Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Great Kayak Deal

I have spent quite a bit of time in the past weeks researching the best
kayak to buy.  I wanted something that was stable, possibly could be used
for photos, tracked well, and was a cut above a really cheap one.
Some quality to it, and for beginning to intermediate kayakers.  I decided on the models below, and as it turns out, one is on sale starting today.  

The sale on the good one starts TODAY.  You can order online and they will
deliver to a store near you.  West Marine branded Pompano 120 for $425, sit-
on-top angler kayak, terrific reviews.  This is a rebranded Wilderness Systems 2008
Tarpon 120 which sold for $900 and up.  Also being sold as a Perception Pescador 120, which you can find on Amazon for $550.  The Pescador retails for $599.  Go for the 12-foot model, not the 10-footer.  

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Review of Atlantis MK1 LED Video Lights: With an Aside on Shooting Video and Stills in Shallow Water

The professional underwater filmmaker’s ideal lights for years have been as follows: We have all been waiting for portable lights that we can travel with, that are battery operated rather than requiring a cable and AC power, and have a powerful, wide beam.  The light must be powerful enough to match what we can do with still photography and underwater flash units in bright, shallow tropical water -- bring out the colors and drown out the sunlight when needed.  They are ideally small enough to mount easily on our housings using existing and familiar hardware like Nauticam and ULCS arms.

I recently had the chance to dive with and test the new Atlantis MK1 LED video lights.  They are pretty close to everything I describe above. 

Here’s what the manufacturer says about the lights:
The Atlantis MK1's are a completely self contained system outputting over 4400 lumens of even daylight balanced (5000K) light that burns for over an hour on full, five hours on low and can recharge in an hour flat. Each LED has a custom CNC turned reflector cone and the lens itself is a solid pour of optical epoxy. This means there are no seals to fail or glass to break. The lens is much more durable and scratch resistant then plastic. The controls are an oversized dial with four positions (off-lo-med-hi) and a simple status indicator on the rear of the lights so they are easy to access regardless of how funky your arms get. For traveling, the complete kit (2 lights, charger, case) weighs in at under 9 pounds and fits easily into a carry-on.

I found the lights to be easy to use and mount using my existing arm system (a combination of Nauticam and ULCS arms), to put out a bright, wide beam of light; and to be well-balanced and just slightly negative underwater (perfect – you don’t want $5000 light heads floating off!) with their closed-cell foam padding around the lights.

For the past five months, I’ve been carrying a pair of Light & Motion Sola 2000 lights with me, which are small enough not to add significantly to my luggage weight or to my gear load while diving.  I set up these lights on a chair facing a white wall, and I then took photos of the wall while the highest setting from the Sola 2000 lights lighted it.  The resulting images show the circle of light thrown out by the Sola 2000s, which is a nice diffuse light that has an abrupt transition from light to no light.  The color of the light is white tending toward a slight cool cast. 

I then placed the Atlantis lights at the same position and at full power, and took photographs using the same settings.  The Atlantis lights seem to be just a bit brighter than the output of the Sola 2000, with a slightly warmer tone.  The beam angle is much wider and does not cut off abruptly like the Solas do, but there is a bit of falloff from the center (which I cannot imagine will be a problem when shooting underwater). 

These Atlantis lights, with their powerful, wide beam, are very close to the ideal that we underwater filmmakers have been seeking for years.  They are bright and spread a wide beam.  They are also much bigger than the Sola 2000s, but still quite usable and light enough to carry in luggage.

 Small lights with narrow beams that filmmakers can use to shoot video have been around for a while (Light & Motion’s HID lights come to mind) but finding portable lights that can put out a great deal of light over a wide beam angle, which allows lighting wide scenes, is a filmmaker’s dream.  These larger lights can be used for wide angle shooting or macro.

I tested the lights on macro subjects while diving in shallow water near the Singer Island Bridge in West Palm Beach, Florida.  Ironically, shooting macro subjects in very shallow water is one of the toughest conditions for an underwater photographer.  Sunlight dappling from the surface wreaks havoc with video.  It overpowers most lights and flash units, leaving your still photographs and videos washed out and less colorful than they should be.

When shooting still images in such conditions, the underwater photographer can overpower ambient light by using a strobe that has powerful output settings, like the Ikelite DS-160 strobes.  I attach a still image of a striated anglerfish where the ambient light has been overpowered by the use of underwater flash units.  The corresponding video clip of this same subject, where I used two Sola 2000 lights about 1 foot from the subject, shows the dappling effect of sunlight in shallow water.  The video image is washed out, and the flicker caused by dappling sunlight from the surface is annoying, rendering the video clip almost useless. 

