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Sony A6300 with Meikon/SeaFrogs housing and Archon D36V lights review

Discussion in 'Sony Snappers' started by Barmaglot, Oct 16, 2017.

  1. Barmaglot

    Barmaglot Manta Ray

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: Israel
    708
    274
    63
    This February, diving with Davy Jones' Locker on Koh Tao, Thailand, I took an underwater photography course and got instantly hooked. I don't know what it is exactly, but something about the technical challenges of capturing those moments underwater is just distilled awesome.

    Over the summer, I have assembled my own kit, consisting of:
    1. Sony A6300 with kit lens - $837.15 used off ebay
    2. Extra battery, charger, 64GB microSD card, small hard bag - total $146.81 from B&H
    3. SeaFrogs housing - $253 from Aliexpress
    4. Meikon wet dome - $99 from Aliexpress
    5. Tray with two arms and four butterfly clamps - $137.25 from Aliexpress
    6. Camera lanyard - $6.49 from Aliexpress
    7. Lens lanyard - $4.27 from Aliexpress
    8. 67mm magnetic adapter - $52.85 from DiverVision
    9. Two Archon D36V lights - $234.64 each from Aliexpress
    10. Eight 18650 cells (LG HG2, though I suspect they are decent fakes) - NIS 640 (about $183, or $22.85 per cell) from a local store - wild overcharging, but I needed the batteries for the upcoming trip, and the ones I ordered from China at quarter of the cost still haven't arrived.
    11. Two carbon fiber 8"/60mm 300g float arms - $36 each from Aliexpress
    12. Two extra clamps - $7.32 each from Aliexpress
    13. Nitecore i8 charger - $39.51 from Fasttech
    14. Acrylic scratch polishing kit - $21.50 from Aliexpress
    Also got a SEL18200LE lens for general purpose use while traveling, short 3mm wetsuit, mask, snorkel and fins, which is not particularly relevant, except insofar that I sought white-colored fins with the aim of using them to set camera white balance in lieu of a slate.

    While I was initially aiming at a $1000 budget, I ended up spending more than twice that - while the bare camera + housing came in mostly within budget, all the accessories blew it up right quick. Oh well - I got a nice bonus this summer, this was as good a way as any to spend it.

    WP_20171010_12_25_52_Pro.jpg

    With the Israeli autumn holidays wrapping up, I took advantage of a long weekend to go down to Eilat and put this pile of gear into water, doing thirteen dives over four days. I have very little basis for comparison, but here are my impressions, in no particular order.

    The housing is well-built and almost all of the controls are accessible. The only function that is not accessible is closing the pop-up flash - once you press the button that releases it, the flash will stay up, and there is no built-in way to disable it from firing. Unfortunately, even with the little plastic diffuser, the flash does little more than cast a shadow from the lens barrel. I suppose it might be more useful when shooting small critters from really up close, perhaps with Sony's 30mm macro lens and/or a diopter rather than my wet dome, but diving with a group, I didn't have any opportunities to take at least a few minutes to slowly sneak up on an unsuspecting target and put this theory to the test.

    Oddly, the four-way buttons on the rear wheel tend to misbehave in air or very shallow water - the right button usually presses the top of the wheel - but at any depth worth mentioning (at least a meter or two), they all worked flawlessly. I took the rig down to my rated depth of 30 meters and none of the buttons exhibited any signs of sticking or, for that matter, leaking.

    The mode knob on top of the housing is marked identically to the camera's mode dial, but in practice this is useless - inside the housing, the little wheels attached to the knobs contact the two top dials edge-to-edge and therefore turn them in the opposite direction, so the markings would need to be in reverse order to have a chance of being relevant. Fortunately, the housing is translucent, and the markings on the mode dial inside are clearly visible.

    Unlike the top knobs, the rear knob spins the camera's rear wheel via an intermediate sprocket, so the direction is not reversed.

