Non-diving and photography friends are great to keep you grounded. 'How many mega-piglets are in that camera now, John?', my dear friend Tony asked me one time. He was eyeing up my recently changed but strangely smaller camera than before. 'It's not so much the number of piglets, Tony; it's how clean they are, I replied. Our common interest is in theatre and lighting, and I was photographing the dress rehearsal of a forthcoming production.
The camera was the Olympus OM-D E-M1, and it was 2014. It was the Japanese manufacturer's best camera to date in the comparatively novel Micro Four Thirds format. This digital format was jointly developed with Panasonic a few years before, and this new flagship model was to offer a 'professional' option to photographers. I had used one of the very early cameras in this format – it was LCD only – and I could see its potential. If they could improve this system with a viable viewfinder and better image quality, they were onto a winner.
The first camera to offer this was the E-M5 model, first announced in 2012. The small form factor and a rapidly expanding lens choice made it instantly attractive to underwater photographers. Nauticam, followed by other manufacturers, quickly offered housings. They were enthusiastically taken up by divers keen to reduce their systems' bulk and weight without compromising image quality. I found this especially attractive, as I was shooting a Nikon D2 series camera in a Subal housing. It was fabulous but enormous – and ridiculously heavy for travel.
These Micro Four Thirds or M4/3 were the first mirrorless systems available for underwater photography, and I was quickly converted. The press release for the NA-EM1 Nauticam housing in UWP magazine (issue 76), reads 'while this housing incorporates some of the best features of the housing for the E-M5, the NA-EM1 is a new design, pushing the boundary further towards the ideal human-machine interface.' While the hyperbole does make you smile, this housing was genuinely innovative, well-engineered and highly ergonomic to use underwater. These smaller format cameras have many densely packed controls, which does present housing designers with a challenge. In bringing their 'human-machine interface' to market, it needed to be easy-to-use above all else. They took many of the features of their DSLR housings, such as an integrated handle system, and it did result in a housing that is easy to hold, stable and easier to shoot. This was also the first housing that I used with the vacuum system and integrated electronic vacuum leak detection – and it certainly gives peace of mind. I consider this option essential in any housing now.
A second significant change for me in this system was moving to fibre-optic fired flash. Having used the Nikonos five-pin electrical cables since 1985, I had had my share of failures along the way. The new fibre optic wet connectors eliminated these issues and gave a reliable and straightforward setup that only added to my micro 4/3 rig. I first used the system diving here at home in Ireland with a 45mm macro lens and an 8mm fisheye lens with a small dome port – the entire setup easily fitting in a shoulder bag. The image quality was certainly there, although the Panasonic fisheye lens had a little more distortion than the 10.5mm Nikon that I was used to. But there was no going back. I decided to sell my Nikon and Subal outfit and expand the micro 4/3 system.
Did I find other shortcomings along the way? Yes, I felt the only area that was still a little weak was autofocus, especially underwater in low-contrast, wide-angle situations. When Olympus announced the Mark II version of the E-M1 camera in 2016, I did raise an eyebrow and say to myself; this could be good. I bought the camera as soon as it was available in early 2017 and used it alongside a full-frame system on a landscape photography trip to the USA. I wrote a lengthy review of my experience of using this camera at the time, and again, its compact size and weight (mainly when hiking) were a huge attraction. Olympus had improved almost every aspect of the camera in this second model. I decided to upgrade the housing, and this is what I use today. While there is now a Mark III version available, that has other notable improvements, but many are not particularly useful to the underwater photographer. Further refinements that have made this my chosen system are water contact optics and professional-grade lenses.
My system now consists of a 60mm macro lens; a 12-32mm versatile zoom lens (for use with the WWL-C lens from Nauticam); an 8mm F1.8 fisheye lens behind a Zen 170mm glass dome; and a fibre-optic trigger for flash. Any photographs I cannot get with this system are not down to the operator rather than the instrument and optics.
As the dress rehearsal drew to a close, I shot several dozen photographs from different angles and under different lighting. I showed Tony some of the images on the LCD screen on the back of the camera - 'hmmm, not bad, he said, 'those piglets are spotless'. I decided not to enlighten him on the human-machine interface.
