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Guest post: Underwater Nikon D800 pictures from diving in Puerto Rico

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I’m Marc Pagani, and I’m an adventure travel, portrait, live music, and wedding photographer based in New Orleans. My most recent book, “Fearless Photographer: Travel”, came out this past November 9th and can be found online and in local bookstores.

Last week, I had my 4th shoot in 2 years in Puerto Rico, this time for my stock agency, Aurora Photos.This was my first opportunity to shoot underwater images of sea life with the Nikon D800, and I think it worked out well. Though I took along my fisheye and 105 Nikkor macro lenses and their respective UW ports, I stuck to my Nikon 16-35mm F4 VR lens in an 8’ glass Ikelite dome. The housing was Ikelite’s model 6812.8 for Nikon D800/D800E. I was using two Ikelite DS-160 strobes (one on either side of the housing). The nice thing about using Ikelite strobes with an Ikelite housing is the reliable TTL strobe metering and the convenience therein. When you’re dealing with changes in water pressure and trying to keep your buoyancy perfect, so as not to disturb the pristine coral reefs, it’s nice to not have to make constant adjustments to the strobe output.

Click on images for a larger view:

Because I went to Puerto Rico with a sinus congestion, it took me a while longer to equalize underwater as I descended, and I endured quite a bit of pain on the way down and the way back up, which I’ve never experienced in my 32 dives thus far. Despite this inconvenience, I was able to focus on getting good images. On the very first dive, we saw a large nurse shark and an amazing octopus that was pure white in color when we first saw it, but managed to changed its shape and markings to closely mimic the rock it was trying to hide under/next to. On the second dive, I encountered a school of 7 nurse sharks that allowed me to get very close.

Shooting your subject at extremely close range underwater is essential to getting a great shot, which is why most UW photographer use a fisheye or a very wide lens. The two main reasons are as follows: a. light travels very poorly in the deep, so in order to expose a subject properly, thereby bringing out the inherent color of that subject (which remains hidden, and looks generally grey to the naked eye due to light/color refraction underwater unless there is an alternate light source, such as a flashlight, or camera strobe) your strobes must be very powerful and/or very close to the subject and b. the water column that exists between you and your subject is full of silt, particulate, fish poop, sand, etc, (it’s known as “backscatter”) so the farther you are away from your subject, the more that backscatter defeats the power of your strobe and/or shows up in your images as cloudiness between your lens and the subject.

Working with the D800 underwater was generally a pleasure, but in low light conditions and in any area that had low contrast, such as in an underwater cave or under an overhanging reef, I did find that the camera was “fishing” (excuse the UW pun) for focus, and I did miss a few shots because of this. I expect that my Nikon D4 could have handled this better, but since much of UW photography is done at low ISO settings, and because I wanted the highest resolution possible for these images, I went with a D800. I also found that the edge sharpness, even with the more expensive 8” glass dome (instead of the cheaper acrylic 6” dome) left something to be desired. Luckily, because most of these images were shot with very loose cropping and because of the high pixel count, I’m able to crop into the images a bit and lose the portion of the image corners that are less sharp.

I have not yet put these images on my website, but you can find the full set on Facebook , and you can also find a set of underwater portraits using the same setup at http://marcpagani.com/galleries/portraits/adult/default.html. Thanks for taking the time to check out my images. Much more above ground imagery at marcpagani.com and paganiphoto.com.

If you have any interesting ideas for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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  • Aldo

    weather proof indeed :P

  • http://www.totorotimes.com/ Jordy Meow • Totoro Times

    Great photos! I would love to dive with my D800 but the whole arsenal is really expensive to get. I sincerely hope thos underwater photos can be sold for a fair price :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

      Thanks, Jordy. The Ikelite housing, ports, and strobes were about $4700 (plus the camera body, lenses, dive gear, boat, etc.) It’s definitely a big investment, but will pay for itself quickly.

