Wednesday, January 28, 2009

10 Frames Per Second Rocks!

I was in the water again over the weekend shooting a motordrive sequence, 10-frames per second, for a Neosport wetsuits, to promote their triathelete suit. They wanted to run a flash sequence of a swimmer tracking across the top their website and asked me to get a competitive swimmer swimming through the frame. Beyond that, they left it up to me.

Booking the talent was the first project, and so I called Cody Wagner, now a freshman at Florida Atlantic University, and a very fit & athletic competitive swimmer. I knew he'd look great in the topside shots we needed of the suit, as well as being able to perform to freestyle sprint we needed for the underwater portion.

To mount the housing in place I used a very heavy tripod made of brass, so the wash of the swimmer passing right over the housing did not move anything. This tripod was designed for underwater use by Fenimore Johnson, in the early 1960s I would guess, and marketed under the Fenjohn brand. Jerry Greenberg gave it to me as a gift, and while it is way too heavy to travel with, it is terrific for use here at home in Key Largo.

I used a housed Canon 1DMKIII with a 14mm II lens with strobe fill from a Seacam Seaflash 150 at 25% power, and an Ikelte DS160 at about the same manual power setting. The low power output was necessary to keep up with the 10-frame-per-second motordrive burst, plus Cody was only a foot or so away from the dome at one point in his pass-over, so I did not want to blow out the skin tones with too much artificial light.

I used my Seacam housing with 9" superdome and swivel 45-degree viewfinder so I could view the image from the side, rather than having to lay down on the bottom of the pool and look upward, as I would have to do with a traditional viewfinder. However, next time I think I'll make it even easier and use my electronic viewfinder with remote monitor to view and trigger. That way I can be a couple of lanes away sitting in a floating chaise lounge, drinking pina coladas all the while.

I actually shot the sequence in RAW, even though I could have shot it as a medium sized JPEG and had plenty of resolution for the web use. But, I figured if they wanted to extract any single frame for print advertising we'd need RAW files. It is a testament to to the sophistication of the image-processing horsepower of my MKIII camera that it could capture files this big at this speed for a burst sufficient to nail the entire sequence.

For me, I usually shoot my 1DsMKIII underwater because I want those big 21 megapixel files, but having the exact same size camera able to fit in the housing, but with totally different specs means that I can use the 1DMKIII whenever I need ultra-quick motordrive sequencing or prefer the 1.3 cropped sensor rather than full frame. For me, this is an ideal combination.

Lens testing - A Work in Progress

I did very extensive testing when the Canon 14mm II first came out to determine which port and port extension gave the very best performance underwater. See for the results.

Based on these tests I went several months shooting the superdome and PVL25. But, I never really tested the PVL20, as it didn't "look" right. It seemed the lens protruded too far inside the dome and intuitively it did not seem like a viable solution. But, in an effort to trim down my travel kit, I found I was using a PVL20 as a port extension for my flat port with the 100mm macro, and if it would work with my superdome and 14mm, I could travel lighter.

I was surprised, and pleased, to learn it actually worked better. I've now confirmed that the Canon 14mm II works best with a superdome and PVL20. I use ISO 200 and typically work at F-8 and smaller for wide angle shots. See above for example of corner performance, as lower right corner reveals what little distortion still exists. From a product shoot for Henderson Aquatics for their blue water camouflage wetsuit.

This is on par with what I get with 16-35 II @ 16mm with PVL57.5 and superdome, but is wider and handles easier. Not perfect necessarily, but better than what I was getting before, and I think the best we can expect of any 14mm. Far better than my experience with old Canon 14mm or Nikon 14mm.

Now that the lens is dialed in, I use it a lot for situations I need to go wider than the 16mm end on my 16-35II, but without the perspective distortion inherent in my 15mm fisheye lens.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Murray Nelson Center Photo Project

Today we did the final hanging of an "Art in Public Places" project here in my home town of Key Largo. Murray Nelson was a friend of mine, our local County Commissioner, and an ally on the Spiegel Grove project. After Murray died too young, a Monroe County facility he championed (and which was named for him) came to fruition, and as part of the contract there was an open bid for artists of different media to help decorate the facility.

