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.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Subal Underwater Photo Systems Now Available at Optical Ocean Sales!


We're now a Subal dealer!

Subal has made some of the finest quality underwater housings available since 1954, and we're proud to now be a stocking dealer for them! Stop in and see Austrian-quality, hand-crafted housings, ports, gears and accessories for the Canon 5DS/r, and Olympus E-M1.

We'll soon have one of the first Subal ND500 housings available for the Nikon D500 DSLR in stock!

Congratulations to Kona Underwater Photography Shootout Winners!

1st Place overall and 1st Place Wide AngleBo Pardau
We were happy to be a sponsor of the 1st Kona Underwater Photo Shootout along with Kona Honu Divers and other leading manufacturers! Some great photos and good fun! Congratulations to the winners!

3rd Place Wide AngleDeron Verbeck
and a $100 gift certificate from
Optical Ocean Sales.
The results of the 2016 Kona Underwater Shootout are in! A big THANK YOU to our sponsors for this year's event; SEA&SEA Underwater Imaging, Waterproof USA, Optical Ocean Sales, Light and Motion Dive, TUSA, Cressi, MARES - just add water.


Twelve contestants gathered from Oahu, California and Kona at the headquarters of Kona Honu Divers on Friday May 20th to celebrate the start of the competition. The contestants had 2 days to shoot wherever and whatever they wanted, as long as the images were uploaded by midnight on Sunday the 22nd


By the end judges, Doug Perrine and Jeff Milisen, had the difficult choice of trying to determine which images deserved top honors. With such varied subjects as models, baitballs, moray eels, blackwater critters and even minute brittlestars, the choices weren't easy to make. Nonetheless, the winning images emerged in each category and with an overall combined score the winning photographers picked their prize out of a pile of gifts ranging from wetsuits, dive computers, gift certificates, light, strobes, regulators, masks, dive bags and lots of other goodies.

Honorable Mention Macro by Tim Ewing and a $100 gift certificate from Optical Ocean Sales!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Nauticam Sony NA-6300 Underwater Housing: First Look Review

We just received our first Nauticam NA-6300 housing for the Sony a6300 camera. We noticed quite a few refinements and small additions over their older NA-6000 housing that we thought we’d report on.

The size and weight is about the same as the older housing, and a bit more rounded and tapered on the top. There are many small changes like larger more robust knobs present throughout.

The first thing we saw was that there are now two bulkhead ports to accommodate both M14 and M16 bulkheads, or the new push button vacuum release valve. It works with the included leak detection electronics of the housing to quickly let you know if you have a pressure leak before it becomes a water intrusion. Having dual bulkhead ports was first introduced on larger SLRs, then on the small Sony NA-RX100IV housing. It gives you the ability to add the vacuum valve and either an external monitor like the SmallHD 502, or an electrical bulkhead for strobes.

Speaking of strobes, we also noticed that Nauticam has slightly canted the optical port cover to allow for a little less strain on sync cords and better passage of light.

One of the main control improvements is with the shutter release. It’s now a little longer and sleeker, with a more tapered design at a slight angle to allow easier usage. But one of the coolest improvements over the a6000 housing, is the included external shutter release trigger and brackets.

When mounted under the brackets with Nauticam’s adjustable FlexiTray, it allows you to adjust the trigger to be directly under your fingertips and to adjust the amount of “pull” you like to obtain a half-press for AF and release the shutter. Introduced last year, this external trigger has also had some small tweaks. The brackets now have the little black plastic shims locked into place and thumbscrews are now provided, which makes this much easier to assemble.

Having these extras included along with the usual complete set of extra brings, grease and tools, shows the attention to detail that Nauticam brings to their products.

That detail also shows when moving to the inside of the housing. Keeping the housing small and moving controls to a logical position, they are ergonomically laid out so they are comfortable to access. All the usual Nauticam innovations are present such as the locking, movable “foolproof” bayonet port system and interchangeable eyepiece for the viewfinder. Noticeably, the lens release has been moved to the lower left via a long lever to a much better position. The electronics for the leak detain system are now also sealed, except for the battery.

