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Technical

June 2009

Constantly changing conditions when shooting underwater can mean you need to make regular adjustments to the settings of your camera. But with forethought and pre-planning before you go under the waves you can deploy many of the custom functions on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II to help you to change your shooting settings at the press of a button. This helps to eliminate stress from your underwater shoots and also it will reduce your time spent in post-production.

© Helen Atkinson

The Mode Dial on the EOS 5D Mark III with C1, C2, and C3 custom function sets controls.

By using the Mode Dial on the EOS 5D Mark II you can preset and save up to three sets of custom functions - C1, C2 and C3 - for a specific group of shooting settings. In the Custom Function menu select the 'Camera user setting', turn the rear dial to select 'Register' and press the 'Set' button. On the next screen select one of the Mode Dial positions (C1, C2, or C3) where the custom function settings are to be registered, and again press the 'Set' button. When the confirmation dialogue appears, select 'OK' by pressing the 'Set' button again. Now those custom functions will be registered to that set (C1, C2 or C3).

You can check what Mode Dial settings you are using at any time by pressing the Inf’ button, which toggles between the ‘Camera Settings’ and ‘Shooting Functions’ screens. This button can only be activated when the camera is not on standby; achieved by half depressing the shutter button.

You can also register up to six menus and custom functions you frequently use underwater on the My Menu settings. To register menus select the ‘My Menu’ settings under the ‘*’ tab and press the ‘Set’ button. Turn the rear dial to select ‘Register’ and press select. Next, turn the rear dial again to select your desired item from the list and press the ‘Set’ button. When the confirmation dialogue appears, select ‘OK’ by turning the rear dial and pressing the ‘Set’ button. You can register up to six items under the My Menu settings - to view these once you are shooting press the Menu button on the top left side of the camera.

© Helen Atkinson

Up to six menus and custom functions that you frequently use can be registered via the My Menu settings.

When planning a set of Mode Dial custom functions sets, or the My Menu settings, it’s worth taking time to think of three different conditions that could arise during a dive, or likely shooting circumstances that may require you to change your settings quickly. Possible scenarios include autofocusing, interjections of sun and shade, use of flash you want to alternate shooting your subject against a blue background or a black background (check what your flash sync speed is prior to the shoot), changing the focusing point, shooting into the sun or bright light, and shooting alternative f-stops on the same shot for macro.

Focusing points & autofocus

You can view the focusing points on the rear screen (rather than through the viewfinder) by pressing the Info button (which then shows the 'Shooting Functions' screen) and then press the 'AF point selection/Magnify' button. Now you can change the focusing point by turning the rear dial. Underwater this can remove the strains of trying to look through a mask and into the small eyepiece to adjust the small, red lit focusing point.

However, it is generally quicker (there are less buttons to press) to change the focusing point by using the Quick Control Dial while looking through the viewfinder to see the red lit focusing point(s) (C.Fn III-3-2). On land it is easy to accidentally jog the dial when the camera is hanging over your shoulder, but inside an underwater housing it is not as easy to accidentally nudge to a different focusing point. Note that the Quick Control Screen cannot be accessed with the Multi-controller joystick button while your camera is housed in Ikelite or Aquatica housings.

© Helen Atkinson

Shot on the EOS 5D Mark II with EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens; 1/160sec at f/8; ISO 200 with flash. Lion Fish (Pterois volitans) opening mouth in Hurghada, Egypt. Custom functions used were C.Fn IV-1-2 (Shutter button/AF-ON button – back button focusing and front button shutter release); C.Fn IV-2-0 (AF ON/AE lock button switch, so AF-ON is used for back button focusing); C.Fn I-1-0 (Exposure level increments); C.Fn I-2-1 (ISO speed setting increments); and C.Fn III-8 (checked micro adjustments prior to shoot).

Manual focus with DSLR cameras in an underwater housing is usually not an option. This makes autofocus all the more important, so you should make sure that the lens is switched to AF. If you select C.Fn IV-1-1 then the shutter button will both activate AF and the metering sensors when half pressed. This allows you to capture the decisive moment with the optimum settings.

