Oct 312012
 

I apologize for the lack of posts this week. Like many in Hurricane Sandy’s path, we have been powerless since Monday. My thoughts are with all of those affected by Sandy. She didn’t play nice, and we will have a lot of work to do in her aftermath. Please stay safe, and for those without power- stay warm.

On another note, I’d like to send a special birthday message to my mother-in-law Connie. I regret that we didn’t get to celebrate with you today. You have a “rain check”, or rather, a “hurricane check”.

Oct 272012
 

The Canon D10.  What a tumultuous love affair I’ve had with you.  You were my gateway drug.  You lured me into the complex world of underwater photography, like a Siren luring a sailor into the sea.

You and me – In happier times

At first, my love for you was unwavering.  Your image quality, ease of use and performance at shallow depths was unparalleled.  I traveled the world with you.  We made a good team.  But then, you began to let me down.

You decided to shut down on me in the Dubai desert.  Why?  I have yet to understand.  I treated you well, didn’t I?  With a flight to the Maldives scheduled for the following day, I couldn’t risk traveling without you.  My loyalty to you was not yet in question.  So I went to Dubai Mall and repurchased you (Model 2) at a premium. We frolicked together in the Maldives and had a fantastic time.  You did not let me down on this trip.

Our next snorkeling trip was on the horizon.  A grand family gathering in the US Virgin Islands.  Could I still trust you?  Would you be by my side the entire time?  Only time would tell.

We arrived in St. Thomas and all seemed to be going well.  You were behaving.  I was happy.

On the third day of the trip, something changed.  First you gave me an error message that I didn’t understand. I thought you were in a bad mood; like a tropical storm that would soon pass.  But quickly, I realized you had failed me again.  For the second time.  You were flooded; despite the fact that I continued to treat you with kindness. I had trusted you, and you let me down.  Silly me, I had no underwater backup.

Soon after returning home, I did two things.  I obtained an underwater housing for my Canon G12 . And I called Canon and scheduled a repair for Model 2.

The bond of trust was gone for good, yet I still gave you another chance.  I still loved parts of you – your image quality and ease of use.  I would use you as my backup for my Canon G12 with Fisheye Fix housing.  My guard was up.

We traveled to Grand Cayman together and had a great time.  You seemed to accept your new role as my #2, and you didn’t complain.

I had regained a shred of trust in you, so I took you to St. John this September for a week of snorkeling.  You were now Model 3 – a freshly refurbished beauty sent to me by Canon.  I had high hopes that you would perform well on this trip, still as my backup.  You started out just fine, but soon lapsed into your old ways.  Old habits die hard.  You died on day three of the trip. You flooded yet again.  Thankfully, I was not relying solely on you.  I had learned my lesson.

I returned home from the trip and called Canon yet again to ask what could be done.  Imagine my surprise when they refused to help me, unless I paid a hefty repair fee.  You were outside of your warranty for refurbished models.  I couldn’t believe it.  This is what I get for years of brand loyalty?  This is what I get for refusing to consider other brands (we don’t use the five letter word that starts and ends with “N” in this household)?  I was furious.

D10, you did me wrong.  My love affair with you is over for good.  After many hours of research, I have replaced you with an Olympus TG-1.  Until your makers put some solid technology behind you and stand firmly behind your character, YOU are not welcome here.  I can no longer recommend you as a trusted companion. We will no longer be reeftraveling together.

With Regrets,

Meredith

 

Oct 242012
 

In my last post, I promised to tell you about my second magical snorkeling experience on a recent trip to St. John.  We packed the Jeep on a gorgeous day and headed north to Maho Bay.

Maho Beach from the Water

After parking our chairs in the white sand (under a sea grape tree for shade), we watched a baby lemon shark cruise the beach at the shoreline.  Apparently, it was something of a local celebrity (or so we were told).

A shark sighting before we entered the water – this was going to be a good day.

We excitedly donned our snorkeling gear, readied the cameras, and headed to the north side of the bay underneath the Maho Bay Camps.

Maho Bay Camps

There’s no reef in this particular spot, so we swam out to the sea grass beds where green sea turtles are known to procure their afternoon snack.  We were lucky enough to spot several of these beauties…

…as well as a few Southern Stingrays…

…and a conch or two.

I was pretty satisfied by that point and could happily have swam to shore, but I still wanted to explore the area beneath the camps.  That’s when this foray turned into one of the best snorkeling experiences of my life.

As the water darkened, I realized I was swimming into an enormous bait ball (easily the size of an Olympic swimming pool, or maybe two).

