By Caitlin Hale
Simplicity and results... that's what we all want right? Taking your underwater photos to the next level requires lighting. For a lot of us, the number of choices out there can be daunting. It is difficult to determine what features and specifications will help you to get the photos you desire.
Remember to keep things simple, especially if you're looking for quick results.
When lighting a macro subject it can be easy to end up with a flat looking image. If you're shooting two strobes try angling your strobes slightly differently or positioning one slightly forward of the other to improve visual dimensions.
Part of my responsibilities as the head of the photography department at a major dive resort was creating and teaching customized courses for our underwater photography students. In the process my colleagues and I have spent extensive amount of time shooting a variety of strobe systems from the leading manufacturers paired up with the Olympus Tough TG series cameras.
Shooting a subject against a sandy bottom can be a good reminder about how quickly strobe light gets absorbed by the water. Stay within 3-4 feet (1m) of your subject for the best results.
Our customers are typically coming to the resort for only 1-2 weeks at a time, and they want to leave with the best photos that they can. For us it is important to focus on easy. So we stuck to TTL(Auto), changing from shooting one to two strobes as well as macro and wide angle subject matter.
It became a very frustrating process. All too often the results were unsatisfactory. More often than not, the strobes was failing to adjust itself accurately and fire reliably. One of the leading marketed slave TTL strobes for the Olympus TG-5 and TG-6 cameras produced a usable image 40% of the time. So many lost shots!
Good strobe exposure is essential if you don't want your dive buddy to look sickly in their underwater portrait.
TrueTTL Strobe Exposure
Then we encountered the game changer... the RC1 TTL Receiver for DS Strobes by Ikelite. Unlike strobes with a generic slave TTL mode, the RC1 Receiver delivers TrueTTL exposure via fiber optic cable with Ikelite DS51, DS160 and DS161 strobes. Cameras that have RC flash mode (like the Tough series) partner with the RC1 TTL Receiver, allowing more accurate and consistent exposure when compared to slave TTL.
The difference is that when the camera is set to RC flash mode it knows that a remote strobe is being triggered. So it sends different, more accurate information to the remote strobe. The strobe is no longer guessing and the exposure benefits from the strobe being calibrated directly by the camera.
Once we started shooting with the RC1, we were astonished by the consistently accurate results we were getting. Strobe accuracy shot up to 98-99% for both macro and wide angle. We could no longer blame the strobe for missing a shot. We could finally unlock the full potential of the TG-5 and TG-6 cameras.
In this situation, the turtle would be silhouetted without the flash of a strobe hitting its underside. When you're shooting a fast moving subject like a turtle, your distance-to-subject is changing constantly. TTL strobe exposure is essential because it's impossible to manually change strobe settings as quickly as the turtle is moving. Here the RC1 operates perfectly because the camera knows your strobe is attached. Other slave TTL systems may be confused a by the very light background and end up firing too weak of a flash.
Why Manual Strobes Aren't the Answer
There are so many factors that lead to frustration when shooting underwater. It's hard to constantly account and adjust for currents, lighting conditions, moving subjects, and varying depths, all while maneuvering in close to your subject. And keeping track of your gauges, your buddy, and your navigation. It is a relief to eliminate the strobe performance from our list of things to be concerned about.
But TTL strobes isn't laziness or just for beginners. TTL is the standard for topside shooting, and it works just as well underwater when the camera is communicating correctly with the strobe.
Highly reflective subjects tend to be very challenging for TTL or manual strobe systems. It's easy to overexpose the subject and lose the details in their texture.
There are times that manual strobe exposure is desirable. For example, when the strobe is positioned remotely at a distance inside of a wreck. Or when you want to vary the intensity between two strobes for increased shadowing effects (though this can often be accomplished by positioning the strobes at different distances in relation to the subject).
Most of the time TrueTTL strobe exposure is the way to go underwater whether you're shooting macro close-up with the camera's awesome microscope mode or ultra wide angle with a FCON-T02 Fisheye Converter.
With very small subjects you can easily get away with shooting a single compact strobe.
Getting Correct Strobe Exposure with the RC1
To use a strobe in TTL mode with the RC1 Receiver, you need to set up your camera for the Olympus Wireless RC Flash System. Highlight flash settings in live controls and select [RC] (remote control). This setting will stay active when you turn the camera off and back on, so you don't have to re-set it every time you dive.
Turn your strobes on and set their power switches to TTL. Position your strobes to point at your subject. Take a photo.
That's it. You've got correct exposure!
With larger scenes, dual strobes are preferred for even lighting and full coverage.
How Big of a Strobe Do You Need
Time to ask yourself some questions: do I prefer macro, wide angle, or am I looking to do both? Am I going to stick with a compact camera or eventually move up to a mirrorless or DSLR model? Am I worried about weight allowance or space while traveling? What's my budget? Answers to these questions can help steer your choice in the right direction.
Size is important to make sure you can remain confident, comfortable, and most importantly streamlined with your buoyancy while shooting underwater. Smaller compact strobes like the DS51 benefit divers who most often shoot macro, are set up on a compact camera system, need to be mindful of size/weight restrictions, and/or shopping on a budget. Most of the time we are shooting smaller compact systems for a reason, and quite often that's how you'd like to keep it.
The DS51 with RC1 TTL Receiver makes this frogfish come alive by bringing out its intense color.
The DS51 strobe is kept lightweight by operating from 4 AA batteries and offers users the choice of TTL/Auto or 6 manual power modes. All too often I see TG users wanting better results but hesitant to add on anything to this little camera system. In order to really maximize the results of the macro/microscope modes strobes are needed. Pair the DS51 with the RC1 converter and you're set TG series users! Want to add a bit more light/power, coverage, or maybe try some larger scenic pictures? Easy, extend the tray and add a second! Still making it a more affordable lightweight choice.
Those who fit the opposite criteria and are happy to swap out size for more power and speed and have a larger budget available; then the DS160 or DS161 strobe is your answer. The DS160 series operate by a dedicated rechargeable battery pack, allowing for twice the speed and over three times the energy. These strobes are geared more towards divers wanting more professional big scene light, and an increased speed of shooting faster moving objects.
Even on the sunniest day in shallow waters you won't bring out the colors underneath a pier without an external strobe or two.
There are enough battles to fight underwater. We teach our students how to set themselves up for success so that they come back with photos they're proud to share. There are so many benefits for using TTL (Auto) settings for strobe work with the TG-5 and TG-6 cameras. Your results will benefit greatly from having more time to focus on getting yourself, the camera, and your strobes in the right position!
Let me do you a favor and tell you that every time you add a new task to perform underwater, that's more distraction from what you are under there to do in the first place... which is dive!
Reds and oranges fade fast as light travels through the water, even when you're working close-up on a small subject. Strobes are necessary to bring those colors out in your photos.
We're familiar with almost every strobe on the market and we work with our customers to get the best results with whatever equipment they arrive with. It's difficult to watch shooters struggle with strobes after they've already made a big investment in them. There are workarounds and tricks to make almost any underwater strobe work with the TG-5 and TG-6 cameras. There's only one solution that I feel comfortable telling Tough users to trust in TTL mode, and that's using the RC1 TTL Receiver.
Caitlin Hale started out with a PADI Digital Underwater Photography Course and her passion bloomed from there. She went on to meet a variety of professional underwater photographers while working in Little Cayman and Komodo. Since then Caitlin has started the Photography Department at Dive Friends Bonaire and channels her love for photography into an enthusiasm for teaching visitors how to get results, fast. She has been particularly focused on the Olympus Tough series and has developed a course around how to get phenomenal results with this pocket point-and-shoot.