Wide-angle photos are a great way to show people why we love the ocean – it’s a great way to capture either big animals, or big scenes!
I often get questions about the gear I use, and how I set it up. I’ve written (and routinely update) this article so that (1) it’s easy to answer those questions, and (2) so that I can remember what settings I use. A lot of customisation is possible with the Sony menu system, which makes it hard to keep track of my exact configuration!
For the moment, this post focuses mostly on my settings and tips for underwater wide-angle photography with the Canon 8-15 mm fisheye lens (using a Metabones V adapter) on the Sony A7rIII camera, housed in a Nauticam NA-A7RIII housing, with the Nauticam N120 140 mm optical glass fisheye dome port and 30 mm extension ring (which I’ve just bought). I’m a big fan of fisheyes, as I spend a lot of time with large animals (particularly whale sharks, as I’m a whale shark researcher). A lot of my notes here are relevant to any camera and setup.
As an FYI, I always use the LCD screen to compose my shots – it’s one of the main reasons why I switched to Sony rather than a Nikon D850 when I moved to a full-frame system in 2018. The Nauticam housing has a little base plate for the camera which holds the screen out at an angle, making it easier to see and also disabling the auto-switch function between the LCD and viewfinder.
I don’t shoot video with the A7rIII; instead, I mount a GoPro Hero 7 Black camera on the top of the camera if I think it might be useful. It’s actually quite handy sometimes.
Anyway, moving right along…
Shooting in natural light
These settings are still tuned for the 100 mm Zen fisheye dome port that I was using until the end of 2019.
When I’m shooting large, slow marine animals, such as whale sharks, in good ambient light near the surface, my standard settings are 1/250 sec and f/8, in manual mode, with Auto ISO (base 100, maximum 3,200).
I use a High frame rate (8 shots per second) and continuous autofocus (AF-C). I’ve set “Priority Set in AF-C: Release” to minimize the lag time when I mash the shutter lever; the autofocus is normally fast (I use “Lock-on: Wide” most of the time).
Ideally, I’d probably use f/9 or f/10 for improved corners with the small 100 mm dome port, as I do while diving with strobes (see below). However, the A7rIII is limited to f/8 or wider aperture values to maintain phase-detect autofocus in continuous shooting mode. At f/9, for instance, it will stay focused at the same distance that focus was initially achieved. Not useful when an animal is approaching you. It’s fine if you’re just taking photos one at a time, rather than shooting in bursts.
I use compressed raw files, if I’m expecting any kind of fast action, to speed up my buffer clearance. Uncompressed raw files are typically ~82 MB in size, so the camera can’t keep up 8 fps for long when it’s moving that much data. The reduced file size from compressed raw increases the buffer depth and helps the camera clear the images (much) faster, so I can keep taking photos instead of swearing through my snorkel. You’ll need a UHS-II SD card to help with that, too. I use a 256 GB ProGrade card.
I don’t often change these settings. If I’m on a scientific expedition then I’m often taking photos of other researchers at work, so I’d rather be able to focus on composition – and trying to keep up!
I’ll increase the shutter speed for fast-swimming animals like dolphins and sea lions, where I can get away with it, or decrease the shutter speed in low light.
Auto ISO is super helpful, particularly with Sony’s great sensor. I have no problem using ISO 3,200 underwater; I’ll just add minor noise reduction in Lightroom afterward. I’ve been diving into the confusing subject of ISO invariance and my understanding is that, above dual gain kicking in at ISO 640, the A7rIII is effectively just increasing brightness.
There’s an argument, then, for setting Auto ISO to 100–640, when using manual settings (as above), adjusting brightness in Lightroom later to optimize data capture while protecting highlights. Good in theory. However, I tried this with whale sharks in Tanzania and found that – in dark conditions (rain, or early mornings) – the autofocus struggled a lot more than usual. I’ll stick to Auto ISO with 100-3,200 in the future.
I used ambient light for wide-angle photography a lot in Galapagos this season as we were filming, and I didn’t want my strobe flashes to ruin the shot. It’s often dark over there, either because of overcast skies or deeper dives (often both), so I’d commonly drop down my shutter speed to 1/160 sec to reduce ISO levels a bit.
Shooting with strobes
I’ve got a fairly simple process when I’m shooting wide-angle. I normally “fix” my aperture at a setting that should get me reasonably sharp corners, then decide on a shutter speed that will freeze the motion of whatever subject I’m planning to photograph, then I’ll check what ISO I need to get a nice background exposure. It’s easiest to do all that in manual mode so that I can easily work out what I need to change.
Once that’s done, I’ll adjust my strobe(s) power to add some nice light to the foreground. I usually test things out by photographing a rock or coral, then I can start looking for interesting critters 🙂
My starting settings are normally 1/125 sec, f/10 and ISO 200 (in Manual mode). I’ve set the AEL button to ISO, as it’s easily accessible on the housing, and I’ll often adjust exposure using ISO until that hits around 640 (see my note on ISO invariance above). At that point, I’ll start reducing shutter speed, or aperture (if it gets really dark, or if I decide corner sharpness isn’t a big deal).