My bid was for underwater photography, no surprise, but as Key Largo is known as the "Diving Capital of the World" I wanted to feature images shot exclusively in these waters off Key Largo. My concept was to use a navigational map of the region as a background (which NOAA was kind enough to donate in digital form) and then use large photographs encased in Plexiglas and offset from the chart by special stand-off hardware. The photographs chosen were situated on the map to be closely accurate to where the photos were actually taken. For example, the shot of the Christ of the Abyss Statue is located adjacent to Key Largo Dry Rocks, the Duane shipwreck about where it is truly located, and the schooling grunts so typical of Snapper Ledge near where the reef would be found on the map. Not exact, of course, for the scale of the prints is much too large relative to any pinpoint location on a chart, but there is a spirit of accuracy anyway.

Associated Photo in Miami did the printing and installation, and I did the photography and file preparation for the very large prints. As the largest were 40x60 inches each, I was glad to have the ultra-high resolution RAW files from my Canon EOS 1DS MKIII and MKII camera bodies. They held the enlargement very well, even at close viewing distances.

The images above show the chronology of the project, from bare walls, through the installation of the navigational map in sections, and finally to the installation of the prints.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Canon's "The Story Behind the Shot"

I was recently honored by Canon as one of the photographers selected for their ongoing campaign "The Story Behind the Shot". Featured on the inside rear cover of Photo District News, the campaign "focuses" on one of the Canon Explorers of Light using a particular Canon tool to capture their specialty. In my case it was "tropical lifestyle", an over/under shot on location in Little Cayman using a Canon 1Ds mark III and 14mm II lens, in a Seacam housing with 9-inch superdome and swivel-45 degree viewfinder.

Thanks to Canon for including me in this prestigious campaign, and thanks also to dive model Annabelle Smith and Little Cayman Beach Resort for facilitating my shoot.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Manatee Time

I was just in Crystal River last week to photograph the manatees in winter residence there.  Amazing that it is less than a 6-hour drive away for me, yet I hadn't been there for years, not since I shot a Quicksilver inflatable boat ad for Mercury Marine maybe 8 years ago.  Shame on me, because this is really a fascinating photo opportunity.

This time I was the guest of KC and Marybeth Nayfield.  They are big proponents of the the initiative to secure funding to buy the 3 Sisters property from private investors to assure that it stays as natural habitat for the benefits of the manatees.  This is a massively righteous project, and I urge anyone who'd like to learn more to visit .  A tax deductible donation would be a nice gesture as well!

Anyway, our project in Crystal River included a visit to Homasassa Springs Wildlife State Park.  This is a terrific facility, and while the manatees may be the stars of their constellation, I enjoyed photographing the flamingos, ibis, and white pelican as well.  Thanks to Park management, I was able to enter the water with the manatees, which offered some very nice encounters since these animals (friendly by nature) are extremely acclimated to being around people.

I also booked the local helicopter to get a sense of the surrounding region, and after seeing some of the other springs, you can see why manatees and underwater photographers are so fond of Three Sisters ... clarity, clarity, clarity.  This is where the viz is, and it is where the manatees congregate in the most significant aggregations.

The manatees are very approachable here, although they don't always choose to situate in the clearest water.  They stir up the bottom, although the fins of other snorkelers were just as troublesome in terms of generating backscatter. I found it often more productive to leave my fins on a rock and tip-toe around in my booties, rather than risk stirring detritus. At least in the very shallow water, that was a good solution for me. The reality is that even though the water coming out of the spring is stunning in clarity, it is sometimes tough to find a willing manatee in ultra-clear water.  But, potential is there, for sure.  

The first day was very productive, but I lost sunshine on the the second day of a two-day shoot.  A good reason to go back, and this time before another 8 years passes!

BTW - The lenses I used for manatees on my Canon 1DsMKIII (full-frame) D-SLR included the 15mm fisheye and 16-35II. However, the one I used most this time was the 14mm II. I wanted ultra-wide, but without the perspective distortion attached to a full-frame fisheye like the 15mm.

Thanks to Phil Darche for photo assistance on this project.

See for coverage of the shoot in the Citrus County Chronicle.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Henderson BlueWaterCamo wetsuits - The must-have accessory for spearfishing. And for underwater photography?

