Blackwater Diving and Photography with the Nikon D500

Written by Doug Perrine May 2017

 

You can call it blackwater, blacro, or Pelagic Magic. I call it foto-frustration for the masochist-at-heart. You get onto a boat at a time when you would normally be relaxing and preparing for bed after a nice meal and drive several miles straight out to sea, then jump into the pitch black bottomless ocean in the middle of the night. The goal is to try and take pictures of tiny animals that you can barely see because they are transparent. Do you think any of these near-invisible creatures will sit still for you to train a light on them and try to focus? Of course not! They rise to the surface only at night because they avoid lights. They may not be swimming at a speed to impress a sailfish, but on a scale compared to the paper thin depth of field of your macro lens racked at 1:1 they might as well be going 100 mph. And they are not alone. There are millions of planktonic organisms clouding the water. After all, it is a whole ecosystem, known as the “deep scattering layer,” that rises from the deep ocean to the surface waters at night. Not all of these organisms flee lights. Some of them (the ones you don’t want to photograph) are attracted to lights and will swarm your focus lights like a cloud of insects around a porch light on a warm Southern summer evening. Only worse.

Yes, trying to pick an interesting subject out of this mess and get a sharp photo of it is quite a challenge. But it can be worth persisting because some of those critters are just so darn cute, weird, dramatic, or beautiful. The odds are fairly good of photographing something nobody has ever photographed before. Or maybe that no one has ever even seen before. Some day the novelty may perhaps wear off, but right now, blacro photos are winning underwater photo competitions right and left.

 

Fortunately the equipment is improving to make the challenge a little less daunting. When I started, I used manual focus exclusively and got very few keepers. As cameras improved and my own vision deteriorated I had to switch to autofocus, and was still getting very few keepers. The higher the light level, the better autofocus works, so I started piling on the video lights.    

More light certainly helps, but there’s still the problem of how much light can you get to reflect off of an organism that’s entirely transparent? After a certain point, you are only lighting up the cloudiness in the water and attracting more sea lice into your frame. So the ability of the camera to focus quickly and accurately in low light becomes critical.         

Nikon pretty much nuked the competition in this regard when they brought out the D5 (which is in nose-bleed price territory) followed by the D500 (at a more reasonable price). You can read all the technical details about these cameras on any number of photo websites, but for me the proof was when my blacro bro Jeff Molder, aka Capt. Buff, told me that he had vastly increased his keeper rate by upgrading to the D500.

 

Still I hesitated. For me, shooting the 36MP D800E, it would not exactly be an upgrade to switch to the 21MP D500. Losing nearly half my resolution would be a bitter pill to swallow. Still, it doesn’t matter how many pixels you have if they are all out of focus. I was losing a lot of rare opportunities on the blackwater dives, so I decided to bite the bullet.          

On my first blackwater dive with the D500 in my new Nauticam housing, I significantly upped my keeper rate. Still, as with any new piece of equipment, there was a learning curve. With the D800 I usually kept the drive set on slow continuous. That way, if I held the shutter down after taking a picture, it would fire off a second, after a short delay which allowed the strobes to partially recycle. If the first shot was blown out by too much strobe, the second exposure might be better. With the D500, slow continuous is faster than high speed continuous on the D800. The camera is so fast that there is no time for the strobes to cycle up at all. So I had to switch the motor drive to single shooting.  

Another of the touted features of the D500 is the large number of focus points. In all of Nikon’s previous models, including my D800, the focus points are clustered in the center region of the frame. In the cropped-sensor D500 they cover the entire frame. Nikon offers a selection of different focus modes utilizing varying numbers of focus points. With the D800, I favored modes that utilized a fairly large number of points. It’s hard to keep a single focus point on that small part of a transparent subject which might actually offer enough contrast to allow autofocus, so having a fairly wide focus area seemed to serve me well, as my subjects went zipping about in the water column. On my first dive with the D500, I figured, why not use all the focus points? If the subject goes anywhere in the frame, the autofocus system should be able to find it. The problem with that strategy was that there is a lot more than the subject in each frame. Some nights are worse than others, and that night was a nightmare due to the phototropic sea lice, which not only caused a blizzard of backscatter, but also threw my focus off the subject repeatedly.          

After some consultation with Capt. Buff, for my second D500 blacro I decided to go with Nikon’s “group focus” option, which appears in the viewfinder as a cluster of four points around the chosen focus point. That worked much better. You have to track the subject with your focus point, but the group area is much more forgiving than a single point, while objects elsewhere in the frame don’t throw off your focus. I have yet to test the much ballyhooed 3-D focus capabilities of the D500, in which you initially focus on your subject, and the camera remembers what the subject is, and keeps tracking it as it moves. Stay tuned.

 

A critical part of the focusing strategy is to go into the “AF activation” section of the “autofocus” menu and select “AF button only” so that the menu shows “AF activation” as “off.” This means that autofocus is only activated by the “back button” on the camera, for which Nauticam has a convenient large thumb-activated lever on the housing. This way if the focus point is not on a high contrast area at the moment the shutter is released, it will not throw the focus off. And if it is impossible to achieve autofocus on the subject, you can focus on your hand or similar object at about the right distance, and lean into and out of the subject, tripping the shutter when it comes into focus.            

However, after a few blacro dives with the D500 I noticed I had hardly any photos of my hand, whereas I usually come home with lots of those. The D500 was able to autofocus on most of the subjects I found, eliminating the necessity of focusing on my hand frequently throughout the dive (and usually accidentally taking a picture of it). I also used to be pretty religious about engaging the manual focus gear on my 60mm macro lens, so that, when necessary, I could manually follow focus on the subject while keeping my eye to the viewfinder. I got home from a D500 blacro dive and discovered that I hadn’t even remembered to engage the gear. The autofocus was so adept that I hadn’t felt the need to manually focus at any time during the dive. That was a true milestone!        

 

With the D800, I didn’t find much of a difference between single and continuous autofocus on blacro dives, as the continuous was never able to keep up with the subject for long. With the D500, however, continuous is much more useful, as it is often able to keep a subject into focus as it moves toward or away from the lens, or as you lean into the subject. Set on continuous group focus with AF activation off I was able to approximately double my ratio of in-focus shots on my second blacro dive with the D500, as compared with my average using the D800. I actually got a few in-focus shots of little larval fish less than ½inch long that zip around so fast that I wouldn’t even try with the D800.          

Another consideration with the D500 is that in front of its cropped sensor the 60mm macro lens becomes roughly equivalent to a 90mm lens on a full-frame camera such as the D800. To keep my working distance and frame ratio roughly the same,I switched from a flat port on the D800 to a small dome port on the D500. Being that most of the subjects are quite small, and timid enough that it’s hard to get the port right up next to them, I decided to try a flat port to see if I could get some of the tiny critters a little larger in the frame. That worked as expected, but I did find that the focus was searching more, and my keeper rate dropped. The next dive I went back to a dome port and found that the focus was grabbing better. That could be due to the lens focusing on a virtual image when it’s behind a dome port, and requiring less throw of the focus barrel to follow a subject, or it could be due to the fact that you have to get closer when using a dome port, so you have more light on your subject and less dirty water between the port and the subject. One of my blacro buddies uses a flat port, and the other uses a dome, and they both get great photos, so it’s probably more a matter of skill than equipment in that regard.            

Skill largely comes from practice, and I can definitely say that results with blacro are directly proportional to how often you do it. Still, a fantastic piece of equipment like the D500 is a huge help, especially for old-timers like myself, who are handicapped with myopia and cataracts. 

Stay tuned for more updates soon as renowned nature photographer Doug Perrine explores black water photography...