Juvenuile triggerfish (Xanthichthys ringens) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/16, 1/25s, ISO 400)
As Sony’s flagship mirrorless camera, the Alpha 1 has emerged as one of the most impressive full-frame cameras currently on the market. For underwater shooters, it has proven to be a versatile tool that can take on wide-angle subjects as competently as macro in a wide variety of scenarios. One use case for which the high-resolution Alpha 1 might be particularly well suited is blackwater photography, and I recently had the opportunity to try out the camera during an intense week of blackwater diving at the Anilao Photo Academy in the Philippines.
My aim was to find out if blackwater photography would be another strength of this top-end system. And with the recent arrival of its sister camera, the Alpha 7R Mark V, my impressions may also be useful for those considering this newer, less-expensive model, as the two cameras are very similar in terms of macro capabilities.
Sony Alpha 1 test rig: Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, and two torches: a video torch used as a focusing light and a diving torch to search for subjects
A Body Built for Blackwater
One of the most important criteria for blackwater photography is megapixels, since with blackwater subjects, you often need to make substantial crops while maintaining a good resolution. The 50-megapixel stacked sensor in the Alpha 1 is very welcome in this regard. Like all Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras, the Alpha 1 has a 1.5x crop mode that simulates the field of view from an APS-C camera, which produces a very usable 21-megapixel image. In this mode, the viewfinder readjusts to show you the cropped field of view, and you can assign a custom button to toggle between full frame and cropped modes on the fly.
Another standout feature of the A1 is its autofocus performance, especially in the continuous autofocus mode (AF-C) together with its impressive tracking capability. In my experience, tracking works very well regardless of whether the subject is recognizable or not, locking on and tracking almost any subject detail—fish or cephalopod eye or even a rhinophore of a nudibranch—very effectively. I customized the camera to have two separate controls for autofocus: one for “standard” and one for autofocus tracking.
Ribbon eel (Rhinomuraena quaesita) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/16, 1/400s, ISO 640)
Hydrozoa (Solmundella bitentaculata) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/14, 1/400s, ISO 500)
Squid paralarva (Illex sp.) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/14, 1/400s, ISO 500)
Glass for the Task
To accompany the Alpha 1, I used both of the available Sony macro full-frame lenses: the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8, a premium “G” lens designed to maximize optical quality, with stabilization and internal focus, and an aperature down to f/22; and the Sony FE 50mm f/2.8, a more-modest-quality unstabilized macro lens with external focus (so it extends as you get closer to the subject), and an aperture down to f/16.
Despite universal agreement about the excellent optical quality of the 90mm, some underwater photographers have been underwhelmed by its autofocus performance. My experience is that these difficulties seem to relate mainly to how the lens performs on older camera bodies, and I believe opinions ought to be revised when applied to the newest camera models. The 90mm also benefits from using the correct autofocus settings, as with default settings, the lens does not perform at its best for shooting underwater. (Set "Aperture Drive in AF" to “Focus Priority” to instruct the camera to prioritize AF tracking performance in AF-C mode.) When used with the A1 body, I found the lens to be fast and accurate, and the resultant images were very sharp across the frame.
By comparison, the autofocus of the 50mm proved to be a little sluggish, and the lens wasn’t able to offer the same impressive focus tracking performance as the longer focal-length lens. In its favor, the 50mm delivered excellent 1:1 macro images that were very sharp in the center of the frame, though a little less at the edges. Significantly, its wider angle of view is advantageous for blackwater photography, where you don’t want to lose sight of the subject whilst framing.
Wunderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/16, 1/400s, ISO 800)
Banded coral shrimp (Stenopus hispidus) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/16, 1/400s, ISO 400)
African pompano juvenile (Alectis ciliaris) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/16, 1/400s, ISO 400)
The Sony System in Use
Thanks to Anilao Photo Academy’s wonderful hospitality and its expert guides, I had a very enjoyable week of blackwater. I was a little unlucky with sightings. On more than one occasion, I returned from a dive without any good opportunities, but that is all part of the blackwater game. Despite the slow rate of sightings, I was thrilled to have encountered some truly fascinating creatures.
From a photographic point of view, the impression I had after the first dives was: difficult but doable. I progressively got more familiar with the characteristics of the system and eventually made the most of its performance potential. With a little more practice, I think I could have achieved better results. One week is certainly not enough time to take full advantage of this setup, but I gained a lot from the experience all the same.