The NA-6300 works well with the rest of the Nauticam optics system. They support a very wide array of ports for consumer and pro E-mount lenses. Although the Sony 16-50mm power zoom lens is not as highly regarded as the other Zeiss models, Nauticam has developed a high-quality versatile solution for this “kit” lens with their WWL-1 Wide Angle Lens and CMC-1 Compact Macro Converter. This allows for a “one lens” solution to cover everything from macro to 130° FOV wide angle shots and is perfect for video with the electronic zoom capabilities of the lens. (See our earlier report here for photos using a similar Olympus solution).

We think the Sony a6300 is a winner with 4K video and 24 MP stills and much improved AF and metal body construction. It has has a lot of great improvements that make it a strong successor to the Sony line-up. Nauticam has taken that baton and carried it across the finish line with their elegant NA-6300 underwater housing.

Red Sea Expedition Video on Nauticam GH4

Optical Ocean's Margo Cavis has finished up her Red Sea Aggressor Trip Video! We spent a week on this great liveaboard on the southern route to St. John's Reef.

She's done an outstanding job with her Nauticam GH4 and Olympus 7-14mm lens set up. Thanks also to Light & Motion for the use of their great Sola 8000 Video Lights.

This was a group effort with many customers adding in stills as well!

Don't miss out! Join us on the next OOS Photo Expedition to Dive into Lembeh Resort next fall!

Monday, April 11, 2016

A New User's Observations on the Nauticam Panasonic LX100

Rick Williams recently purchased a complete Nauticam NA-LX100 system from us and we thought his story was one that many new underwater photographers would enjoy, no matter what camera they are using.

Jack,

I wanted to let you know how pleased I am with the Panasonic Lumix LX100 and Nauticam system and I wanted to send you some of my best shots to show results.

Buying the full kit was a way of challenging myself and to overcome the frustration that I couldn't tell the camera what I wanted it to do.  That said, now I had the kit that would listen but was I really ready to know what I wanted?

Answer, yes, but it took a bit of time.  The first outing was a week to Bonaire in the Caribbean.  A bit of shore diving, a bit of boat diving and lots of opportunity for morning and evening dives.  This being my first real dive series, the camera, housing and strobes makes one very disciplined but it all made it to the hotel and putting it together finally was quite a thrill.  A few tests to ensure the fiber optic link to the strobe was working and I was ready.  But a lesson to the intrepid diver.  Don't change too many things at the same time.  For me, a new 5 mil wetsuit, new BC, new mask and new camera it was a frustrating couple of days where the buoyancy and getting to know where things should be took away the focus on photography.   I ended up with no flotation disks on the camera - it is about 2 pounds negatively buoyant but keeps both hands occupied so longs swims can be a chore.  Shore diving with the camera was difficult.  I'm getting older and stiffer so getting out in the surge and putting on fins was a challenge with only one hand.  I've seen a set up with two straps holding the camera by the handles and connecting to the BC so I recommend that if you do shore dives.

First two dives showed me that I needed to have two modes ready - one without flash and one with.  So I experimented with the custom settings but ended up relying on the iA setting for shots without flash.  That gives the all-blue coloration but can be adjusted to reasonable degree in RAW.  With flash I was not happy with the first series as the view in the finder wasn't helping me compose and focus.  So I shifted to the center single focus point with the picture in picture setting and zoomed in post-shot display.  OK - now I can see what I'm getting (at least what shows in the display).  I was using RAW (with large JPEG so I could see the results each evening).  My settings were aperture priority F8 or F16 with auto ISO and auto speed.  Not great results as the camera in AUTO mode is not really your friend.  It took me a few days to figure out that I needed to take more direct control so I set shutter speed to 200 (yes I know it is 1/200) so the shutter sync limit of 250 wouldn't hurt.  Tried that for a few dives and again, I was getting too much burn on many shots.  Then I finally got it better and took off the AUTO ISO and just set it for 200 fixed.  Now things were cooking.  You said that you would be providing a recommended slate of LX100 settings so I would love to see that.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Light & Motion Sola Video Pro 8000 Light Review

I recently had the opportunity to try out the Light & Motion Sola Video Pro 8000 Lights while diving in the Red Sea. These 8000 lumen video lights are very close in size to a good set of strobes – bigger than the other video lights I have used – but still fairly compact for an 8000 lumen light.

Due to the size and density, they are, of course, negatively buoyant, so I added 2 large floats to compensate for both the lights and the 180mm dome port I was using. This made my Nauticam GH4 rig close to neutral, but just slightly negative.

