An underwater mission: chasing sea life with the EOS-1D X Mark II
© Franco Banfi
Canon Explorer and top underwater photographer Franco Banfi created the ultimate two-part mission for the EOS-1D X Mark II. First, he captured hammerhead sharks using strobes at ten metres deep in the Bahamas and then he free-dived to photograph sperm whales around the island of Dominica with only natural light available. CPN Web Editor Deniz Dirim speaks to Franco on how Canon’s flagship DSLR kept up with elusive sea life.
Franco first caught the water bug in 1984 during a diving class in Lake Lugano in his native Switzerland. He decided to become a diving instructor himself and soon after, he was drawn to photographing the beauty of underwater nature. Franco shares, “Just a few months after I started to dive, I was interested in taking underwater pictures. I was really focused so at a certain point I stopped teaching and every time I went underwater it was just to take pictures.”
With a love for both diving and photography, which comes first? “It’s both things together; that is a good combination for me,” Franco explains. “With my pictures, firstly I want to document underwater nature and then, of course, to be able to find a way to enjoy this nature without affecting it in a bad way.”
Franco’s work is a window into an unseen world of clandestine sea life and buried history. Throughout the year, he goes on exotic diving expeditions in search of unusual subjects like wels catfish or sunken seaplanes. As such, his environment requires a host of complex equipment, which is foreign to most photographers - camera housing, strobes, rebreathers, tanks and dome ports.
But Franco’s love for being underwater can be summed up in one simple sentiment: “It’s where I feel good.” In fact, Franco is so in his element when underwater that he refers to anywhere that’s not as ‘top-side’ and to many of his colleagues as ‘land photographers’.
A two-part mission
Franco has tried the EOS-1D X Mark II ‘top-side’, but was eager to test the camera’s speed, ISO, and focusing capabilities underwater. He sought to photograph hammerhead sharks in Bimini, the Bahamas. Hammerhead sharks can be found at a depth of ten metres, where strobes are still effective and air tanks are relatively efficient. In part two of his mission, Franco free-dived to photograph sperm whales around the island of Dominica. If you’re lucky, you can see a sperm whale’s head at 15 metres deep and its tale at 25 metres; where strobes are no longer viable and only natural light can be used. Moreover, Franco’s preference for free-diving with the whales meant he would only have one minute underwater at a time before needing to go up for air. Quite the mission...
Franco’s lighting of choice when photographing in underwater darkness is the Seacam Seaflash 150 strobe. He explains, “It’s different than ‘top-side’. Underwater you don’t have the colour, if you don’t have the strobe. When you pass ten metres, colours disappear. You can see the difference when you shoot a shark like the hammerhead, which is just ten metres deep. With a strobe the image is brighter and you have this brilliance from the strobe. When you are shooting whales, it’s not possible to use the strobe because there is no strobe that can light a big animal. So this is another approach; you have to use natural light.”
With the sparsity of natural light underwater, good ISO performance is an essential element that Franco considers when committing to a camera. He shares, “I have done similar pictures [of whales] before with the EOS 5DS and of course it gives more pixels. But if we talk about the ISO, you see that the EOS-1D X Mark II is better.”
Franco reminds me that a reliable camera is critical as photographing whales can sometimes become a dance exercise. “With this camera, what is good is that you can go up with the ISO. Of course, you have to look at where the sun is coming from and have the animal lit from the sun. That is not always easy because sometimes you are in the water from the other side. If you are on the ‘wrong’ side, it is not that the whale is like a model that says ‘I’ll wait for you - take your time to go to the other side - and I will pose for you.’”
Keeping up with shy sea life
Photographing hammerhead sharks and sperm whales asks for different levels of difficulty. At ten metres depth, Franco could stay underwater with hammerheads until his tank finished with no need for decompression. Also he was on the bottom of the sea and so he could wait, move around and even use a tripod. Free-diving with sperm whales posed many more challenges. For starters, Franco had days where they searched for miles with no whale in sight. And when a whale was found, time was critical.
“In this situation [free-diving at 15 metres depth], you stay maximum one minute underwater. For this kind of picture, you come up and maybe you breathe three times and then you have to go down again because you want to take more pictures. You see the potential of the situation so you cannot stay long on the surface because the situation will change.”