    The housing is sealed with two consecutive o-rings - one seated in a groove within the housing's body, the other stretched around its door. The former is very difficult to remove - I stopped trying, worried about damaging it - but the latter can be taken off without any tools. The housing shipped with a spare main o-ring, but no grease - fortunately one of the lights had a small pillbox of grease included, which was more than sufficient for the duration of the trip - I washed, dried and greased the outer o-ring before leaving my room in the morning and this has proved to be enough to keep the water out, at least thus far. I did my best to avoid opening the housing outside the room, but on the last day, I had to do it twice - to close the inadvertently opened flash after the first dive, and to change the drained battery after the third - and although I forgot the grease in the room and was able to only carefully wipe the o-ring, there were no accidents.

    I kept a small satchel of silica gel in the front of the housing, right behind the 'A6000/A6300/A6500' marking - the only spot where it did not interfere with anything. I don't know whether it helped or not, but the housing did not, at any point, exhibit any signs of fogging up (unlike my mask).

    Initially I thought the camera screen was impossible to use in sunlight, but then I found the 'Sunny Weather' option in the menus - once activated, this made it moderately usable while snorkeling and completely legible with a meter or more of water above it.

    EVF face sensor is triggered by the housing door, so camera must be set to 'Monitor (manual)' for the screen to work. If the EVF is on, it's kind of visible if I pressed the mask right against the housing, but this is by no means practical - the eye is too far away and the field of view covers only a portion of the EVF from any single angle.

    Shooting bursts in Hi+ mode (more on that later) without flash, the camera battery lasted for about three dives with 400-600 images taken per dive. The lights result varied - one set of four batteries is definitely better than the other, lasting almost two hours to the other set's one hour in a bucket test. Having only eight 18650 cells, I conserved them, turning the lights on only when approaching a subject and turning them off afterwards, and even the 'bad' set lasted me through a day of four dives.

    Autofocus is very fast and mostly accurate, with no perceptible shutter lag whatsoever. Diving with a guided group of non-photographers (at most, the other members of the group carried GoPros), I had hardly any time to set up a shot of a subject I wanted, so I mostly shot medium-long bursts while slowly swimming past a subject and trying to keep it in the frame. This produced a mountain of junk and a few somewhat usable shots - so far I've culled some five thousand images I brought back to about a hundred. Better results were obtained by hanging at the tail of the group, sticking around to take a shot after they've all taken a look at whatever critter that was identified by the divemaster, then catching up, but this was not always possible.

    28708_original.jpg

    41646_original.jpg

    At first I shot in aperture priority, but even wide open at f/3.5, to say nothing of smaller apertures, this had a tendency to produce overly long exposure times, resulting in smeared shots. After a while, I switched to shutter priority and set it to 1/1000, but this mostly favored wider apertures, which were not always optimal. On my last day, I put the camera in manual mode with 1/1000 shutter, auto ISO and varying aperture and this seemed to generate positive results.

    (this is where Scubaboard imposes a post length limit - continued below)
     
  2. Barmaglot

    Barmaglot Manta Ray

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: Israel
    708
    274
    63
    For focusing, I used AF-C almost the entire time, with focus area set mostly to 'wide', switching to 'center' if I saw that the camera was trying to track the wrong thing and I had the time and free attention to change the setting. Motion blur at longer exposures aside, it had no trouble maintaining focus while tracking moving fish from a moving camera.

    40420_original.jpg

    24397_original.jpg

    The lights were moderately useful during daylight at shallow depth - I could see coral colors start to develop while approaching with the lights on from maybe a meter and a half, and totally change from less than a meter. Deeper down, the effect was more pronounced. For example, this parrotfish was encountered at about 20 meters:

    23137_original.jpg

    At night, the effect was dramatic - we had a group of four plus the divemaster, and he had us keep the flashlights off except when approaching one reef or another, and every now and then, dim narrow beams from shop-issued lights would start sweeping around, then I'd press a button and the entire reef just lit up.

