Focusing on Photography
Bahamas here I come!
As I prepare for our upcoming Bahamas trip aboard the beautiful Aqua Cat Liveaboard, I turn my mind towards underwater photography and what it will take to get those beautiful shots. Those of you who know me, know that I do not have a lot of dives under my belt (yet), but now that Jody is making a significant investment in my camera and housing, that is going to have to change. I worry about my courage in this; will I be too faint of heart to carefully approach a moray eel so that I get low, get close, and get the shot? Probably. Maybe. I don't rightly know. Time will tell, won’t it?
In the meantime, I am asking questions and researching, trying to arm myself with knowledge, as that may be the thing to make me bolder. I shied away from a great shot of a moray eel having its teeth cleaned by cleaner shrimp in Mexico last year. I stayed well back and took that crappy long distance shot that barely shows a subject at all. Our friend Dean of The Dive Academy called me a “chicken” when I told him that (not unkindly, hahaha).
So here is a compilation of advice given by various divers experienced in photography, websites I have found to be helpful, and the knowledge I already have of photography above the waves on solid ground. I share this with those of you who, like me, are interested in taking your underwater photography skills to the next level.
Are your batteries for all strobes and the camera fully charged and ready to go?
Make sure that your O-rings are clean and free of debris, and seated properly in place.
Is your SD in the camera and ready to go? This one is for me, I've been caught with my pants down on this more than once, and it's annoying.
Don't attempt your giant stride entry with your camera in hand. Have someone hand it to you after you have safely entered the water and checked your gear.
Have your camera system attached to you via a lanyard to your BCD. You never know when you will need both hands free for a task.
Be familiar with your camera equipment so that you can make adjustments fast, eyes closed, and with one arm tied behind your back. Well, maybe all that isn't necessary, but you should be very comfortable with changing settings on land so that it is easy for you during a dive.
Do you know how to change program modes on the fly quickly and easily? Manual to aperture priority and then to video mode? Practice before you dive.
Does your flash allow you to adjust power output? Is there a diffuser that you can utilize during a dive? Make sure you can make these adjustments as the need arises below the waves.
I will struggle with this, because I still need to take the PADI Peak Buoyancy course with Jody. Fortunately, he lets me practice in the pool; ask him - he's pretty nice - you can practice too.
Silt is your enemy - Mastering your buoyancy skills results in less silt and sand being stirred up by… YOU! Photographing any subject in silty water can be akin to taking pictures in a snowstorm, and that’s just ugly. Learning to “frog-kick” when swimming along the bottom can go a long way to avoid stirring up a cloud of particles; it’s sort of like the breast stroke, and it may take some practice.
Steady as she goes – I am used to using tripods and photographing still subjects; underwater is a whole different experience. I’m moving, the water containing particles between my camera and my subject is moving, and if I’m photographing marine life, then there is a good chance that my subject is moving too! We already face the challenge of photography in low light filtered by the water, so the better you are at steadying yourself in the water (perhaps even supporting yourself with a non-living object in the water such as a rock), the better your chances of getting a good, clean shot - absent of “camera shake” (more on that later).
I have certainly found it easy to become so engrossed in capturing that shot of the menacing looking barracuda (from a safe distance because I am a chicken), that I lost track of some important things:
The fragile marine environment. Pay attention to what is underneath you; a careless fin kick can destroy sensitive reef animals, and just breaking off a couple of inches of precious coral could take more than our lifetime to grow back. It is never worth getting the shot if we are damaging the marine eco-system that we love so much.
Check your air, then check your air, and then check your air again! You will be surprised how fast it disappears – time flies when you are having fun (or breathing heavily because you are getting an amazing shot of that moray eel coming at you with its jaws wide open)!
This is going to be hard to do. We have all kinds of things going on down there: we are trying to control our buoyancy, watch our depth and air, control the camera, and now we have to worry about composition too? We may just consider ourselves lucky enough to capture that octopus at all, never mind framing the image just right. I guess it will depend on our timing, cooperation of the animal, and…well a lot of luck for me. Here is a compilation of all the tips on composition I have found:
Get Low – getting below your subject or at least eye-level with it will create a more dynamic and engaging image.
Get Close – Hmmmm. Easier said than done. Like I already mentioned, I have issues with this one, but I am planning to work on it in the Bahamas this November. Pray I don’t get my face chewed off. Remember that the more water between your camera and subject, the more loss of colour (the light from your flash has to travel through the water to strike the subject, and then reflect back to the camera through the water again), and higher probability of distracting floating particles. This is one reason why wide angle lenses are so great for divers - you can close the distance between what you are photographing and still fit it in the frame!
Avoid too much negative space around your subject. Of course, getting close will help, but perhaps using the reef as part of your artful composition will pretty your picture up. That said, I do want to make sure I get a shot of any amazing creature I see. Getting artful with it will come second to that.
Try to have your subjects facing into the image, not swimming out of it. An image will hold a viewer’s attention longer if the fish is swimming into the photo, and not off the edge.
We all know that water is a colour-killer.
White light (sunlight) contains equal parts of all colours; as the light travels through water, however, the colours get filtered out, starting with red, then orange, then yellow, and so on. This is why the reef appears more colourful in shallow water, and the deeper you go, the more colour you lose. Everything starts to look green, brown, and blue at depth. A million shades of ugly if you are a photographer.
Strobes are going to be necessary to “put that colour back in”! We can debate all day on cameras and their features, but strobes are going to be even more important than your camera. I will take a $99 camera with a strobe, over a $3000 camera without one any day (don’t tell Jody, because I’m really excited to have a small compact camera with RAW file format capture as well). Here are some of the recommendations I have heard on strobes:
Powerful, wide angle strobes! An angle of light spanning at least 100 degrees is ideal. You will want to illuminate any animal or scene that captures your interest, whether it is a little Christmas tree worm, or a large reef shark!
Get your strobes on long, bendable arms. Using the flash built into the camera is inevitably going to result in backscatter. Backscatter is the illumination of all the tiny particles in the water between your camera lens and your subject. Moving your strobes off to the side will avoid the “snowstorm” effect.
Dean suggested to me that I use a couple of powerful Sola lights (by Light & Motion) mounted on arms instead of strobes, so I may be taking that route when I put my kit together.
I started writing about exposure here too, but once I got to 1000 words, and realized I still had so much more to say, I decided to take it out (for now), as this is just a wee blog, not a book. Perhaps another time.
So, until the Bahamas...HAPPY DIVING!