      • Spy Black

        Absolutely beautiful stuff, but you did break an important diving rule about diving with a cold or any kind of congestion. Of course it’s always difficult when you plan a trip, pays your money and show up, only to find yourself sick in some fashion. It may have been very nasty for you, you were luckiy. I’m glad it worked out.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

          Yeah, when I surfaced with blood in the nose pocket of my mask, I suppose I should have called it a day, but the second dive that day was when I got the images of the big group of sharks. I do a lot of mountaineering expedition photography, so I’ve learned to accept that sometimes I’m shooting when I’m not feeling 100%.

          • Spy Black

            Yeah, while I’m sure mountaineering at less than 100% has it’s potential hazards, underwater it’s too well documented. :-) Good luck with your work, above and below.

          • http://twitter.com/thirdstring3 Robert Smith

            Nasacort may be your friend if the situation comes up again! I don’t like meds, but when I’m seriously congested, it clears me up.

  • Scott M

    Really nice! Love the octopus shots.

    • Neopulse

      Read my mind

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

      Thanks. Octopus(es…octopi?) are very cool creatures, as are all of the cephalopods. They are so damned smart and their ability to change not only their skin, but their shape, too, is really amazing. NOVA has a really excellent documentary on cuttlefish that will blow your mind.

      • Plug

        From the Greek, not Latin: so octopodes rather than octopi in the plural. Who cares? These are great pics…well done.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

          Octopodes! Got it

  • Rene Zuch

    Nice pics. I also use the D800 in an Ikelite housing and also suffered from soft corners with the 8″ dome. The dome positioning recommended by Ikelit is completely wrong. I think you had to crop a lot?
    I calculated different port bodies and my results are much better now. It is described here: http://wetpixel.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=46334&st=180#entry314903

    Some example pics with the new dome positioning you can find here:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/35471048@N06/sets/72157631446283728/

    Regards René

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

      Wow, thanks Rene. Maybe since I have owned the 8″ dome and ports for less than 1 year, I can get Ikelite to take the port back and switch it out for the two you mention. That’s a significant difference

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

      Hey Rene….I contacted Ikelite, and the are willing to exchange the 5510.28 port for the 5510.22 that you recommend. Thanks so MUCH, again!

      • Rene Zuch

        Just to make sure you understood me right. You have to use the #5510.22 plus the extension #5510.58. So the dome must be further away from the camera. I´m quite surprised Ikelite wants to exchange your port, because on their Homepage they still recommend the wrong port, eventhough I told them about their mistake monthes ago. Anyway: You get what you pay for.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

          Yes…I ordered the 5510.58 at B&H (on sale) and will have Ikelite replace the 5510.28 with the .22

  • http://www.facebook.com/egidio.trainito Egidio Trainito

    You do not need a Nikon D800 to get shots like this, try a Sony RX100 in Nauticam housing: less risk and less money!!

    • http://www.facebook.com/egidio.trainito Egidio Trainito

      In my ongoing exposition prints are 39×59 inches and RX100 shots look pretty sharp!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

        That’s great to hear! Congrats!

  • matfar

    The UW world is an amazing place to photograph I document various parts of our island Malta in the Mediterranean have a look on http://www.matfar.co.uk/uw

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

      Great images, Matthew!

  • Reinoud

    Sorry but I’m not really impressed with the photos. You write that it is your 32nd dive, and to be honest: it shows. I usually advise people in my surroundings to not start making pictures underwater before their 50th dive, and after 100 to 150 dives the results start to improve.
    Most of the images of animals are taken from above, which does not flatter them. The witbalance does not seem to be corrected, and the colors look flat (which does not have to be the case when using two strobes).
    I miss the eyes in the fish portraits (they all seem to swim away).

    Underwater photography is a difficult way of photographing, and it take experienced shore photographers years and hundreds of dives to master.

    Your shots are good for a first try, but I have to say, they are not more than that.

    • pixx

      I second this.. also, take a look at the overwater pics in the book he advertises.. they aren’t really special at all – except for the fact that they were made in remote locations like the Himalayas of course!

