Technique/Tutorial

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Rejuvenate your creative photography with these tips to sort through the multitude of photo opportunities during a dive trip
By Jeff Milisen

How to Shoot Your Way Out of a Slump

Jeff Milisen
Rejuvenate your creative photography with these tips to sort through the multitude of photo opportunities during a dive trip

I recently checked Raja Ampat off my bucket list.  I wanted to see it all - fish schools thick enough to block the sun, coral gardens many acres large, and biodiversity like nowhere else on the plant - and Raja exceeded my every expectation.  And yet, after the first few days, I had only a select few photos that I was marginally happy with.

After about a dozen frustrating dives, I had to figure out where I was going wrong and how to fix the problem. The trouble was, in the face of such an incredible amount of life, I was out of my element.  I was having troubles picking out a coherent subject in the maelstrom of life.  And when I found something, there was often a diver in the background.  And then there was the visibility; at 20 meters it was okay, but it wasn’t my Kona gin. Anyone can shoot well on clear days in sunny, familiar waters.  Traveling forces you to try your best in the given conditions, because you might not get a do-over.  This article is meant to help you re-center your photographic zen when you find yourself out of your comfort zone.

Related: Read our Raja Ampat Scuba Diving Guide.

 

 

Isolate a Subject

One of the challenges in shooting a place like Raja Ampat is sorting through the cacophony to find a subject.  This was especially challenging at sites like Cape Kri, Melissa’s Garden, and Karaug Bayangan, where the fish form disorganized masses over lush but unbroken coral reefs.  Just pointing your camera at the cloud of fish isn’t going to capture the beauty.  You will still need to work to find an anchor for your photo’s story.

Start simple.  Find a large, sessile subject, and just expose it.  In Raja, that might mean a wobbegong or a particularly bright coral head.  Snap off a few simple portraits.  This will give you a few pics to take home, and it will start to pull your headspace out of the gutter.  With a few portraits in your back pocket, you can start branching out to get more complicated.  Close focus wide-angle shots are made for locations like Raja, but be sure to pick your subject carefully.  Not only does the subject have to look compelling, but CFWA relies on a working background, too.  I ended up having some luck finding a subject, and then just camping out waiting for the background action to align perfectly.  

 

 

 

Managing People

Whenever you are diving with others, they can either be a subject in the photo or a nuisance.  When living and diving in isolated, cramped quarters with a small group of others, a small annoyance can snowball into a fight if you aren’t careful.  Trouble can be quickly averted when photographers form something of an alliance.  On this trip, we all understood that all of our photos would benefit if we could work together.  We worked out a few hand signals that politely meant, “hey, you’re in my shot.”  If you were in the way, this meant to finish your photo and please move.  No offense, no egos, just excuse me for a minute.

A different sort of issue can arise over macro subjects, especially on muck dives, where a diver might want to camp on a rare subject.  Again, we all have to work together, so communication is key.  I recommend a rotation system for when a line is forming around a particular subject.  Agree beforehand that, if someone is waiting, you have x number of shots before you are expected to let the other person have a turn.  You can always go back, but it isn’t fair to hog the rarest creature on the reef.

 

 

Limited Visibility

This is a tough one, especially for wide-angle photography that relies so heavily on background color.  Sure, you can switch to macro and shoot for a black background, but then you will miss the larger opportunities and sweeping reefscapes.  For starters, forget about animals that are further away than a few feet.  Most of the reef sharks, while cool to watch, will be well outside of this range and not worth considering for good photos.  In really turbid water, it helps to stay with action that is as shallow as possible to make use of as much ambient light as you can.  Don’t forget to set your strobes wide and angled out.  Even so, you can expect to spend some time post-processing backscatter out of most of your images.  On the bright side, sunny days in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon produce beautiful God-rays among the speckles in the water.  Set your camera for a fast shutter-speed and shoot at 90° to the sun for the most dramatic shots!

 

 

Go Back to the Basics

Don’t get so tangled up in missing a few idealized photos that you forget to apply tried and true techniques to the beautiful spot you have found.  A solid portfolio from a location should include a healthy mix consisting of the following: split-shots, close focus wide angle, macro, snoot macro, models as the subject, models in the background, snell’s window, marine-life portraits, silhouettes, and black backgrounds.  If what you are doing isn’t working, then it is time to switch it up and try a different technique!

