All to often photographers dive into underwater photography with a lot of enthusiasm but end up discouraged because their photographs did not meet expectations. Many elements have to come together in order to create good images underwater. Understanding what works and more importantly what does not, takes time. The good news is one does not have to master everything at once, and the learning process is half the fun.
All the experts agree that is best to become a good diver, then learn one aspect of u/w photography, before starting another. The most important diving skill is buoyancy control. This is having the ability to regulates ones breathing so that they neither sink, nor float. All to often, divers can be seen laying on the bottom or clinging to coral, while at the same time their fins are constantly in motion stirring up sediment that will get dispersed into the water column. This is a bad thing as it takes a while to settle and while floating in the water, the particles known as backscatter will reflect light towards the lens and show up in the photographs.
Controlling ones breathing rhythm and being very patient allows the diver to become part of the environment and the marine life to become comfortable with the divers presence. Once the fish sense the diver means no harm they will relax and resume their normal routine. This in turn enables photographers to make good pictures. It is also important to know the kinds of images you want to make before going diving, because once underwater it is not easy to reconfigure equipment. Changing lenses requires surfacing, drying off, changing the lens and the port. This takes time and if hurried will result in a camera flood.
When applied to underwater photography Murphy’s law says: When you set your camera up for macro, you will see wide angle subjects like turtles, mantra rays, & dolphins. When set up for wide angle you will see rare fish posturing in the current, mating squid, or two eels in the same hole. The lesson here is to enjoy the special moments then get back to the dive and continue looking for subjects appropriate for the lens you have.
Underwater photographers just starting out will do better shooting macro. The reason is that the subject matter is very close to the lens and ambient light is not an important part of the overall image. Wide-angle photography under water is all about using the ambient light as part of the overall exposure. This is a very important topic and will be the subject of future blog. For now we will concentrate on macro photography.
Fish portraiture requires a similar mind-set as when photographing people. Invest a little time learning about your subject. In underwater terms this means what kind of coral does the fish live around, where does it hide when threatened, and what does it eat. Once you know a little bit about your subject, you will know where on the reef to look for it. Sooner or later your knowledge and patience will get rewarded, and the opportunity will arise to get the shot.
After the subject is located the next task is to expose and light it correctly. This requires the proper use of strobe, shutter speed and aperture. Don’t let these words intimidate you. Instead embrace them, as these are key elements to making good pictures. Depth of field in Macro photography is important. Setting the camera on F22 or F16 is the place to start. These F-stops allow great depth of field.
Proper use of shutter speed will help control how much ambient light is in your image and if the image is sharp or blurry. Shooting at speeds of 1/60, 1/90, & 1/ 125 of a second will enable you to freeze the action and limit the ambient light. When shooting macro, use two strobes set on manual. The primary is set at full and the other at 1/2 power. If using a flash with F-stops, make the secondary strobe 2 – 3 stops lower than the primary. This ratio of light allows for dimensional lighting where shadows and highlights create depth and texture to the image. Some photographers love TTL, and if it works for them great. I want to know exactly what I am doing right or wrong, that’s why I use manual power.
There are TTL lighting systems sold today by companies like Ikelite that have flash exposure compensation. This is a great way to dial in and control the light that the TTL exposure puts out. Without getting into the science of it, the user simply rotates a dial that has 1 stop increments of more or less light. The photographer can take a picture then look at the image on the LCD screen and determine if the amount of light needs to be changed.
Lets put this information to use and plan a dive to make fish portraits. The first thing to do is research the dive site, and find out what fish are common there, what kind of corals and bottom topography is present. I suggest asking the local dive shop if there are any cleaning stations on the reef your going to dive. This is an area underwater where fish gather to get cleaned by very specialized fish. Its kind of like when we take the family car to get washed. This is a great place to make photographs. Once you have an idea of what fish might be at the dive site, make photographing them part of your dive plan. This will remind you to take your time to get used to the surroundings as opposed to chasing after each fish that crosses your path.
Marine life is delicate, and it is our responsibility to respect and protect it. Don’t move or touch anything for the sake of a photograph. While you may see others do it, set an example by passing on an image as opposed to breaking coral or handling an animal just to get a shot. Remember everything you do while underwater has an immediate and long-term affect on the world below.
By respecting the sea and maintaining good diving skills everyone can create beautiful macro pictures underwater. See you in Maui. To see more beautiful underwater photography click here. For those of you not coming to Maui but looking for another great source of information about underwater photography click here. This site has tutorials, a forum, and lots of other good information.