Alternatively you could choose to utilise back button focus with the AF-ON button. This is done with the use of C.Fn IV-1-2 so that the shutter button activates the metering sensors and the AF-ON button activates both metering and AF functions. This is very useful when shooting subjects, like fish, that move erratically and start and stop randomly. When in AI Servo mode press the AF-ON button to start the autofocus and release it to stop focusing. In Tv, Av and P modes exposure will be set at the moment the photo is taken unless you use the AE Lock ("Star") button to lock the exposure. This may initially seem hard work underwater as you also need to be holding the rig steady and ensuring that your desired composition is achieved.

If you think that you'll need to make any autofocus micro adjustments to your lenses on the 5D Mark II (C.Fn III-8) it’s worth making any changes and checking them ahead of your dive. This avoids the disappointment of out of focus images, which can be critical when shooting shallow depths-of-field underwater on a macro lens.

When in Al Servo AF mode with the centre point selected for focusing you can also enable six ‘Assist AF points' (C.Fn III-7-1) which can further help to capture erratic, moving subjects such as fish. If you use the Multi-controller toggle for changing settings on the Quick Control Screen it’s worth noting that this will not function when the six Assist AF points are selected.

ISO custom functions

If you are shooting under intense sunlight or very high powered strobes, without strobes in severe low light (perhaps at great depth or in the shadow of a wreck), or you want to maximise your depth-of-field without compromising your speed (for macro), you can enable the ISO expansion (C.Fn I-3-1). This offers you the choice of ISO 50 (represented by the letter ‘L’), ISO 12800 (‘H1’), and ISO 25600 (‘H2’).

© Helen Atkinson

Shot on the EOS 5D Mark II with EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens; 1/160sec at f/8; ISO 200 with flash. Banded dascyllus (Dascyllus aruanus) swimming in pink and yellow coral, Hurghada, Egypt. Custom functions used were C.Fn IV-1-2 (Shutter button/AF-ON button – back button focusing and front button shutter release); C.Fn IV-2-0 (AF ON/AE lock button switch, so AF-ON is used for back button focusing); C.Fn I-1-0 (Exposure level increments); C.Fn I-2-1 (ISO speed setting increments); and C.Fn III-8 (checked micro adjustments prior to shoot).

Pre-setting a shooting speed of ISO 400 or slower will generally give the best image results, but this can mean you need to sacrifice either speed or an f-stop. However, the image quality of higher ISO settings on the 5D Mark II opens up the possibility of shooting without sacrificing any significant loss of image quality. It allows for shooting without strobes - this can be very beneficial as if there are lots of particles in the water they can cause a 'snowy' image by reflecting light back from the strobe.

Using the ‘High ISO speed noise reduction’ settings (C.Fn II-2) at three different levels can help to reduce the noise generated in images shot at high ISOs. It’s also worth noting that when set to ‘Strong’ (C.Fn II-2-2) the maximum burst for shooting will significantly decrease.

I like to have 1/3-stop increments in exposure settings (C.Fn I-1-0) but you have the option to choose 1/2-stop increments (C.Fn I-1-1). For ISO speed increments you have the option of 1/3-stop (C.Fn 1-2-1) or one-stop increments (C.Fn 1-2-0).

Exposure & white balance bracketing

You have two custom function options for exposure and/or white balance bracketing sequencing:

Custom function I-5-0

  • Standard exposure, then decreased exposure, followed by increased exposure (indicated by 0,-,+)
  • (if enabled) Standard white balance, then blue bias, followed by amber bias (indicated by 0,-,+)
  • (if enabled) Standard white balance, then magenta bias, followed by green bias (indicated by 0,-,+)

Custom function I-5-1

  • Decreased exposure, then standard exposure, followed by increased exposure (indicated by -,0,+)
  • (if enabled) Blue bias, then standard white balance, followed by amber bias (indicated by -,0,+)
  • (if enabled) Magenta bias, then standard white balance, followed by green bias (indicated by -,0,+)
© Helen Atkinson

Shot on the EOS 5D Mark II with the EF17-40mm f/4L USM; 1/200sec at f/11; ISO 200 with flash. Using the Custom Function preset for moving subjects, I shot the swimming Blue Spotted (Taeniura lymma) using flash light to bring out the colours. The reflection from the sand can generate unwanted highlights in the foreground. Highlight Tone Priority (C.Fn II-3-1) can help to reduce this.