Series V – five-panel gallery artwork
I've been working on a series of five-panel wall display pieces over recent months and am really pleased with the finished work. Now on display at The Boathouse Gallery, Kinsale – each piece has an overall dimension of 145 x 95cm, so needs generous wall space. The work is printed on archival canvas bonded on a solid block and is batten-hung, slightly off the wall to give added depth.
For more, see here.
Contact me or the gallery directly for further details.
This feature first appeared in Ireland’s diving magazine, SubSea, Autumn 2020.
South of Ireland's shores, as the water warms, there are many great diving islands in the eastern Atlantic, known collectively as Macaronesia. These include the Canary Islands, Madeira, the Azores and Cape Verde Islands, as we near the equator.
Irish divers have long been familiar with the much-lauded 'wild Atlantic way' of our western seaboard. At these temperate latitudes, we enjoy great seasonal diving, but we often look south to warmer waters during our late autumn, winter and early spring months. As low-cost and charter airlines have opened up these possibilities, these blue water destinations have become more accessible. Geographically, Macaronesia is the name given to these widely spread volcanic islands, not to be confused with Micronesia, which is the name given to the islands in Oceania in the Pacific – best known to divers for the shipwrecks in Truk Lagoon and the scenic diving in Palau and Yap.
. The Canary Islands and Madeira.
The Canary Islands will be familiar to most Irish divers, Madeira less so. Since the 1960s, the Canary Islands has been a refuge for northern Europeans seeking sunshine in their long winter months. Tenerife is the largest and most populous island and receives over 5 million tourists each year, making it the busiest for tourism. Gran Canaria is the largest island and is considered to have the best weather and beaches. While there is diving on both of these large islands, the smaller ones tend to be more attractive to divers, particularly Lanzarote – the most north-easterly island, neighbouring Fuerteventura; and El Hierro accessed via Tenerife. Being well developed for tourism, they are easy to travel to and explore and have the great advantage of being suitable for non-diving partners or families. This can be a great advantage, as most dive centres will do two dives early in the day, leaving the afternoons free to do other things. The climate, of course, is a big attraction – the annual average temperature being 25°C, although there can be quite a variation between islands. Like most of the islands in Macaronesia, the prevailing winds are the trade winds which blow from the north-east throughout the year and are generally stronger in the summer and autumn months. Water temperature can vary considerably, and particularly in spring, it may only be between 17° and 18°C – and it is not inappropriate to use a 5mm drysuit with a light base layer. Otherwise, a cosy 7mm suit is best. Later in the summer and autumn, water temperatures will get up to 22° to 23°C, and a 5mm suit may be enough. Ashore, there are many natural attractions throughout the islands, from the stark volcanic landscape in Lanzarote to the dunes in northern Fuerteventura. Finding a dive centre is easy, as there are so many, but a recommendation or reputation of long-standing is reassuring. I have personally dived with Safari and Rubicon in Lanzarote; Punta Amanay in Fuertaventura and can recommend them confidently; also with Shane Gray in La Restinga on El Hierro, which I have written about in these pages before.
The Azores are a group of nine islands – the European Union's remotest outpost – and are a long way offshore, being 1500km or two hours flying time from Lisbon. The Azores are also considered to be Europe's best-kept secret – the islands are diverse, exquisitely beautiful, tranquil and welcoming. For a long time, few people thought of the Azores as a diving destination, but it is becoming more recognised, although still undeveloped and mostly virgin territory. Unlike the Canaries, it is not a destination for new drivers or try-diving, as conditions are a little more challenging and require more experience. The underwater landscape is of a similar volcanic origin, with areas of lava and volcanic debris, tunnels, arches and small caves. Visibility is a big attraction here, being so far offshore, and is generally around 30m. Dropping into such clear blue water is always a pleasure. The island of Pico is probably the most interesting for divers, with an excellent and long-established diving and cetacean observing company, CW Azores. The signature dive here is to Princess Alice banks, a seriously offshore dive – 50 nautical miles from Pico Island. The early start and two and a half-hour boat journey is worth the effort with a unique underwater landscape and commonplace encounters with Mobula rays and large shoals of pelagic fish. There are other megafauna experiences to be had nearer to Pico, particularly with blue sharks, and it is possible to snorkel with whales under licence.
The Cape Verde Islands.
