Thursday, July 10, 2008

Beyond Point-and-Shoot: Sea and Sea DX-1G in PNG

Beyond Point and Shoot in PNG – Photographic Adventures with the Sea and Sea DX-1G

Photos and Guest Editorial By Valerie Rutledge
Images taken in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, April, 2008

As is typical of my groups, almost all are hard-core photo enthusiasts. But one guest and longtime friend, Val Rutledge, brought a new tool aboard our trip to Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea … the Sea and Sea DX-1G, a 10-megapixel compact digital camera with dedicated housing and external strobe. While it looked a little small sitting on the camera table next to the array of $10,000 D-SLR rigs everyone else was shooting, I noticed as I looked over her shoulder to her laptop Val didn’t suffer camera-envy when it came time to download her images, especially as the week wore on and she learned better how to optimize her camera. In fact, her results were so impressive I asked her to share her insights into how she managed to make her compact camera system work so well underwater. While somewhat specific to this system, her comments and results speak to a new generation of compact cameras that blur the line between what used to be dismissively considered “point-and-shoot” and housed single lens reflex digitals

SF – Val …I remember the trips from years ago when you were shooting your Nikonos and film. How long have you been doing underwater photography?

VR – I began taking underwater photos in 1982 with a Nikonos IV and SB-103 strobe. It was good for wide-angle and macro of things that didn’t move, but for fish portraits I went to a giant Aquatica housing for my Nikon F3. So, as you see I was really serious about it even then, but eventually I kind of gave it up. I tried video for a while, but was always a still-shooter at heart. When we decided to join you in PNG I had to really think through my options. My Nikonos doesn’t even work anymore, and no way would I schlep that heavy film housing all the way here to shoot just 36 shots on every dive while you all were getting 400 per dive!

I’ve been shooting digital, topside, for several years, and recognize all the obvious advantages … immediate review of the shot, ease of storage of the digital file, and of course I don’t miss the expense of paying for film and processing. But, my camera was old now that technology advances so quickly in digital, and it wasn’t worth even trying to find a housing for it. So, I started researching my options, with the criterion being at least 10-megapixel camera, a small and ergonomic housing, and the easy ability to add an external strobe. I may not have known much about underwater digital photography, but I knew enough about underwater photography in general to realize that last point, the underwater strobe, was very important to avoid backscatter.

SF – Expand on that a little, please.

VR – My little digital has a built-in flash, but I can’t imagine that it would have enough power to punch through water, which is far denser than air, and because it sits right next to the lens it would illuminate all the particles in suspension, making it look like I was shooting in a snowstorm. I knew I needed a separate flash with more power, plus the ability to light my subjects and not necessarily light the water in between. Most of the compact digitals I researched online had their own housings I could order, but adapting a strobe seemed a hassle. I chose the Sea and Sea DX-1G mainly for the easy way it attached the strobes, and also because the camera has good macro capability and the housing has a threaded port to attach a wide-angle adapter. There are fiber optic ports built into the housing so I could add dual strobes if I wanted. With this combination it seemed I could shoot almost anything on the reef.

SF – Once you got the system, was it hard to figure out the operation?

VR – Actually, yes. The camera is a Ricoh digital, branded as Sea and Sea and with some special functionality for underwater applications in the software. The camera manual feels like it was written in Japanese and not particularly well translated to English. Some things we had to figure out from the pictographs, but after using the camera for a few days topside, the controls we’d have to use through the housing seemed far more intuitive. Plus, the settings on the camera can be accidentally nudged when you put it in the housing. So, it seemed important to me to double check the important control settings topside, before closing the back of the housing. Really, the only ultra-critical thing you have to do is make sure the flash pops up before putting it in the housing, because the camera flash triggers the external strobe via a fiber optic connection and there is no way to access that control through the housing. Everything else can be adjusted underwater, but it is easier to see and correct topside as necessary.

SF – What settings worked best for you?

