Matt Segal underwater photography - reports

Ikelite Canon 20D and Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, 2004

Ikelite 20D underwater housingThe first indication that you are working with something special comes when you begin to realize that it’s not the camera with the shutter-lag, it’s your finger. Trained by countless instances of half-presses to wait for the focus lock, you no longer have the ability to squeeze off a shot perfectly framed without that split-second pause you are so accustomed to.

It used to be the camera that held you back from capturing those brief yet memorable moments. Now – it’s your own painfully slow reaction time. Let me say something else – prior to this trip, I had no idea that eagle rays could clear the surface of the water, that is, full breaches. Somewhat of a surprise, to say the least.

I had the opportunity to use the new Canon 20D digital SLR camera in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos in December 2004. Outfitted with a freshly machined Ikelite eTTL2 20D housing and two Ikelite DS-125 strobes, I was ready to determine the capabilities of this 8.2MP, 5fps, and extremely low-noise and fast focusing camera.

With regard to glass, I used the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens and the Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens, which I paired with the Ikelite #5503 dome port and #5508.45 flat port with focus knob, respectively.

Prior to the trip, I had some amount of time to familiarize myself with the camera topside. I grew accustomed to shooting in manual (M) mode, which put aperture control at the dial by the thumb and shutter speed at the forefinger. The camera has a crisp shutter button; there is no confusion between half-press and full-shutter release. As a previous user of the Olympus C-5050, I was used to shooting in RAW and doing post-processing in Adobe Photoshop CS, and quickly found myself using this same method with the 20D.

The primary differences between the RAW capabilities of the 5050 and the 20D are both the write time and the ability to continue to shoot pictures. The 20D has a large enough internal memory to shoot 6 photos in RAW before having to clear the buffer to the memory card.Ikelite 20D housing rear

In 5fps mode, the camera took 6 frames in 1.2 seconds, and within an additional 10 seconds had cleared the buffer (on a Transcend 1gb 45x Compact Flash memory card – results may be slower or faster depending on the memory type used). It should also be noted that as soon as one picture was cleared, I had the ability to take another. This is in stark contrast to the C-5050, which effectively locked out the user while writing the RAW file to the memory card, which could take anywhere from 4-15 seconds for one picture depending on the type of memory card used.

One aspect that I found the C-5050 more favorable was with regard to the display of the histogram when reviewing the shot after being taken. The C-5050 has the ability to display the review image at full-size in the LCD while overlaying the histogram over the bottom of the photo. The 20D, on the other hand, and all (it seems) Canon’s dSLRs do not do this. Instead, the LCD displays a small photo on the top left, a histogram on the top right, and below that, the EXIF information from the capture. The benefit is that in this mode, the image flashes alternating black and white on any areas that were overexposed, or “blown out.” Despite this, I found myself reverting to the full-size review image without the histogram because of a slight difficulty in actually seeing what was captured or what was in focus when it displayed the smaller image.

The Ikelite eTTL2 20D housing is both economical and fully effective. The housing gives access to all buttons and controls on the camera, save for the multi-directional controller, which would be a nightmare to attempt to design access for, and only is used to scroll the review image around when zoomed in. Needless to say, I never needed to use it during the week of diving that I tested the housing. Unlike many manufacturers of more expensive housings, Ikelite has made great strides in decoding the TTL language between a company’s cameras and Ikelite's strobes.

Beginning with Olympus and having great success, Ikelite moved on to Canon, decrypting both eTTL and eTTL2, and is now working on Nikon’s iTTL. While not especially effective for wide angle, TTL is considered especially advantageous for macro or portrait work, and allows the user to concentrate more on the composition than the exact distance between strobe and scene and the amount of light to dial-in throughout changing conditions. The ability to light a small nudibranch or shrimp on white sand without blowing out the scene is appreciated indeed, especially if there is only the possibility of a single shot or two.

Of course, I always have valued the creative control that manual selection of strobe power allows, and will likely utilize both methods depending on the situation. The beauty of the Ikelite housing is that it allows for that, in presenting the user with both eTTL2 control with +/-2 stops compensation, and the ability to switch to manual control with 8 power settings, from full power to –3.5 stops. The controls are simple, two small push buttons at the bottom right of the housing, with a full LED display to indicate both the mode and the setting. To switch between the two modes, simply press both push buttons at the same time, and a moment later, the LED display changes to display the new mode.

