Back in June, I had the opportunity to visit Lanzarote with my girlfriend. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having not been to the Canaries before, but I did some research and found out that the diving is supposed to be amongst the best in the North Atlantic. I therefore persuaded my girlfriend that it was time for her to learn to dive too – and promptly packed my cameras and gear for a good-old wildlife photography trip…
As you may have seen in some earlier entries on this site – underwater photography is a growing passion of mine, and one that I’m only beginning to get to grips with. It’s still something which it is possible to make your first inroads into without spending a fortune. Indeed, I picked up one camera at the airport, a Nikon Coolpix S33, for about £70. This little camera is officially waterproof to 10m, and in the clear waters of Lanzarote, seemed very capable. I can also say that mine kept the water out to at least 30m, but the pressure stops the buttons working beyond about 12 to 15m. It makes it ideal for snorkelling and beginner divers though.
Taking photos underwater often causes trouble with light, as there is nearly always a blue cast to images (which can be fixed on a computer fairly easily) – but you also want to try and catch the light the right way. Hopefully you will be able to get yourself into a position for the light to reflect off the fish or corals, or you can shoot up with the light behind your subject.
When going a little deeper, however, I had a Panasonic DMW-MCTZ35 Lumix Marine Waterproof Case for a TZ35. This was an excellent combination of a very effective dive house and compact superzoom camera with a specific underwater mode. The total cost is higher at around £300 or higher – but it’s still relatively cheap for a combination capable of diving to advanced diver depths.
If in Lanzarote, and you get the chance to visit the dive site called the Cathedral, it is well worth a look! Get right inside and shoot out towards the light to create a silhouette as your dive buddy swims across the mouth of the cavern.
I should put out an extra special mention for the fantastic team at Manta Diving, Lanzarote – who looked after us fantastically on our trip. Also – please don’t think the only things to take photos of are underwater!
Lanzarote is also a great place for a spot of stargazing.
Perhaps you’re one of those people who watched Jaws and has decided it still isn’t safe to get back in the water, or perhaps, like me, you watched it and thought “wow that’s cool!”
If the latter is the case, you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface. And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see (whether it’s your friends and family playing in a pool, a crab, a brightly coloured fish or jaws). So how do you do it, and how much will it cost?$
“you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface. And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see…”
As ever, it will cost as much as you want to spend.
It’s clear that for the very best, super-sharp and well exposed images at depth, you will need an expensive camera with high ISO (light sensitivity) capabilities. This may be a custom designed underwater camera or a specialist, dedicated underwater housing for a DSLR. This, though, is the realm of the scuba diver, and nearer the surface (down to around 10m) you can get by with some pretty cheap and basic gear:
Underwater shooting with zero preparation
If you’re not a regular scuba diver, the times when you’re most likely to want to take photos under water are when you’re on holiday. You might be by the sea in Cornwall, or in the Mediterranean or on the Pacific coast. Wherever the sea is, there is the desire to jump in it and boat on it.
However, most cameras are not waterproof. Take it from someone who knows, you don’t want to take a decent camera out, even on a boat, without protection if you want it to come back working. Ideally, you want to think about this before you go away, so that you can get a waterproof camera or some sort of housing. The great news is, though, even if you forget, nearly all beach resorts and shops sell disposable waterproof cameras. Some of them can even be reused!
This wouldn’t be a very helpful website, though, if I just said “buy a disposable camera” and everything will be alright. If you want to get the best from your photos, things aren’t quite that simple.
The first thing to point out, is that disposable cameras aren’t that cheap. True, to buy they’re cheaper than a digital camera, but they still tend to be over £10 and are only single use (or you will at least need to buy film to reload them) and you have to pay to get your photos developed.
Here are a few pointers on getting the best results and best value for money:
So long as it works, there’s not much point worrying about brand – cheap ones tend to work just as well as more expensive ones. They are all fixed focus and generally don’t have a flash.
Check the speed of the film in the camera – it’s unusual to find ISO 1600, but 800 and 400 are both common. 800 is much more useful, particularly in the sea (swimming pools tend to be better lit with higher visibility).
If you can get a re-loadable / re-usable one, do. They tend to be about the same price, and you can choose to load 1600 film after the first use. They’re also more environmentally friendly. Make sure you’re careful with the rubber seals though. These cameras really are cheap and low quality and not built to last!
Pay extra when you get your film developed for a CD with JPGs on it. It’s only a couple of quid and is really useful because you can then get the best from your photos with some careful post-processing (see below). If you have a negative film scanner, or know someone who does, this is just as good.
Always check the “use by” date. Chemical film has a shelf life, which is a lot shorter in hot countries. You may well find that these cameras have sat around for years in which case the film will have degraded. If you can, get something (nearly) in date!
Try to remember that the ideal distance from your subject is 1m to 3m, because this is how the lens is normally set. Trying extreme close-ups is a waste of time!
