Friday, November 28, 2008

RED camera - early test data

All images © George Monteiro, all rights reserved

I'm not a videographer. But, I am a big fan of any means to get a better still image, and that includes using video to do so. Which these days, includes technology introduced by the RED system.

There has been a lot of chatter on various photography user groups about the potential of the RED digital cameras, in their current iteration and in terms of new products predicted. I'd tell you more about it, but truthfully don't know much more than I read on the web. This from RED's website: Typical high-end HD camcorders have 2.1M pixel sensors and record with 3:1:1 color sub-sampled video at up to 30fps. RED offers the Mysterium ™ Super 35mm cine sized (24.4×13.7mm) sensor, which provides 4K (up to 30 fps), 3K (up to 60 fps) and 2K (up to 120 fps) capture, and all this with wide dynamic range and color space in 12 bit native RAW. At 4K, that’s more than 5 times the amount of information available every second and a vastly superior recording quality. In addition, you get the same breathtaking Depth of Field and selective focus as found in film cameras using equivalent 35mm P/L mount lenses.

Of course, most are talking about the RED as competition to 35mm film for cinema projects, or video that massively out-resolves existing high definition technology. But, there is also the camp that contends that it won't be long until, for some types of photography, single frames from the RED will be competitive with the capture quality from still cameras. Imagine a sports shooter covering the 100-meter dash at the Olympics. Put the RED on a tripod and let it roll. Send the clip back to an editor and let them decide what the iconic, decisive frozen-moment-in-time might be. At the same time, there is video clip that can be used for the client's website. RED for web is overkill perhaps, but it will be done. As bandwidth and hard-drives increase in speed and capacity, it all seems very plausible.

Given all the excitement and hype, I've been very eager to see the current state of the art in RED image capture, and when my friend George Monteiro (from Sea-Cam video productions) stopped by my studio recently (he was down to do a test shoot underwater in Key Largo), I asked him to e-mail me a few sample JPGs from the day. Obviously, within the context of a blog you'll never be able to decipher image quality variables, but when I dug into the files in Photoshop I made a few basic deductions:

1. RED topside - The shot of the covered bridge is quite impressive. It was transmitted as a small JPG, but opened in Photoshop as a 24MB, 8-bit file. That's about the size file I would expect from a 10-12 megapixel digital still camera. Not necessarily all the detail I'd expect to see from a 12-megapixel camera, but considering this is a still frame from a video, amazing. It held detail quite well in the 100% enlargement. See the screengrab from Actual pixels in Photoshop. Considering the context, really a significant achievement in technology.

2. RED underwater - Here's a few of George's comments in his post to me. Here are a few test stills I pulled from yesterday's shoot. Please don't judge them for composition most are from the middle or end of a tracking or pan shot. But they will show you the native resolution of the red in 4K mode at 30FPS with a wide open shutter (1/30th of a second) so you will see motion blur in the close fast moving fish. The images have been compressed as Jpegs to about a half meg each. They were shot in natural light with a UR Pro with a dome port using the 18mm setting on the wide angle Red zoom lens ... I color corrected them for maximum dynamic range in RED Cine and used the various white balance features to achieve what I thought was agood balance. They may be a little contrasty and over saturated but this was my first attempt with underwater footage with RED

He made the other significant comment that it was all shot at 1/30th of a second. I asked why 1/30th, immediately thinking back to the very old analog days when the Pentax 6x7 I bought was essentially DOA for underwater use because it only would synch with strobe at 1/30th second and slower. 1/30th was way too slow for most things I shot on the reef, and only acceptable with wide angle shots with models, or shots in low ambient light. He explained, logically enough, that choosing faster shutter speeds made the video less "fluid" and more choppy. Faster shutter speeds would be better for freezing the action of moving fish in a still frame grab, but may not be the perfect solution for optimizing video. Apparently, that will be a consideration when choosing shoot parameters primarily for video (motion) versus primarily for extracting stills.

George was dialing in a new dome, and in looking at the JPGs I see he probably missed focusing on the virtual image correctly, as the underwater shots aren't as sharp as the topside shots he showed me. However, finding the exact nodal point for a zoom lens is a complicated matter, and getting it right the first time would be a lucky thing indeed. Still, if the camera renders a sharp still frame topside, there is no reason it won't do the same underwater with the right port and port extension. The RED zoom focuses very close, so I doubt that it will need a diopter to focus on the virtual image, once the focus "sweet spot'' is determined for the dome of choice. George already has a plan to improve the result in his next dives.

