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Doug Perrine On Shooting the Nikon D800 in the Nauticam Housing

Written by Doug Perrine

About the Author: Doug Perrine is internationally recognized as one of world’s most productive and well respected marine wildlife photographers. His award winning photography has appeared in hundreds of formats around the globe and as the founder of the stock imagery company Seapics, he has facilitated countless other photographers in selling their work. Doug has authored seven marine wildlife books and been a primary photographer on several more. Fortunately, he has also always been generous with sharing his expertise with other photographers and here provides interesting insight on shooting the Nikon D800E in the Nauticam NA-D800 housing.

On my first day out with my new Nikon D800E in a Nauticam housing we went looking for the rare and elusive male Whitley’s boxfish. The male is more flamboyantly colored than the more common female. The one we found swam persistently across the reef from right to left. In order to get the eye in sharp focus, I tried to switch the focus point from the center point to one on the left side of the frame. But no amount of pushing on the multi selector wheel would get the focus point to move. Later on I realized that this was because I was pushing on the wheel while image playback was occurring, and I was rotating through the various playback modes, rather than moving the selected focus point. It takes so long to render the giant files produced by the D800 that playback continues for quite a while after shooting a few frames. This was when I finally understood why turning on image playback is a custom option. I never understood why you would NOT want an instant review of your images. Now I have Image Review turned off so I can control the focus point selection while I am shooting. When I’m ready to look at some images, the giant thumb lever on the left side of the Nauticam housing makes it really easy & quick to call up the playback. Another revelation on this shoot, using Nikon’s 105mm micro lens, is that, with the phenomenal resolution of the D800, depth of field at f22 is no longer enough. When I got the eye in focus, the skin was no longer in focus. With older cameras you just wouldn’t have been able to tell. So I’m considering f25 to be my new minimum (widest) aperture with the 105mm lens, unless I am deliberately going for selective focus. 

This tight crop to a small section of the frame would not have been possible with a camera with lower resolution. The image would just have fallen apart at this magnification. Incidentally, while the D800E produces a marginally sharper image than the standard D800, the drawback is that there is a higher risk of moire patterns, especially where there are recurring fine patterns in the image, such as on fabrics. To date I have not seen any evidence of moire in my D800E images, although the high resolution of this camera makes color fringing and other chromatic aberrations more obvious than ever before.

The incredible resolution of the D800 brings a whole new level of joy to taking even simple pictures, like this longnose butterflyfish portrait, shot with the micro-Nikkor 105mm. Looking at the photograph I can examine fine details of the fish’s anatomy that are not visible to the naked eye. 

This free-swimming sailfish was photographed with the Tokina 10-17mm lens. A lot of people don’t realize that you can use a DX lens on an FX camera, such as the D800. The lens will vignette at the widest part of the zoom range, so it can only be used on FX from about 13mm to 17mm. At any focal length the lens has a wider angle of view on FX than on DX, but otherwise, it is the same lens and just as sharp. For this series, I set the image area on the camera to 1.2X crop in order to give me a faster frame rate (due to the smaller files). Even with the cropped image area, then cropping again in post-production, I ended up with an image that, at 300 dpi, is larger than a double-page spread in a magazine! Shooting at 1.2X crop, you can also get up to 1/400 sec. strobe sync, although I didn’t use strobes on this shot. If you set the image area to DX on the D800, you can get 1/500 sec. sync, which is a minimal shutter speed for sailfish, reputed to be the fastest fish in the ocean (this image was shot at 1/640 sec). The high sync speeds are only available with electronic sync, however. Fiber optic sync using the camera’s built in strobe limits you to 1/250 of a second. Fortunately the Nauticam housing has both electronic and fiber optic sync ports. Nauticam is rumored to be coming out soon with hot shoe fiber optic strobe trigger, which will not require popping up the flash, and will allow higher sync speeds.

One of the under-appreciated advantages to shooting with a high ISO, low noise FX (full frame 35mm sensor) camera such as the D800 is the ability to leave a smaller “footprint” on your photo subjects. This turtle was resting inside a dark cavern, so the exposure was by strobe only. I could have set the ISO to 100 and blasted the turtle with the strobes set at full power and gotten essentially the same picture, but would have blinded the turtle and possibly have caused it to panic and bolt. Instead I set the ISO to 1000 and the strobes to 1/16 power and put a flicker of light across the turtle that was not much brighter than the ambient light the turtle was looking at outside the cavern. You would have to blow the image up to billboard size to be able to see the noise at ISO 1000 – a setting I use without hesitation.

