Underwater Photography – My head-space (part 1)

For those that wonder about the practicalities of underwater photography and how my mindset works… Please join me in this two part post that, if you are a new photographer, will hopefully give you some thoughts into taking better images underwater and if you simply just enjoy my work, an insight into how my mind works.

My first memories about under the ocean were as a child watching each weekend on our TV, the wonderful dives of Jacques Cousteau with his team on board the Calypso. Together with my father, an ex WWII British Submariner, we would sit and watch in awe at their adventures. I guess you could say that the Cousteau family (and my father) were completely responsible for my passion of the ocean. And whilst I dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, my drive for study proved far less passionate than mydreams.

Eventually it was my electrical trade background that allowed me to follow my passion in a different way. At the ripe old age of thirty three I took up SCUBA diving, it was actually something I did to help me overcome a fear of sharks that I developed when surfing and windsurfing. So captivated was I with the beauty of life under the sea that one year later in 1994 I purchased my first underwater camera, a cheap plastic Motor Marine II with a very poor light meter and only one fixed shutter speed. And so with this limited tool and the strict exposure demands of slide film, I began to teach myself underwater photography. Despite lots of early failures that little very basic camera allowed me to win the 1998 South Pacific Dive Club’s Australasian Underwater Photographer of the Year Competition in the novice category.

This bolstered my confidence and I immediately progressed to a second-hand Nikon 801s in a Subal housing before going digital in 2002 with a Nikon D100, again in a Subal housing. Compared to my 801s with slide film, the D100 could only be described as a pig of a camera, lots of noise on anything above its native 200 iso and a dynamic range that was so low it could hardly be called dynamic at all. But I soon learned to accept its weaknesses and work around them. Late in 2004, Louise my wife, partner, underwater model and dive buddy, realising my mid-life crisis with my existing employment, pushed me to print and frame 32 canvases with the comment, “if we don’t give it a go, you will never know.” My first exhibition was in March 2005 at the Fremantle Maritime Museum which by luck or accident became a major public exhibition with people queuing up to gain entry. It was so successful that I had to give up my trade to put all my time into my photography and the showing of my work. By November 2008 I had done 31 joint or solo exhibitions, including my east coast debut at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, Sydney. Today in 2016, I have published a coffee table book and exhibit my work in my own gallery in Fremantle, Western Australia, which has been running now for eight years. It was a complete paradigm shift but I am now lucky enough to make my living doing what I love and travelling the world with my very own mermaid as an assistant as I do it.

 So, what is my story or mindset with underwater photography?

For me it has always been about the subject, it must be captured in a way that makes the viewer of the work feel intimate or engaged in your shot. How do you put that into practice? It is hard to describe it or explain how I go about it, it is just how I feel when composing the shot. When pushed to put it into words, I tend break it down into three generally accepted rules of underwater photography and three of my principles of thought, my philosophy of underwater photography if you will.

But these concepts are all based around the basics of underwater photography. The very nature of being underwater creates photographic conditions that are fairly unique. Macro is rarely, if ever performed with a tripod, it is hand-held flash photography. Wide angle shots become scenes of high dynamic range encompassing the dark blue of great depth juxtaposed with the bright surface above. This needs to be exposed correctly and at the same time balanced with fill flash of the subject at hand. Above water the photographer is able to shoot subjects from a distance, either wide angle or telephoto/zoom, underwater we are challenged by water clarity and ambient light and this necessitates generally utilising two main lens types, wide angle or macro, which translates to my first rule.

RULE #1 If you think you are close enough, get closer, you must be the zoom.

Stock or ID photography is about getting the subject in its entirety, but to engage the subject and create intimacy you do not need to see all of it. This can be true for both macro and wide angle.

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A perfectly acceptable stock shot of a hairy frogfish showing the bait that it wriggles in front of its mouth to attract prey. You might need to look at it hard to recognise it but once you see the eye can can work out the rest. Nikon D300, iso200, twin flash, Nikon 60mm f14, 1/60sec.

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Same subject but in real close and tight. You still need to look at it a while to work out what it is but a much more dramatic shot. Nikon D300, iso200, twin flash, Nikon 60mm f16, 1/60sec.

Rule #2 Never shoot down – always attempt to give some upward angle to the shot.

What are usually considered the best seats at a theatre or concert? Those in front of the stage, you look up at the performers and they look grand. Consider as well when a leading politician like the President of USA or some such figure is filmed, you never see them filmed from high, the camera is always slightly lower making them look larger than life, you look up to them. Underwater this in most cases brings more background light from the surface into the shot, this can also be true for macro. If the subject is a fish or a tiny macro creature, this also tends to isolate them from the background and again, makes them look larger than life and helps the viewer feel they are right there with the subject.

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Image 4: A typical shot from many new underwater photographers, looking down, the subject is small and somewhat insignificant. Nikon D100, iso200, twin flash, Nikon 60mm f36, 1/60sec.

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Image 5: Combining getting in close but also down just below the crab’s level. The feeding behaviour is more apparent because often you actually threaten the subject less by not being over the top of it. All of a sudden the tiny crab looks larger than life. NOTE: Unless it is bare sand, getting in close does not mean you lie on or touch the environment around the subject, if you cannot do it without perfect buoyancy then don’t do it at all. Nikon D100, iso200, twin flash, Nikon 60mm f36, 1/60sec.

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Image 6: In this case with the ray too far away for fill flash, exposing purely for the background and silhouetting the ray against the sunlight coming through the deep blue of the ocean. A dramatic wide angle shot. If closer, fill flash could have been used to bring out detail in the underside of the ray. Nikon D100, iso200, Nikon 12-24mm f14, 1/320sec.

Rule #3 Always get the eyes in focus and have the creature moving or facing at least slightly towards you.

As humans we tend to “humanise” what we look at, it is why we see faces in clouds or rock formations. We do the same when we see the faces of creatures, just by the composition people sense an emotion from the subject, despite the fact that creatures like fish or turtles have no facial expressions at all. It also (in most cases) looks plain wrong to have a subject swimming or looking away from you.

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Image 7: Getting the eye in focus on one constantly moving fish is hard enough, two just adds to the need for patience. If the eye on the second fish had not been within the depth of field for the lens & fstop it would have totally spoilt the shot. Sometimes I float in the one spot for what seems like hours just to time it right. Nikon D100, iso200, twin flash, Nikon 60mm f14, 1/60sec.

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Image 8: When your subject is just 10mm – 15mm long you can imagine how small the eyes are. Even if you do not get the body within depth of field, having the eyes nice and sharp helps make it work. (cropped slightly for composition) Nikon D300, iso200, twin flash, Nikon 60mm f14, 1/60sec.

Next Month – My three “Principles” of underwater photography…

 

 

2 thoughts on “Underwater Photography – My head-space (part 1)

  1. Really interesting personal history, Glen, and wonderful tips for underwater photography.

    Thank you so much for sharing this information. I just love your photography and enjoy seeing the collection of five stunning macro prints in my home – it brings what I love about scuba diving (and don’t get nearly enough opportunity to do) into my life every day.

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