Underwater Photography Workshop
Oonasdivers – Sharks Bay Umbi Village, Red Sea – September 2015
The following notes are a summary of those given to workshop participants by John Collins at the end of the week’s workshop at Sharks Bay Umbi Village, Red Sea, September 2015 .
Having arrived to searing heat and realising that we were in the midst of a sandstorm, the surface conditions for diving were going to prove challenging. This was indeed the case as we did almost three days of shore diving on the house reef in Sharks Bay, before the boat jetties along the coast were reopened for diving. This gave us an opportunity to work on various techniques on a familiar, easy dive site and was actually a great way to start the week.
At the outset of the workshop, I described to everyone what I consider the three pillars of good photography – Vision, Craft and Finishing. Because underwater photography is so difficult and complex, the craft element tends to dominate proceedings. Core diving skills need to be second nature before you can give your attention to your photography. Good buoyancy control, finning technique and taking care on delicate reef areas are important skills to master, before we become immersed in our camera work. In turn, underwater photography has two distinct genres: close-up or macro photography; and wide-angle scenic photography. The approach, mindset and technique differs substantially between the two. The three golden rules that I mentioned at our first presentation were: Get Close, Shoot upwards, and Take Control. These hold true even when you come to very advanced underwater photographic technique.
On equipment, we discussed fundamental maintenance and protecting our equipment. We noted that not all O-rings or O-ring grease are the same; the older hard rubber type O-rings use a stronger grease, whereas the modern fluorosilicone (soft) O-rings use a lighter grease. Having a routine of assembly and check for each stage of building and assessing your rig is a good workflow, so that you don’t omit a step. The core things to check are: focus, exposure controls (aperture and shutter speed), flash synchronisation and the final housing integrity check after everything has been set up.
Reviewing Fundamental camera controls
Much of modern photography, particularly underwater, involves “taming” the camera. Camera systems are so complex, with so many choices and options, and increasing automation, that it makes them difficult to simplify for use underwater. Knowing your individual camera, its lens or lenses and understanding all of its menus, settings and custom controls is really fundamental.
We mentioned that the two things that change regularly when we are shooting in a housed camera system are focus and exposure. With modern autofocus systems being so reliable we can use them to our advantage underwater. However, we must know and understand all of the autofocus modes settings and controls so that we can use the focus system in a way that suits on water shooting. We did not dwell on camera basics e.g. aperture, shutter speed and so on, because all of you have a very strong fundamental knowledge of how cameras work on land. For our purposes in making photographs and see, use fully manual controls over exposure with a single exception of using Aperture priority when shooting macro. The latter works because we do not have to consider ambient light when shooting small marine life – the lighting comes exclusively from our strobe strobes. For wide-angle, we set the exposure for the ambient light to give a correct tonal representation of the water background and we use subtle fill in lighting for our foreground. I have found that centre -weighted metering for this purpose works best.
A basic workflow underwater
As a basic approach and workflow, we work by deciding on what lens aperture to use first, to give us the depth of field that we would like. We then begin by setting the lowest usable ISO and using the light meter in the camera, we set the shutter speed to render a pleasing porn to the water background, generally pointing the light meter towards the upper third of the frame, but not including strong highlights from the sun overhead. Finally, we adjust the power output and position of our strobes to give the most pleasing foreground lighting. If you want to go about this methodically, have a workflow where you meet and set the ambient light exposure and take a frame, reviewing the histograms – before you power up your strobes. Then turn on each strobe in turn, making an exposure and adjusting the power until you get nicely balanced light.
You will recall the lighting presentation, as most people find it really helpful on these workshops. When we bring a full camera system strobes underwater, we are effectively bringing studio lighting and using it to photograph seascapes and marine life. The same principles that apply in the studio apply to us when we are driving.
And just as a photographer in his or her studio would soften studio lighting using umbrellas or soft boxes, we control our lighting with the use of diffusers and by varying the power between two flashes (when we are using to). In the studio, we would have a 2:1 ratio between the main light and the fill light and this principle can also help us underwater.
Avoiding lighting particulate matter in the water, which is what causes backscatter, is also a key consideration for us. The main thing to watch out for is stirring up the seabed with our fins and creating particles that our lights can pick up; in other words, don’t make your own backscatter! The technique that we use to avoid backscatter is to not light the area between the port of the camera housing and the subject with direct lighting from our strobe(s). When we apply this principle to twin flash lighting, we position the lights so that the edges just meet in the centre of our frame and do not light a triangular area inside the beams between the subject and camera housing.
Similarly, it is important to remember to move your strobes closer to your housing as you move closer to your subject. If you do not risk leaving dark area in the centre of the frame because your lights are too far apart.
Other lighting techniques we discussed, were raising the lights higher into what is called “rabbit ears” position; and inward or diagonal lighting to create more texture and contrast. These are really worthwhile techniques to explore, so that your photographs do not always have the same lighting.
As the week progressed and we became more proficient, we introduced some more advanced techniques with close focus wide-angle and macro/super macro. In our Close Focus Wide Angle Masterclass, we reviewed the origin of this technique going back to National Geographic photographer Jerry Greenberg. This technique uses extreme wide-angle and fisheye lenses to create an image with a dominant foreground subject and a subtle far subject. The two elements need to link in a visual, creative or storytelling sense. We are now working very very close to a dominant subject – in the range of 10 to 20 cm and both the equipment required and the technique in capturing images requires consideration. Small domes, typically 4 inches/10 cm work best.
Visualising these images can be tricky and you will need to train your eye to recognise suitable combinations of a near and far subject combination. This can be difficult without using the lens and its super wide view to “sketch” the image. When you see a potential setup, try to critically examine whether the image has a feeling of depth from foreground to distance and a three-dimensional feel as a result. To make this close focus technique work, we need suitable water conditions – calm water, clear visibility and good ambient light. We are also shooting at a considerable upwards angle, generally greater than 45°. This is where an angled enhanced viewfinder comes into its own.
To create the balanced lighting that we discussed with Cousteau’s “kiss of flash” – we work as follows: consider the ambient light first, its direction and quality; next decide on your aperture/shutter speed/ISO and make a quick exposure to assess the exposure of the ambient light. Next, switch on your flash or flashes and working from their lowest power and closest positioning to your housing, make some test exposures to give suitable foreground lighting. The power and position of your strobes are key to creating really compelling images.
With macro and super macro photography, remember that lighting comes exclusively from our strobes or flashes. Aperture is our primary consideration – we want as much depth of field as possible. Shutter speed is set and fixed between 1/60 and 1/250 second – and our strobe power and position determines our exposure and lighting. With supermacro, where we are adding a dedicated underwater dioptre, typically between +5 and +15 power. Our depth of field becomes extremely limited with these supplementary lenses, so “paralleling the subject” by having the front of your macro port in alignment with the plane of focus of your subject will help to retain as much depth of field as possible.
I do hope that you have enjoyed the week and I know that I have seen improvements in everybody’s skills, creativity and technique. Please feel free to contact me with any questions that come to mind as you review your images again when you get home and thank you all so much for coming along on this workshop.
Continued success in your underwater photographic adventures,