It’s more about the effect than image quality…
So what photos can you get? – Well, I’m not going to lie, it’s hit and miss. Here are a few examples that (with a little care) have worked out quite well:
I think we can all agree – the image quality here isn’t great, but it’s great for a personal memory. However, these have all had their brightness, contrast and most importantly their white balance adjusted.
Disposable cameras in the sea will all have a blue colour cast which needs to be corrected or it can make a photo really disappointing. This can be done in several free or inexpensive software programs (such as GIMP or PhotoScape) – but only if you have a digital copy of the image.
Underwater digital photos on a tight budget?
So – let’s look at options when you have had a bit of time to plan. Just how cheaply can you take photos underwater?
Just about the cheapest way, is to use an underwater camera bag. There are loads on Ebay and Amazon – and here is one I bought earlier this year for about £3 (including P&P).
I don’t know about you, but I would be very dubious of sticking an expensive camera in one of these and just diving into the sea. The problem is, there’s not really a good way to test them without putting something electric in them and going for a long swim… (If it doesn’t work, I accept no responsibility…)
Because I was worried, I bought a cheap second hand camera for £7. It’s 7.2 MP and has since become a firm favourite. I’ve dived with it several times and it still works! At £10 in total this is cheaper than a disposable camera. BUT – the results can be disappointing.
The key problems are:
The plastic “pouch” over the lens is not flat or perfectly clear, which plays havoc with the cameras auto-focus. Since manual focus is impossible with most cheap cameras, this is a real issue.
Using the cameras controls / buttons can be very difficult.
The bag is not well insulated, so your camera will get cold quickly, spoiling battery life.
You can get fairly good results by ensuring that the camera lens is right up against the plastic lens window. Alternatively, you can buy a more expensive bag with a solid plastic, or better, glass, window – which if right against the lens will solve many of these problems. The issues with battery life and accessing controls will remain the same, though.
A “proper” waterproof compact camera
Of course, there are a whole range of custom-designed waterproof cameras out there, and after years of being prohibitively expensive, costs of some have now come down to below £100 in many cases (though well known brands are still more expensive). In truth, these cameras don’t tend to stand up well against similarly priced regular (i.e. not waterproof) cameras on dry land. Image quality and optical zoom both tend to be limited. But in the water they are generally much better than other cheap options.
Again, you will want to make sure that you know how to edit your photos once taken. A lack of light and poor white balance are classic trouble-makers with these cheap cameras, though you would be amazed the level of detail you retrieve…
A key point about dedicated underwater cameras is that they have autofocus mechanisms that will work, and a quirk of underwater photography is that water is magnifying (so you can get better close-up shots).
As a final thought (though not strictly underwater) – if you have a waterproof camera with you and quick reflexes, you may one day get a picture like this.
As winter sets in, I find that the opportunities to take photos get harder and harder to find. The hours of daylight are shorter, and tend to be while I’m at work – and the weather conditions and lighting all get worse. As I find it impractical to carry bulky camera equipment with me everywhere, instead, I try to carry a small compact camera with me. I can then grab a few minutes taking photos if I find a nice scene or conditions are good.
At the same time, I also like setting myself little challenges, to see how far I can push the equipment I’m using, trying to get the best from the situation with simple gear.
Recently, I came out of work and I was walking near St Paul’s cathedral in London. I spotted an opportunity to shoot the cathedral (a very over-photographed building) through an archway, to form a nice “frame within a frame”. The camera I had on me was my ten year old Casio Exilim EX-Z120, which I recently bought second hand for £6.
The camera itself is nothing special (though I am rather fond of it, because it has a view finder, which comes in handy on bright days, and takes pretty decent “snaps” for most casual purposes). It is pretty limited, though, in terms of its metering capabilities, low light response and dynamic range. It’s therefore a challenge to coax the best out of it that you can. Here is the final shot, which I will then give a bit of background to:
Overall, I am quite pleased with the result, but to get the photo to this state required a fair amount of post-processing (digital manipulation).
The shot, as taken, looked like this:
You can see from the image, that the camera was not able to expose well for the darker sections of the image and the sky at the same time, lacking the dynamic range to do so. The image also struggles because the parallel lines of the arch converge. This could not be avoided in-camera, because it was not possible to stand any further back (my back was against the wall). I had to look up to frame the image. Sure, it would be possible, with an expensive tilt-shift lens on a DSLR, but that would have been very impractical – so you have to rely on software, such as Photoshop elements to correct the so-called “barrel distortion” in the final image.
Similarly, the original needed quite a lot of levels adjustment to bring up the dark shadows of the early evening, and lastly it needed the sky restoring to it’ blue glory. The sky was shot at the same time, in the same place, but correctly exposed for the sky only. With multiple exposures, it would be possible to achieve the same or a similar effect using HDR compositing. In my case, I simply cropped a square of sky and dropped it into the original image as a new layer and used the “darken” tool in Photoshop elements. While some may view this kind of manipulation as cheating – all I was doing was restoring what I could see with my own eyes, but the camera was not capable of capturing directly.