      • fishguy

        I agree as well, at least about the subjects – the french anglefish “heading away” from the camera is a sure sign the photographer got too close and/or rushed the subject. Angelfish are very curious – if you know them well enough, you can get one to wheel around and give you a look – allowing for a perfect broadside shot. Same thing for the lionfish – they are so slow, there is just no reason to take a pic of them heading away from you. The top-down royal gramma is another shot that should be culled. The women in the bikini looks like she’s riding a bicycle – wait until her fins and legs are straighter for a much more elegant shot.
        I do like the technical aspects of the shots – shows what a great camera the D800 is – too bad I can’t risk mine underwater.

        ~fishguy

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

          These are fair critiques, and I appreciate your taking the time to write them. This was my VERY FIRST try at dive photography and the guest post was not only to showcase the images, but to discus the equipment and technique involved. Have a great day.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

        If you’ve seen all of the images in my book, I assume you’ve purchased the book, so thanks for that. Judging by the reaction from everyone who has read the book (and from the way the book is selling out repeatedly on Amazon.com), I think there would be many, including me, who disagree with you. I’m proud of my work. The mere fact that an image was created in a remote location does not make it a good image. Have a great day.

    • disqus_zPMn3uJcTp

      I totally agree with your comment!

    • Patrick O’Connor

      Not trying to be a jerk or anything but: 1) The focus of this blog, and his post, is gear: not style/composition. That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t comment on those things, just that in this context, yours could have been stated a little more constructively and not form the entirety of your post. 2) I don’t know anything about diving but it sounds like you’re saying no one should take underwater pictures for a very long time. What’s the average length of time before someone has taken 50 dives? Unless you dive for a living, or live by the coast and go every weekend, you’d never take a single photo! 3) I guess since you must be a photographer for National Geographic or something, you would know better than the rest of us but several people really liked his pictures. I know I thought they were really good until you provided soap for those of us among the unwashed masses. Every world class, professional photographer that I’ve encountered says something like, ‘if you like your photos, that’s what matters.’
      Did I sound like a jerk? Yeah, probably…
      At least I didn’t attack your writing skills, or lack thereof. Maybe this was only your 32nd attempt at writing?!

    • joseph

      Well maybe YOU should do a guest post. Otherwise, you’re just some jealous a$$hole.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

      These are fair critiques, and I appreciate your taking the time to write them. You are correct, this was my VERY FIRST try, and while I was conscious of attempting to always be at or below a creatures level, it didn’t always work. I disagree that the colors appear flat. It’s possible that their appearance on your monitor, or just due to the compression they might receive being uploaded to the site, is less saturated than they appear on my monitor. Have a great day

    • Amac

      I have to agree, on many levels.
      Only 32 dives barely qualifies as an Advanced Diver, you are hardly familiar with your gear, let alone concentrating on other tasks. Remember that gear is your life support.
      Master your bouyancy, approaching wildlife, breathing techniques when taking photos, be patient & compose your shot. Take an U/W photo class or naturalist class which will help technically & help you to learn about the animal (subjects) habits & environment which will add to your current experience underwater. As you know, lighting is different, distance appears different, lenses & ports are important decisions also.
      While the photos are fine, they are little more than a record that you were there. The subjects are lost in the background, they dont stand out. Dont be opportunistic, ya you saw a fish, create the image, consider lighting, background, make it come to you. Look at images from photographers that inspire you & ask yourself ‘how did they do that’ & try to replicate it. It’s a good way to learn.
      You have great tools in your hand, now refine & practice.
      With over 1400 dives, I shot thousands of frames u/w with my F4 & Subal housing & 2 Ikelite strobes. When I shot film (before good pro dig cams were out), I really had to plan my shot (& still got lots of crap). Bulk loading velvia & provia pro slide film into 40 exposures to get extra frames was essential. Slide film has very little latitude so exposure had to be very accurate.
      U/W photography is difficult but rewarding, it’s a different world. Now with good digital cameras it really is a bonus.
      I truly look forward to seeing more of your efforts.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