The same rules that apply to minimizing optical aberrations with a housed still camera will apply to the housings for the RED. For moving pictures there is probably some latitude for smearing corners, but the higher the camera resolution, the more optical flaws will be evident. And, when those optical flaws are frozen, in a still frame, they are ever more obvious.

From this it is clear that RED bears strong potential for use underwater, but the housing manufacturers will have to get very serious about dome performance if these images are to hold up to publishing standards, competitive with existing still technology. Still, there will be some subjects that might never be captured any other way, and for these the RED will be marvelous.

Of course, technological convergence cuts both ways. As RED creates video technology that encroaches on the potential of still imaging, Canon has just introduced their 5DII still digital camera, capable of capturing high definition video, separate or even simultaneous with a 21-megapixel still digital photo. And as RED gets ready to introduce their new modular system, you can bet that our traditional camera manufacturers are pursuing revolutionary upgrades of their own.

These are fascinating times to be a shooter, for sure.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

New Canon PowerShot Brochure

I had a nice surprise when I received my newest issues of Digital Photo Pro and Outdoor Photographer magazines. Polybagged with each issue was the new 34-page catalog published by Canon for their advanced amateur photographers. Entitled "Canon EOS PowerShot for Advanced Photographers" this lavish production was anchored by their concept to have their Canon Explorers of Light using advanced consumer cameras. All of which makes sense, because the line between consumer and professional products is blurring all the time ... they are all just so very good these days. Any pro shooter could go out and do their job with almost any of the products featured in the catalog, although the pro versions might be better weather sealed, or have faster motordrive sequencing, or whatever. Still, the consumer products are pretty amazing these days.

Anyway, as a Canon Explorer of Light,, my assignment was to shoot the new Canon G10 in the Canon housing. The photos above show the cover (a gorgeous shot by Tyler Stableford), one of my underwater shots taken with the Canon "point-and-shoot", and the promo materials for the G10 camera.

I was meant to be on location in Little Cayman for Scuba Diving Magazine when this project came due, and it proved to be the perfect place to run the G10 through its paces. The shallow reef at the top of Bloody Bay Wall was ideal because the backgrounds for fish photography were so nice, the water so clear, and gratefully the fish were so accustomed to divers it made getting near enough for quality imaging quite easy.

Thanks to Travis Gainsley for taking the portrait of me and assisting the underwater portion of the shoot, and to my friends at Little Cayman Beach Resort for providing the photo-opportunities.

As for the G10, very cool camera. The native lens is 28mm (28-140mm in 35mm equivalents), and therefore a bit wider than the 35mm lens on the G9, and the image quality is superb. I've been shooting a Canon G9 as my family and pocket camera for a while now, and love the logic of the navigation within the various shoot modes. The G10 preserves the ergonomics and RAW capability, and bumps up the megapixel count, and adds the Digic 4 processor.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Solutions - Tom Kline on Photographing Salmon in Alaska

I had a phone conversation with photographer Tom Kline recently. He lives in Alaska and does very interesting research and documentary photography with marine life of the region. We had been chatting about a polecam system he was using to photograph herring at night from a boat, which made me think of other photo-ops he might encounter that might be particularly challenging. Like, photographing salmon in local streams, for example.

Aside from the obvious challenge of not wanting to be where a grizzly bear might be working the same salmon, Tom said the biggest problem is light. He said the days are very short in Alaska in the particular season when the salmon are running. The issue is further complicated by the mountainous terrain. The sun drops behind the ridges very early in the day, and even when it is "piercing" the canyons, it is like dusk in the Caribbean. So, Tom decided he needed to take his daylight with him.

To that end, his salmon-shooter involved building an aluminum "sled" that would hold his Seacam housing and Nikon D2X solidly on the stream bed. Then a set of rails held one Inon strobe (chosen for their small weight and easy maneuverability ... a huge issue when schlepping the system back into the woods) hard wired to the housing. That strobe pointed not towards the water, but up to an array of 5 other Inon strobe heads. In Tom's words "There are 5 strobes being slaved - two on the L and R ends, one in the middle, and two on the lollipop" Each of these four strobes are set to slave mode, and would fire when the hard-wired strobe went off. It is these 5 strobes that aim back towards the stream, in front of the lens, at the point where the salmon are meant to swim. At that point, Tom takes a long remote cord, sits on the bank of the river, and fires the camera once the salmon swim into view.

Very clever solution to a unique photographic challenge.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Now for Something Entirely Different - Alaska

I know this is a bit early to get excited for a trip that is not scheduled until summer 2011, but we did a trip to British Columbia and Alaska several years ago aboard the Nautilus Explorer, and that still remains vivid in my mind as one of my all time favorite live-aboard adventures.