This school of jacks was hiding in the baitball

The water was teeming with life like I’ve never seen.  And then the tarpon came to feed.

These tarpon were about 6 feet (1.8 m) long

Every few minutes I would hear a crashing noise and look up to find one of these guys staring at me.  The pages of National Geographic were coming to life right before my eyes.

The rain did not put a damper on our day

The tarpon kept coming – growing in number.  At one point we estimated at least two dozen.

Tarpon with remora

Here is a short video of the experience.

Oct 142012
 

As divers and snorkelers, we know that sometimes we get lucky and sometimes we don’t.  Some dives are so incredible and so visually stimulating that we can’t decide where to focus our gaze.  And others are just plain average (“How was the dive?” “Oh, I was just happy to be in the water.”)

For years, I’ve professed my love of St. John’s shore snorkeling.  And on my recent trip, I had two particularly magical (otherworldly, really) snorkeling experiences.

The first was on the house reef at Gallows Point Resort.  I set out for a late morning snorkel on an especially beautiful day.

I had snorkeled this reef the day before, and I thought I knew what to expect.  What I found both was both surprising and enchanting – a “sea” of large (14 inches/35 cm) moon jellyfish.  I watched in awe as 15-20 of these ethereal creatures pulsed around me, propelling themselves through the sparkling turquoise water.  I swam and photographed them, all while maneuvering through the obstacle course created by their bodies and tentacles.

Here are some other shots from the house reef at Gallows Point.

French Angelfish

Blue Tang

Tarpon

Hawksbill Turtle

Surgeonfish

Coral

Squirrelfish

I’ll tell you about my second magical St. John snorkeling experience later this week.  Can you believe it wasn’t on a reef?

Oct 082012
 

Underwater photography isn’t just for divers.  Thanks in part to the fast-growing selection of moderately priced underwater cameras on the market (those that require no housing such as the Canon D20, Nikon AW100, Olympus TG-1, Sony TX10), more and more snorkelers are becoming snap-happy.

Let’s say you’ve got the basics down.  You’ve chosen your camera and you know how to use it (you read the manual, didn’t you?).  Maybe you’ve been shooting snorkeling photos for a year or so, or you’ve taken your camera on several snorkeling trips.  Your photos look pretty good at this point, but how do you move to the next level?  How do you move beyond the basics?

Intermediate Snorkeling Photography – 10 Tips to Dramatically Improve your Shots

1)  Choose your snorkeling expeditions wisely.  If most of your snorkeling is done while on vacation, look for resorts or hotels that have a house reef (I call this proximity from room to reef).  I like to roll out of my room and onto the reef.  That way, I can snorkel and shoot on my own terms and at my own pace.  Be wary of boat snorkeling expeditions with multiple snorkelers on the boat.  These trips can make it difficult to separate yourself from other snorkelers, and the last thing you want is a stray fin in your shot (or worse, a kick in the face).  Plus, these boat trips (unless they are private charters) typically have time constraints, so they are not really photography friendly.

2)  Try to shoot fish and other creatures at eye level or, better yet, from below.  This can be especially difficult while snorkeling (as opposed to diving where it is much easier).  How many snorkeling photos have you seen that look straight down at a fish?  My guess is too many.  Practice your breath holds so that you can dive deeper and for longer periods of time.  Dive down and hold onto a rock (not coral) to photograph a subject.

Looking straight down on a squid – not a good photo

Reef squid at eye level – much better photo

3)  Get to know your underwater species.  Are you shooting a fish that repeats its behavior patterns?  If so, you will soon learn where to position yourself and your camera for the best shot.  There’s no better way to learn about your underwater subjects that the Reef Fish Identification and Reef Creature Identification books by Paul Humann and Ned Deloach.  These books are well known by divers, snorkelers, scientists and marine lovers as the best available guides to fish, sea creature and coral identification.  They also include information on behavior.

4)  Post-production is your friend.  Choose an image processing program and learn to use it.  For me, this has been the most time-intensive aspect of learning underwater photography.  I chose Adobe Lightroom as my image processing program about a year ago, and now I couldn’t be without it.

There are many image processing programs on the market – from basic to incredibly advanced.  Mac users may be familiar with iPhoto, an image processing program that comes pre-loaded on Mac products.  iPhoto is useful, but basic, and most photographers who are serious about their imagery will quickly desire more advanced processing capabilities.

Here are some “before and after” shots.  The “before” images are unprocessed shots straight from the camera.  The “after” images have been processed in Lightroom.

