Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Lembeh Low Down & Review of the MDX-D500, Olympus E-M1

Optical Ocean Sales Trip Report - Dive into Lembeh Resort, Oct. 2016

We came, we saw, we took photos, and more and more photos of an amazing variety of small underwater critters at Lembeh Straits, Indonesia last October on the Optical Ocean Sales Photo Expedition there.

Lembeh is an area centered around the town of Bintung, at the north end of North Sulawesi Island. With 8,000’ deep drop-offs nearby, pumping huge amounts of plankton into the area, it harbors and fosters one of the highest bio-diversities of marine life found anywhere on the planet.

Staying at the lovely, new Dive Into Lembeh Resort at Hairball, our group of 16 found so many unique animals in our viewfinders that it was hard to keep up with the amazing sightings.

It seemed like everything we discovered was a “Pigmy” or “Hairy” as well; Pigmy Filefish, Seahorses, Cuttlefish; Hairy Frogfish, Octopus, Shrimp - all found their way onto our memory cards. Small, delicate, and incredible, there were amazing finds on almost every dive. Lembeh Straits is truly a macro photographer's paradise.

Dive into Lembeh is a new resort from the same folks who run Dive into Ambon, and has been designed for comfort amidst the jungle-like setting of North Sulawesi. We were two to a cabin, scattered along the sloping landscaped waterfront, with a beautiful pool, spa and dining room. The bungalows were spacious and well-designed, with plenty of room; a large queen or two single beds and roomy bathroom with walk-in shower. Although luxurious, we were reminded where we were when a humongous jungle spider greeted us from the mirror during our morning shave, or bats flew through the dining room having their dinner along with ours. But coming back from a dive, we could jump into our cabin’s heated Japanese onsen soaking tub and all concerns melted away.

Our huge amount of camera gear demanded good facilities, and we were not disappointed. The camera room and rinse tanks were well laid-out, with individual stations and large table with plenty of room to spread out. Our group enjoyed helping each other, sharing tools, tips and help, along with gear and stories of the “that’s nice, but I got one that’s better” conversations. Jealousy raged, replaced by pride, in what each photographer accomplished during their 12 days of diving.

Diving was from the resort’s three new dive boats, which were fast and comfortable. No dive site was more than 10-15 minutes away. The diving center has a nice dressing room and separate gear rinsing stations. The dives were well-organized and run, and all the resorts along Lembeh have an agreement not to have more than two boats on a site, so that we could enjoy our dives without feeling crowded.

Our guides were experienced and had the “eyes of an eagle”, finding the tiny “pigmy” animals that none of us could see without careful attention to what was pointed out to us. They also knew where some rare animals lived, such as the beautiful Harlequin Shrimp, color matched and perched on the blue starfish they love to eat. All of the guides were careful not to disturb, move, or offer us un-realistic animal situations. Even though I’ve done previous diving there, I was shown new and interesting sites, caves, walls and drift dives along the walls. The house-reef Hairball has an interesting flat area melting into a nice wall along the shore. It offered plenty of good diving and was also a good night-dive, with easy access from shore. We had to be careful getting out of the boat, as some large seahorses were resident right at the boat moorings!

About the only negative to the diving was the large amount of trash in the water. At low tide it was a thick mass, and I surfaced once with a large wad of plastic and paper wrapped over my head.

I have to admit that while I enjoy shooting macro photos, I do love shooting wide angle just as much. With a little prompting, a few of us had our guides take us on some nice drift dives along Nudi Retreat and Nudi Falls to take photos of the beautiful, colorful walls there. Soft coral, anemones and other invertebrates of every hue hid fish and other small critters that gave us opportunities to to test our wide angle photo skills.

I was shooting two different camera rigs: a new Nikon D500 DSLR in a Sea & Sea MDX-D500 housing, and an Olympus E-M1 m 4/3rds SLR in an Olympus housing.

The D500 has an amazing macro platform with autofocus, bright viewfinder, and low-light abilities that are perfect for this type of shooting. I found it wasn’t hard to capture multiple shots of a baby squid in focus with its proboscis darting in and out to feed on plankton. It is extremely fast to use, with its quick frame-rate and fast release, but it takes some getting used to, as the menu setup details on it is different than any other Nikon DSLR I’ve used before, from D80 to D800. It is much more electronic, and in my opinion, a cross between old-school DSLRs and the more electronic mirrorless SLRs like the E-M1.

