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SLR: My Choice for Underwater (Part 1 of 2)

My new friend, the Great Hammerhead.

by Chris Parsons

Last Friday, I played hooky and went diving. My choice of camera is often dictated by my work, but on this Friday, I was just shooting for fun, and could pick just about any camera that Nauticam has a housing for. I chose the Canon 7D Mark II. I think it was an ideal choice, and I want to take a few minutes here to explain why and share a few images.

One of her closer passes.

I like SLR's. I much prefer shooting an SLR over just about any camera for most work. This goes against the current trend and internet narrative. Maybe SLR's are old school. But it is my experience that someone shooting an SLR will "nail" the shot considerably more often than shooting with other camera types. That's my opinion. Note that I like to call a camera like the Nikon D810 or Canon 7D Mark II an SLR, not a DSLR. The D in DSLR stands for digital, and that D is pretty much redundant these days. So for me, I'd use SLR for Digital SLR and Film SLR for one that takes film. If you want to call them DLSR, that is fine by me.

The hammer shows up.

I'll talk more about SLR's in general, and go into more detail about what I like about them, in my next installment. But for today, I want to talk about my dives on Friday, and why 7DII was the camera I wanted. The dives were slated to be at depths of around 70-100 feet and I was guessing we'd have about 40 feet of visibility, so less than ideal lighting conditions, especially for acquiring focus. It was to be a sharky dive, and while sharks don't move super fast, they are always moving. And with any luck, they would be moving towards me, which can make getting in-focus shots that much more difficult.

The 12 shots leading up to the one on the right. The camera can shoot up to 10 frames per second.

With the 7DII, you can tune how fast the camera shoots in drive mode. Really useful for underwater as you can match the camera to the strobe.

It's all about the glass... I've always believed that the lens is as or more important than the camera. With underwater photography, the lens choice is key to the look of the image. For this day, I chose the Canon EF-S 10-22mm, which is a very wide angle rectilinear zoom lens. Rectilinear means that straight lines stay straight, as opposed to a fisheye lens which distorts the image with the fisheye look. A fisheye is great for many underwater shots, especially reef scenics, but for sharks I don't like the look (makes them look like a puffy clown), and prefer the rectilinear. The 10-22mm also has a nice zoom range and a little more "reach" if the subjects won't come close. Given the correct dome and spacing, the 10-22mm, despite not being a particularly expensive lens, is a really solid performer underwater.

If it looks like this shark is smiling, I think she is. She's imitating me, because I had a huge smile on my face during the encounter.

We did 3 dives, and had a great outing. As it turned out though, the day saved the best for last. The last 10 minutes of the 3rd dive turned out to be very memorable, and I was really glad I had the 7D Mark II with me. As we ascended up in open water to about 30 feet, a Great Hammerhead decided to join us. It stayed around for about 10 minutes total, but during the last 5 minutes, there were only two other divers in the water with me. At that time, this shark decided that I was the most interesting this in the water, and repeatedly started making very close passes. I was diving a rebreather, and I think part of the reason she chose me was the lack of bubbles. In any case, she and I became very good friends during that 5 minutes. I didn't feel that she was being aggressive, but just wanted to check me out to see if I had any bait for her (I did not).

This is shot at about 85 feet deep. Not a ton of light down there, but the 7DII is definitely capable. This was shot at 1/125, f/6.4 ISO400. Inon strobes set at around 2 stops down from full power. I'd preferred to shoot this at 1/250, but something has to give with there being less light.

And autofocus... As I mentioned, having the shark swimming towards me made focusing difficult, but the 7DII, with it's remarkably fast and accurate autofocus, came through. I flipped the camera into high speed drive mode, and rattled off a huge number of shots. In reviewing them, I am amazed at how many were in sharp focus. The camera performed impressively well, in my opinion. And it almost goes without saying that the Nauticam housing made it all easy. Because I was spinning around in different directions, sometimes shooting up into the sun, and sometimes down into the dark, I was changing setting (shutter speed, aperture and ISO) a lot. The housing fit like a glove and I was able to make those changes on the fly without removing my eye from the viewfinder.

We had a couple of Tiger Sharks too. Same day, just using aperture and shutter speed to make it look darker.

Bottom line: the 7DII was the right choice for me on that dive. I'm not saying I couldn't have gotten similar shots with a mirrorless camera... but my experience says that I got more quality/in-focus shots with the SLR. Tomorrow I will write up some more on the SLR in general, including some thoughts on traveling with one, macro, and more.

A Nurse Shark coming in to check on the action.

Click here for part 2 of this article.