For that one, please see:

The summer cruising season to this region is very short, and 2010 and all the rest of 2011 is sold out for the Nautilus Explorer. However, we were fortunate enough to have them hold a charter for us in the very heart of the best-of-the-best time to be there. This time it is a special itinerary to Alaska only. See the letter below from Captain Mike Lever of Nautilus Explorer to know what to expect:

"Our Alaska journeys have continued to evolve and get better and better since you were last onboard. The diving, scenery and experiences up here were always spectacular but with each passing season, we are getting more and more dialed in, discovering more "kick-ass" dive sites, obtaining additional permits and fine tuning the very best places to see the big critters -- humpback whales, sealions, sea otter, grizzly bears, giant pacific octopus and wolfeels. We now have one site with 10 wolfeels and can practically guarantee octopus sightings for example!

Sample Itinerary: Departure Date: Wed Jul 6, 2011. The ship will be available for boarding in Juneau at 6:00 pm. The ship is scheduled to sail at 8:00 pm. Disembarking in Ketchikan on Sat Jul 16, 2011 at 9:00 am.

Day 1: Dinner-time board in Juneau. Evening steam and anchor before midnight.

Day 2-4: Wake up at Point Adolphus at the entrance to Glacier Bay for the best humpback whale viewing in southeast Alaska plus eagles and stellar sealions. 3 hour sail to Indian Island at the entrance to Icy Strait where we will anchor for the next 3 days. Excellent invertebrate diving plus stellar sealions on every dive with vis usually 20 - 30 feet. Zodiac tours and kayaking with fantastic photo op's up close with humpback whales, sealions, sea otters, bald eagles, etc. Finish off with an evening visit to the tiny boardwalk community of Elfin Cove.

Day 5: Wake up at Baranoff Warm Springs. 2 great dives with loads of scallops, anemones and kelp plus a visit to the hot-springs.

Day 6: Patterson Point. Reliable octopus sightings. Breathtaking scenery at anchor in a steep sided fjord. This is the most beautiful inlet we have ever seen and we have seen grizzly bears on every visit here.

Day 7 - 8: Port Alexander/Wooden Island. Great place for zodiac tours and kayaking and shore visit to Port Alexander not to mention varied and excellent diving - both invertebrate and critters including 10 wolf eels around a single rock.

Day 9: Le Conte glacier. Iceberg day!!

Day 10: Prince of Wales Island. Steep wall diving, 10,000 swimming
scallops, varied diving, early evening arrival Ketchikan.

Day 11: morning disembark”

I know what some of you may be thinking ... I don't do cold water. I had that thought the first time to British Columbia and Alaska as well, but with modern drysuits the cold is not an issue, and truthfully, I have never seen greater density and diversity of life underwater than beneath these Emerald Seas. Plus, for the most part, things don't move quickly and the photo opportunities are extraordinarily productive. Yet, for all of that, the best of this trip happens above the water. Seeing glaciers calf, watching eagles and grizzly bears and stellar sealions, trying our hand at over/unders with salmon, relaxing in a natural hotspring, and photographing humpback whales are pure phototgrapic inspiration!

My wife Barbara and daughter Alexa were aboard for the last trip and they didn't even go diving. Still, they found this was one of our best family vacations ever. In fact, Barbara just came in and looked over my shoulder as I was looking at photos from the last trip, and she confirmed, emphatically, that she wouldn't be diving this time either! Oh well, her loss, because for sure I'll be diving. You can dress for cold, but you can't experience the magic below without jumping into it.

Even though 2011 is a long way away, this is a very special trip, and I appreciate the cooperation and consideration our friends at Nautilus Explorer have extended in giving us this absolutely perfect seasonal opportunity to visit Alaska.

As with all my dive travel and photo courses, please see WaterHouse Tours, for more information.,

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pix from the Road - Ambon to Raja Ampat

I just got home from a great trip to Indonesia, beginning in Ambon and cruising to Raja Ampat on the Seven Seas. Terrific boat and crew, and big shout-out to Stew Esposito, cruise director on board, for going the extra mile at every step along charter but especially shepherding our bags on board the ExpressAir flight out of Sorong.

Nothing worse than getting home without your bags. Well, plenty things are worse than that, but still, something to be avoided whenever possible. Especially in my case this time, as my Seacam 1DsMKIII housing was booked to leave the day after I got home to go to the Bahamas to shoot super-models for the Victoria's Secret swimsuit campaign. I wasn't invited, mind you, but my housing got to go on rental to shoot over/unders and such with pro fashion shooter Russell James. No doubt my housing will have good stories to tell when he comes home ;)

The trip had very nice diversity, with good wide angle potential in the Banda Sea (although there were plenty of critter options there too) and the wealth of creatures and soft coral backgrounds that make fish and macro photography so interesting in Raja Ampat.