        Thanks for the comments. Given the fact that UW photography is such a specialized field, and the fact that there are very few who do it really well, I can understand how veteran divers feel a sense of proprietary ownership when it comes to making great UW images. To be clear, this is my FIRST UW dive shoot. My goal in shooting these images was to test out the Ikelite and Nikon gear, and increase my comfort level overall shooting and diving. My specialty is Adventure Travel photography, my successful business has been around since 2001, and I’ve been shooting professionally for 18 years. I believe NR asked me to write about the images mostly to discuss the Nikon gear I used, and to talk about the issues/triumphs/problems I had using the Nikon gear. I’m certainly not purporting that these images are the final word in UW photography, but, judging by what I’ve seen in the comments here, and by the fact that these images have already sold well, they are well-regarded by many and I’m happy with the results. They are likely not award-winning like my above-ground images in my book and on my site at marcpagani.com, but I do think the images combined with the text serves its purpose in this NR context. That said, I, too, look forward to many years of perfecting my UW photography. I think I’m off to a great start.

    • Amac

      I have to agree, on many levels.
      Only 32 dives barely qualifies as an Advanced Diver, you are hardly familiar with your gear, let alone concentrating on other tasks. Remember that gear is your life support.
      Master your bouyancy, approaching wildlife, breathing techniques when taking photos, be patient & compose your shot. Take an U/W photo class or naturalist class which will help technically & help you to learn about the animal (subjects) habits & environment which will add to your current experience underwater. As you know, lighting is different, distance appears different, lenses & ports are important decisions also.
      While the photos are fine, they are little more than a record that you were there. The subjects are lost in the background, they dont stand out. Dont be opportunistic, ya you saw a fish, create the image, consider lighting, background, make it come to you. Look at images from photographers that inspire you & ask yourself ‘how did they do that’ & try to replicate it. It’s a good way to learn.
      You have great tools in your hand, now refine & practice.
      With over 1400 dives, I shot thousands of frames u/w with my F4 & Subal housing & 2 Ikelite strobes. When I shot film (before good pro dig cams were out), I really had to plan my shot (& still got lots of crap). Bulk loading velvia & provia pro slide film into 40 exposures to get extra frames was essential. Slide film has very little latitude so exposure had to be very accurate.
      U/W photography is difficult but rewarding, it’s a different world. Now with good digital cameras it really is a bonus.
      I truly look forward to seeing more of your efforts.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.lewis.16144606 Chris Lewis

      I’m confused. Are you “not really impressed” or are you saying that it was “good for a first try”? Bearing in mind that this was his first try, calling it “good” must surely mean that you’re impressed. Perhaps you’re confused too. Never mind.

  • jsilva200022

    Great pictures. I wish I can do the same one of these days… Good job.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

      thanks!

  • neversink

    Admin -Thanks for having guest posts. They spice up this site.

    Marc – Thanks for taking the time to post.
    To the loquacious critics of the NR community – Please take the time to suggest a guest article. I know that I will, in the near future, be writing the admin about an article I would like to write.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

      you’re welcome

  • Maleux Jos

    Hello Marc,
    Lets exchange our camera’s ! For this quality you don’t need a D800

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670836252 Marc Pagani

      Not sure what you mean, Maleux Jos. I’m printing up to 24×36 inches, so I do indeed need the high resolution of a Nikon D800, or D4

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.lewis.16144606 Chris Lewis

    Interesting article, thanks Marc. It’s so easy for people to criticize (and I think they actually enjoy it too), but I found your comments on equipment very informative. And as you rightly say, there are some images here to be proud of – despite the comments of some who are obviously such amazing photographers that they feel it their duty to put everyone else down, instead of taking pictures. Good luck mate.

  • disqus_zPMn3uJcTp

    I saw your pics on facebook. They are great pics. However, I do not think your uw pics are as good as they are. I dont feel that ppl are criticizing you. They just want to give you advice, since uw photography is not easy to learn. Keep trying an share us your pics.

  • ShadowMacho

    Did you use a focus light?

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