Ultimately, you have to make the most of what you’ve got!
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been on holiday to some amazing places, but come back disappointed that you didn’t get enough (or any) good photos. This might be because you were too busy having a good time, in which case great, but it might also be because you didn’t feel you had the right kit, you didn’t want to carry around a tripod or you didn’t feel you had time to make the effort. But it needn’t be so!
For today, I’m going to focus on night time shots, because I think this is often when cities look best. The blanket of nightfall can cover a multitude of sins… Dull grey skies, litter and unsightly graffiti. All sky scrapers look better when all you can see is their glistening lights. In general, though, I think that a little bit of thought can help with your photographs at any time of day.
Again – let’s break it down to some simple “rules”. The camera you use is pretty irrelevant here – an expensive DSLR, a bridge camera or compact can all take pretty nice shots. For a couple of reasons that will become clear, though, mobile phones can struggle in this area.
“The blanket of nightfall can cover a multitude of sins… Dull grey skies, litter and unsightly graffiti. All sky scrapers look better when all you can see is their glistening lights.”
Rule 1: Learn to let go!
Shooting shots at night means slow shutter speeds if you’re going to get a reasonable looking shot. Shooting handheld is a lost cause (you are never as still as you think you are). Find something to put your camera on and let go of it completely. This will normally mean not even pressing the shutter button yourself – try using your cameras self timer (just a 2 or 3 second delay is fine) so that you don’t nudge the camera when taking the shot. You don’t need to walk away from your camera and leave it unattended in a strange city, just make sure you’re not touching it! (One of the problems with trying this with mobile phones is that they’re now so thin, they tend to fall over!)
Rule 2: Turn your ISO down and turn your flash off!
Okay, so rule 2 will only work if you’re already following Rule 1 (or if you’re using a tripod). Otherwise you’ll end up with some really blurry photos! But as a general rule, flash will not be helpful when shooting night time urban landscapes, where everything is too far away to be usefully lit. Instead, manually set your ISO low (if your camera allows you to do so) to keep image noise to a minimum and let the exposure be nice and long. Some simple point-and-shoot cameras don’t allow these to be manually adjusted, but generally if you select flash off and night mode, it will do the rest for you quite successfully.
Rule 3 – Head for the high ground!
This isn’t really a rule, but I think a good piece of advice (particularly for high rise cities). I would summarise it like this – Everything looks better from above (except for the stuff that doesn’t). In New York, head to the top of the Rockefeller or Empire State buildings, (actually do both – Empire State at night, and Rockefeller in the day). In Tokyo, there are lots of choices, but the Tokyo Tower seems an obvious choice. In London, head to the top of the shard…
All of these were shot without a tripod, but a few words of warning regarding the Shard. Firstly, it is really expensive to go up. Secondly, they won’t allow you to take a tripod, even if you want to! Which leads to the third point, there are no flat surfaces in the Shard. My earlier advice was to find something to rest your camera on, that simply won’t work at the top of this building. Therefore, you either need to get very good at bracing yourself against the wall, or take a bean bag and balance your camera carefully, or sneak in some kind of miniature clamp-on or flexible tripod. Lastly, the shard is in glass all the way around and it’s very difficult to deal with the reflections. Get as close to the glass as possible and be prepared to remove reflections by selectively adjusting the levels using software later.
“a more serious contender as a competitor to Adobe’s more expensive options – the unfortunately named GIMP”
Yesterday, in my post “The hard truth about software“, I highlighted PhotoScape as a good piece of free software which will meet the needs of most budding photographers. It is intuitive and simple to use, but it has its limitations. Today, I want to highlight another good free option, which is a more serious contender as a competitor to Adobe’s more expensive options – the unfortunately named GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program).
GIMP is a much more complex program than PhotoScape, and as such it can be a little bit harder to find your way around. It has a number of features which are comparable to Adobe’s Photoshop suite, such as the ability to use layers, to manipulate sections of the image selectively using lasso tools and to carry out levels and importantly curves adjustments. It is therefore a far more complete overall image editor. Unfortunately, in my eyes, it’s similarity to PhotoShop leads to one of its downfalls, because the way that you access all of these options is quite different, and therefore those who are used to using Adobe software can find it quite difficult switching between the two programs. This won’t be a problem at all, though, if you don’t have access to Photoshop to begin with!
The problem can also be avoided by using a related free program – Gimpshop – an amended version of GIMP specifically set up to look, act and feel a lot more like Photoshop. Gimpshop has taken advantage of the open source nature of GIMP and has used its architecture to build out this rather astonishing piece of (presumably legal) plagiarism. I can’t claim to be an expert on using it – but if you’re looking for a free Photoshop alternative, it would be totally remiss of me not to highlight this particular piece of software.
I will probably return to the subject of software in later blogs – but for now, I think that’s a good place to start. I would love to see some of your “before and afters”, to hear your experience using these programs and any other alternatives. Please feel free to share!