 

 

Accommodations 

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the incredible hospitality and unique accommodations of the SMY Ondina liveaboard.  The unique ship was fashioned using hand-tools from the forests of Sulawesi.  The plane-marks and cordage stuffed betwixt the floorboards are evidence of the extreme skill required to piece together such a work of floating art.  The crew/guides were equally amazing and were quick to drop what they were doing at the slightest hint of a request.  I cannot speak highly enough of the experience they provided.  To Fede, Hugo, Jobel, and the rest of the crew of the Ondina, cheers!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

From cone snails to sharks and many things in between, Jeff Milisen has interests firmly rooted in anything related to marine science. Such a varied career has led him to spend considerable time in remote habitats. When not plying the open ocean or poking around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, he visits the multitude of dive sites around his home in Kona. Wherever his exploits go, he is sure to have his dive gear and camera packed and at the ready. 

Website: Iphotograph.fish     |     Social media: @JeffMilisen

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Tips for lighting wide-angle scenes while reducing backscatter, including strobe positions for close-focus, big animals and reefs
By Brook Peterson

Strobe Positioning for Wide-Angle Underwater

Brook Peterson
Tips for lighting wide-angle scenes while reducing backscatter, including strobe positions for close-focus, big animals and reefs

Mastering the light in an image is perhaps one of the most challenging skills we learn as photographers.  Underwater, that skill must be developed even more because of the limitations we face with available light, and technology. The strobes on your rig are versatile tools that can help make beautiful images when used correctly.  There are several positioning and lighting techniques that can help you become a proficient and talented underwater photographer.

Backscatter. Everyone worries about backscatter. But truly, there is one rule that you can use to avoid most backscatter issues and that is to be sure your strobes are back behind your dome port. The rule of thumb for me is that the heads of my strobes are no further forward than the handles on my housing.

 

 

There are many ideas out there on how to further avoid backscatter.  Since backscatter is caused by particles in the water reflecting the light from your strobes back into your lens, many people will turn their strobes slightly out or in, so that the angle of reflection bounces away from your camera lens.  You can try this too as it may be a solution for you, especially if you dive in lower visibility conditions.  However, I have had the exact same results with my strobes facing straight forward, so I prefer not to worry so much about the direction the light is going to bounce.  Instead, I will put more effort into how high the power is on my strobes.  Often, just turning the power down a bit on one or both strobes will reduce backscatter.

Strobe position is another hot topic and there are a lot of ideas out there.  How close should the strobes be to your housing?  How high or how low? What if you want to make a vertical image? What about close focus wide angle?  What about big animals?  Each circumstance merits consideration as the position of your strobes may require a change for each one.  The basic position that I use for a good majority of my work is to have the strobes about 8-12 inches away from the housing, facing straight forward, with the strobes at nine and three o'clock.

 

 

Variations of this are fine, but generally speaking this is the position I will use when I am just swimming around looking for my next subject.  Then, if something like a sea lion approaches suddenly, I am ready to shoot.

Tip:  A good rule of thumb for how close the strobes should be to your housing is to place them about as far apart as you are from your subject.  In other words, the strobes in the picture above are about 18-24 inches apart.  Using this rule, I should be about 18-24 inches from my subject to get proper lighting.

The height of the strobes depends on how large a subject you want to light.  If you are trying to light an entire reef, you might consider putting your strobes up above your housing so that the light can be cast evenly over a large area.  You can adjust the distance that the strobes are from each other according to how wide an area you want to light.  Keep in mind, however, that the light comes out from the strobes in a cone shape, and you want that cone of light to cross in the middle so that there is not a dark area in the middle of your image.

 

 

Vertical images can be a challenge and there are a couple of different ways you can light them up.  When you turn your housing so that it is vertical, you will have one strobe on the top at twelve o'clock, and one on the bottom at six o'clock.  This is just fine if you are shooting a large scene, or you are a few feet from your subject.  It becomes a problem when you are close to your subject, or you want to shoot something where one of the strobes (usually the one on the bottom) is too close to the subject.  This may result in part of the image being blown out.

Tip:  The solution to this is to turn the bottom strobe down (quite a bit) until the light on the top matches the light on the bottom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo left:  Improperly lit with too much light from the strobe on the bottom.
Photo right:  Properly lit image with bottom strobe power set to 1/4 power and top strobe set to 3/4 power.

 

Another strobe position for vertical images is to move the strobes so that they are positioned at nine and three o'clock when the housing is turned into a vertical position.  This takes a bit of effort, but the reward is a properly lit image without having to adjust the power of your strobes as much.

Close focus wide angle photography is when you have a relatively small subject in the foreground along with something in the background such as a diver or the sun.  In these images it is important to light them so that the subject, surrounding area and the background light blend together.  You want the viewer to see the image as one beautiful picture, instead of noticing that you have used artificial light on part of it.

 

 

For example, the gorgonian fan in the image above was only a few inches from my dome port. It and the reef around it looks like there is no artificial light and the ambient light in the surrounding kelp forest blends with the light from my strobe.  It appears that the light comes from above all from the same light source.  That should be your goal in any close focus wide angle image. I achieved this by putting my strobes a little above my housing which was in vertical position, at about ten and two o'clock.  The strobe on the right is set at a slightly higher power than the one on the left because the reef was a bit further away on that side.