I believe in shooting the best tools available, even if it’s a non-OEM configuration. I had setup the Sea & Sea MDX-D500 housing with a Nauticam 180 viewfinder, along with a flip macro diopter holder, diopters and a SagaDive 100mm dome port. I used the Nikon 60mm, 105mm VR, and a dive or two with the Tokina 10-17mm FE lenses.

The MDX-D500 housing was a prototype, and the new version of Sea & Sea’s optical strobe trigger wasn’t available yet. With some testing, I was able to use a trigger from a D7100 in manual mode, which certainly beats using an electronic sync cord.

Controls were laid out fairly well, although I didn’t realize there is an adjustable 3 position shutter release, which would've helped if adjusted. I would also remove the AF lock button, as it’s not necessary if you set up the “lock button with press” in the menu. I liked the “glow in the dark” control labels. Overall the Sea & Sea housing performed very well and was comfortable, fast, and easy to setup and use.

My friend Jeff was using his new Nauticam D500 housing, and one thing that happened to both of us was that even the very slight pressure of resting a finger on the shutter release would cause the photo review to not work. It was frustrating, until we figured it out. You definitely want to find another finger resting position than on the shutter release on the D500.

The Nikon D500 shoots great video, and I set the rig up with a Kraken Sports 5000 lumen video light. It was easy to switch between stills and video. The quality of the footage with the Kraken’s bright white light was excellent - if I could keep it in focus - not easy with a macro lens. I’d use some sort of tripod next time.

I also shot the Olympus E-M1, and I have to say it was surprisingly fast to shoot. It auto-focused quickly when used with the Kraken 5000 as a focus light. Shutter release on it is slower, but along with accurate D-TTL exposure with the Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobes, I got quite a few keepers with the sharp Olympus 60mm macro and an external +5 macro diopter lenses.

When we dove the walls, the Olympus 8mm FE PRO lens showed its stripes as a stand-out, high-quality wide angle lens. It allowed me to set up subjects in the foreground and background amidst the colorful environment and get all in focus and working together.

Larry Collison's 1st Place Photo
While trying out all this gear, I made some mistakes and ended up with some low-key, dark shots. The more I worked with them, the more I liked their dramatic quality with only a few details showing the essence of the animals. Always wait to evaluate your images on a larger screen than the camera’s - you might be surprised.

All in all, the group had a great time in Lembeh Straits and we enjoyed sharing images a few nights after dinner, oohing and awning at each other’s discoveries and creativity. On the last night we had a small photo contest, and two of the winners voted by the group were taken by Larry Collison with an Olympus TG-4 point and shoot and a Sea & Sea YS-03 strobe package! It made us remember that it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

2016 DEMA Underwater Photography Report

These are some new underwater photo products and some of my good industry friends from the 2016 DEMA dive show. Many of the products featured are prototypes and will be shipping in 2017. Look to Optical Ocean Sales​ to always have the latest underwater imaging products!

Probably one of the most innovative products is the new Saga Dive​ Trio macro lens. It allows you to use the basic lens, then flip levers to +5, +10 or +15 powers - all in one unit! We will have a pre-production unit in the store in a couple of weeks. Shipping in early January, cost around $775.

SagaDive Trio Macro System
Myself and José Sánchez Garrido from Saga Dive​ from Spain.
Saga makes innovative underwater photo ports,
optics and lighting products.
Stephen Frink​ and I are your North American SEACAM​ dealers. SEACAM is the premium pro choice for underwater imaging. We now are offering their new 5DMKIV and Nikon D500 housings. A new strobe is in the works to ship in December.

Besides their new light line-up (reviewed here and amazine Solar Flare Max) Kraken Sports​ has a new LED ring light unit coming soon. It will have a 67mm threaded mount, 1000 lumen power and integrated battery. It can work with almost any housing with port adapters. I think it will be perfect for a small macro setup. They are also starting to ship a new underwater universal phone housing. This rugged housing is made from anodized aluminum, has a vacuum leak detection valve included and uses bluetooth to connect with an app to nearly all phones made, except ones made with a really thick case.

Stephen Frink​ and Ryan Canon​ discussing
some of the new Nauticam USA​ products.
New Nauticam NA-6500 for the new Sony a6500 housing (at right) will soon be in stock at Optical Ocean Sales. This new housing for the update to the a6300 now includes an integrated tray. With lots of port options available and the unique WWL lens, this is a less expensive contender to the Sony a7II. This display shows of the port solution for using the Tokina 10-17 lens for those wanting to move from a Canon DX DSLR.

Also new is the Nauticam RX-100V (right). The new Sony RX-100V will fit a modified RX-100IV, but will require an upgrade.

Nauticam G7XMKII housing (left). This is a great consumer gamer with a 1” sensor and easy-to-use menus. AF speed, battery capacity and other features have been addressed in this new MKII version.

My good friends at SUBAL Underwater Camera Housings​ have many new camera housings with greatly improved features coming out. Beside Nikon and Canon they also support pro cameras like Leica and consumer cameras from Panasonic.

New features include easy to open locks, a small fiber optical TTL trigger for Canon and Nikon, vacuum check system and improved, lighter weight and balance. They have over 50 years of experience and produce some of the finest housings available. With the lower euro, their prices are very competitive! Optical Ocean Sales​ is very excited to be one of their stocking dealers!

New SEA&SEA MDX-80D for the Canon 80D DSLR, now available in a bronze-red color. New SEA&SEA​ Sony MDX-a6300, also available in bronze color, similar to the a6000 with some updates, including glow-in-the dark controls and rinse weap holes around buttons, new knobs and more. They will not be making an a6500 housing as far as they know.

New SEA&SEA​ MDX-5DMKIV DSLR housing. This is a small and capable 5DMKIV housings and has an optional TTL optical fiber optic converter. They will be coming out soon with a leak detection valve system.

Besides the ground-breaking Symbiosis SS-2 strobe/light that i-DAS/i-Torch​ produces, they've come up with an unusual new LED macro lighting system with adjustable arms. There will be snoot adapters available for it. Each head produces 2000 lumens. This is a prototype, probably available mid-year.

Light and Motion has reved some of their lights with the same pricing! This is the more powerful new Sola 9600 Video Pro and Sola 3800F video lights. We reviewed the Sola 8000 earlier this year and really liked them. There is also a new dome port shown that can fit their smaller lights to spread the light to 105 degrees.

Myself and John Bingham from Ikelite Underwater Systems​. Ikelite has been hard at work revising and creating new housing products.

Ikelite Underwater Systems​ new D500 housing with their redesigned port system. The dome port and housing is much lighter that it used to be.
Ikelite Underwater Systems​ now has an improved port system that is more positively sealed and very secure.

Ikelite Underwater Systems​ has a new mix and match lighter housing and back system. You can buy a surf housing that is light and easy to handle and upgrade it to a dive housing later.

Ikelite Underwater Systems​ has also improved their knobs, and now have shutter release extensions and other options available. With these additions, you can create a custom fit and featured underwater housing system.

CineBags has created a new line of innovative and well thought-out underwater photo soft carrying cases, backpacks, port and tool cases and others. They are made from very heavy, durable materials and designed from their many years in making professional photography bags. At left is their new CB 70 Square Grouper.

My pal Alberto Reija Gracia​ from DIVE Damai​. We have several upcoming trips on their luxurious liveaboards. We have room on all these great trips, see our Travel section. We just booked a new Banda Sea to Raja Ampat trip on the Damai 1 in April of 2019, details soon!

Pam Mazey Mertz and John Ellerbrock from Gates Underwater Products. Gates​ has a new PRO Action housing. This housing is purpose built to be a compact, travelable, run and gun system, depth rated to 150 feet.  It has a smaller set of controls – on/off, record, zoom, focus, user and assignables.  It can be pole mounted and is good for surf and free diving. Best of all it can be carried on an airplane!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Kraken Solar Flare Max Video Light Review

My first impression when seeing the Kraken 10,000 lumen Solar Flare Max underwater video light was how nicely crafted they are. The light is incredibly durable with metal construction and a strong glass dome for the LED lights that spreads the light underwater. It also comes with a neoprene cover for the dome  and nice soft carrying case - similar to a camera bag. I was on a "roughing it" type live-aboard with no accommodations for camera gear. So having such large and heavy lights along was challenging. But the Solar Flare lights provided such beautiful illumination that it was worth the struggles.

The Kraken Solar Flare Max has a burn time of 55 minutes at 100%. To charge the light you need to open it up and insert the plug directly into the battery. I found this process very easy. The light just has one dial/button combo for power and settings. To turn the power on, just hold the button until you see the logo appear on the LCD. Press the button twice to turn light on (mode and light percentage will be at the last setting used).

The high-contrast display is very bright and easy to read. Light brightness settings are adjustable in 5% increments, adjusted by turning the knob/button on the back of the light. The brightness setting stays on the display while the light is on, telling you what percentage of the 10,000 lumens you are using. The display also tells you how much battery time remaining you have at that power. I love this feature! Push the power button to change the mode from wide beam to narrow beam - a picture of the mode shows up briefly - then disappears. When the battery is almost dead, the light will only allow 10% brightness for 10 min. The only thing I would change about the display is - I would like some sort of Mode indication to stay on the light display at all times. Since it only stays on for a second - mistakes can happen during quick action shots - if it accidentally gets in the wrong mode and you aren’t in a place where it would be immediately obvious - like out in the blue.

The 160° ultra wide and powerful beam has five COB LEDs in a wide array and the dome port compensates for refraction and spreads the light. Since the beam is so wide and my diving situation was less than ideal, I decided to only use one light for most of my dives. I usually prefer two lights for more even coverage. However this light is so smooth and wide, that I was able to get good coverage by using only one light positioned as shown to the right - to try to emulate natural sunlight.

I attempted different light positions with one light, but that did not work because the weight of the lights made my rig too lopsided and hard to hold. The couple of dives where I did use two lights were actually easier due to a more balanced rig - but it was very negatively buoyant and hard to handle on the surface.

I also had problems with the weight of the light putting so much tension on my housing handles of  that I had to tighten the screws on them a couple of times during the week.

The weight of the light is rated at 3.8 pounds above water and about 2 pounds underwater. But it seemed more negative in the water than that to me. I was using one float arm segment - with added additional floats and that didn’t seem to make any difference. Hopefully, Kraken can come up with a float collar, or another solution to allow the lights to be easier to handle underwater.

Despite all the problems with the weight of the lights, the actual quality of the light is far superior to any other light I have tried. It produces a beautiful wide, white natural beam. The fall-off is extremely gradual, further adding to the natural look.  I would really love to try these lights again, because the quality is undeniable.

Great for Still Photos Too

Being a Fine Artist that moved to video several years ago, one thing I really missed was having quality photos that I could print and show in galleries, along with my paintings. Since my diving, as well as my photography is a huge inspiration for my paintings, that element had gone missing, partly due to the limitations of cameras - but also due to the limitations of video lights. I really like that my GH4 offers both high quality still photos and video. As cameras have gotten better, video lights have also improved. The Kraken Solar Flare Max underwater light is powerful enough - with a wide enough beam, to capture beautiful photos in addition to video. Even a plain old reef scene comes alive with color when using the light.

Kraken Remote Control

First, be aware that the remote won’t power lights on, you need to start with the power on by pressing the power button on the back of the light.

Pressing power button on the remote can change modes the same as pressing the button on the light. Holding the power button turns the lights to 0% - or on. The up and down button changes the lights in 5% increments (holding the up or down buttons does not make the power change faster - you must push for each 5% change.)

I had problems with the remote, and ended up using the lights manually. Initially it worked well. But after I used the remote to turn the lights off (or to 0% - you cannot turn them on or off with the remote), the remote only worked for one light. Taking the battery out and letting the remote reset seemed to cure it temporarily, but the problem repeated itself. I'm sure Kraken will sort this issue out soon.
 — Margo Cavis

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Get the Latest Underwater Photo Gear from Optical Ocean Sales!