As with the previous picture, this one was taken with a Nikkor 17-35mm lens (with no diopter) behind an 8-inch dome port, with appropriate extension. I’ve experimented with +2, +3, and +4 diopters on this lens, and found that the corners of the frame are horrible regardless, so I just leave the close-up filter off, unless I’m planning to get real close to something. The most important factor to bring the parts of the image outside of the center into reasonable focus is the depth of field afforded by using a smaller aperture (larger number). This is another advantage of shooting with a high ISO / low noise camera. You can crank up the ISO and stop down the aperture to get better corners. After f11, there is a trade off with loss of sharpness due to diffraction. You probably get more benefit from the increased depth of field up to f13 or f14, but from f16 on, you are losing sharpness even in the center of the image. The ideal situation when using a wide-angle zoom is one like this, where there is nothing in the corners of the frame to show the limitations of using a zoom behind a dome port.

A reef scene shot with the 17-35mm lens set at 35mm, 1/320 sec. at f11. This is a worst-case scenario for a wide-angle zoom underwater. The subjects in the corners of the frame are at considerably different distances from the lens than the subjects at the center of the frame. Even with worst parts cropped out, the lower corner looks pretty bad, and only the very center is really sharp, although you might not be able to appreciate this in this very small screen-resolution file.

This is a better situation for the 17-35mm lens, with no subject matter in the corners. Exposed with ambient light only, with the sun above and slightly behind the dolphins we can see the advantage gained from the high dynamic range of the D800. The image looks fine even though most of the side of the dolphins facing the camera is actually in shadow. I doubt very much that any of my previous cameras would have been able to pull this off.

An interesting symbiotic relationship between the native whitemouth moray, and the peacock grouper, which is an introduced species in Hawaii. They swim together while hunting. When the moray goes into a hole in the reef to root out small fish, the grouper waits outside to catch any fish that try to flee the trap. For this shoot I used the 17-35mm lens behind a 9” dome port, which is reputed to give better results with wide-angle zooms, but I only saw a marginal improvement in the corners of the frame. I set the aperture at f11, which I consider to be a minimum to get decent performance out of a zoom. At ISO 640, this gave me a shutter speed of only 1/100 second, which was enough to freeze the grouper, but blurred the faster-swimming eel, although this may not be obvious in the small file onscreen. I should have trusted the D800’s superb sensor and jacked the ISO up to 1000 or higher, which would have allowed me a shutter speed of 1/160 or better and made the eel a lot sharper.

I don’t usually think of the micro Nikkor 60mm as the go-to lens for large schooling fish, but in this case it turned out to be the right lens for these shy schooling Heller’s barracudas. The sharpness of the lens, and the resolution of the D800’s sensor produced a very sharp image of the fish in the center of the frame, where I had the auto-focus point set, even with a considerable amount of not-so-clear water between the lens and subject. The D800 is the first camera I’ve used with an autofocus system capable enough that I have had the confidence to set the autofocus to the shutter button underwater, and to put it on continuous focus. In the past, I’ve always set the autofocus to the “focus on” or similar button on the back of the camera (operated by a thumb lever on the housing), and to single shot focus, and then pre-focused for every shot. I still do that for some subjects, but for reef fish, using continuous focus on the shutter release worked fine in most cases. However the fine resolution of the D800’s sensor shows up every defect, which includes considerable chromatic aberration produced by both the 60mm and 105mm micro lenses behind flat ports. Even the near-miraculous color correction feature available in Adobe’s latest Camera Raw modules cannot remove all the chromatic aberration from these images. We can only hope that the major lens manufacturers will come out with higher-performance lenses to match the resolution of their new cameras. However, there will certainly be a high price to pay for improved optics, and the underwater photography market isn’t large enough to drive improvements to problems that are mostly apparent with the lens is dealing with either a virtual image from a dome port, or refracted light coming through a flat port.

At f8, with the 17-35mm lens at 35mm, and a 9-inch dome port, this image is tack sharp in the center, but loses focus going out toward the edges. The 1/125 second shutter speed was enough to stop most of the action, but left the closest flipper blurred as it sweeps upward. In this image, it all works, as the peripheral softness helps draw the viewer’s eye in toward the turtle’s head, which holds more detail than I ever imagined possible before the D800 entered my world. This camera has truly set a new bar, and will likely leave a large part of my photo collection obsolete.

Although I was using a micro Nikkor 60mm lens, I was not able to get close enough to my subject to frame the shot I wanted. The turtles are not that shy, but the fish that clean them can be very spooky. So, in spite of the poor visibility on this day, I framed this image taking in nearly the whole body of the turtle, then cropped it from horizontal to vertical to come in tight on the yellow tangs. In the past, doing such a radical crop has cost me so much resolution that the resulting frame was not suitable for a magazine cover or full page. If I wanted a cover, I had to shoot the image as a vertical. Starting out with 36 MP on the D800, however, even after I crop to vertical, the image at 300 dpi (printing press resolution) is still larger than a magazine cover, and the fish are tack sharp and full of detail. When shooting large mobile subjects with a wide-angle lens, I usually use the standard viewfinder to reduce bulk, and count on autofocus and depth of field to produce an acceptable image. When I switch to a macro lens though, as I did for this shoot, I pop on the big magnifying viewfinder to give me better control over composition and focus. One of the things I love about the Nauticam housing is that the viewfinders can be switched out in about 30 seconds.

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