Flash-sync speeds have recently become the subject of debate among the Nikon and Canon groups. The majority of SLR’s have always been limited in their flash-sync speeds with regard to “point-and-shoot” cameras because they utilize a mechanical shutter that, at higher shutter speeds, effectively cuts across the lighting of the scene, leaving the user with a black (usually horizontal) band across a section of the image. Nikon’s D70 gets around this by utilizing an electronic shutter in conjunction with the mechanical shutter with an official flash-sync speed of 1/500, but that users have reported have sync’d up to more than 1/1000. The downside is that the D70’s lowest ISO is 200, versus the 20D’s lowest ISO of 100. Goby on spongeThe Canon 20D has an official flash-sync speed of 1/250. Effectively, 1/500 (@ISO200) and 1/250 (@ISO100) allow the same amount of light, except in the Canon’s case, it produces a cleaner image. In eTTL2 mode, the 20D always reverts to no faster than 1/250 when the photo is taken. In manual strobe mode, however, the 20D syncs up to 1/320 before black banding occurs (this was clearly apparent from 1/400 onwards).

With regard to assembly, the Ikelite housing was extremely easy to setup. The 20D camera body is screwed into a tray attached to the backplate of the housing, the strobe-sync connection is attached to the hot-shoe of the camera, and then the backplate and camera are slid into the front of the housing, making sure to maneuver the strobe-sync connection around the mode dial control. The clips are latched, and the housing is flipped over.

After deciding which lens was to be used, and remembering to remove the lens caps and any UV filters present on the lenses (it can be difficult to install the ports with them still on, trust me, I know :-) ), the lens was installed in the camera, and after the port o-rings were inspected for any debris or contaminants, the ports slide easily into the front of the camera, and the latches were snapped. If there is any force being used at this point, you are doing something wrong. I made it a point to always attach the strobe sync-cord to the back of the housing last. While I don’t know the technical specifications, I assume that it can only withstand a certain bend radius before starting to damage the integrity of the cord, and I try to keep it as relatively straight as possible, even when packing it.

Enter Turks and Caicos. After nearly a day of flying from Los Angeles to these Caribbean islands, I arrived in Providenciales and readied the setup. The strobe battery packs were charged, as was the 20D battery. I decided to shoot with the 18-55mm kit lens, and assembled accordingly. Everything was ready for the next morning, a 7AM wakeup. My dive operator of choice was Flamingo Divers, a company operating on the south side of Provo. With two fast boats and an 8 diver per boat limit, they were accommodating and friendly. At the time I was there, the employees were a mix of Canadians and Americans, and all were readily understandable English speakers :-). There is one downside of diving Provo however – as fast as the boats are, all dive sites are a minimum of 15 miles from the island. The ride usually took about an hour depending on the conditions. The morning was as one expects every tropical location to be, warm with a slight breeze, clear skies, and a hint of the heat to come.

Once in the water with the setup, I took a moment to adjust to the differences. With two strobes, the housing was fairly well balanced in my hands, if only about 2 pounds negative in water.Jellyfish and sunburst Because of the buoyancy of the dome, the housing has a tendency to roll backwards, but this was never a serious problem. As I dropped into the depths, I remembered this was only my second time to the Caribbean in three years; the last time was when I was first certified in Grand Cayman. For those who have only experienced one or the other, let it be known that the Pacific and the Caribbean are two very different breeds. The Pacific (or at least tropical Pacific) is usually composed of island atolls, reef sanctuaries jutting up from the depths that diversity en masse congregates around in densities unlike anywhere else. The Caribbean, on the other hand, is more widely spread out, with vast reefs stretching into the distance. It is more of a challenge to find creatures in this place, and sometimes it is only by chance that a diver will come across something rare. That is not to say that there is a lack of life however. Each coral structure contained multiple damselfish and basslets, cleaner wrasses looking for their next meal, shrimp residing in corkscrew anemones, and the occasional lobster, eel, or octopus hiding in a crevice. It was not unusual to watch a parrotfish species go swimming into a cleaning station, open it’s mouth, and appear to be singing as many small, brightly colored fish went to work “at the carwash.” It's hard to keep from laughing at the unintentional comedy.

After a scare and loss of some camera gear in Papua New Guinea as a result of a nesting female Titan Triggerfish, I was wary of the Queen Triggerfish that populated the area. They seemed to be more afraid of me however, and kept their distance. No problem this time with aggression, although their coloration made them perfect subjects for photos. While the brightly colored Rock Beauties seemed hesitant and avoided displaying themselves, I couldn’t ask for anymore cooperation from the French Angelfish, who by the end of almost every dive seemed to suddenly appear and seem to say “look at me!…look at me now!…here I am again!” as they continued to wander close over and over as if they were as curious of me as I of them. There was also some fun in “out-waiting” a number of yellow-mouth jawfish who seemed to dive into their holes at any approach, only to slowly poke their heads out and eventually shoot out to show off above their burrows. The extremely quick AF capabilities of the 100mm USM macro lens paid off in this case, and I was able to take a number of photos of a subject that the C-5050 simply would not have been quick enough to focus on, let alone capture.