This moray eel was shot with a Canon S90 (with Fisheye Fix Underwater Housing).  The moray is shot from a decent angle, but the colors aren’t great and the blue tones predominate.

Here is the same photo after processing in Lightroom.

I shot this pair of peacock flounder while snorkeling in Grand Cayman with a Canon G12.  The “before” shot is anything but impressive, and the color is far too green (a common problem).

Notice how the true colors are restored in the “after” photo, and how the photo has been cropped to better show the subject’s detail.

There’s nothing special about the stingray photo below (shot this summer at Stingray City in Grand Cayman). The tones are too blue, and there is a stray diver (Mr. Reeftraveler) in the frame.  This is a dive photo, but I’m using it to illustrate the benefits of Lightroom which are applicable to both snorkeling and diving.

The “after” photo has better overall tone and composition.

5)  If you’ve been using a point and shoot camera that requires no housing (Canon D10 or D20, Nikon AW100, Olympus Tough, etc.), consider moving to a more advanced point and shoot camera with manual controls and RAW capability.  Warning- this will require an underwater housing which can be expensive and which will definitely increase the amount of gear you need to lug around vacation.  

So why would you spend more money and carry more stuff when you already have a perfectly good (and perfectly compact) underwater camera?  The reason is called RAW file format, and it’s not available in your compact camera that requires no housing (at least not as of the date this was posted).

Think of a RAW image file as the equivalent of a film negative (some of you remember those, right?).  It’s a file that contains unprocessed image data, exactly as the camera sensor reads it.  RAW files require post processing to look good.

This is an unprocessed RAW file.

Unprocessed RAW file – not pretty

Here is the same photo, after processing in Lightroom.

Photo by Mr. Reeftraveler

What is the benefit to shooting RAW files over JPEG files?  There are several, but the two most important in my opinion are:

-No data loss – RAW files retain all of the data in the image, whereas JPEGs are condensed in-camera.  This is especially important in underwater photography, where colors become lost just feet below the surface.  The RAW file will record the color and detail exactly as seen by the camera sensor, but the JPEG file will often lose color, saturation and detail.  The general result from the RAW file is a superior image quality.

-Greater manipulation capability in post-processing stage – RAW files can be processed to a greater degree, and more adjustments can be made to such parameters as white balance, exposure and sharpness (to name a few).  JPEG files can be altered, but they lose quality in the process.

So if RAW files are so great, why wouldn’t everyone shoot in this format?  Well, for starters, not everyone wants to process their images.  Also, RAW files are huge (often 3 or 4 times larger than JPEGs) so they will take up much more room on your memory card and your computer’s hard drive.

6)  Shoot, shoot and shoot again.  You must practice if you want to improve.  If you find only two good shots in a batch of 200 photos, don’t fret.  Look at the positive – you have two great photos!  Good photographers know that to get one great photo you may need to take 100 shots.

7)  Don’t get a sunburn and ruin your snorkeling vacation.  Unlike with SCUBA, a snorkeler’s time in the water isn’t limited by dive tables or the amount of air in the tank.  If you’re like me, you can easily lose track of time and emerge from the water two hours later.  And you’re at the surface most of that time – a place where you are most likely to get burned.  You can’t count on your sunscreen to protect you for long stretches of time in the water. It’s essential to wear a rashguard, wetsuit or even a “stinger suit”.  I’ve recently become a fan of Ecostinger’s full body sun protection suits.  They are lightweight, comfortable and easy to pack.  Plus, they allow me to safely stay in the water for an hour or even longer.

8)  Always have at least two camera batteries on hand.  As soon as you finish a shoot, charge the battery you just used and insert one that’s been fully charged.  That way, you will not have a dead battery when that manta ray just happens to swim by.

9)  Read everything you can about underwater photography, even if the material is geared towards divers.  My favorite underwater photography instructional guide is The Underwater Photographer by Martin Edge.  This book is an indispensable part of my library, and I refer to it constantly.

Consider an annual subscription to Jack and Sue Drafahl’s underwater photo tutorials.  I’ve attended seminars run by Jack and Sue, and their tutorials have really helped me increase my knowledge base.

Cathy Church’s underwater photo center, at Sunset House in Grand Cayman, is a great place to help you take your photography to the next level.  Cathy and her staff are extremely knowledgable and helpful.

10)  Stay safe in the water and remember to have fun.  I’ve just shared a lot of information with you.  Don’t let it overwhelm you.  Try not to become so overwhelmed with technical details that you lose sight of the beautiful underwater world below you.

Do you have any snorkeling photography tips to share?  What have you done to take your snorkeling photography to the next level?