“It’s a paradigm shift” – underwater photographer Nicolas Remy talks about shooting mirrorless with the Nikon Z9: Digital Photography Review

Nicolas Remy at work, with the Nikon Z9 inside a Nauticam NA-Z9 housing, Nauticam 140mm glass dome port, and 2x Retra Flash Pro strobes.

Photo credit: Léna Remy

Nicolas Remy is an underwater photographer born in France but currently based in Sydney, Australia. Nicolas fell in love with diving in the late 2000s and now works as a full-time photographer and photography coach alongside his wife, Léna. A long-time DSLR shooter, Nicolas recently switched to mirrorless, and over the past few months, he’s been putting Nikon’s flagship Z9 to the test in one of the most photographically challenging environments imaginable.

We caught up with Nicolas remotely from his home in Sydney. He explained his background and went into detail about some of the difficulties unique to shooting underwater. And, of course, he also shared his thoughts on how a modern mirrorless camera like the Z9 performs compared to the DSLRs he had been using for more than 15 years.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and flow.

How did you find your way into underwater photography?

I played with my mother’s film camera when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until 2006 that I had the realization that digital technology suddenly made so many more things possible. So I started reading photography books and got really into the technical aspects of it.

Then, when my then-fiancée and I visited Australia in 2007, we took scuba diving lessons and fell in love with diving. I bought an underwater housing for my DSLR, and we just went from there. We moved to Australia permanently in 2017, and when COVID happened, it gave me some time to consider what I wanted to do. That’s when I decided to make underwater photography my main occupation. I began to find success with photo competitions and started doing some brand partnerships, and in 2021 I quit my IT job to dedicate myself to our underwater photography school.

Before adding a mirrorless ILC to your collection, what was your main camera for underwater photography?

I was mostly using the Nikon D500 and D810. For me, the D500 was the gold standard because it has great autofocus, and because it’s APS-C format, the focus coverage is very wide compared to most DSLRs. I used both those cameras for a really long time, and I still shoot with the D500. I love it.

Close-up view of a common octopus, photographs under the Clifton Gardens jetty, in the heart of Sydney’s natural harbor (NSW, Australia).

Nikon Z9 | Nikon Z 105mm F2.8 S | ISO 640 | 1/200sec | F20
Nauticam NA-Z9 housing with Nauticam EMWL 160°, a ‘bug-eye’ wet conversion lens, 2x Retra Flash Pro strobes.

Photo credit: Nicolas Remy

Mirrorless cameras have been on the market for a while. Why did you wait so long before adding one to your collection?

It’s been clear for some time that in general, mirrorless cameras have certain technical advantages compared to DSLRs when it comes to things like the viewfinder experience, advanced subject detection autofocus, and so on. But shooting underwater isn’t like shooting on land. Battery life becomes a major concern because you can’t keep swapping batteries when you’re shooting underwater for hours with the camera in a housing. And fish and underwater animals don’t look a lot like cats or dogs or people, so subject detection can get confused. Plus, there’s often a lot of particulate matter floating in the water. That reduces contrast, which is challenging for autofocus. Subject recognition doesn’t have a lot of color to go on, either, as colors quickly disappear with depth.

Underwater photography is like a niche within a niche, with many specific challenges.

I did experiment with a smaller-format mirrorless camera for underwater photography a few years ago, and it was great in clear, shallow water where there was plenty of light, but when I used it in lower-light, or murkier water, which is typical temperate diving conditions, the autofocus struggled a lot. Underwater photography is like a niche within a niche, with many specific challenges. So when I started using the Nikon Z9, those were all the things I wanted to test.

The Z9 is larger than the D810 and D500. What difference does that make underwater?

It really only makes a difference when you do something we call ‘muck diving.’ That’s when you dive right down to the seabed to find the wildlife that hangs out in the sand. To get an interesting angle, you often have to push the camera right down into the sand, and the bigger camera and housing means you can’t get quite as low as you can with a smaller setup.

How was your experience?

Very different from what I expected. I’ve used a few Nikon DSLRs, and I was expecting the Z9 to be an iterative improvement, but it’s a paradigm shift. Especially the viewfinder. In underwater photography, like all wildlife photography, it can be tricky to get close to your subject. Sometimes you have to squeeze between rocks and fight with currents, and once you’re in position, you have to take a test shot to see if the framing and lighting is right. With a DSLR, reviewing your photos means taking your eye away from the viewfinder and tilting the camera down, which risks bumping against a rock, kicking up sand, or scaring the subject.

It took me a while to get to grips with the Z9’s autofocus system, but I’ve found that sticking with AF-C and 3D AF tracking works very well.

But with the electronic live view, the Z9’s viewfinder is always bright enough to compose a shot, and I can check a test image without having to reposition and look at the back of the camera.

The two shells of the Nauticam NA-Z9 housing open. Using an intricate combination of levers and gears, the key camera controls are arranged within reach of the divers’ fingertips near the housing handles.

Photo credit: Nicolas Remy

The Nikon Z9 with the sensor shield visible, tucked in its Nauticam NA-Z9 housing.

Photo credit: Nicolas Remy

It took me a while to get to grips with the Z9’s autofocus system, but I’ve found that sticking with AF-C and 3D AF tracking works very well. The D500’s autofocus coverage is very wide, but the Z9’s is almost the entire frame, which is a major difference, and the autofocus is very sticky, even in low light and murky waters. Subject recognition doesn’t always work with marine life, but I have had some success with seahorses and various fish species. It saves me a lot of time.

[Writer’s note: Since we spoke, Nicolas has published a detailed comparison of the D500 and Z9’s autofocus here].