Lastly, big animals can be a challenge to light properly for several reasons.  In most cases, I expect to be from two to three feet away from a large subject such as a shark.  In this case, I will pull my strobes apart to about two feet and turn the power up to one stop under full power.  I will also meter for the ambient light at the depth I am shooting at.  A good guess for settings in clear blue water is f/8 and 1/125th with ISO at around 400.  This can vary greatly, but it is a good place to start.

 

 

This turtle was very close to my strobes and is entirely lit by them, while camera settings are adjusted for the bright sunlight at f/16, 1/320th and ISO 200.

 

 

This shark is also entirely lit by my strobes and I am about two or three feet away from it in this image.  The strobes are two feet apart, facing straight forward and set on the highest power.  My camera settings are exposed for the ambient light at f/9, 1/200s, and ISO 320.  Had there been no strobe light on the shark, it would appear as dim and dark as the reef in the left corner.

Photographers spend their entire careers mastering light in their images.  Utilizing a few tips such as these can help you on your way to conquering light in a way that will make your images stand out from the crowd.  Don't be afraid to experiment and change up the rules.  Sometimes we get hung up on how to accomplish a task, rather than experimenting with our equipment. The main goal is to make your images look like they are naturally and evenly lit.  Remember this and you cannot fail.

 

 This column originally published on Brook's blog, Waterdog Photography.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brook Peterson is an avid scuba diver and underwater photographer who enjoys capturing the beauty of the under water environment throughout the world. She is an original member of the SEA&SEA Alpha program. Her work has been featured in both print and online magazines.  She is the owner of Waterdog Photography and authors a blog on underwater photography and techniques.  More of her work can be found at:

www.waterdogphotography.com  |  Facebook  |  instagram@waterdogphotography_brook.

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Improve your shark photography with these tips for composition, creativity and behavior during shark dives in all water conditions
By Mike Ellis

Tips to Capture Fintastic Shark Shots

Mike Ellis
Improve your shark photography with these tips for composition, creativity and behavior during shark dives in all water conditions

When you mention sharks, most picture in their mind a killing machine. To photograph and portray the beauty of these apex predators has its own obstacles and rewards. I feel the challenges are worth it as a way to make people aware, and to care about what is more scary... their startling rate of extinction.

When I started working on a charter vessel that specialized in catering to photographers who wanted cageless (a.k.a. “the lunchbox”, we’d joke) encounters, the first challenge was attracting the sharks and having them stick around for a week. Back 10 or 15 years ago there was just a small group of boats heading to the Little Bahamas Bank to do this type of charter and we had about a 75% success rate getting large sharks to show up.  Now over the last 10 years, we have changed that rate to nearly 100% with the increase in the amount of boats, the frequent chumming and of lately (more so in the last 5 years) hand feeding.  It’s not uncommon these days to have 5 or 6 species of sharks on a trip.  Three of them being apex predators (Bulls, Tigers and Great hammerheads) and that can make for some incredible mixed species captures.  The rewards are repeated sightings of some of our favorite sharks week after week, longer encounters and larger numbers of sharks in this beautiful patch of ocean.

 

 

Include Props in Your Composition

Diving and photographing sharks, large and small, can be great fun and can be made better by using some imagination and some already in and/or on the water props. If you are in shallow water with a sandy bottom, use the sand as a giant reflector and dial down your strobe output to help in continuous shooting. It will really lighten up the lighter underside of the shark without washing out the shark's shadow. Look to add interest, as in getting the dive boat in the background or the addition of the human element in the photo. Look up and see what is going on above your head and look down to see if there are contrasting ripples in the sand that will help the shark stand out. Watch if the sharks are swimming over the reef or turtle grass to help plan your next shot. Find what works for you on that day and time and how to best convey the true nature of these magnificent creatures and not the hyped up Hollywood image.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo left:  Nikon D90 with 10.5mm fisheye lens. F10, 1/200, ISO 200. Photo: Mike Ellis
Photo right:  Nikon D70s with 10.5mm fisheye lens. F11, 1/320, ISO 200. Photo: Mike Ellis

 

Always be Experimenting

If the weather turns bad, if the expected sharks don’t show or if you left that favorite lens at home, look at it as an opportunity to try new things. I cannot tell you how many “pea soup green” days in the water there have been where I had a level of disappointment to overcome. Guests would be highly disappointed as well, at least until I’d show them a good capture I was able to pull off in bad conditions. Then they would be inspired to jump back in or experiment shooting from the back deck with over-under shots. