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

SLR - Best Choice for U/W Stills?

Alligators Prefer SLR's.

Continuing my thoughts from yesterday (click here for part 1) about shooting SLR's underwater: First, I want to try to set some expectations. I’m not looking to “prove” anything. Cameras and lenses are just tools. When it is time to take a shot, the best camera is the one you have with you. I'm sure that when the aliens arrive, the first photo I snap will be with my iPhone. I'm going to talk about shooting stills today, and not video... will save the video discussion for another day. And just a note... I talk more about Canon SLR's than Nikon (or Sony, or Pentax...); that is just because I am used to shooting Canon. Nikon makes awesome SLR's, and if I owned Nikon lenses, these would probably be shot with a D7100 or D810.

This is a "Hairy Shrimp". I can't even describe how small this little fella is. To the naked eye, it looks something like a grain of rice sized piece of lint. Shot with the Canon 70D + Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L macro + Nauticam SMC + SMC Multiplier. Some camera fanbois (i.e. a person who is a super-fan of a given camera) will make it sound like it practically a life or death decision. The truth is that most modern camera are capable of making high quality images. The differences lie much more in the details. Regardless of what camera is being used, it is the eyes and the brain of the operator that makes the photo… the camera simply enables the process. When I discuss my preference for SLR’s, I am not in any way putting down Mirrorless or Compact cameras. They too, are just tools for the job; I just think it is a little bit different job.

Canon 70D + 100m f/2.8L + Nauticam SMC + SMC Multiplier

An example of a “different job”… I was asked to shoot photos of all of our guests during a big workshop in the Philippines last year. I had in my possession the new (at the time) Sony A5000 mirrorless camera. It was a great tool for the job… I really enjoyed how easy it was to shoot one handed, and how small and light it was. It also seems less intimidating to human subjects apparently; it was easier to get candid shots of people getting ready to go diving. So I used the A5000 for that purpose and it worked very well. Sometimes I had trouble seeing the LCD in the bright Anilao sun, but I trusted the metering on the camera to deliver correctly exposed images, and it did. However, when we arrived at the dive site, I happily switched to my SLR and took that underwater.

Shooting an SLR doesn't guarantee nice capture of sun rays, but it sure helps. Just say no to blotchy clipped nasty sunballs! This was shot with the Canon 5D Mark III with Canon 16-35 f/2.8II.

I do see the allure of Mirrorless cameras. The SLR concept is archaic after all… the first patent for an SLR was granted in 1861. Mirrorless cameras are making huge strides, and I actually bought my own mirrorless camera (a Panasonic GH4 - which I use primarily for video) last year. But as good as they are, I still don’t enjoy taking stills photos with them (video is a different story).

Depth of field is a double edged sword. Macro shot with larger sensors (like this Canon 5D Mark III) tend to make getting enough depth of field more difficult. But it can also be used to advantage, as in this case where I'm using the shallow depth of field to blur the not so pretty background and give some three-dimensionality to the shot.

For people who like to compare features and numbers and measurements of performance, its getting easier to like Mirrorless. Take a given SLR; it’s not that hard to find a Mirrorless camera that can beat it in a given category. Shots per second, number of features, focus speed (not accuracy… we’ll come back to that) even Megapixels. What about image quality? Disregarding the Sony A7/A7rA7II for a moment, I think SLR’s still have the advantage here. But as I said above, I think that most current cameras can take a very high quality image, and I am not really interested in splitting hairs here. And the full frame Sony A7 series really has leveled the playing field there are well, so I don’t necessarily think image quality alone is a deciding factor.

I think this sort of image could be captured with just about any camera with a wide enough lens. I don't know that the SLR has any real advantage on this shot, with one exception. If there is bright sun above/behind, it can be awfully hard to see an LCD.

What about Compact cameras? Again, it is a tool for a job, and I think the main strength of the compact for u/w use is the versatility - you can go from shooting a blenny to a whale shark in the same dive, especially by using wet wide angle and macro lenses. That’s quite compelling for a lot of people. For me, it is less so; I’d rather focus on getting one great image in a given day than try to get a lot of good images of a lot of subjects. And call me impatient, but I want the zippy performance of the SLR. However, the size and the versatility make a camera like the Sony RX100III or the Canon G7X the right choice for many.

Shot with the Canon EOS 1D C. Autofocus is key to this kind of shot, along with shot to shot performance. I have access to just about any camera I want, but I choose SLRs for shooting still photos. Why? What is it, what the big deal about the SLR?

  • Viewfinder: Maybe this is an “old school” argument, but you can’t shoot what you can’t see. Mirrorless EVFs (electronic viewfinders) are getting better all of the time, but I would much prefer an optical viewfinder. I can see what I am shooting, in realtime. There is no lag with an optical viewfinder, but there is a distinct lag with the EVF, plus other artifacts can show up, such as judder or delayed motion due to shutter speed. And as high as the resolution of the EVF is, it is nowhere near real life. For most shots, I would take the OVF every time. I am used to it, and I think being able to see well is absolutely a key to photography. I get quite frustrated trying to shoot with an EVF. Now, there are certainly times when an EVF or LCD is beneficial, but even with an SLR, I can use the live view on the LCD in those cases. Sure, at some point the EVF technology will become truly compelling, maybe with some kind of holographic overlay on an optical viewfinder. And I am sure that will be fun to shoot. But for now, I’ll take the OVF. 
  • Focus: You can read all about how fast the autofocus is on Mirrorless cameras, and there is no doubt they are faster than they used to be. Some claim they are faster than SLR's, and there may be cases where that is true. But my experience is that SLR's are more accurate in their autofocus, and the speed and accuracy of autofocus of new SLR's like the Nikon D810 or the Canon 7D Mark II are pretty incredible. Importantly though, I think it is easier to see the autofocus happening in real time and be able to tell if it is locking on to the right part of the subject, thanks to the optical viewfinder. I just know it is in focus as I take the shot - I rarely have to look at the image on the LCD (though it's always good to check). And using manual focus with an SLR is wayyyyyyyy easier with an optical viewfinder. 
  • Performance: This is important for a shoot like the one I mentioned in my previous post. That encounter only lasted a few minutes, and I didn't want to miss a shot. With the 7DII, I didn't. 


At the end of the day, a camera is just a tool. And as fun as it is talking about cameras, I'd rather be out shooting something like this....

One of the main reasons often cited for choosing a Mirrorless camera over an SLR is size, and there's no doubt that Mirrorless cameras are by default smaller and lighter. With baggage fees and carry-on limitations these days, it's understandable that people want to downsize. However, once you factor in strobes, arms, focus lights, chargers etc, the actual size and weight difference is not nearly as large as people think. On most of my travel, I carry on almost all of my underwater photo gear. Don't believe me? Check out this silly little video where we pack a complete Canon 7DII system, including camera, housing, arms, clamps, strobes, focus light, battery chargers, spare batteries and much more, into a single carry on bag that meets international carry on standards. I can then put a spare camera body, topside lens, scuba mask, passport etc into a smaller bag. The only thing I generally don't carry on is a large dome port. Once in the water, I can tell you that there is very little difference in feel of a 5DIII and an A7. I like to get my rig as close to neutral in the water as possible, and I think that makes a bigger difference than the size or weight of the rig. And once in the water, I am much happier to have my trusty SLR.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, don't you think? So, that's it. That's why I like SLR's.