Maldives – My First Attempt in Underwater Photography

For some time I was fascinated by the great underwater images seen in nature photography competitions like the NMH Wildlife Photographer of the Year. I had many times thought about starting with underwater photography myself. I have no experience with diving but when I was a child I went quite often snorkeling together with my parents.

Last year I went to Croatia, mainly for a family vacation but also for some landscape photography. We spent a few days on the island of Cres, where we did some snorkeling. My daughter Linnéa (now 9 years old) was absolutely fascinated by the experience and wished to do some more snorkeling.

In addition, I was not that happy with the new Leica M240 as a successor to the M9 and decided to change my photography system to a Nikon D800 for which some great underwater housings are available.

Therefore I decided it’s time to start with underwater photography and planned a snorkeling trip for the Pentecost vacation.

When I went to my travel agency some weeks ago I was thinking about a trip to the Red Sea in Egypt. But there were no flights available anymore (from Munich at the weekends) and I had to think about alternatives. After checking the cheaper options on the Maldives I was a bit surprised that the costs were nearly the same as to Egypt. Of course, the accommodation on the Maldives was only 3 stars (compared to 4 stars in Egypt) but it looked quite good and got some great customer feedback on the online travel sites. We, therefore, decided to book a one week trip to Makunudu, a small island in the North Male Atoll.

Underwater housings for the D800 have typically very long delivery times and also need some time to get accustomed to. Therefore I thought the best idea for our trip to the Maldives and my first attempt in underwater photography would be to buy a compact underwater camera.

After reading a lot of reviews, I came to the conclusion, that the Olympus TG-2 seems to be the best option. I ordered the camera … and immediately returned it after the first test shots. The image quality was absolutely unacceptable for me. It was noisy, the pixel sharpness was very bad and the corners were completely soft, even stopped down. After using cameras like the Canon 5DII, Sigma DP2M, Leica M9, and Nikon D800 for the last years I just can’t go back to a camera with the IQ of the TG-2.

I had already ordered a Seacam housing for my D800 and therefore didn’t want to spend a lot of money on an intermediate solution for a single one week trip. The only other camera I have besides the D800 is the Sigma DP2M. Therefore I checked which options exist for this camera for underwater protection and found out that there was a low-cost housing available from Ewa-Marine originally designed for mirrorless system cameras like the Sony Nex.  The model name is D-B. It is rated for up to 10m depth, more than enough for snorkeling, and the DP2M fits perfectly in this housing. The lens is directly mounted via the 49mm filter thread to the flat glass port of the housing.

During the whole trip, the housing was perfectly dry inside and useability was quite good. But … the results were very disappointing. Out of 1000 images, I shot underwater on this trip, 950 were misfocused. In some situations, the autofocus of the DP2M was just too slow for a fast-moving fish, but quite often the camera just focused on some small particles in the water instead of the main subject. In addition, the 45mm focal length with its very limited DOF is clearly not the best choice for underwater photography.

In many images, the corners sharpness was also quite bad, while the center sharpness was very good. Since this also happened with flat objects parallel to the camera it clearly had nothing to do with limited DOF. If you mount a wide-angle lens behind a flat port and use it underwater it is a known fact that you get soft corners due to refraction. This effect can be partly compensated by using a spherical dome port. But I would have expected that the DP2M lens would not suffer from these refraction effects behind a flat port because it is not a wide-angle lens. So far I have no real explanation for this, but the effect was clearly visible.

As much as I love the DP2M for landscape photography it is not a good choice for underwater photography. On my next trip, I will definitely take my D800 with the Seacam housing.

End of May we finally arrived after a 9-hour direct flight from Munich to Male and a 40 minutes trip with a speedboat on Makunudu.

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Makunudu is a beautiful small island with 35 bungalows, a big wooden main building with a restaurant, and some nice tropical vegetation. It takes about 15 minutes to walk around the whole island. We had booked half-board and typically started the day with a late breakfast followed by a first one-hour snorkel trip at the house reef and some relaxing at the beach afterward.

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At lunch, we had some small snacks at the bar and then went to another snorkel trip. The house reef was really beautiful with extremely colorful small fishes, lots of lovely corals in different shapes and some bigger fishes like stingrays, moray and small sharks. On one snorkeling trip, we had seen a big guitarfish that has a body form intermediate between those of sharks and rays. The highlight for my daughter was the many big sea turtles we saw. I was hoping to get some good sea turtle images, but sadly nearly all of them were misfocused. Even if the first attempt in underwater photography was not a big success, snorkeling at Makunuda was a great experience.

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Every day ended with a great 4-course dinner in the lovely restaurant. The staff was always very friendly and helpful. Altogether I can highly recommend the Makunudu island and I’m really looking forward to my next snorkeling trip. We have already booked a one week trip to the Red Sea in autumn.


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