Underwater Photography – My head-space (part 2)

For those that wonder about the practicalities of underwater photography and how my mindset works… Please join me in part two of 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.

Part one revealed my three general “Rules” of shooting underwater photography and I use these thoughts in conjunction with the following three “principles.”

Principle #1  Whatever lens you choose, will be wrong. Yes you cannot change lenses underwater.

When I travel I take a quiver of 4 lenses, two are wide angle, two are macro, a 10-24 rectilinear, a 10-17  fish eye, an old 105 macro and a 60mm macro. There are reasons why I would use one lens over the other for each type but basically I am either shooting wide angle or macro and the second lenses are more backup than anything. I prefer the “Keep It Simple” method and see many photographers agonising over dozens of lenses and which one they should take on a dive, for me it is either a wide angle dive or a  macro dive.

So that said, with Neptune’s sense of humour towards photographers there will be many times you choose the wrong lens. So you need to be prepared to make whatever lens you have on work for you. It is just my opinion but I feel that by limiting your lens choices it makes you think much harder about composition and working with what you have on the day.


Image 9: On a dive in PNG, geared up with a 60mm macro lens, I was greeted on entry into the water by a great barracuda over 1m long. It hung there and looked at me, occasionally opening its jaws in threat posture. I had to quickly set my flash out as wide as possible to minimise backscatter from particles in the water. Then using the 60mm like a portrait lens I backed off to fit the entire subject in, increased the flash power for further distance and focused on the eye. I had to be quick, it could swim off at any moment.
Get a load of those teeth, no wonder people can loose a finger or hand to these impressive fish. Nikon D300, iso200, twin flash, Nikon 60mm f10, 1/60sec.

Principle #2 Know when to break the rules.

Sometimes you might need to break the rules to make the most of a situation and with the right subject it can work wonders to do so.


Image 10: Diving off Kosrae in the Pacific, the visibility was so clear it was like looking through gin. My wife had already descended to the reef and as soon as I entered the water I saw a perfect way to show off the clarity as she swam over the reef looking up at me to see where I was. Nikon D300, iso320, Nikon 10-24mm f5, 1/250sec.


Image 11: My best selling monochrome image. These rays were hanging motionless in the current. I had photographed them from many angles but their most beautiful angle was capturing the wings and long tail suspended behind. In flight formation this image makes you feel like you are flying along with them, but strictly speaking you would not normally shoot a subject from behind. Nikon D100, iso200, Nikon 12-24mm f16, 1/90sec.

Principle #3 The X Factor – when it happens be prepared to work it.

Getting close or getting right in among the action is key to most X Factor shots. It does not matter how good you are, if it is not happening there is no shot. But when it is happening you need to quickly be able to make the right decisions and be in the right place, so beyond your photo skills it also requires great competence in diving. If you have bad buoyancy control and are all over the place with arms and legs everywhere, there is no way underwater life will tolerate you getting close.


Image 12: My most fun dive (snorkel) ever. Spending several hours in the water with these magnificent stingrays in the wondrous visibility of Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. Nikon D300, iso200, twin flash, Nikon 10-24mm f6.3, 1/60sec.


Image 13: Again Grand Cayman and tarpon amongst baitfish. Challenging light conditions, bright blue background, the dark of the cavern and the extremely reflective surfaces of the fish. Nikon D300, iso200, twin flash, Nikon 10-24mm f6.3, 1/60sec.

All of my photography underwater is manual (except autofocus), so I am constantly looking at conditions as they change, even just by turning around or changing the angle of the shot, exposures will change dramatically, such is the nature of underwater. One of my names for this is “Crazy Ivan” it is an old submariner term from the cold war about the habit of Russian submarines suddenly turning around so that they could see if anything was following them and a habit I do constantly underwater. When I do, this to see if any action is coming up behind me, I also check lighting and exposure conditions in that direction as well. So you need to be always prepared and thinking ahead that a subject may appear at any time from any direction. When you see a situation evolving, look at what is going on and see where you need to be to get the best shot and with creatures this usually means you cannot just swim straight up to them but need to stealthily approach.

Stealth underwater is not just about swimming calmly with gentle breathing it is often about the eyes. Despite the fact that you have a dive mask on creatures can see your eyes. It is how they survive, if they see something looking at them chances are it is going to eat them. So a stealthy approach can often involve not actually looking at them directly but using your peripheral vision until the very last second then quickly composing and taking the shot.


Image 14: On a dive at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, I was captivated by a beautiful angelfish, but every time I looked at it, it would swim off. Watching its behaviour, it moved up and down the edge of the reef feeding in the sand. I kept a peripheral eye on it and swam parallel, gradually edging closer. When it stopped, I stopped and fiddled in the sand as it did. Eventually it stopped completely at a cleaning station where small shrimp jumped on board and started cleaning it. I was then able to get the detail shot I was after. Nikon D300, iso200, twin flash, Nikon 60mm f13, 1/60sec.

Almost every day at my gallery I am asked by people “what is your favourite destination to dive?” I find that an almost impossible question to answer, often once divers have descended the waters of rich tropical reefs they find anything less than that boring. But to truly embrace the underwater world you need to open yourself up to all environs. Just because a location is not thick with corals and fish, does not mean it is boring, you just have to look. Nature hates an empty space and all niches tend to get filled, take the seemingly barren volcanic silt flats of Lembeh Strait in Sulawesi, on first look it seems a desolate waste of a dive but close inspections reveals a kaleidoscope of weird and wonderful creatures that you cannot find unless your eye becomes accustomed to finding them. Some of these dives have resulted in more images shot on a single descent than many other locations I have done.

My favourite creatures are rays, stingrays, mantarays and eaglerays, the grace and beauty of their underwater flight is a subject I am constantly attempting to capture at its best and definitely, now that I am no longer burdened with the limit of only 36 shots on a roll of slide film, digital has become a big help. Probably for me the saddest thing about digital photography today is the way we are bombarded with images in social media that I feel has created a loss of originality. People have a tendency to try and copy what everyone else is doing and shoot the same lens that everyone else is using, rather than saying what is another way, a different way that I can shoot that same subject? Always strive to be original, look at the photography of others, admire great shots but always strive to be different, if you do you will become more than just a photographic technician, you will become a master of it.