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Lessons Learned

November 2023

The waters were not as clear as I imagined, making wide-angle shots more challenging. Really enjoyed macro shooting as there were lots of new species for me to see. I had my primary wide-angle Nikon 10-24mm lens. May pick up a Nikon 18-35mm for general use to get a little closer to objects that are at a distance. One of my strobes started to drain power quickly and had to shoot several dives with just a single strobe towards the end.

Had several housing leak alarms on day one so I spent that evening tearing everything apart and rebuilding. No issues after that but did send my 45-degree viewfinder to Aquatica upon my return as I suspected it was the root cause (did not spin the viewfinder from landscape to portrait after that first day).

Nassau, Bahamas
February 2023

We took our neice Ashley on this trip for her first open water dives as a new certified diver. Unfortunately, my wife could not dive with us which left me ensuring Ashley was safe. With shorter dive times while Ashley learns to slow her breathing down, I wasn't able to spend too much time taking photo's.

I purchased the Aquatica 45 degree viewfinder just in time for this trip. It took a few dives to get use to not having to pull the camera "up" to my eye level, but instead just "dropping" my head down to the viewfinder. The other advantage, for us photographers that wear contacts or has a Rx mask, is that you don't have to preset the optics to your eye sight before attaching the viewfinder to the camera like you have to do with the 180 viewfinder - no optics to adjust on the 45. This viewfinder will definitely make macro photography way easier. If you're wondering should you purchase the 180 straight versus 45 degree viewfinder, get the 45. You won't regret it.

The currents were a little strong this trip. This in turn stirred up the waters so it was cloudy and not the best for photography. However, Ashley had a great time and is now very comfortable around sharks. Even saw her counting them at one point 1,2,3,4 ....LOL.

Cozumel, Mexico
September 2022

I love my DSLR underwater camera setup. However, DSLR systems have pros and cons. Some advantages are a larger camera has a larger sensor. They also work well in low light, have high resolution, and faster autofocus. The disadvantage is they are bulky and heavier to use in less than ideal conditions like the currents found in Cozumel. Especially when performing micro photography in less than idea conditions. Some days the current was calm that made slowing down to get a good shot of the small critters easier. But on other days it was difficult to stay still to focus on the little guys.

I still think having a 45 degree viewfinder instead of the straight viewfinder will help as I won't have to get down so low to get a good head on shot.

The other lesson learned was to replace my broken TTL (Through-The-Lens) for my strobes. This piece of equipment allows me to concentrate more on strobe placement and the TTL makes the best flash exposure choice for the shot. My TTL broke about 3 years ago and I didn't replace it, but lately I've done more micro photography then I've ever done in the past. I believe I need to make the investment again for a new TTL as I was fighting with my strobes power levels on almost every shot.

Roatan, Honduras
February 2022

Just weeks before the lockdown, we dove in Roatan. I would say the diving was okay but very little in the way of photography. Jump 2 years later and WOW, some of the best macro photography that I've experienced. Our divemaster was amazing at finding seahorses and other small creatures on every dive. I had time to get the camera set, strobes pulled in tight and the lighting just right. It really was a fantastic week of seahorse hunting.

I think the one thing I realized is that I should have bought the 45 degree viewfinder instead of the straight viewfinder. With the 45, I wouldn't have had to pull the camera up so high to get a good view of the subjects. Maybe my next investment......
Maui, Hawaii
September 2021

After 1-1/2 years lockdown at home, it was nice to get back into the water again. The dives had very little in the line of good pics, but gave me the opportunity to play with my camera setup after being landlocked for such a long time.

Unfortunately, the last day of diving brought tragedy to our boat as we lost a snorkeller to the sea. The ocean is a powerful place - never let your guard down.
Roatan, Honduras
February 2020

The diving at Roatan near Sandy Bay was nice and relaxing. This gave me the time to work on strobe positioning and power level. The biggest struggle on this trip was that I used my wide angle setup on my camera as I wanted sharks, or if luck whales sharks. There wasn't enough to dive with the macro setup for the week or even all 3 dives in the day. Even though I used my 12-24mm Nikon lens, there were numerous times that I wish I could zoom in closer than with the 24mm. Something to investigate.....