Check out our latest E-Mailer for all the best new #underwaterphotography gear! We've got lots of new products from SUBAL Housings, Kraken Sports, SEACAM, SEA&SEA, Saga Dive, Nauticam, i-Divesite and many others. 
All the latest underwater housings, lights and accessories that you're looking for are at Optical Ocean Sales!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Let Loose the Kraken!

Divers and underwater photographers are being inundated with a dizzying array of new and different lights. Some of these have similar features like a single button for both mode and power, single lith-ion batteries instead of more reliable battery packs and chargers. Most less expensive LED arrays that have hotspots. In other words, buying lights strictly on the basis of lumens for dollars doesn’t always yield the best results.

When you're diving at 80’ and trying to remember how many pushes it takes to turn a light up, or if it’s double-press, or single-press-and-hold to switch it to red mode, it can be frustrating and time-consuming. A flooded light, or batteries and chargers that go bad can kill the light altogether.

There are some very high-end lights on the market; Light & Motion's Sola 8000, Keldan, Fisheye Fix and a few others. These have separate chargers, good controls and excellent reliability. But they tend to be larger and expensive.

Doug Taleski with many years of industry experience and founder of Kraken Sports, has seen them all. And decided to create his own line of high-quality Hydra Lights that are fully-featured and easy-to-use.

The new Hydra series of lights come in 2000, 2800, and 5000 lumen powers. All lights have two buttons for ease of use. Simply press both buttons down to unlock the light, then press the left button to change from red or flood, and on the 2800 and 5000 you can change to spot and UV too. While in these modes, you press the right button to ramp the light power up or down.

The Hydras have dual o-rings and are aluminum with a water resistant light head for flood protection. If you flood them, just rinse them out and put in a new battery!

The 2800 and 5000 and are remote control ready. The remote utilizes a fiber optic cord to conveniently connect with the lights when they are extended out on arms, and it can control the mode or turn them up or down independently, or even put them to sleep. It comes with a universal mount for most handles to place it right at your thumb.

All of the lights utilize multi-cell battery packs, with good quality, fast chargers. Recharge time is about 2.5 hours from completely drained.

The lights all have a very smooth, wide output from their COB led for video. The lights all come in a fitted bag, complete with spare o-rings.

The 2000 is meant as more of a focus light with red and flood white modes only. It comes with a YS mount. The 2800 and 5000 lights come with the additional spot white and UV modes. UV is fun to use with filters to see corals and animals with fluorescence at night. They also come with a ball mount, that’s an option on the 2000.

They will soon have out their new Solar Flare 10000 lumen light with a dome port to keep the light wider underwater.  We look forward to using it’s massive output!

We think that the Kraken Hydra lighting products are a great, well thought-out answer to underwater video and photography lighting.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

I-Divesite Symbiosis SS-2 Lighting System Review

Over the years many customers have asked for some sort of combination of video light and strobe. With most new cameras also shooting excellent video, this need has increased. However mounting both types of lights at the same type is bulky and heavy.

Underwater photographers want to keep their rigs small and compact to swim with. It’s especially so in these days of limited baggage when traveling. When you add in extra batteries and chargers, lighting starts to take up significant space.

Ikelite first developed the DS-161 strobe with video light, and it met with some popularity as an all-in-one. However the DS-161 is pretty large and heavy, and the low, 500 lumen output of the the “video” light was weak and uneven.

I-Divesite, also known as I-DAS, located in Hong Kong and distributed in Canada by i-Torch, has made underwater lights and arm systems for sometime. Optical Ocean was one of their first dealers and over the years we’ve seen them develop a wide range of creative and practical underwater lighting ideas.

The Symbiosis Lighting System SS-2 and SS-1 are a well thought out implementation of the combination strobe/light idea. But they’ve taken it a long step farther by making the design modular with well-integrated controls and features.

Current Symbiosis models are shipping with either a 1000 or 2000 lumen head. Different light heads can be interchanged, and in the near future there will be a wide selection of lights available including 4000 lumen, narrow beam, UV and more. As lighting technology is changing rapidly, photographers can simply upgrade their lights’ heads and not have to replace the entire thing. Same with batteries. The light head and battery can be combined with a (soon to be released) light adapter for a stand-alone light with a convent socket provided to add a mount or handle. Planned also are an optional dome diffuser and a snoot for a more directed strobe light.