VR – I used “cloudy day” for the white balance and tried “manual” for both shutter speed and aperture. Usually about 1/100th of a second and apertures between about F-10 and F-16 seemed to work, so long as I adjusted my strobe power according to the distance and reflectance of the subject. Later in the week I experimented with the “Sea and Sea” mode, which appeared to give a very nice combination of shutter speed and aperture, but I still needed to bracket with the strobe power output. Gratefully, the Sea and Sea YS-250 I was using had a variable rotary dial for strobe power, making it quite easy to adjust. There was also a nice LED model light, which was handy for the night dives but also was a good AF focus assist in low light or flat contrast situations.

SF – Speaking of focus, how did the camera’s auto focus work for you?

VR – I quickly learned to press the shutter release halfway down to lock in the focus. Then a green bracket illuminates, confirming focus and locking in the aperture as well. Then I’d complete the shutter release when the action was right. This really minimized the digital lag as well. The camera’s LCD was fine for general composition, but as with all cameras of this nature, in high ambient light it was very difficult to see details on the screen. Sometimes I just had to trust that the camera would handle focus automatically because there was no way to truly see for sure. Usually, it was quite accurate, unless the fish was swimming by too quickly.

SF – If you were to offer 6 tips to anyone out there shooting with a compact digital, based on what you learned over these past 2 weeks in PNG, what would they be?

VR –
1. Get close. The camera handles fish and macro quite well, but for large subjects or reef scenics you still need to get close and then use the wide-angle adapter. Even with a strobe as powerful as the YS-250, anything farther than about 5 feet away got soft and monochromatic. Working close allowed the best color and sharpest photos.
2. Lock the focus in before taking the shot. This camera will never capture split-second action like your digital SLR, but the prefocus really helped to minimize the digital lag. That’s a pretty major point of advice.
3. I tried both JPG and RAW capture (the DX-1G was one of the few cameras I found in this category that could even shoot RAW), and each had their advantages. In JPG I got like 600 photos on a 4 GB card, but in RAW I only got about 200. Plus, it was quite a bit slower working in RAW because it took longer to write to the card, so it took more patience between shots. But, once I opened the DNG files (the Adobe RAW protocol used by the Ricoh camera) in Photoshop, I had more control and better final results. For serious UW photo-ops I came to prefer the RAW, but for snapshots, I’ll keep working in JPG just for the speed and convenience.
4. I can’t overstate the importance of the external strobe. I tried working with just the internal flash for a trip to the Bahamas just before we came on this one, and everything was either blue and monochromatic or white from massive backscatter. And that was in nice clear water. I can’t even imagine doing these muck dives in PNG without an external flash to pop the color and reduce backscatter.
5. Don’t trust too much to automation. Many of these cameras offer auto-ISO, auto-exposure, auto focus, auto everything. But, my best results came from picking a manual shutter speed that worked, usually between 1/60th and 1/125th, ISO 200, and controlling the exposure with the strobe power.
6. Lastly, a great feature to use is the video option to capture motion along with still shots all in one dive. Here an underwater filter would punch up color on a shallow reef, but I see it more as a tool for dolphins, sharks, or other subjects where motion really matters. I did video a nudibranch though!

There are a few extras you should have with this system. I wish we would have had two batteries; just so one would be on charge between dives. You can use two AA batteries instead of the dedicated rechargeable, but it is slower to recycle the flash and doesn’t really get through all the shots you might want to take on a really productive dive. Also, I’ll need spare O-rings for both camera and strobe. Once I was careless closing the cap on the strobe and actually cut through the battery compartment O-ring. Without a spare I would have been out of luck. I think those are prudent precautions no matter which camera housing you use.

It is a very nice kit. It all goes in a small briefcase that comes with it, and the camera, arm and tray set, and strobe weighed less than 10 pounds! It had an outside pocket for books and magazines on the plane and I never once had to worry about whether it was too big for carry-on, like you guys seemed to obsess about. Maintenance was lubricating a single O-ring on camera and strobe, a fresh-water rinse, and charging batteries for each. Of course, ease of use is meaningless unless it delivers good photos as well and I was extremely pleased with my results!


Mardiver said...

If Valerie tried to blacken the background by using a high shutter speed and a small aperture to reduce sun, did her screen go too dark to see the image?

Stephen Frink said...