Earlier this week Joe Polak from Henderson Aquatics,, asked me to shoot a product illustration on their brand new line of camouflage wetsuits targeted to spearfishing enthusiasts. In my desire to get authenticity in the images, I did not book a dive-fashion model who might know nothing about spearfishing, but instead asked for the help of a friend of mine, Alex Perera and his father Luis, a pair who are definitely "immersed" in the art, science, and philosophy of freedive spearfishing.

Spearfishing is more than a hobby for them, it is a way of life. Luis was the Cuban national spearfishing champion and Alex has been freediving and spearing fish his whole life. They are ecological sportsmen, who shoot only what they eat. They don't shoot fish on scuba, and typically work in 70 - 100 feet of water. I did make a concession to this particular photo shoot by choosing a shallow reef south and outside of the protected zones within the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, just so Alex did not have to make so many repeated breath-hold dives to significant depth and also I'd have more light and time with him on the bottom. As an aside, they offered not to shoot fish this day, leaving that task to me and my camera.

As for the wetsuit, Henderson did a beautiful job with this suit. Aside from the obvious, the trademarked cryptic camouflage design on the outside, the design features a lot of evolutionary improvements that come from 3 decades in the business. The surface is very "slick", all the better to reduce drag through the water my dear, yet extremely stretchy (important for ease of donning). There is a non-skid chest pad,important when pulling back the rubber tubing to arm a spear, and this suit is cut in a hooded farmer-john configuration favored by spearfishers. This one happened to be 5mm, so it was actually too warm for the work we were doing in 75-degree water here in Key Largo, but suits will be available in lighter weight neoprene as well.

Photographically, my challenge was kind of counter-intuitive. Usually, my job is to get a subject to stand out from the background by creative lighting, yet here was a suit designed to blend with a background. I obviously had to use strobe light to add color and definition, but even so, with a diver more than a couple of feet away from the lens, it was hard to make this suit "pop". I guess that's what it does for a living, and it does it well!

Obviously, this suit will be very popular with the spearfish crowd. But it also made me want one for underwater photography. Why? Well, the first shoot I'll want one for is my upcoming trip to Tonga this summer to photograph humpbacks. Not that I think a humpback won't see me coming just because I'm in a camo suit, but I will certainly benefit from minimized drag when doing breath-hold dives. I can imagine a 1mm or 2mm custom jumpsuit with an integrated hood being the right suit for this application.

I think the benefits to a scuba diving UW photographer in terms of surreptitious approach to marine life will be minimized by the sound of bubbles belching. Clearly, a rebreather is the more effective solution there (see for my limited adventures on a rebreather) but there is no downside either. If it gets me 6 inches closer and I can stay there for 6 seconds longer, that's an advantage. Maybe enough of an advantage to get a shot I wouldn't have otherwise.

I think the Henderson camo suit will make significant market penetration into the spearfishing niche, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it adopted by underwater photographers as well. Will it get us better shots? Only time and a few hundred dives will tell for sure.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Orange Bowl Classic Swim Meet - Key Largo, 01/03/09

photos © Stephen Frink

Today we had the Orange Bowl Classic swim meet at my hometown pool, Jacobs Aquatic Center in Key Largo, FL. Beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the mid-80s. No wonder teams like University of Michigan like to come down here and train over the winter break. We have this pool, 25-meter short course, and just down the road in Plantation Key there is a 50-meter long course pool at Founder's Park. Two excellent venues for competitive swimming, and the community is very happy to have the kids in town for the holiday.

Shooting competitive swimming is somewhat challenging, but doing so in the context of a swim meet is far more difficult. Access is the issue. In a discipline where achievement is measured in 1/100ths of a second (as Michael Phelps and Milorad Cavic will attest after their 100-meter butterfly at the summer Olympics) no one wanted me and my housing swimming around in their lanes with them. Which meant the only place I could work underwater was in a narrow shoulder-lane near the diving well.

photo © Andy Newman

If this had been a two-day meet I think I'd devote tomorrow to remote shots with an underwater tripod or polecam. However, as it is, this year's meet is a wrap I've got 12 months to plan how to shoot the Orange Bowl meet new/different/better next time.