Mo'orea, French Polynesia
September 2019

What an awesome trip snorkeling with whales in the French Polynesia island of Mo'orea. It was amazing to watch these gentle giants swim right by you. My wife and I weren't expecting all the swimming that we had to do to keep up with the whales on the move but the optimal experience is to catch mom and calf resting. Sometimes this didn't work out so well for us.....LOL

It was difficult to swim fast for long distances with such a heavy camera housing, an 8" dome port, view finder and at my age. My solution after day 2 was to purchase boggy boards for my wife and I and then I was able to jump in the water and toss my camera on the board and kick like hell to stay up with the group of younger trip guests. This was money well spent.

I usually operate my camera in manual mode but prior to departing of this trip, I read that using shutter priority mode would be a good option for whale shots as it will let the camera set the appropriate aperture setting. I also set the ISO to auto and set the max to 1200. This worked really well for me as I kept the shutter speed in the 1/160 range and never had to look at the meter.

After I got home and started to review all my pics, I notice that I need to concentrate more on keeping the sun to my back as this would apply the maximum ambient light onto the subject. Other guests on the boat had way better pics (they were shooting a full frame at 60MP compared to my 22MP so that was obvious) but they had more light on the whales even though they were only 20 feet away from me on my right or left. I would say this was biggest lesson learned on this trip.

Big Island, Hawaii
March 2019

The plan was to go out on as many "Blackwater" dives as I could to improve this unique macro night photography. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had different plans this week. We arrived on the eve of a Hawaiian "winter storm" that brought strong winds and large swells. This keep all boats tied up to the dock. Once the storm passed we only had 2 days of diving and no blackwater trips as the swells picked up each evening. Better luck next time........

Exuma Islands, Bahamas
November 2018

Nice easy diving allowed me to spend some time doing macro photography. Had a few shots pointing towards the sun that resulted in having a reflection of my lens that appeared against the dome port - doesn't make for a nice picture. Did some fashion photography for the first time. Definitely learned a few lessons during this shoot. (1) Take off my fins and walk along the bottom (2) use location with no coral heads sticking up nearby (3) Do more preplanning on the boat - Order of models and assign a safety diver to each model.

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
February 2018

The visibility was not good (30-40 feet tops). I found that I fumbled around trying to switch from photo to video when the gray whale passed us under the water. Although video is not my preference, I should learn to take more video's to help show better life underwater.

While at home after the trip, I thought I lost or forgot my external hard drive at the hotel with all my downloaded pics from the trip. I have a flash drive as well and I need to keep these storage devices up-to-date and separate to ensure I don't lose my digital photographs.

Big Island, Hawaii
August 2017

Unfortunately, on the first dive on the first day I had a small leak that did something to the strobe circuit board within the camera housing. Although this hampered the ability to take shots using my flash, I was able to use my strobe video lights and my focus light.

After the last few years seeing other underwater photographer's using an extended viewfinder, I finally bit the bullet and purchased the 180 degree viewfinder for my Aquatica housing (they're not cheap - got mine at a rare 25% discount). I was concerned with my farsighted vision that I would not be able to focus while looking through the viewfinder. It worked so well that except during the Pelagic night dive, I used the new viewfinder for almost every shot. I found it amazing that I scanned the frame more often to ensure that everything fit where I wanted it before pressing the shutter button. When I was using the LCD display screen on the camera I felt like I was just pointing and shooting without really looking at everything in the screen to get all the details. I believe this new viewfinder has improved my composition.

I'm getting much better with setting the shutter speed, aperture and ISO to get the shot "I want" and not relying on the exposure meter. Without strobes, I was able to use some of the light positions that I've seen on other websites to get some difficult shots during the Pelagic Magic Blackwater dive - it wasn't a complete wash out!