What makes shooting through the viewfinder preferable to using the rear LCD?

Cameras’ rear LCDs are difficult to see underwater, because there are too many reflections. We prefer to shoot through the viewfinder, and I often use an angled finder to make it easier to see through a dive mask, especially when shooting upwards. I was a bit worried about the effect that always using the EVF would have on battery life, but I’m finding that I can get six or seven hours of shooting out of the Z9 on a single battery. Typically I’ll be in the water for two to three hours, and I still have about half of my battery life left when I come up.

Marine life abounds near Fish Rock Island, off South West Rocks (NSW, Australia).

Nikon Z9 + Nikon 8-15mm (at 15mm) fisheye with FTZ adapter | ISO 400 | 1/200sec | F11
Nauticam NA-Z9 housing and 140mm glass dome port, 2x Retra Flash Pro strobes.

Photo credit: Nicolas Remy

Is there anything that you’d like to see changed or improved?

There’s really only one thing I wish could be improved, and it’s something that is a factor with many mirrorless cameras, I believe – the Z9 doesn’t like focusing under red light. Unfortunately, for night diving, we tend to use red lamps for illumination because it’s less intrusive for sea life. The Z9 can still focus on a subject lit by a red lamp, but it becomes very slow.

What lenses do you find most useful for underwater photography?

The lens I’ve used most on the Z9 is the NIKKOR Z MC 105mm F2.8 VR S. I love it for macro work and portraits of shy marine life. It focuses quickly, and there’s no focus breathing. I can’t use the NIKKOR Z MC 50mm F2.8 because it extends during focusing. A native Z-mount 50mm or 60mm macro with internal focusing would be amazing, but I’m very happy with the 105mm and the older AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm F2.8G ED via the FTZ adapter. My other main lens is the AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15mm F3.5-4.5E ED, also via an FTZ adapter.

Fisheye lenses are very popular with underwater photographers because they let you get very close to large subjects, meaning there is less water diffusing light, and your strobe’s light is maximized.

Super-macro shot of a Sydney pygmy pipehorse, a tiny cousin of seahorses only found in and around Sydney (NSW, Australia).

Nikon Z9 + Nikon Z 105mm F2.8 S | ISO 800| 1/200sec | F29
Nauticam NA-Z9 housing with Nauticam SMC-1 wet diopter, 2x Retra Flash Pro strobes.

Photo credit: Nicolas Remy

I would love a fixed, lightweight 15mm fisheye for Z mount. Another kind of lens that many underwater photographers like is ultra-wide-angle zooms. They’re great for situations where you can’t get as close, and also for photographing wrecks, which is the only time as an underwater photographer that you need straight lines in your scene to stay straight.

What are some common mistakes made by people starting out in underwater photography?

The most common mistake I see is people who assume that their normal 24-70mm or 24-120mm standard zoom will work for underwater photography. But because of the physics of refraction, the field of view changes when you have the camera in a housing. Suddenly your ‘wide’ end isn’t really wide anymore. That’s connected to the biggest mistake I see, which is people not getting close enough to their subjects. The closer you get, the more vibrant the colors will be, because the strobe light has less distance to cover, and there’s less water between the camera and the subject, so less of a reduction in contrast.

What kind of kit would you recommend to a beginner?

It depends on what they wanted to shoot, whether they’re more interested in closeups or wide angle shots. For wides, a beginner might struggle to get close enough with a fisheye, so I’d recommend a zoom, something like a 14-24mm or equivalent. For closeups, a medium telephoto macro lens like a 105mm would be perfect, or a 50/60mm macro lens, if using a cropped-sensor camera.

The Z9’s battery life is probably more than I need, but the battery in the Z8 is a lot smaller, so I’m curious to see how it holds up.

For someone who’s really just starting out and is unsure exactly what they want to specialize in, I’d recommend something called a “wet lens.” These are screw-in optics you can add to the housing to expand the field of view while maintaining excellent image quality. So if you have even a basic standard zoom like the Nikon Z 24-50mm, you’ll be able to get close to a fisheye view from it, just attaching the Nauticam WWL-C wet lens on the front of the housing. And at the 50mm end of the zoom, you’ll get a focal length that will work for portrait shots of midsized subjects. That would be a great “all-rounder” solution, which can also be expanded towards the macro range by adding a screw-on wet diopter.

What kind of post-processing do you do on your underwater images?

It’s all about dealing with the loss of colors, contrast and details caused by the water column. The main thing is white balance, but also contrast and detail adjustments. I use the de-haze tool in Lightroom, and also selective sharpening on the subject itself. I also use the cleaning tools to remove some floating particles, if visible.

Two fur seals frolicking below the surface off Montague Island (NSW, Australia).

Nikon Z9 + Nikon 8-15mm (at 15mm) fisheye with FTZ adaptor | ISO 400 | 1/200sec | F11
Nauticam NA-Z9 housing and 140mm glass dome port, 2x Ikelite DS230 strobes.

Photo credit: Nicolas Remy

Where are you headed for your next shoot?

I’ll be busy testing the Nauticam housing for the next few weeks here in Australia, in the waters around Sydney. Hopefully, we’ll be photographing a colony of fur seals. Seals are the closest thing an underwater photographer can get to action photography – it’s one of the few situations underwater when I’ll do burst shooting!

Nicolas Remy is a professional underwater photographer based in Sydney, Australia. His images have won over 35 international awards and are frequently published in Australian and international media. In 2023, Nicolas founded The Underwater Club, a first-of-its-kind online underwater photography school with over 40 self-paced lessons and monthly events.

Check out more of Nicolas Remy’s work

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