Yes, Valerie did say that was an issue for her when using manual settings. She said when she used auto settings it did not occur, but shooting manual aperture and shutter speed was like having a non-auto-indexing lens on an SLR and less light coming in meant less light showing on the camera LCD.

Le Machine2U said...

Thank you for the post on the Sea & Sea DX-1G. I've been using the DX-1G for several weekends of diving around Malaysia and Indonesia since June 2008. I've come to many of the same conclusions by trial and many errors. Focus has been very difficult unless you follow Valerie's advice about "pre-focus". I am using the Sea & Sea YS-110 and find that it is an adequate strobe for close objects but nothing like my old Ikelite 150. Of course the YS110 weighs 1/4 of the 150. I am near sighted and have difficulty seeing the LCD screen details to make adjustment in manual mode. LCD seems a bit dark and difficult to see in bright, closer to surface photos as well. Using the strobe modeling light helps at depth; not much can be done for brighter situations which is my beef with digital cameras using LCD viewers. I am going to try placing a thin magnifying panel on the exterior of the housing LCD view panel to see if this helps during my trip to Tioman this weekend. I don't like the Sea & Sea U/W mode on this camera, the default shutter speed is much too low (1/30th) and you end up with motion blur from fish more often than not. I wish there was a higher minimum shutter speed for this mode since typically strobe is used with the camera. Also, don't connect the the strobe fiber optic cable to the top port connector on the housing... your flash won't work. That was a hard lesson from my Redang trip. I would like to know what flash mode setting Valerie using on the camera... there are a number of modes: Auto, Red-eye, Flash On, Flash Syncro, and Soft Flash. Camera battery burn is pretty quick if you use the "Flash On" mode. I tried "Soft Flash" to reduce the output but so many other things were going wrong that I can't say the external TTL strobe works properly - camera battery life seemed to be better though. So I don't have any conclusions on what flash setting works best. The housing does have a built-in camera flash blocker to help eliminate back-scatter - this is a nice feature since the flash must be used to trigger the external strobe. I would have like a sync cable connector option so that the camera battery life would be longer without the wasted use of the built-in flash. Cheers!

Minotaurus007 said...

The problem: YS-110 with DX-1G does not flash consistently! Sometimes it fires, sometimes not. Many people have this problem.

I cannot recommend that camera/flash-combination. ( )

The best results after about 20 dives of experimenting I get with:

DX-1G: manual, f6.3(tele) = f3.6(wideangle), 1/500s
YS-110: manual 1, power as needed

However, while the flash now fires a constant amount of light, it still fires in about only 50%!

In manual mode you cannot really see the display. I often have to guess where the fish is... It is too dark and even darker because of the black housing which has not a clear window for the LCD-display. Terrible buggy feature of this system. You can only switch to an automatic mode to see the LCD. "le machine2u" told us why.

The reason for this "feature" is, that in manual mode the photographer shall be "informed" by the dark display that there is "not enough light", while the camera does not know that a big flash is waiting to be fired.

If you buy that combination be prepared to become *very* frustrated.

David Vize said...

I have a similar issue to the one mentioned above (call me a "me too" if you like) I tried the different strobe modes, manual 1 and 2, but the irregular pattern to the strobe working does not help sort the problem out.
I also got some black electrical tape to cover the outside of the flash port on the camera case and spare strobe port (outside has been handy, if my strobe fails or goes flat, I can still revert to flash), this has greatly reduced back scatter to practically nil. YOu do need to ensure the auto focus light and detector sindows are kept open though.
I think I did try with the small roll down cover in place but really it just works to soften the light, not stop it.
Note I also flooded this camera once (placing a dessicant packet in then slapping the lid shut, the dessicant lay over the o ring - dead camera but only after an hour in the water) and teh strobe was also flooded, I think the battery cover was not locked place. double check!! strobe did survive though, as the battery compartment is thankfully sealed away from the rest of the strobe.

Sergey said...

Can you please give a direct link to the video file shot with this camera at full quality? (Not those uploaded to youtube or google video - just want to see how it looks like. Besides, one more question - are there any limitations in file size?