    Lionfish on the prowl at night - shadows from both lights are visible on the sand:

    35687_original.jpg

    I tried, several times, to set manual white balance while underwater, on find or on sand, but every time the camera just gave me a white balance error. I was planning to try taking occasional snaps of the fins as a white balance reference point, but every time I went into water, it totally slipped my mind, and in any case, this turned out to be mostly unnecessary as it isn't difficult to find a reference patch of grey in most shots, and I shot all the stills in RAW, processing them with the free version of Capture One Express for Sony.

    Some subjects were more difficult than others to get a good focus on - I guess the natural camouflage was effective at confusing the camera.

    41128_original.jpg
    With focus area set to 'wide', it kept locking on to corals surrounding this crocodilefish.

    38469_original.jpg

    Total rig weight out of water is about 4.8 kilograms or 10.5 pounds. In the water, it's somewhat negative - not at all difficult to hold, but it starts sinking immediately if released. I brought a couple pieces of a snorkel noodle with me to see if I can get it slightly positive at least on the surface, but never got around to trying that. Before my next trip, I'm going to change the 8"/300g float arms to the 10"/400g model; hopefully this will bring it closer to neutral.

    The magnetic adapter makes attaching and detaching the wet lens absolutely trivial, and holds it fairly securely. The Meikon wet dome is quite buoyant and will float away quickly if detached and untethered - I drilled a hole in one of the hood petals, tied a loop of string through it, and used a lanyard to attach it to the tray.

    The double-ended spring lanyard was a satisfactory way of keeping the camera securely attached to the BCD while maintaining freedom of motion. The center buckle, when engaged, shortened it sufficiently to allow me to keep my hands free of the camera, in or out of the water.

    The acrylic dome is super easy to scratch - I damn near destroyed it a couple times. Spent about half an hour trying to grind away the scratches with sandpaper, then polishing it with coarse then fine cloth, and got most of them out, but not all. The scratches don't seem to be showing up in photos, but they're very visible in some of the few video clips that I took. The dome is also quite prone to flaring.

    42165_original.jpg

    I didn't order the $11 dome cover from Meikon - serves me right, now I'll have to buy the $75 replacement hemisphere. Once I have those, I'm not going to take the cover off the dome until I'm in the water and ready to shoot.

    The four clamps I got bundled with the tray were fine, but the two I bought separately are utter junk - they started rusting immediately upon contact with saltwater, scratched the hell off the 1" balls they attached to, and to top things off, on land, they couldn't hold the weight of the Archon lights without moving.

    Coming back to the lights, I gave the UV mode a couple tries on the night dive, but without a yellow filter, I couldn't find anything to visibly fluoresce - maybe I just wasn't looking hard enough.

    I don't have a way to test their actual output, but I did do a crude dimming test - I charged the batteries, put them in the lights, placed one of them on a chair 1 meter away from a white wall, turned it on, placed the camera next to it, set it to manual with aperture wide open and started increasing exposure until auto ISO went to 200 (couldn't get it to 100 at any exposure value) - this happened at 1/400. With both lights together, the same was achieved at 1/640. Following this, I left both lights for an hour at full power in a bucket of water - after that hour, the 'bad' set of batteries was almost depleted (it started flashing, indicating less than 10% remaining), and the same camera test achieved ISO 200 at 1/250, but the light with the 'good' set of batteries still hit ISO 200 at 1/400, indicating no significant dimming after an hour of constant operation, and starting to lose output only when the batteries are almost exhausted.

    The batteries I got are flat-top cells, and a couple times, one of the lights didn't turn on until given a knock - I suspect the flat tops don't engage the contact in the light head with perfect reliability. I specifically ordered button top cells from China to avoid this issue, but only flat tops were available locally. I'm thinking about putting a drop of solder on top of each cell to make a protrusion for reliable contact.

    Light controls are easy enough to operate - right button cycles through high -> medium -> low power white, left button cycles through red -> blue -> purple/UV. At first I kept fumbling between them, especially as I was experimenting with different light positions, facing up, down, sideways, but after a couple dives it became automatic. There is no flashing mode except the signal that the battery is almost dry.

