Are You Ready to Upgrade to an SLR Rig? One User's Story

Written by Amber Blecker

Okay, I'm admitting it publicly.  I was an idiot when it comes to switching to DSLR.  I know, I know, all my knowledgeable friends here and offline have been trying to convince me to switch, but I resisted.  I had a whole list of reasons why I was waiting, but I was wrong on each and every one of them. 

This past week in Lembeh, Richard finally got a DSLR into my hands (he’s been trying for more than a year now, but it never felt like I was ready).  But after a frustrating day missing shots I knew I should have had (and thought I’d gotten, but couldn’t tell well enough in-camera with my Fuji F810), I finally said it was time to try.  In anticipation, he had brought an extra Canon Rebel Xti and SeaTool housing for me to try.  I’ll just say this is one schweeet setup.

To help others in the same position as I, looking to make the jump from compact to DSLR and evaluating the perceived objections to doing so, let me cover what I believed to be issues one by one. The first three objections are in no particular order, but I’ll start with

1. Giving up the LCD for framing a shot.  The only camera I’d ever used underwater without an LCD was an old MX-10 (which I quickly sold in favor of digital), but I hated the viewfinder.  Having done the majority of my dives since advanced cert with a digital camera in my hands, I was afraid I couldn’t safely and ecologically get close enough to the subject if I couldn’t hold the camera at arms length.  

Boy was I wrong.  There’s a world of difference between the MX-10 viewfinder and a good DSLR.  What I found is I could actually see more detail through the viewfinder than with an LCD screen (even without magnification add-ons), but more surprisingly, discovered that having the weight of the camera close in to my body helped my buoyancy for fine macro work.  Less up and down.  More control than when I had the weight of the camera held out.  Less floaty feet.  Had I really thought about the psychics of it, that would make sense, but as I said before, I was an idiot and held on to the notion I wanted live view.

From my first dive with the camera, there was no problem adjusting.  And let me tell you, even if offered a camera with live view now, that fit my other specs, I’d likely not use that feature underwater often if at all.

2. Size and weight.  Okay, the rig definitely weighs more than my lovely little “Itty Bitty” Fuji F810, at least topside.  But underwater, it’s so well balanced, it’s probably about the same relative offset weight.  And functionally easier on me to use and trigger the shutter.  Ergonomically it just works better.  This is a tiny, close-fit housing to the camera, with very little air space (the fit is extremely tight – be sure to trigger a test shot off, not just turn on and off, once you have everything set in the camera.  Trust me on this one.)  I have extremely small hands.  For reference, Scubapro XS reef gloves are too long in the fingers for me.  So grip size and reaching the shutter release from the handle (or getting my hand between the handle and the camera to do so) was of prime concern.  This housing solved my concern.  I could trigger the shutter either way, but found I preferred to hold the handle and move the camera closer to the right handle, as when I held the camera directly for a shot, I sometimes accidentally “adjusted” the shutter speed/aperture control.  Oops!

Yes, the rig is heavier than my old setup.  It will require adjusting some of my packing habits, as I’ll likely not pack it in a camera bag inside my dive bag as I’ve done in the past, but with an efficient roller bag which can also take my laptop and all the accessories, the difference will just move what I carry around, not necessarily put me over weight.  Camera bag out of the dive bag, regulator back in.  Weight to spare. 

3. Flexibility.  I’d hung on to the crutch of being able to switch between lenses, carrying wet-mounted double stacked Inon macros and a WAL on every dive.  Truth is, I rarely changed between lenses most of the time.  Oh, sometimes, but in general I knew what I’d use before I hit the water.  But I liked knowing I could.  I’ll admit, I envied the potential of greater working distance with some lenses (like the 100 or 105mm lenses) when working with macro.  And using the double-stacked macro lenses, I did gain good skills at getting REALLY close and working with paper-thin DOF.  But the truth is, there are a number of good, flexible lenses out there I can use.  60mm gives excellent macro results (though getting the lighting right with it was a bit of a challenge that took a bit of adjustment).  There are lenses like the 17-70 Sigma which give a huge range in middle range shots to moderate macro.  In the end, I shot just one lens with this camera and only occasionally wish I had something a bit wider.  And knowing me, I might not have stopped with my Fuji to take the time to unmount the macro stack and put on the WAL.  While I’m sure I will someday experience a situation like a whale shark swimming by when I have on a macro lens, for all practical purposes, another objection bites the dust.