I shoot in uncompressed raw when I’m shooting with strobes, as I’m only taking one shot at a time, and set Auto Review to 2 seconds so I can check exposure.
I quite like the cool motion blur you get from rear sync flash and slow shutter speeds, particularly at either end of the day when the light is poor, so I’ve got flash mode programmed to my C3 button on the left side of the housing so I can change it easily. I normally use Fill Flash, with the strobes set to 22, as my initial setting.
I use dual Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes (now superseded by the YS-D2J) with Eneloop Pro batteries, a Sony flash trigger, and Nauticam optical sync cables. Note that YS-D2s previously weren’t compatible with the flash trigger, and some shops still list this on their sites, but they are compatible with the most recent Nauticam optical sync cables. I flooded one of my YS-D2s last year. Sad face. The Retra Pro strobes look amazing, but I ended up getting a YS-D2J as a replacement since they’re cheaper, widely available, and work with my existing accessories.
Here’s my (almost) current setup, post-dive:
I’ve added a pair of Glow Dive strobe diffusers since I took this photo, as well as the 140 mm dome port I mentioned above. I’ve also bought a pair of long float arms that I haven’t tried out yet. I’ll get a new photo on the next trip! That’s my Shearwater Perdix AI computer strapped to the Styx floats in the photo above. I love it, but it’s enormous – check out our current computer choices in our dedicated post.
The strobes (and camera) are normally good for about three dives before I have to charge the batteries.
Note that you have to pull the strobes well back – with the front of the strobe slightly behind the handles – to avoid lighting up the sides of the image. (I’m writing this as a reminder to myself, as they’re never back far enough…)
One of the great things about shooting mirrorless is the “what you see is what you get” when using the EVF or LCD. However, it’s helpful to switch this off (“Live View Display: Setting Effect OFF“) when shooting with strobes. Otherwise, the screen can be too dark to compose a shot easily.
Of course, you do want to see how your exposure settings are affecting your background, and there’s a neat way to accomplish this: program your AF-ON button (accessed via the thumb lever on the Nauticam housing to “AF-ON Button: Shot. Result Preview“. That means you can quickly check your ambient light exposure by just pressing your thumb, rather than taking a photo and checking it. (Of course, that only works if you’re using shutter-linked autofocus.)
I’ve been playing around with automating my exposure settings more. When we’re working with whale sharks in the Galapagos, in particular, we’re changing depth and ambient lighting at a speed that I find difficult to keep up with. I’ve trialed using Auto ISO and negative exposure compensation – conveniently accessed through a dial on the housing – and that works quite well, as long as I keep an eye on the background exposure (using the thumb lever with Shot. Result Preview, as above). I still have to make adjustments, but it does get it approximately right in a hurry. I normally start with -1.0 exposure compensation and adjust it from there.
Camera settings for all occasions
I’m often shooting one-handed, so I use shutter-linked autofocus.
I’ve got the “Pwr Save Start Time” – i.e., camera sleep time – set to one minute. I don’t turn the camera off while I’m in the water, so this conserves battery during lulls.
I set my white balance to “Cloudy”. That adds a slight warming effect to underwater images to help counter the blue-green ocean (though I’ll usually adjust white balance slightly in Lightroom anyway).
I use “Multi” metering so the camera is considering the whole frame. The default setting is for exposure to be locked while the shutter is depressed. I’ve switched that off (“AEL w/shutter: Off“) so the camera is continuously evaluating even when I’m shooting a burst of images.
The “Creative Style” on the camera, applied to the embedded jpegs in the raw files, is set to Standard. I always post-process my photos in Lightroom (and occasionally Photoshop), so I don’t want the camera to be adding its own edits.
I find it all too easy to bump settings in the boat or water, so I disable any buttons that I’m unlikely to use.
If you want to learn or improve your underwater photography, I highly recommend Alex Mustard’s book: Underwater Photography Masterclass. It’s a fantastic guide to a rather technical subject!
A few more miscellaneous notes:
- I set Auto Review to 2 Sec, so I can check things by eye when required.
- I set Drive Mode to Single Shooting with strobes. Otherwise, the strobes can get out of sync due to minor variations in recycle times.
- It’s easy to accidentally hit the movie lever. I normally switch that off and use a GoPro Hero 7 for video.
- I’ve set my defaults to the MR 1 dial position, which saves most things, except shutter-linked autofocus and other button customizations.
Hope the above is useful – I’m still working things out as I go, but I do love the functionality and customization opportunities with the Sony A7rIII, and how the Nauticam housing lets me access key options quickly and easily. Ergonomics count for a lot, peeps.
Any questions or suggestions? Let me know in the comments!