    The eight-bay charger ended up having one defective slot - it starts charging a battery, but turns off after a couple minutes. Fasttech offered to refund me $8 while keeping the charger as-is, but I have little use for an 8-bay charger that is effectively a 4-bay one, so I opted for sending it back to them for exchange.

    A few more assorted pictures -

    43277_original.jpg

    43581_original.jpg

    45544_original.jpg

    31133_original.jpg

    41239_original.jpg

    Can't think of anything else right now - if anyone has any questions, I'll try to answer to the best of my ability.
     
  3. ggibson

    ggibson Nassau Grouper

    # of Dives: 25 - 49
    Location: SF Bay Area
    167
    38
    28
    Nice, thanks for sharing. Looks like a fun kit that will last you a while.

    I've tried the acrylic dome polish before (my kit was "Micro Mesh"), but I was never able to get the dome back to like-new condition. There are always still micro-scratches on the surface. It can fix some bad blemishes, and the residual scratches from the polish/sanding are hard to see underwater, but you will have some loss of contrast.

    On the lighting front, if you want more power you might try getting a strobe instead. Maybe 1 light, 1 strobe. Strobes are still just so much more powerful. This comparison is an interesting example and estimates these HUGE 38,000 lumen video lights are only equivalent to a guide 20 strobe (the lights you linked are only 5,000 lumen). I've tried shooting with a video light, but now I use a single Sea & Sea YS-01 strobe with guide 20. It's plenty powerful for me, although I could potentially use 2 strobes for more even lighting and wider coverage since I'm shooting ultrawide mostly. Strobes are also beneficial because they only fire briefly--you don't have to scare the wildlife with your giant lights and a strobe's quick burst of light will freeze motion even with a lower shutter speed.
     
  4. Barmaglot

    Barmaglot Manta Ray

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: Israel
    708
    274
    63
    I had considered LEDs vs strobes, and decided on LEDs for several reasons:
    1. Constant LEDs are useful for more than just taking still photographs - they can be used for video, or as regular (non-photo) lights for day or night diving. They can also be shared with other divers - I used them to light up things for their GoPros on several occasions.
    2. The specific model of LEDs that I bought (Archon D36V) has red, blue and UV modes in addition to white - this has the potential of doing triple duty as focus lights for strobes (eventually) and fluorescence diving.
    3. Constant LEDs are easier to use - I can see how the scene is lit up, through the camera screen and my own eyes, before I take the shot. I also don't have to fiddle with flash power or TTL settings - an important consideration for a beginner.
    4. Not having to worry about flash recharge time, I can shoot high-speed bursts, which makes capturing that perfect moment on a moving subject that much easier.
    5. LED lights tend to be less expensive than strobes, although after I bought my lights, Meikon started selling this model, which is only slightly more expensive than my LEDs.
    Overall, I think that while strobes are great, constant LEDs are a better option for a beginner - I will probably graduate to strobes at some point, but I want to build up my diving and photography skills over at least a few more trips before I do so.
     
  5. ggibson

    ggibson Nassau Grouper

    # of Dives: 25 - 49
    Location: SF Bay Area
    167
    38
    28
    Nice, I agree there are some nice benefits to video lights and they can be a bit easier. I thought to suggest it since it sounded like some of the problems you had could be solved with strobes, although it seems like you've weighed the pros/cons. You could switch to 1 strobe/1 light and try that too (I have considered this but never tried... might actually be harder to control exposure).
     
  6. stuartv

    stuartv Seeking the Light

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Manassas, VA
    8,746
    4,399
    113
    That new Meikon strobe looks like a clone of the Inon Z240 at half the price. Nice! (if it works and is reliable) I have the actual Z240 units and they are awesome.

