Why Go Digital?

Reprinted from the Houston Underwater Photographic Society newsletter.
Do not reproduce without author's written consent.

I’d like to begin my new column by letting everyone in HUPS know how much it means to me to be able to contribute something to a club like this. In the 4 months I’ve been a member, I have already learned a lot from all of you, so I’m really excited to be able to give something back.

I’ll start off with a little bit about myself. I moved to Houston 4 years ago from California where I grew up. I have only been diving for three short years - two of those with a camera, but I grew up in the water - snorkeling in San Diego’s cold waters 2-3 times a week. Only after college was I able to afford scuba lessons and my own gear. My first underwater photos were taken in the Keys using a Coolpix 990 digital camera. I shot the camera in full automatic - just about all I knew about photography at the time was how to push the shutter button. But I learned fast - incredibly fast. In the past two years "going digital" has allowed me to take literally thousands of underwater photos.

This brings me to "reason #1" for going digital - instant feedback - the ultimate learning tool. The old adage "practice, practice, practice" surely applies here - especially since film is free! All digital cameras will display your shot right after you take it, so looking at the LCD screen underwater you can quickly see if your shot is out of focus or not exposed properly. If so, you just bump your f-stop up or down, reframe the shot, and take it again! An extension of this is that most cameras worth their salt will not just record the photo, they will actually record the exposure information about the photo. This is where the real learning comes in. After my day’s dives, I can hook the camera up to a TV, view my shots and their f-stop, shutter speed, zoom, etc - and learn what I did right and wrong. This is the ultimate tool that lets me get the shot right the first time on my next dive. This probably cuts the learning curve in half for new underwater photographers, saving time, money, and most importantly, frustration. If you’re worried that your slave strobe isn’t firing, you can check your shots after the first dive. If the boat you’re on doesn’t have E-6 processing, this is a huge advantage.

Ikelite housing and Coolpix camera

When considering gong digital, the next most important question to ask yourself is "Reason #2 - What will I be using my photos for?" If you like to email your photos to relatives and friends, display them on a website, or instantly send digital files to your agent - then digital is the way to go. When I get back from a dive trip, the first thing I do is hook my camera up to the computer and transfer my photos to my hard drive. Then I burn the raw pictures to a CD-ROM - just like that, all my photos are safe and I have 2 copies of everything. If I saw something noteworthy at the Flowergardens, I can attach it to an email and fire it off to the Sanctuary staff immediately. No waiting to get film back from the developers. Next I use Photoshop to look at all of the photos and sort them into "keepers" and "so-so" categories - just like with slides - except I don’t have a lot of black frames to throw away at the end of each roll. After sorting, I use the same program to make a nice "web gallery" out of all the good photos which I can upload to my website. Just like that, I can share my photos with friends and fellow divers around the world. If anyone sees a picture they like and want to purchase, I can send them a full sized copy via email right away. That day hasn’t come for me yet, but I’m sure it will happen someday. Here’s a link to one of my recent galleries to show what they look like.

The third reason to go digital is definitely size. My Coolpix fits in the palm of my hand, and the housing is not much bigger. Since digital cameras are very sensitive to light, you can also get by with smaller strobes. Literally everything will fit in a Nikonos Pelican case. If you’re worried about getting your film hand-checked - don’t worry about it with "digital film." One half-dollar-sized memory card can hold 250 full quality shots and it is as tough as nails. You can drop it on the ground and step on it without losing your photos!

Hopefully this month I’ve covered a few of the "why’s" of digital underwater photography - next month I’ll get into the "how’s". We’ll talk about what you need to get started, what you need to know to sort through all the confusing technical terms, and how to pick out a system that is right for you.

To discuss underwater housings, digital cameras, and strobes with other wetpixel readers, check out our message forums.