By combining exposure and white balance bracketing you can achieve up to nine frames for each specific shot. This is very useful when it’s critical that exposure and colour is correct in-camera, rather than trying to correct it on a computer later. However, the maximum burst and time taken to record the shots will take much longer.

You have the choice of retaining the exposure and white balance bracketing sequence settings when the camera is switched off (C.Fn I-4-1), or cancelling the settings when the power is turned off. In both cases when you fire the strobe the bracketing is cancelled, while the bracketing information is still retained with the C.Fn I-4-1.

Lighting decisions

It is important to consider the lighting options that you want on your dive as this will affect quite a few of your preset decisions.

When shooting against the light from the ocean upwards to the light source from the sky the difference in intensity between the brightest point and surrounding ocean vista can be huge, and loss of detail in the highlights can occur. By enabling ‘Highlight Tone Priority’ (C.Fn II-3-1) the dynamic range is expanded to bright highlights from the standard 18% grey, so the gradation between greys and whites becomes smoother. This will only function between ISO 200 to 6400. However, the shadows may contain more noise than usual with this setting in place, so it’s worth removing it when not shooting highlight scenes.

© Helen Atkinson

This photo of a snorkeler was shot with the EOS 5D Mark II with an EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens; 1/320sec at f/8; ISO 200 with no flash. The sun was high in the sky so I used the custom function preset above for moving subjects, without flash. I also tried out the Highlight Tone Priority (C.Fn II-3-1), which helped to keep the detail in pools of bright sunlight and in the rays of light filtering through the water.

To achieve a black background on every shot fixing the sync speed of 1/200sec (C.Fn I-7-2) is advisable in conjunction with a small aperture and/or adjusting your ISO to remove all ambient light. You will also need to check the sync speed of your strobes as some have a maximum sync speed of 1/160sec, in which case you will need to sync at a slower speed (C.Fn I-7-0 or I-7-1).

When C.Fn I-7-1 is used in conjunction with Av mode this prevents a slow sync speed being used in low light - this is helpful to prevent camera shake and blur, but as the subject will be correctly exposed it will create a darker background. To avoid this situation change your shooting mode to manual, ‘M’, and choose a speed that gives you a nice blue tone (on average between 1/30sec and 1/125sec) and experiment with either front or rear curtain sync.

If you are using Canon flashguns housed underwater you may want to experiment with enabling or disabling the ‘AF assist beam firing’ setting (C.Fn III-5-0 or III-5-1).

Mirror lockup

When shooting macro work on the 5D Mark II you may find it helpful to use the Mirror lockup setting to prevent vibrations caused by the reflex mirror action (C.Fn III-6-1). On land you must ensure that you don’t point your camera at a bright light source with the mirror locked up, as the sun’s heat can damage the shutter curtains, but generally this isn’t a problem underwater!

© Helen Atkinson

White coral rising from the seabed in Hurghada, Egypt. Shot with the EOS 5D Mark II with EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens; manual exposure of 1/160sec at f/9; ISO 200 with flash – two Ikelite strobes, one on either side of the coral, to give even spread of light. Custom functions used were C.Fn I-1-0 (Exposure level increments); C.Fn I-2-1 (ISO speed setting increments); C.Fn II-3-1 (Highlight tone priority); C.Fn IV-1-1 (Shutter button/AF-ON button – front button focusing).

Set button

It is important to remember that, when you are using either the Ikelite or Aquatica underwater housing systems, any frequently used functions that you assigned to the ‘Set’ (C.Fn IV-3) button cannot be accessed in the housing.

The theory on using Canon’s custom function settings is all very well, but it will probably take some practice to get use to implementing the custom function settings underwater. Perfecting the images in-camera hugely reduces the amount of time that you will need to spend behind a computer in post-production, and means that you can spend more time shooting. After some trial and error you will get used to using a variety of custom functions alongside each other so that you can dive in and rest assured that your pre-planned settings will help to deliver great underwater images.