Focus Pocus

Tragically epic is an apt description of our dive yesterday.

Tuesday night, Karl and I spent the day carefully completing our required duties: air tanks were filled, camera rig was positioned, 230 pounds of lead were loaded, and three full oxygen tanks were loaded. My personal gear kit (including “No Death, No Fear” by Thich Nhat Hanh and a few Xanax) was complete with a Canon 5D Mark III, Canon Rebel T2i, and GoPro Hero3.

Dive underway

Dive underway

By 7:02 am yesterday morning, the sub was gliding through the water towards the steep drop-off just 800 feet from the dock. At 7:23, Karl closed the hatch, and we began our descent in a slow-motion tumble – rolling back and forth, side to side as Idabel lethargically leveled herself in the water. Once she was steady, I looked up at the clear, blue surface fading rapidly from view as “The Blue Danube Waltz” played softly from the speakers. About thirty seconds after submergence, Karl turned off the power. I felt a flash of anxiety – it was completely silent, except for a faint trickle of bubbles. “Is everything alright? Why do I hear bubbles?” I asked, leaning my head back into Karl’s space. “This valve is just really tough to close,” he replied. Within seconds, the bubbles had ceased and my composure was restored.

Darkness vs. AnxietyBut as I looked out of my dome window approximately 2 minutes into our descent, a color gradient of lovely azure blue to jet black sparked the sensation of a hole burning through the pit of my stomach. Oh shit, I thought. This is not how I wanted to react. I pulled out my Thich Nhat Hanh to curb thoughts of impending doom. Luckily, I was able to avoid what would have been a rapid descent into the inferno of irrational thoughts and destroyed fingernails.

As we silently descended into the darkness, tiny particles known as “marine snow” drifted past our window. I took this time to screw the camera to the rig and make sure the settings were correct. After 20 minutes or so and 1500 feet into our descent, Karl pointed out some flashes of light in the distance: flickering hatchet fish. We never got close enough for a good look, but the metallic, flashing bursts were a bright omen of encounters to come.

At 8:03, we entered into a vast expanse of sand and boulders. It was only a few minutes until we saw the first creature: a huge ass jelly. If you can imagine the Star Trek mothership decorated with multi-colored running lights, then you have an approximate idea of what this jelly looked like. In total, it measured about the width of the window (40 inches) and was happy to hover in front of the sub. I was thrilled to have a slow-moving target for my first round of practice with the 5D. As I filmed, though, it became clear that Karl and I needed to address the issue of the camera rig blocking the Live View screen. I was having a hard time maintaining a steady pan and tilt while ensuring that the subject was in frame and in focus. After a few minutes, we continued on, our eyes hungry for something new.

Brisingid Sea Stars (photo from a previous dive)

Brisingid Sea Stars (photo from a previous dive)

Motoring along, we stopped every few minutes to shoot footage of typical tenants of the deepsea: brisingid sea stars, isopods, and siphonophores. During this time, something strange was going on with the focus on our camera. The screen was tough to see, but I had a sense that most of our subjects weren’t in focus.

Isopod creepin' on the sub window (photo from a previous dive)

Isopod creepin’ on the sub window (photo from a previous dive)

When using a DSLR for video, it’s a big no-no to use Auto Focus. Additionally, we are using an old prime lens (Leica-R Summicron f/2.8), which means we can’t zoom – the focal length is fixed; in order to change our frame composition, Karl has to steer the sub either towards or away from the subject. So for each creature we filmed, we made sure to get both close-ups and medium shots. The focus seemed to get better at some distances, but I was still perplexed.

I would love to blame the adrenaline rush for this amateur faux pas…in reality, it was just a careless mistake. To my utter chagrin, I unwittingly had overlooked the removal of the lens/focus ring protector. Turning the protector does not turn the focus ring. I wasn’t focusing…at all. It was almost as bad as forgetting to take off the lens cap. Okay, so…it’s a learning experience…I guess?

Well, I learned in the worst kind of way. About two and a half hours into our dive, at just a smidge below 2,000 feet, Karl spotted a dumbo octopus. Despite having gone on four dives before, I had never seen one of these charming globs of joy. Additionally, it was one of the largest and by far the most photogenic of any that Karl had ever seen! And a dumbo octopus isn’t  your normal, run-of-the-mill deepsea denizen – they are a rare find, with sightings every 30-50 dives (at 2000 feet) or so. All of this to say: the pressure was on – FILM OR DIE.

 It tumbled, it twirled, it twiddled it’s tentacles. As it danced in front of the sub, I     crunched down in an awkward position trying to keep it in frame without disrupting the smooth movements of the camera. One or two tentacles waved back from the corner of the live view screen indicating the octopus was still in frame. I fiddled with exposure, the brightness, the “focus” – trying to get a perfect shot. D’oh.

As you can imagine, it was pretty heartbreaking to see 30 minutes of a dancing dumbo octopus devolve into a smear of movements (see video below). However, we learned a great deal from just four hours underwater. To solve the screen issue, we’ve decided to invest in a Ninja 2 – a nifty little device that acts as an external recorder and a live view screen. Best of all – it tells you what parts of your image are in focus. On our next dive (tomorrow or Saturday), we’ll be testing out the fo’cus (fo’real) to decide whether a follow focus rig might be useful. If the camera shakes too much as I turn the focus ring, we may need to find a rig (e.g. Zacuto) that would streamline this movement.

Despite the tragic focus ring debacle, I am feeling hopeful and invigorated for our next dive together. I hope you still enjoy the video below, despite the blur. The first shot is from the GoPro – the only remotely clear shot we got all day. The rest is filmed with the 5D – can’t wait to get some clear footage…next time!

Song: “Guide for I and I” by Thievery Corporation

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~ by twonakedapes on April 11, 2013.

2 Responses to “Focus Pocus”

  1. Great blog. Cannot wait for the next one. I tried the video but it says” this video is private” and will not play.

    • Good call…I changed the settings from “private” to “public” – thank you!

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