The highlight of the trip was the last day of diving. After a few days of shooting macro, I decided to switch back to the kit lens. Apparently nature decided to go wide as well, because on the boat ride out to a wall of West Caicos, we saw in front of us an explosion out of the water as an 8-foot wide eagle ray shot completely out of the water, and with a splash, disappeared again. Apparently (if this can be confirmed), this is a method utilized to shed remoras or parasites that attach to the eagle rays’ bodies. Fairy damsletEither way, it was a surprise to me – while I’ve seen large mantas in Maui and Mexico, I’d never seen an eagle ray of this size. You know the dive will be interesting when you see a couple of sharks casing the reef as you are descending down, and this one certainly was. The group headed out to the wall, and lo and behold, a group of four enormous eagle rays were out in the distance, headed towards us at 85 feet. Previously, I’d seen small spotted eagle rays while snorkeling off beaches, but I had no idea they could grow to this size. Once again, they were comparable to their manta cousins.

Back on the boat, the divemaster stated that they were probably around a 10 foot wingspan. It is in rays of this size that you sense a larger intelligence, as well as a certain curiosity of their environment. Regardless, they provided a certain excitement on my last day of diving.

Initially, I had some reservations in getting used to the viewfinder. After using the camera on land, I was used to the relatively large and bright VF (though smaller than the LCD of the 5050 that I was so accustomed to). When putting the camera in the housing however, the viewfinder is distanced from the viewing circle. This is slightly negated underwater due to the small magnification the water provides, but even so, do not be startled when you do not see the full VF when you look through the back of the housing. Instead, you will most likely see the center AF focusing point, and the partial metering indicator circle. To see the rest of the viewfinder, I learned to move my head slightly up, down, left, and right. This was cumbersome at first, but over the course of the week of diving became second-nature. Additionally, vertical shots were very difficult initially, but by the end of the trip I was readily switching between horizontal and vertical compositions. The initial struggle will be learning to, when placing your mask against the back of the housing, exactly orient your eye so that you can see that center AF point through the viewfinder. Expect this to take at least a few dives, and if possible, try to concentrate on subjects that won’t be flitting about too much for those dives.

The #5508.45 flat port with focusing knob for the Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro lens was also very nice to work with. The USM capability of this lens allows FTMF, or “Full-Time Manual Focus.” Effectively, the lens can always be left in AF, and with the camera in “Single Shot” AF mode, at any point prior to or after half-pressing, the focusing knob can be turned to adjust the focus. This is great for focusing on an exact critical focus point of a creature, especially when there could be some confusion, for example, between the front rhinophores and rear gills of a nudibranch. Of course, this would be best proved if there were actually any nudibranchs sighted in Turks and Caicos, but that’ll have to wait for one of the local Southern California trips. The focus knob was great for centering the critical focus on the eye of a small goby, however, especially when working with open apertures and low DOF.

Two issues that I learned to adjust for somewhat were apparent after a few dives. Periclimenes shrimpThe first was that Ikelite’s decryption of eTTL2 is great – this is not to say you should always use it (this goes for all TTL). eTTL2 was great for the macro shots, but occasionally in portrait and wide angle work, I found myself switching to manual control (on the housing, which was great). eTTL2 works by not blowing out any highlights, but sometimes this comes at the demise of color saturation. A way to get around this slightly in portrait shots is to step up flash compensation by a stop or so on the housing. While not advised for macro, it seemed to help exposing to the right. When shooting wide angle, and after some experimentation, I suggest shooting manual flash control. It’s relatively easy to learn the flash settings and apertures for various distances for the best results, merely shoot a few static objects underwater (coral, sponges, etc). Additionally, I found it great to be able to take a quick look at the review image, and hit the flash power up/down buttons with a thumb just prior to taking a second or third picture.

Shooting the Canon 20D with the Ikelite eTTL2 housing in the Turks and Caicos was a pleasure. A special thanks goes out once more to Ike Brigham of Ikelite for managing everything so that I could receive the housing and accessories a mere two days prior to the trip. I took some time to edit a selection of images from the trip, and a link to the gallery can be found below. I hope all enjoy the images, and please feel free to email me with any comments, or with questions regarding any of the setup or my experiences working with the camera and housing. Enjoy!

Site navigation home contact reports about galleries