Catching Rays with the Leica X-U in the Cayman Islands

Born and bred in Jersey, James Carnegie has long held a passion for the outdoors, adventure sport and photography. He took up running at 30, bypassing regular distances for ultra-marathon running. He’s taken part in the Marathon des Sables and UTMB/CCC amongst other races and is working (unsuccessfully) on finding a way to not trash camera gear whilst running trails. James has been shooting still and moving image alongside agency creative, brand and editorial since 2000, and is always looking for the next adventure.

“The midday sun beats down over the Cayman Islands, far on the Western reaches of the Caribbean Sea. Shadows are heavy and palm trees offer scant shade to hide beneath. To great relief we board a luxurious 51ft catamaran and head out into the lagoon that Grand Cayman cradles between its arms. With a gentle breeze behind us, we motor Eastward and moor over a sandbar, site of the mesmerising Stingray City. Plunging into the warm water and wading only ten metres out we’re soon surrounded by a fever of stingrays, their giant wings caressing our legs beneath the surface.”

Tell us about your recent project in the Cayman Islands.

We were there for a week to document the wealth of adventure on offer on these paradise islands for the Department of Tourism, through the eyes of Olympic skier Katia Griffiths, for a social campaign. Over the week, they had us kite surfing, riding horses into chest-deep water and kayaking through mangrove forests to name but a few activities! It was an amazing experience – perks of the job you could say. 

Why did you choose to take the Leica X-U with you?

Shooting adventure sports and the lifestyle that surrounds it demands a lot from your photographic equipment. It also requires a lot of photographic equipment. Not all of it meets the specific needs each shoot brings, so when I put together the itinerary for this dream assignment and noticed (understandably for a Caribbean destination) that much of it took part on or beneath the water, I knew I needed a versatile camera system.

The Leica name has always been synonymous with a standard of quality throughout its full range - I can still remember holding my grandfather’s M3 with awe 30 years ago as he showed me his beautiful shots. When I heard that Leica had produced a camera that is waterproof to 10 metres and able to shoot in RAW, I knew it would be perfect for a job like this.

The images are beautiful – we have serious holiday envy. How did the shoots go?

It’s funny because, and as you can probably imagine, I always enter the water with a camera with great trepidation: did I fully lock the battery/SD compartment; will this really be fully waterproof?

It’s a great feeling (and relief!) when you’re able to rely 100% on your kit - you then become entirely in the moment. The X-U was so light and moveable that shooting Katia swimming with stingrays left me grinning from ear to ear. I found that its burst mode and reliable AF, even beneath water, held a distinct advantage over swimming with a full DSLR housing and the 35mm equivalent, 1.7 fixed lens was perfect for the bulk of what I was shooting - I want to give the viewer a real sense of ‘being there’ so prefer getting as close in to my subject as possible.

Returning to the yacht to preview shots on the high definition screen, the two videographers shooting alongside me and I were blown away by the quality of the imagery. Underwater photography requires a certain amount of colour adjustment (water absorbs different wavelengths of light to different degrees) to avoid the ‘underwater blues’ but the XU has a button that you select before entering that somehow renders perfect colour balance so that cut a large time off the editing process.

Katia wanted to have a go at shooting coral fish for herself and found the camera’s auto mode made the camera easy to use without any explanation of what to do other than “push the shutter”.

Floating around in those warm waves, trying to get those perfect shots couldn’t have been easy all the time, right? What did you struggle with?

The only shot I struggled to nail was the lens half in/out of the water, but without the spherical dome of a full housing this is almost impossible! Shooting in such sublime light meant capturing splashes and fast-moving subjects wasn’t a problem and the X-U was able to render flare excellently – some of my biggest issues being a Northern Hemisphere photographer, is avoiding motion blur and having to crank the ISO right up.

It was with much reluctance that I rinsed off the white sand and sea salt, packed the camera back into its case for return. Until the next adventure!

See more of Jame's work here

Find out more about the Leica X-U here.