Even with his EOS-1D X Mark II in a Seacam housing, it is possible to change camera settings for various scenarios underwater. Still, it’s not preferable to fiddle about; the best course of action is to take multiple photographs and vary framing where needed. On the EOS-1D X Mark II’s ability to keep up, Franco says, “The focusing is incredible. You can feel that the camera is focusing all the time. I think, at the moment, it’s the best on the market. If you shoot just ten pictures you hardly see the difference between the focus from one to the other. If you look very carefully at ten pictures maybe you can see one that it is a little bit less in focus but it is not a picture you have to throw away. It’s just because you are making comparison.”
He continues: “The speed is like a gun. With the whale, I was not using the maximum speed; I was using just the six frames-per-second. If not, you have many pictures that are all the same. So at least [this way] there is a small difference in between.”
Franco enjoys the wide angle view of underwater nature. His favourite lenses – the EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye and the EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM zoom – allow him to get closer to all his subjects.
“Underwater the closer you are, the better it is. In the pictures you see here it’s always the EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens but I still have the EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens and use it as well. The difference is with the EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM you can go a little bit closer because the minimum focus is better than the 15mm - five centimetres less or so. I prefer the fisheye lenses but of course sometimes you have distortion, which makes pictures not so real. If it’s not too much I think it’s good because it gives more power to the animal. But if the distortion is too much it’s not nice. You can see it in the pictures with the hammerhead; sometimes it’s a little bit extreme. But I think with an animal like this, it’s not so bad because it gives the animal [an appearance of] strength.”
As always with underwater photography, there are more aspects to consider when using a lens, such as dome ports and diffraction. “Underwater we have the problem that we always have to put the lens behind a dome port. And the dome port has to be calculated for the lens. So the manufacturer has a dome port calculated that is very good for the fisheye lens. The problem is with other lenses. For example, before I was using the EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens and when underwater in the corner they [the images] are unsharp. It doesn’t mean that this lens is not good ‘top-side’, but for underwater you have to use the dome port with an extender. It’s always a compromise and because of the diffraction you lose a lot of quality in the corner of the image. Now I tried the EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM and got good results. The corners are much more in focus. Usually the range that is used underwater is around f/8, a little bit more to f/11 or less to f/5.6.”
Franco’s next test for the EOS-1D X Mark II will be filming. “I want to go more into video and I think it’s a good camera to do that. I tried already but I didn’t succeed. With the whale it was almost impossible. You shake all the time because you have to swim. But like everything new, I have to learn.”
He adds, “Actually my difficulty is that I’m focused in photography. So every time I have difficulty to switch. Because you see something while you’re filming and you say ‘Oh this is a good picture!’ so you want to switch and the setting is different. It’s not just that you switch from video to still. You also have to change the f-stop and the shutter speed and whatever so it doesn’t work like this. So now I try to think: ‘okay let’s go for video; don’t think about if it’s a good picture! Focus!’ But I still have to learn better and practice.”
As for the majestic sperm whale, it remains Franco’s passion project which he will continue to document this year. He muses: “I want to do more whales. To go free-diving with this animal is a very nice feeling. You are in almost the same position as them and you try to make a connection. Sometimes you have a whale that goes down, and you follow the whale and suddenly you see this whale stop and almost watch you, like it’s thinking, ‘What is he doing?’ You know if you go in the water and you’re close to a whale and the whale looks at you in the eye - it’s something that you will remember for a while.”
Biography: Franco Banfi
© Franco Banfi
Franco Banfi specialises in underwater photography and has won many awards for his work including in the Travel Photographer Of The Year 2011, in which he won the ‘Spirit of Adventures Portfolio’ and ‘Best Single Image’ categories. He was also the overall winner in the Nature’s Best Photography Ocean View Photo Contest 2011, for his image of a Beluga whale, as well as winner of the overall ‘Nature and Underwater’ category in the 2010 International Photography Awards (IPA) competition. Wildlife photography started out as a hobby for him back in the early 1980s, but it very quickly became a passion. For the last 10 years Franco has worked professionally as a freelance underwater photographer, working for magazines such as Animan, Focus, GEO, National Geographic Italy and Terre Sauvage. Franco has had several books published, including ‘Underwater Planet’.