll just have to try to sell the whole rig.
- Use a filter to cut down on the amount of blue and green light. This seems to be the way to go if you don't want to spend a fortune, but I haven't tried it yet. I've been told by a salesman that UR/Pro are the best. The image on the homepage certainly highlights the problem I am currently facing. Using a filter also cuts out some of the light hence requiring a wider aperture to get the same shutter speed for a given exposure.
- Edit the image in Photoshop. I've tried this with varying degrees of success. The problem is that the red channel is very compressed, sometimes almost non-existant, and expanding it causes serious degradation in the quality of the image. You can go a little way in Photoshop with some images but it doesn't seem like a real solution.
- Set the white balance whilst underwater by shooting a white card. You can do this with the S1 IS and in theory the camera should be able to adjust to the fact that there is not much red light available. Tests above land suggest there may be some mileage in this. However having looked at some images in Photoshop I suspect the lack of red may be beyond the power of the camera's white balance to rectify.
Not a lot you can do other than practice your buoyancy control. However if you can get a faster shutter speed then all well and good. That means either increasing the amount of light available to you (use a flash, don't go deep and go on holiday somewhere sunny), getting a wider aperture or increasing your ISO settings. The last two of course depend on what camera you buy - the EOS 20D is clearly going to be better than the S1 IS in this respect. Don't forget also to check the fastest flash synch speed - most flashes are limited to between 1/125th and 1/250th speed - although the latter should be plenty as you won't be taking telephoto shots underwater, will you? It is very wet
So you'll be paying a lot of money for low-volume high-value waterproof casings for your equipment. And make sure you recheck that seal everytime you have opened the case. Not many people are doing it
This affects you in two ways - cost and information. If more people bought underwater equipment the price would (should) come down. We met lots of divers in Bali and Cairns that had a digicam casing of one sort or another, so perhaps there is a growing market here and maybe costs might drop. In the meantime, sell your car or get a second mortgage. You may need to do both.
As to finding out what works and what doesn't, there doesn't seem to be a massive amount of information around. From what I can tell, this is a bit of a pioneering pastime and there is no substitute for trying something out to see if it works. However I did note the following sites: Canon have some semi-useful sales tips
on using digicams underwater. I also discovered a helpful free magazine, UWPMag
sponsored by the big names in underwater kit. So what?
Well, the S1 IS is not the ideal underwater camera, but if you have one the WP-DC20 case works reasonably well and you can get some nice snaps, particularly on sunny days with good visibility. The video+telephoto+IS is a big plus, but if you are looking to video things underwater then buy a video camera. If you've got an S1 IS then by all means use it. If you haven't, then don't buy one for underwater use. Take a look around and see what your options are, but given a setup to take good pictures will cost several thousands of dollars then you might be wanting to buy something more than a digicam to live at the heart of it.
Anyway, your ideal camera would have.
- A wide angle lens - 24 at 35mm focal length equivalent (or even wider), and/or a macro capability.
- An underwater casing with a onboard flash diffuser and an easy way to mount glass filters
- A wide maximum aperture to let in more light (not common on digicams)
- High ISO settings with low-noise (this may well be available on the latest models)
- Minimal shutter lag (should be better on newer models)
- A video capability with image stabiliser and telephoto zoom
- Ideally a mount or connection so that allows external flash to be connected
There is probably no camera in existence that satisfies all those criteria but it gives you an idea of what to look for. In particular the good video capability tends to contradict the other points, so maybe you do need to take two cameras into the shower after all.