Underwater with the Canon 5DMKII

I recently made a quick trip to the stunningly clear waters of the Cayman Islands, British West Indies. I figured that a place considered to have some of the clearest water in the world would make a great playground to test a new dive housing for the Canon 5DMKII. I was hoping to not only shoot stills, but also see how bad my video looked underwater (handheld, moving, shakiness?, etc.).

My set-up was an Ikelite Canon 5DMKII dive housing rated to 200′. I also had (unfortunately) only one strobe, the Ikelite DS-125 which is an all around good lamp for stills but not video. Despite this awesome gear, I was still a little unprepared for shooting in the water. For starters, when shooting in deep water, the only colors that prevail are blue/greens.  I didn’t have a red or warming filter to help add some color back into the scene but that didn’t mean all was lost as it was easily added back in post-production. The other problem was no lighting for video. Ikelite does make a new strobe (the DS-161) that is a strobe and video light all in one unit but I only learned this afterwards. Still, in clear waters like this, I had more than enough to make some decent images and get a feel for the challenges ahead in less fortunate places. For a dome, I opted for the 8″ which allows you to use an ultra wide angle lens and avoid vignetting.

Inside the housing I was packing the MK2, a fully-charged battery, a 20mm prime 2.8 lens and a 16GB card. I was shooting RAW and when underwater, you tend to shoot multiple frames since everything is moving – you, the subject, the water around you. In hindsight I wish I had a 32GB or larger as I filled my card on at least one dive.

My initial shoot was in deep water, around 105 feet. The housing performed perfectly with no leaks or locked-in moisture that, when locked in the dome or housing, begins to condensate in front of the lens ruining your shots. The water was a bathtub at 88 degrees. That’s when I snapped this frame at ISO800, F22 at 1/40 second. No strobe. I pushed my luck with depth of field and only this frame of the 3 I shot was the sharpest.

To post process this image, I had to boost the magenta all the way up and warm the scene slightly. To restore some blues, I boosted the vibrance and a touch of the blacks to give some depth to the fish in the distance and the foreground elements but mindful not to cause the foreground coral to become a silhouette.

Moving on, I headed for shallow waters where warming filters matter almost not at all since the visibility is so stunning. Here I attempted to not only shoot stills but video. The video was a bust. A tropical storm (now possibly a hurricane named Alex heading for the Gulf of Mexico) was blowing in and making the three feet of water I was standing in feel more like an afternoon in a blender. Stability was rough and even the sand at the bottom of the sandbar was being kicked up, causing some issues. While the video was a bust, my results back in the hotel room looked remarkably steady considering the situation. I feel that when diving there is a certain stability that is a bit like gliding through outerspace and while I wouldn’t shoot video at a macro level without a tripod of sorts, I do believe that the big scenes with an accomplished diver should translate well with the setup I was using.

Regardless, I did manage to shoot 200 frames before I finally got the perfect balance of wave, sky and sting-ray as seen in this shot below. ISO500, F14 @1/1000 second. I found that to get a solid over under and capture the clouds of this newly formed tropical depression, I needed an f-stop higher than F8, otherwise either my foreground or clouds in the distance were always out of focus.

After a little stingray time, I headed to a scenic coral reef that was almost completely at the surface, only a foot underwater. I swam on it’s deeper outer edges and needed little color correction to capture a very vibrant landscape.