I was surprised that during the Manta night dive that my shots had little to no backscatter. The pics had low lighting but with Lightroom I was able to enhance the photo. It's way more difficult to remove backscatter from night shots.

Galapagos Islands
April 2017

I booked this photo workshop trip to the Galapagos Islands 2-1/2 years after buying my first DSLR housing system. I went with the intent to get off the trust of the camera exposure meter and using my strobes better. I believe I utilized the higher shutter speeds to get better fast action shots with fast moving subjects like sharks and sea lions. I successfully combined higher shutter speeds, larger apertures and proper strobe power to get better action shots.

Current and surge definitely played a factor in the shooting capabilities as it was without a doubt the most challenging diving and photography that I have done to-date.
Nassau, Bahamas
November 2016

Hurricane Matthew ripped through the Bahamas 5 weeks prior to our arrival and stirred up the ocean. It was tough to get a nice clean shot without some sort of backscatter. I tried to work on my composition by taken pictures of the bow of boats. I still need to work on getting better composition within my pictures.

Tulum, Mexico
October 2016

Storms and high winds kept me from ocean diving in the Cancun area but the Cenote's are weather resistant. This second opportunity to visit the Cenote's allowed me to improve my skills for dark photography and sunbeams. I was able to increase the ISO and shutter speed this time to improve the still shots while manually changing the strobe power levels to get better exposed pictures.

Unfortunately, the sun only peaked through the clouds a few times during the days. My final day of diving we visited "The Pit" where a model free diver was swimming up and down the water column each time the sun pierced through the water. I took some of my best Cenote shots during this dive.

Northern Channel Islands, California
July 2016
While having an opportunity to dive again with Bluewater Photo in the Northern Channel Islands was great, it was unfortunate that the weather Gods weren't on our side for this 2nd annual 3-day live-aboard photo workshop trip. High winds and strong surge resulted in very poor visibility.

It did give me an opportunity to spend more time doing macro photography. This time I used higher shutter speeds (1/125th +/-) and adjusted the flash power accordingly to get a good exposure. This worked well and I was glad to move away from looking at the camera meter setting. Also did some macro shots using the TTL strobe setting that also proved to work well.

However, I did have an issue with focusing on images which later I realized was because I had a small f-stop of f/8 that gave me a shallow depth of field. The setting should have been more around f/22 due to how close I was to the subject.

Big Island, Hawaii
March 2016
The Big Island offered some unique diving and underwater photography. The Manta Ray night dive was awesome and at the same time a challenging shoot because of all the plankton in the water. I had the ISO cranked up high during my test shots at the beginning but when the Manta's arrived I must have lowered the ISO to 300-400. My strobes where pointed in to far and this resulted in a lot of backscatter and I believe the strobes should have been in closer to the housing. I did have a faster shutter speed that helped capture the movement correctly and used the strobe power settings to get the right exposure.

Photographing zooplankton in the dark of night at 40' with 5,000' to 8,000' between me and the bottom of the ocean was mind blowing and extremely difficult to get all the settings right. Focusing on the little subjects was a challenge due to the thick "soup" of plankton floating around. This was my first real experience were a focus light was a must. I even focused on my finger and tried to move the camera back and forth but this was hard to manage. The second night of pelagic photography was much better as I concentrated more on the larger objects in front of my camera. I strongly recommend that any diver that has the nerve to jump into the dark deep ocean late at light to take the Pelagic Magic dive with Jack's Diving Locker. It's an out-of-this-world experience. I will return to Kona do this specialty dive every night that I'm there.

In summary, although I relied heavily on post production to fix my best pics in the library because of the backscatter, I did learn more about shooting at night and having a faster shutter speed to capture the fast movement of the larger animals found in the waters off the coast of the Big Island. Aloha.

Underwater Photography by Ken Leonard
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