4. Results.  While there were times I was frustrated with missing a shot (especially when I thought I’d gotten it), overall I’d still been pretty satisfied with my results from the F810.  Definitely, it was a great camera for refining my camera knowledge and skills in shooting manual and editing (especially editing).  And there are truly phenomenal results which have come out of the camera when in the right hands (not necessarily mine, though it’s served me quite well).  But let me tell you, shooting with the Seatool I got far more keepers and results which made me excited again.  For example, to test my skills at the beginning of the trip last week, I was trying to shoot juvenile silver sided sweetlips (tiny little flitting fish – highly frustrating to shoot).  With the F810, it took me 8 shots, but I finally got one in focus (mostly) and body positioned well that I was happy to get.  First day, first dive, first attempt at the sweetlips with the Canon… boom.  Got it.  And boom again next shot and next one.  While there were still shots I missed, I got a whole lot more of the toughies at least at the level of most of my “acceptable” Fuji shots and many that I know I’d not have gotten at all with the compact.

So once again, I was wrong. I’d been told over and over that the DSLR makes those tough shots easier.  I didn’t think it was going to be that much of a difference.  After all the Fuji had an extremely short shutter lag.  Idiot presumption again.

5. Task loading.  Would the DSLR be more than I could handle?  Friends had experienced some relearning curve when they moved to DSLRs.  Some took to it immediately, while others told me they felt they had to re-learn photography.  I was honestly frightened I wasn’t a good enough photographer and a DSLR was “too much camera” for me.  Whether it was the fact that I had to be more adept with the Fuji to make up for its shortcomings, or just that I shot a true manual camera for 3 years, my main issue wasn’t with the camera itself, only in aiming strobes.  And I’d just started using dual strobes (first trip with them focusing on macro), so it was a good time to relearn that anyway.

6. Okay, this final one would still be an objection, regardless of how the first 5 “issues” turned out.  Price.  There’s no getting around this one.  It’s going to cost more.  But I’d actually prepared for this, putting aside funds here and there knowing eventually I was going to do it, if not because of need/desire underwater, then at least when I finally schedule an African safari in the next couple-three years.  My old rig I never even insured for f***d, only for loss, as the premiums over a couple years would cost more than the rig was worth.  Especially since, with a second camera, there was nothing in the housing which couldn’t be dried out, and to insure a $300 camera just seemed silly.  When I was ready, I knew this wouldn’t be a true objection, merely a bit of gulping while I listened to my credit card whimper a touch.

There are a couple shots I got with my Fuji last week which make me smile and be happy.  And a few with the Canon which frustrate me, but overall, the shots I took the latter part of the week are the ones which make me excited.  Of course, the last day with the Fuji (after I’d decided to try the Canon), I got some pretty good shots with the Fuji.  It was clearly not wanting me to give it up.  And I still like it.  But it was time. 

That’s the key.  You can’t push yourself.  I think as much as anything, I needed to wait for the right camera and housing for me to make the jump.  There are newer cameras with some nice features I’d like, but when I hold them, they don’t feel right to me.  This one did, from the start.  You can’t and shouldn’t be pushed.  But examine your objections and see if they hold weight (or water, as the case may be).  The above is simply my experience.  This camera could be frustratingly small or not with the right features for someone else.  But see if you have been holding on to the same main objections, and decide if maybe, just maybe, they are justifications for not taking the leap and staying with the familiar, even if you’re only getting “acceptable” results.

I was an idiot.  But now I’m the happy owner of a Seatool Xti housing, and I’m ecstatic!