    @Barmaglot, your list of reasons for buying video lights all sounds good - on paper. In the end, the most important element of getting good u/w photos is lighting. More light is the thing we always have to keep at the very forefront of our minds because water soaks up the light in such a short distance. 10 high-speed shots to capture the perfect moment is a nice-sounding idea. But, if you get the perfect moment and it is underexposed, how satisfied will you really be? Or if it's a bit blurry because it's exposed correctly, but the required shutter speed and f/stop resulted in a tiny bit of motion blur combined with a very shallow depth of field?

    As has been mentioned using a strobe lets you freeze the subject FAR better than what you can do using video lights. If you look at the pics I posted here:

    Wreck Shark Shootout 2017

    I took all of those (IIRC) with a shutter speed of 1/40 and using f/8. Without strobes, even on Auto, the subjects in those photos would have been a blurry mess. Likewise if I had been using video lights - even really bright ones. 5000 lumens x 2 just is not very bright for taking a photo, even though it's pretty darn good for illuminating a scene for video. If you use a strobe, the burn time is so short it's like having a shutter speed of something like 1/500 or something like that. The subject that is illuminated by the strobe can be really frozen, while the slow shutter speed lets the camera take in the light from the background (which is not affected by the strobe), so you can control whether the background looks black or has color. Of course, that's not a perfect sort of thing. You CAN still get motion blur, if the shutter speed is low enough and/or the subject is moving quickly enough and/or there is more ambient light and you're using a lower strobe power, etc..

    It seems to me that video lights would be less useful for wide angle or even close focus wide angle, but they might be very useful for macro shooting. Especially if your camera has exposure bracketing or focus bracketing or stacking features that that you want to use and that won't work with a strobe because of cycle time. But, I haven't done any real macro work at all, so that is just my inexperienced guess.

    I am definitely not an expert, nor an especially experienced u/w photographer, so take my opinions for what they're worth - i.e. about what you paid for them. :)

    I do think Martin Edge's book, The Underwater Photographer is an excellent read, especially for us newbies to u/w photography.

    One of my takeaways from his book and from talking to some professional u/w photographers is that just about anyone getting pro-level u/w photos is going to be shooting in full Manual mode. Thus, that is what I would (and do, actually) aim for. Video lights being "easier" is, I think, a crutch that will either hold you back from getting really top quality photos or you'll soon put it aside, in favor of "more difficult" operations that give better results.

    That said, I do think that a video light paired with a strobe or 2 is not a bad idea. Not so much for the purpose of lighting the scene for the camera exposure. Rather, for helping you see the scene better while you're composing it and for helping the camera focus. But, that is also why higher-end strobes typically have a focus light you can turn on. It turns off automatically when the strobe fires. That helps avoid problems where the edge of a video light beam is caught in the photo.

    Also, once you add a couple of strobes, having an additional video light or two to manage can be a bit taxing. I have 2 strobes and 2 video lights. After trying my rig with all 4 mounted at once, I have quit doing that and now I either mount the 2 video lights and shoot mostly video, or I mount the 2 strobes and shoot mostly stills.
     
    ggibson likes this.
  7. Barmaglot

    Barmaglot Manta Ray

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: Israel
    708
    274
    63
    All valid points, but I did find that I could get decent shots with lights at 1/500-1/1000 with f/3.5-f/5.6 as long as I could get close (half a meter or less) and let the camera bump the ISO to whatever it considered valid - looking at the data, it seems like it ended up in 500-1600 range most of the time. On a compact with 1/2.3" sensor it'd probably result in an unusable mess, but A6300's APS-C sensor is apparently capable of handling it.

    I figure I'll upgrade to strobes eventually, but even when I do, the LEDs will keep serving me as general purpose dive lights, video lights, focus lights, etc, so it's not a waste of investment.

    By the way, what do you find taxing about video lights mounted alongside strobes? I was thinking about having them on triple clamps in red mode as a focus aid, or maybe a single light mounted on the housing's cold shoe with a ball adapter - is it the weight? Or the extra buttons to manage? With the red mode being rated for four hours of runtime, I can likely just keep it running for the duration of the dive without any battery life worries...
     