By varying the intensity of a high-powered flash unit, the photographer can cause the background to go black, or step the power of the flash unit down incrementally to allow a bit of ambient light in the background.  One should avoid allowing the flash power to go so low as to allow the ambient light to match or overpower the flash's effect, as this will mean light traveling from the surface will dominate the exposure, thus causing a washed out image.  Again, being able to step down a flash unit's intensity gradually over a wide range is essential to creating the best result, so tools like the venerable Ikelite DS-160 flash units are valuable in this and most other situations. 

When shooting video, the problem of ambient light ruining a shot is magnified to the point where I almost never try filming in shallow water when the sun is out.  I've filmed countless wonderful macro scenes where the flicker caused by sunlight at the surface ruins the shot.  The only solutions are to try to block the dappling sunlight from the surface (perhaps with a black card held over the subject) or to use video lights that are powerful enough to overpower the ambient light. 

I found that the Light & Motion Sola 2000 lights were small enough so that I could position them very close to macro subjects, but they still did not allow me to overpower the ambient light sufficiently.  I tried the Atlantis lights on the same scorpionfish just a few minutes later, and I had the same result.  Neither of these lights allowed me to overpower the ambient light sufficiently. 

I attach two video clips of a scorpionfish shot at 9 feet below the surface.  These clips were taken straight from a Canon 7D and then trimmed to web proportions and size using MPEG Streamclip.  No color correction whatsoever was made on these clips. 

The first clip shows a scorpionfish lit by two Sola 2000 lights, about 1 foot away.  The lights have little effect.  Midway through this clip, I show the Sola light in the frame.  A couple of seconds later, the video shows the scorpionfish being lit by a Sola held just a few inches away.  The scorpionfish’s red colors come out; the Sola clearly has an effect.  

The second clip shows the same scorpionfish being lit by two Atlantis lights.  The red color of the scorpionfish shows up a bit better. 

The Atlantis lights (and the Sola 2000 lights) will both work well in low ambient light conditions, such as deeper tropical waters, underneath kelp forests, and under the ice in polar regions.  Both lights will work well on macro subjects that are sufficiently deep (say 30 feet or deeper) so that dappling sunlight from the surface does not overpower them.  The small Sola 2000s are ideal for carrying around, almost as an afterthought, for still photographers using DSLRs who want to light the occasional macro subject for video but are using strobes for most of their shooting (of stills).  The larger Atlantis lights are arguably better suited for committed underwater video shooters who will appreciate their power and wide beam angle.

In other words, Atlantis Systems has come out with a great choice for underwater videographers, much like still photographers have had choices between small and large strobes for still imagery underwater.  If a still photographer wants a small form factor underwater, and he is committed to shooting macro subjects, then two small Ikelite DS-51 strobes would be perfect for him.  If he is committed to shooting wide-angle in bright tropical waters, then he is better off with the larger Ikelite Substrobe 200s or DS-160s with diffusers.  Larger strobes like the Substrobe 200 can always be used for macro shooting, but not the reverse (small strobes can’t always be used effectively in wide-angle shooting). 

These new Atlantis lights are tools for the video shooter, equivalent to the versatile but larger underwater flash units like the Ikelite D-160s and Substrobe 200s.  I’d equate the Sola 2000 lights, with their small size and narrower beam angles, to small flash units like the Ikelite DS-51s. 

I should mention that there are other options for lights in the marketplace other than the two video lights that I mention here, notably Light & Motion’s Sola 4000 line and Gates Underwater Housings’ Gates VL8 and VL24 LED Video Lights.  I have not had the opportunity to test these lights; perhaps they can be the subject for another review. 

I am thrilled to now have a choice in my underwater lighting for video.  I also eagerly await Atlantis Systems’ next model, which I hope will have the same wide beam angle and more power.  I’d also be interested in smaller lights that I could use as macro lights, but which are even more powerful than my Solas and the Atlantis MK1 lights. 

Thanks to Dan Bodenstein of Atlantis Light Systems for loaning the Atlantic MK1 LED video lights to test.  Thanks also to Ryan Canon and Reef Photo and Video in Fort Lauderdale for facilitating this loan, as well as all kinds of expert help with gear both in the past and for this shoot.  I also wish to thank The Admiral’s Club of Singer Island for offering a comfortable, convenient place to stay while diving in the area.  Lastly, thanks to my friend and colleagues Douglas and Emily Seifert and Captain Mike Walker for sharing and showing me around the West Palm Beach area.  All photographs and video are by Norbert Wu.