The specifications of the Symbiosis strobe are impressive and competitive with other strobes and lights. The SS-2 features a guide number of 32 and an energy-rating of 108 watt-seconds, and the SS-1 has a guide number of 24 and 54 watt-seconds. Both have a beam angle of 90 or 100 degrees with a diffuser (that cuts down the power by 1 full-stop). Color temperature on either is 5700K. Having a battery pack gives the strobe a fast recycle time; a full dump takes 1.6secs on the SS-2 and only .08 sec on the SS-1. However any smaller power setting or auto will be almost instantaneous.

When used in the focus light mode with the strobe on as well, the video light head is limited to 2600 lumens of output. What’s nice is that is has an auto off/on  trigger so the light won’t show up in your photos. But that can be over-ridden (SS-2 only) and the light be used in fill-in mode as well.

The strobes connect with fiber optical sync only. They do not work in TTL, but have two Auto Flash settings; A1 (.5 to 2 meters) and A2 (.2 to .5 meters). Most impressively they have a very adjustable manual control; the SS-2 has 15 steps and the SS-1 has 8 steps.

Controls are simple; two knobs one for on/off & mode, one for power level, a button to override the light into video or red light. and a test button (something missing from many strobes).

The back display is impressive. There’s a mode/strobe recycle light that changes colors depending on the mode or when the store is recharged and on the SS-2, and an LCD display that does much of the work.

The LCD display is bright, backlit with fairly large numbers and a display that’s easy to read - even in the dark. What’s even cooler is that the display swivels if you turn the strobe upside down - something I almost always do as I move closer to the subject. No need to re-orient to upside down numbers! The display shows mode/power level, battery remaining and a reminder what mode the light is mode in (white/red/video). It’s easy to understand and read, something that’s nice on a busy dive at 80’.

We tested two prototype SS-2 strobes on our Red Sea Photo Expedition this year. They featured a 4000 lumen light head which we found more than adequate for video use with a GH-4 and 7-14 lens. Color temp was fine and the light bright and even. It was very convent to switch between video and strobe/focus light modes at the push of a button. The nicest improvement was the overall size and ease of use of the rigs; no needing to mount a separate light for video if you want to take both stills and footage!

Battery life varies depending on how much, and at what power, you use the LED light. In our testing we found there was more than enough power to use both for a dive or two in mixed usage. If only used as a video light, it lasted one dive. Recharging the battery was easy, just unscrew the battery and plug in the smart charger; it took about an hour and a half in our experience. From a dead state, the specifications say it may take 2.5 hours to fully charge it. I would buy a spare set of batteries and rotate them if you are doing multiple dives.

For stills the strobe performed pretty well. Our prototype had only a 24 GN so it seemed a little under-powered when compared with the YS-D1/D2 strobes we were using, and a diffuser was definitely needed - all issues now improved on the shipping version. Recycle was very fast, we never seemed to be waiting for it.

We weren’t able to try the auto mode out (due to lack of instructions), but to use it you set the strobe to one of the auto modes, then take a test shot and correct the strobe ev output. It will then automatically adjust itself up or down 8 steps depending on the light that is reflected to the strobe head. As long as the camera settings don’t change, you won’t need to adjust the strobe to get the same exposure. Like many TTL or auto modes, it’s probably most useful for macro or closer-in types of shots. For our use we used manual and adjusted as we needed to. The SS-2 strobe was probably the easiest to adjust manual strobe we’ve used, as you can easily see the ramp of 15 1/3 ev steps on the LCD; no switch detents to click through, or tiny labels to read.

The i-Divesite Symbiosis strobes come in a complete kit with both YS and ball mounts, diffuser, smart charger, spare orings and grease, and a well-written manual. The SS-1 is $599 and the SS-2 is $699.

In our evaluation, the $100 difference in price between the SS-1 and SS-2 is well worth it. With the SS-2 you get a more powerful strobe, a much more adjustable output, better features and best of all the LCD display.

We think the i-Divesite Symbiosis strobes are a creative new underwater lighting product that has a well-engineered combination of features, controls, power with future modular upgrade-ability that make it a great value for photographers.