They came with a ball mount, although a YS mount is available. At first I thought I wouldn’t like that, but it turned out to be an asset, making it easier to get the lights positioned at the angles I wanted – as opposed to the more restrictive YS mount, or flex arms - which really wouldn't hold these larger lights well.

One thing that stands out about these lights is the LED display. Light & Motion really put some thought into both the display and the controls of these lights. The LED display is bright and clear, making it so much easier to read than any other lights I have tried – no matter what the lighting conditions of your dive. Then, on top of that, the controls are simple and specific. One control is just a dial, it will turn the lights on or off. In the off position, the light is locked so the other control will not work and the light will not be accidentally switched on during travel. The second control is both a dial (lock) and slider. To make the lights brighter – slide it towards the head of the light, to make the light dimmer – slide it towards the back of the light. The slider always pops back to the center, so each bump in either direction adjusts the light by 1000 lumens. This made it much easier to get the settings I wanted – when I wanted them, unlike most video lights where you would have to cycle back around through all the settings in order to bump the brightness down a notch.

When the dial is turned so it is in the locked position the light setting is locked. I did not use this feature but I can see how it would be valuable in certain situations. To test out the battery life, I did do one dive with the lights on full power for the whole dive. They did last – but that was really overkill. I had much better results by varying the settings – depending on the scene & natural light available. I found that usually I had them anywhere from 4000-8000 lumens, since none of the dives were shallow, bright light dives. The LED display lets you know how much time you have left at whatever setting you choose. That was good for me, and would be extra helpful if I was doing the type of diving where I couldn’t charge the lights each time, which is usually the case. But, since this trip was a live-aboard, I had easy access to power, so I did end up charging them between dives – even though they would most likely last for 2 dives when used at varying brightness.

I was really impressed at the charging speed and I could clearly see what percentage charged they were – with the bright display - as I was just walking by. I also liked being able to charge them without taking them apart, the charging cable just plugs right into the back of the light.

The Light & Motion Sola Video Pro 8000 Lights provided nice, even coverage. I did not see any hot spots at all. The fall-off was gradual and the edges were not too sharp. The wide 90 degree beam angle made it easy to get consistent lighting coverage, even while shooting wide angle. Plus, the lights are so bright, I was able to take photos using them — between shooting video.

Speaking of brightness, having the option to vary the lights power – up to 8000 lumens gave me the ability to get accurate color – without any additional white balance adjustments.

These lights seem to be well built – with solid, tough construction. I never felt worried about either their durability or their water resistance. They packed easily and I would definitely recommend them to anyone using an advanced video system. — Margo Cavis

Friday, March 18, 2016

Egypt & The Red Sea Aggressor Photo Expedition

The last time I saw the Egyptian Pyramids was 18 years ago. A lot has changed, and a lot hasn’t, having already all ready lasted 5,000 years. One of the things that was new is the lack of tourists, mostly due to misplaced fear. Fear of different cultures, and fear of the unknown. Some is founded on media hype, and some is due to mistrust, but most of it is misplaced.

Divers, however, are a strange breed. When somebody yells “shark”, most people run away, but divers say “Where?” and jump in the water. Underwater photographers are even worse. They’re experienced divers who want to take shots of the most unusual animals and situations. They may be apprehensive and careful - that’s a good thing - but never so scared that they miss a great opportunity.

Our Optical Ocean Sales Photo Expedition was for two weeks; Feb. 22 to March 7th, 2016. Twenty people had signed up, but as usual we had a few drop out due to work conflicts or health reasons, and a few join in. Several dropped out, however, because they were afraid of the political situation or for their safety. And I’ve had several inquiries since we’ve been back  asking if we had problems or if the Egyptian people were hostile to us. We all found that the answer was quite the opposite. We had a great time. We felt quite safe. People were extremely warm and friendly, just as they were on my last trip to Egypt, 18 years ago. Some things in Egypt, like the Pyramids, don’t change. It’s all a matter of perspective.

We started out our land tour in crazy, raucous Cairo (“why use your turn signal, when you can use your horn?”). This is a terribly over crowded city, with heavy, 24/7 traffic. Cairo is the very definition of urban sprawl with 24 million people. It now surrounds the Giza plateau, which was once well out into the desert.

We toured the Egyptian Museum, Pyramids, Solar Boat and Sphinx at Giza and had a great dinner at a Thai food restaurant. Seriously, one of the best Thai dinners we have ever had was at “The Birdcage” in the Cairo Intercontinental Hotel.