  8. stuartv

    stuartv Seeking the Light

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Manassas, VA
    8,746
    4,399
    113
    That all sounds reasonable. But, if you were able to shoot with f/8 or higher, you would get significantly better depth of field. That would have 2 big benefits. One, if your subject is not perfectly perpendicular to the camera, you could get more of it in focus. And, two, if your focus is not pinpoint perfect, you will have a much better chance of still getting a very clear, crisp image.

    The thing I found taxing about having 4 lights/strobes mounted is not so much turning them on and off. It's managing where they are all pointing. I used 3-way ball mounts at the end of each strobe arm. So, a video light and strobe side by side at the end of each video arm. That means there is no way to adjust the tension holding the strobe without also affecting the tension holding the video light and vice versa. Having them tight enough to keep things from flopping around before I splash means they sometimes turn out to be too tight once I'm in the water. And as soon as you loosen the clamp any at all, it is really hard to do it where it doesn't momentarily let things get a little too loose and shift position. It's hard enough to hold the strobe, the video light, and the arm in the right positions while tightening the clamp when you're on the surface. Doing it underwater is a real pain.

    I suppose if I tried putting the 3-way clamp on the ball that is part of the tray, and then having 4 separate control arms coming off, that might make it easier. But, that's a lot of control arms to buy and to deal with!

    In the end, my feeling about u/w photography is that, to do it well, I have to have the self-discipline to plan what I'm going to try and do on each dive and to not try and do too much - e.g. try to shoot video and stills on the same dive. Each time I get in the water, I want to decide in advance - shoot macro? Shoot wide angle? Shoot video? Ambient or strobes or video lights? Then setup my rig for that. I may miss some opportunities, but the tradeoff is getting better photos of the things I have decided to try and shoot.

    And that doesn't mean that I CAN'T switch modes during a dive. It just means that I accept that, if I go in with a plan for WA stills, and I switch to video, I'm not expecting to get the kind of video results that I would hope for if I went in with that plan.

    But that's just me. :)
     
  9. Barmaglot

    Barmaglot Manta Ray

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: Israel
    708
    274
    63
    AF-C on A6300 is really quite good at nailing the focus quickly and accurately, barring DoF limitations - and shooting an 11fps burst while moving towards (or away from) a subject gives it multiple shots to get it right, so I didn't really find f/5.6 to be very limiting, and even f/3.5 was usable.

    I see what you mean regarding triple clamps, yeah, this could be a problem... maybe mount 10" arms on the tray, join these to 7" arms, extend those using the shortest double ball arm available (maybe just fasten two of these base to base), and then use a triple clamp to mount a light and a strobe to that last ball as a single unit? That way you could reposition the light + strobe combination together without upsetting their relative angle.
     
  10. stuartv

    stuartv Seeking the Light

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Manassas, VA
    8,746
    4,399
    113
    That would probably make it better. For now, I feel like I am new enough at u/w photography and at diving in general that I am okay with sort of "pulling back" or reining myself in a bit and just using either strobes or video lights, but not both at the same time. Like I said, my strobes have focus lights that I can turn on when I need that. And those have the advantage of turning off when the strobe fires, so I don't have to worry about having a border of light/dark in my image because the edge of a video light beam ended up in the frame.

    Keep in mind that you often want strobes to be well out to the sides and pointed straight ahead or even angled outwards, where you would probably want your video lights angled in. So, if you mount them together and pointed in the same direction (as implied in your post that I quoted), it would be pretty easy to end up with this problem (of catching the edge of a video light beam in the picture). Adjusting strobe position and angle a lot is normal, so you really couldn't just say "well, I'll mount them together and set them up in advance with the strobe angled out and the video light angled in."

    If you KNOW you'll be diving in VERY clear water (i.e. no particulates to create backscatter), then you could just mount the video light(s) on the tray itself, pointing straight ahead. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to take photos underwater in such nice conditions.
     

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