While both the Canary Islands and the Azores feel European, the Cape Verde Islands – located a thousand kilometres south-west of the Canaries – feel distinctly African. This group of ten islands is a crossroads of transatlantic travel and a melting pot of cultures as a result. The islands are dispersed over a large area and it is most convenient to take regional flights between them. As with the Azores, the gateway airport is Lisbon. The archipelago is popularly divided into two groups – the Windward Islands to the north, including Santo Antáo, Sáo Vicente, Sal and Boavista, the latter two islands being the most developed for tourism. The Leeward Islands to the south are the main island of Santiago, Fogo and Brava. There is diving on several of the islands, particularly Sal, which has a variety of sites in the Santa Maria Bay. Sáo Vicente also has good diving and the seascape resembles the volcanic characteristics of other Macaronesian islands, but with the rock faces often covered in bright yellow polyps and with larger aggregations of surgeonfish, parrotfish and Atlantic big eyes. Turtles are also frequently seen, as are nurse sharks, occasionally found resting under rocky overhangs. Being much further south, water temperatures are a very comfortable 21°C to 27°C, so a 3mm suit will often suffice with a rash vest or hooded top. Dive centres are not as numerous or long-established, so it is worth seeking a recommendation and asking details about the diving, boats and guide experience.
'The Great White Shark is the ocean’s most fearsome predator. It is widely distributed in all seas, but particularly in the cool waters of South Africa and Australia. They are solitary animals and we know little about them. Getting close to them is difficult, as they are essentially man-avoiders. Food, or the smell of it,
is the only way we can deliberately attract these animals into close quarters, in order to observe them. During the southern winter, near Dyer Island in South Africa, white sharks are regularly seen patrolling the waters. On nearby Geyser Rock, thousands of seal pups have just been weaned and are venturing into the sea, ignorant of the sharks. The turbid water gives excellent cover for a sudden strike and a rich meal.
On arrival at the small town of Gansbaai, the sea is white as large waves crash ashore. Dyer Island is barely visible in the distance. We listen, with raised eyebrows, as the skipper of the ten-metre catamaran tells us the day’s plan. ‘It will be a little rough on the way out, so hold on tight’, he grins. ‘Once we anchor, we will try to attract the sharks to the boat – if they stay, we launch the cage. Once you are in the water, there is only one rule: no part of you can be outside the cage at any time. You cannot see a shark come from underneath. We would be at sea for four to five hours. We might see sharks, but we would need a little luck.
Thrashing through the water, the twin outboard engines roar in protest to the high seas. In the lee of the island, the breakers smooth out to long, steep swells. The breakers thunder into Geyser Rock, the booms mixing with the cacophony of thousands of seals barking and gulls calling from overhead. Driving rain stings exposed cheeks as hoods are drawn tight. A large plastic bait box is opened and an unforgettable stench fills the air. Two onion bags, filled with offal from a local fish factory, are strung over the sides of the boat. An oily slick trickles into the current. Any sharks crossing it should follow the scent to investigate its source. At the same time, a heavy line with bait and a float is thrown aft – this lures the sharks close to the boat. On such a winter’s day, I doubt if we will see anything.
Within minutes, however, a trademark dorsal fin passes close to the bait. The shark researcher slowly draws in the line. The shark crisscrosses a path towards us. It is huge, its shape now visible in the grey water. Closer and closer, then a lunge to swallow the bait whole. The famous jaws protruding and the eyes rolling back for protection, each bite a determined attempt to take the food. The line is held tight and the enormous head clears the water and lunges once more for the bait. The rope is pulled clear as the researcher grasps the snout and lifts it upwards, the shark momentarily confused. A final, searching bite, shows her gaping pink throat and rows of serrated teeth, water swirling around the mouth as she slips quietly back beneath the waves.'
I had a chance to try out the recently released black and white film, Ilford Ortho 80, in my pinhole 6x12 camera. I really like both the camera, an Ondu 6x12 Multiformat Rise, which allows 6x6 square, 6x9 and panoramic 6x12 formats, and is a beautifully crafted wooden camera made by a small company in Slovenia.
The new Ilford film is also very nice, particularly for outdoor photography, where its ISO is rated at 80 – it is 40 for tungsten light. There is some reciprocity failure with the very long exposures associated with pinhole photography, so you will need to allow for this. The information on this is listed on the Ilfordphoto.com website.
There is, of course, some inevitable vignetting with the 6x12 format in a pinhole camera, but I rather like it...