Blackwater Diving and Photography with the Nikon D500: Part III

Written by Doug Perrine December 2017

One of the first things you learn about photographing tiny transparent creatures in the dark of night while bouncing around in the open ocean is that if you take your eye off your subject for more than a fraction of a second, it’s gone. Even the act of moving your eye from direct observation to the camera viewfinder can result in the most amazing photo op you’ve ever seen vanishing into the ether like an ephemeral hallucination. Did I really see that? No matter if I did, it’s just one spec among the billions now – one space rock lost among the vastness of the cosmos. So any camera adjustment that requires looking at your rig is lethal. You have to be able to work by touch, and what’s in the viewfinder. Use only the controls for which you have a solid muscle memory.

One of the features that’s been highly touted in the ground-breaking focus system of the D5 /D500 is what Nikon calls 3D tracking – where you set a focus point on the part of your subject that you want to keep in focus, set the focus, and keep the shutter halfway pressed. The camera should be able to follow your subject around while keeping the eye, for example, in focus. While this works fine for humans moving at human speed, it remains to be seen how well it would work for transparent alien life forms moving at what is a relatively much higher speed across the field of view, and much more erratically as well. As I say, it remains to be seen. I haven’t tried it because every time I think I have a subject where it just might possibly work, I remember that changing the focus mode requires me to take my attention off the subject and move it to the LCD screen of the camera and the housing controls for way more time than it will take that subject to vanish. It would probably be possible to memorize all the steps to do that entirely by feel, but I’m not there yet.

What I did experiment with is changing my lighting setup. One of the many difficulties in lighting blackwater subjects is that some are transparent and let all light just pass through them, while others are highly reflective and bounce the light back into the lens, and a very small number are “just right,” reflecting light back like a “normal” subject. For the transparent subjects you ideally want to have the light entering their bodies from the side or even a little behind them so that it bounces around on the translucent parts with some of it scattering back toward the lens. For normal subjects, you want the strobes beside the camera, pointed forward, and cheated outward enough that only the edge of the light beam touches the subject. And for reflective subjects you want your lights somewhere in between so that the light is hitting at enough of an angle that it doesn’t come straight back into the lens, but is still lighting the subject from the front.

For normal macro shooting, I have two short sections in each strobe arm, so it can be contorted into almost any position that the lighting requirements demand. For example, shooting into a coral crevice where the subject is hiding. For blacro, you are dealing with subjects that are at different distances and have different opacities, but not with the very complex lighting situations that can occur on a reef. At the same time, you have to be able to adjust your strobe arms very quickly because otherwise the subject has either moved or disappeared. Readjusting two strobe arms frequently took my attention away from the subject long enough to lose it. So I went to a single arm on each side, and set my strobes so I could swing them forward and back in an arc without taking my eye away from the viewfinder. Result: fewer missed opportunities and the lighting is just as good as it was with an infinite number of possible strobe positions.

Nikon has began delivery of the new D850 camera, with twice the resolution of the D500, and Nauticam already has the housing available. Why would anyone need a 46 MP camera sensor? For one thing, some of the most interesting critters in the open ocean are too tiny to fill more than a fraction of the frame at the 1:1 magnification limit of most macro lenses. I recently purchased the Nauticam SMC-1 wet close-up lens that can bring you closer, but my initial experiments with it lead me to conclude that it’s great for stationary subjects on a reef, but following focus on a moving object at that magnification is too challenging for a blackwater situation, let alone the likelihood of losing the subject while flipping the lens into place. It also requires getting the lens closer to the subject than most of them will allow. I’d rather have enough resolution that I can do an extreme crop and still have plenty of pixels for a good reproduction. According to Nikon, the D850 has the same amazing focusing system as the D5 and D500, but some reviewers have claimed it doesn’t match the performance of the D5 when it comes to tracking moving subjects. How will it do in black water? Watch this space!