Our group then flew down to Luxor, where we stayed at the Jolie Ville Hotel. It was busy and disorganized, having been mostly vacant for a while. They had an oncology conference in progress, where about half of the doctors were smoking like fiends. Public smoking is still pretty much the norm in Egypt; I guess Joe Camel lives on.

One of the highlights of our trip was the next morning when we went hot air ballooning. Taking off just before dawn, with the heat of the burners warming us, we watched a spectacular sunrise from 2,000 feet over the Nile. We looked down on farms, and the tombs of the West Bank, where we would spend the rest of the day touring. Visiting 5,000 year old tombs, with vibrant paintings as fresh as yesterday, the ancient temples of Karnak, Luxor and Medinet Habu, gave one a sense of perspective.

Many times young Egyptian school kids, practicing their English, asked politely to have their pictures taken with an American. We couldn’t have felt more welcome in their country.

But on to the diving: We left the next day on a long 5 hour bus ride to Port Ghalib, near Marsa Alam, where we met the Red Sea Aggressor liveaboard. We came across large hotels, condos and resorts without anyone in them as we drove along the coast. They were like ghost towns. All very sad, as this was high-season. Reaching the boat at dusk, we were welcomed aboard and shown our cabins on this luxurious ship.

The Red Sea Aggressor was rebuilt a couple of years ago and is very comfortable. Although our cabins were pretty small, the dive deck and various sun decks and the salon were very nice and newly appointed. The camera tables were a bit small for our large group, but we managed, with a couple of us using the cocktail tables up near the bar on an upper deck. Throughout the week we were treated to amazing service (better than the other Aggressors I’ve been on) with excellent food, served in a fine dining atmosphere. I’ve been on a lot of liveaboards, and I could see how well the crew had been trained; not just to do their jobs, but to take care of guests anyway they could.

The next morning the boat headed out of port to a couple of close dive sites to test our weighting and settle into our skills. The water was a bit brisk at 74F, but with 5mm suits and beanies on, we were pretty comfortable. The weather this time of year is pleasant, in the upper 70’s and low 80’s. Some days we had some wind, but it wasn’t too bad.

We then steamed most of the night to Daedulus Reef. It was a bit of a bumpy ride, so most of us didn’t get much sleep. However, we were up at dawn and woke up in the cool depths after a zodiac ride out to the reef.

Daedulus is a coral atoll out in the middle of the Red Sea with an old lighthouse on it, first built in 1863 and rebuilt in 1931. We were hoping to see some hammerhead sharks and other pelagics there, but were skunked, only seeing one silky shark (I am told it swimming under my feet while I surfaced on the last dive). But the walls were nice, and there were lots of great hard and soft corals of every hue, in very clear water. That afternoon, we took a break to hike up the dock to the lighthouse, where we climbed our way to the top. A few of us almost lingered too long; the keeper had us locked in!

Steaming our way further south that night, we arrived at the St John’s reef area, where we had some spectacular dives in the caves and swim-throughs located there. We then moved a little north to a great spot that had some pinnacles covered with soft coral and clouds of orange Anthias. Although the current was ripping, it meant the corals were open and the photography opportunities abundant. Also on many dives we were seeing jellyfish, and had a great time on the surface shooting them and each other. Some divers practiced their blackwater dives and got some great night shots of squid and other small squishy critters.

The next couple of days we hit a few atolls and reefs along the southern coast, then moved up to “dolphin reef” lagoon, hoping to snorkel with some dolphins. They weren’t home, so we did a couple of easy dives enjoying the scenery. After surfacing, we found that another boat had anchored next to us. Much to our dismay, a group of snorkelers were standing on the reefs, not really understanding the damage they were causing.

The last day we hit famous Elphinstone Reef for a couple of morning dives on walls and a drift dive along the reef. Schools of trevallies and sardines were amongst the soft coral, with some nice gorgonian fans, not usually seen in abundance. We then steamed back to Port Ghalib for a fun cocktail party and then off to Cairo and home the next day.


Although this was a long trip, all who came seemed to enjoy it and have many happy memories of the ancient cities and colorful reefs of Egypt and the Red Sea. My thanks to Donna at South Pacific Island Travel and the Red Sea Aggressor for providing us with an excellent experience. Cairo & Giza, Egypt Luxor
Red Sea Aggressor

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