I'll get around to writing a proper article about the trip one day soon, but for now here's a brief glimpse of the kinds of photo-ops we encountered on our 12 days at sea.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Seaflash 150 on location in Indonesia

One of my guests on our Indonesia cruise recently had a Seacam Seaflash 150 onboard. Actually, it was the first one I'd seen in the field because we are still delivering our backorders and I put my personal strobe at the back of the line. But, he did let me take it on one dive, so here is what I shot as a test with it hooked up to my Canon 1DsMKIII and S6 connector:

1. Here is what the strobe looks like, shot taken on Seven Seas live-aboard, see Photo 1.

2. Quick analysis of performance (based on that one dive only): Very accurate TTL performance, once the strobe is fully recycled. Harald Hordosch of Seacam wrote to advise me that the normal expectation is 2 - 2.5 seconds after even a full dump.

File number reflects the F-stop used, in half-stop increments from F-8 through F-32. Same distance & same shutter speed (1/250th), only change is aperture and all shot with strobe on TTL and camera on manual. Only reason I chose 1/250th was to eliminate any exposure variability from ambient light. Obviously, it will work at any synch speed, from the fastest allowable per camera to any slower shutter speed.

Any one of the exposures would be fine, especially when processed from RAW. This is over a five stop range! Pretty amazing really, especially when you consider these are thumbnails from the RAW, screengrabs from Photo Mechanic with absolutely no levels adjustments. See photo 2.

Note - Since I first posted this morning I heard from the electronics guru that designs the Seacam strobe and they prefer a slower shutter speed be used. 1/250th can of course work, but more consistent TTL is apparently achieved with a slower shutter speed.

BTW ... when shot on manual power settings, like you might with wide angle, the recycle is quick and dependent on strobe power setting (as you would expect).

As reference, this topside series shot on the camera table is what it looks like shooting normal brackets on manual. See photo 3.

I haven't been such a strong proponent of TTL with digital over the years, but once I tried this strobe and had it in the back of my mind that I could pretty well figure on getting an accurate exposure the first time, I began to notice all the skittish critters I missed while shooting manual exposures in Raja Ampat because I never got a second shot. They bolted and I did not have time to adjust my aperture or strobe power setting. Something obviously to be said for strobe exposure automation, when it works properly, as this appears to.

I'm sure most reading realize I am a Seacam distributor, but I am happy to report on the technology advances of any manufacture. Please consider this a simple head's-up on a functional new tool.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Wet diopter

I just came home from 12 days in Indonesia, Ambon to Raja Ampat. One nice thing about having so much luxury of time aboard the boat is that I was able to do some testing and experimenting, something never possible on a commercial shoot that has to get knocked out in a couple of days on location.

Since there was so much macro life to shoot, I was particularly interested in the external wet diopter. I shoot Seacam, so my diopter was the Seacam Wet Two, but there were a couple of Woody's diopters onboard being used on Subal systems, and I found my observations below are generally indicative of their product as well:

1. The magnification difference between no diopter and the Wet Two is significant. To test accurately I shot my 100 macro lens on a Canon 1DsMKIII (full frame) and manually dialed the lens out to minimum focus. The wider shots of the little sea apple and nudibranchs shown here represent full 1:1, lens racked out all the way and then camera moved forward until accurate focus achieved. Then I added the Wet Two (that's the beauty of these close-up lenses, they can be added and removed while underwater) and then moved closer until focus popped. You can see the relative enlargement they actually do provide. Quite impressive really.

2. The position of the front of the lens relative to the rear of the flat port glass is a massive variable. i tried to simulate this topside with shots of my watch face. You'll see the first shot is 1:1, minimum focus no diopter. The second shot is minimum focus with Wet Two and lens right up next to the rear of the macro port glass. The third shot, the one with all the smearing and optical aberrations at the edges, is with the lens maybe 2 inches from the rear of the glass.

It is important to note that macro lenses can be fairly casual about how they fit behind a flat port. They just have to not vignette and they'll work. But, to properly use a wet diopter, the front of the macro lens must be very, very close to the back of the glass on the macro port. Of course, this is easier with an internally focusing lens constantly at one point. But even with an extending lens, like the old style 60mm and 105mm micro Nikkors, the macro port extensions need to be designed so that the maximum lens extension (coincidentally, minimum focus) falls in proximity to the port glass if effective use of wet diopter is a goal.