Phronima (Phronima sedentaria) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/16, 1/400s, ISO 400)
Unknown fish hiding inside a jellyfish (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/16, 1/400s, ISO 400)
Many blackwater photographers prefer a lens with a shorter focal length than a longer one, and I generally agree. I mostly used the 50mm rather than the 90mm, because I found it more useful to have a greater angle of view, easier approach to the subject, and shorter focusing distance, and because of the shorter camera-to-subject distance, the camera recorded less backscatter. While the 90mm focuses more quickly and is more reactive than the 50mm, I found that the longer lens has too narrow an angle of view and too long a focusing distance.
For midsize organisms—wunderpus octopuses, paper nautiluses, seahorses—focus tracking worked perfectly with the 50mm, locking on to subjects and keeping them in the frame without issues, allowing you to concentrate on composition. When dealing with very small critters, the 50mm begins to struggle as you get close to the maximum magnification ratio and focus tracking becomes less useful.
Alex Mustard, who was in Lembeh, Indonesia shortly after my trip, told me he was happy shooting the 90mm on the Sony A1 on blackwater dives there. Indeed, he said he preferred it over his normal blackwater setup, a Nikon D850 with 60mm lens. This was presumably because, being shallower, Lembeh has fewer midsize subjects and more of the smaller subjects better suited to the 90mm.
When the 50mm struggled with focus tracking, I found it more effective to disable the feature (a simple matter after assigning a custom button) and instead use continuous autofocus with Spot mode. I could then use repeated presses of the AF button (assigned to a back button) to “help” the lens focus with camera movements, which avoided the lens hunting continuously. With some practice, this technique paid off.
Spotted flounder larva (Arnoglossus polyspilus) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/18, 1/400s, ISO 800)
Bigfin squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/16, 1/400s, ISO 800)
In blackwater photography, most small subjects are translucent, making focus challenging—especially because they are suspended in water. There were a few occasions where I completely missed the shot, not being able to focus in time, such as when the subject moved very fast and disappeared after a few seconds. However, this is nothing new in blackwater and unavoidable, regardless of camera system. I strongly recommend bringing a good torch to help with focusing, ideally with adjustable power to avoid strong contrast situations that can be difficult for the electronic viewfinder to display.
I tried using both the rear screen and the viewfinder on different dives. Each worked well, but in the end, I preferred using the EVF plus 45° magnifier because it’s a setup I’m most used to and more comfortable using. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice, and I am sure that others may prefer using the LCD because despite being lower resolution, you can look directly at the subject while framing.
Sea snail larva (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/16, 1/400s, ISO 400)
Pipefish (Acentronura sp.) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/16, 1/400s, ISO 400)
Female paper nautilus (Argonauta hians) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/13, 1/250s, ISO 160)
Without doubt, the Sony Alpha 1 is an impressive camera with the capabilities to be a potentially exceptional tool for blackwater photography. While the high-end 90mm macro lens performs extremely well when partnered with the A1 for standard macro subjects, my preference for blackwater work is a shorter-focal-length lens. It’s possible to produce great results with 50mm macro—and Sony users should not be concerned about taking it on blackwater dives—but this medium-quality lens isn’t the best performer, so the overall system perhaps isn’t the easiest to use for this type of photography. For me, if a better-performing shorter-focal-length macro lens were to be released, the Alpha 1 paired with such a lens would make a truly formidable system for the blackwater shooter.
Male argonaut (Argonauta hians) and pteropod (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/16, 1/400s, ISO 160)
Long-arm octopus (Macrotritopus defilippi) (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Marelux MX-A1 housing, dual Inon Z-330 strobes, f/16, 1/400s, ISO 400)
Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Phil Rudin for sharing his autofocus settings when using the 90mm macro lens. He would also like to thank Alex Mustard for contributing his opinions on the 90mm macro lens for blackwater.
About the Author: Born in Milan, Italy in 1978, Pietro Formis has been an ocean lover since he was a child. Underwater photography became his passion from a young age and led him to explore the Mediterranean Sea, Italy’s fresh waters, and tropical locations around the world. He has published his work in many international magazines, including Unterwasser, Ocean Geographic, SUB, La rivista della Natura, Naturphoto, Rolling Stone Italia, OASIS, Photo Professional, La Repubblica, and Il Foglio. Pietro has also won many international awards, such as GDT – European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Sony World Photography Awards, Ocean Art, Underwater Photographer of the Year, Ocean Geographic, BioPhotoContest, MML – Memorial Maria Luisa, among others. In 2019, he published the book “AQUA, Mysteries of the Underwater World” (Daniele Marson Editore), which was crowned “Best Underwater Book of the Year” by Underwater Photographer of the Year 2020. Pietro leads photographic workshops both locally and internationally. He is an EIZO Color Edge Creative partner, ambassador for photographic equipment brand Marelux, and ambassador for scuba diving gear Beuchat.
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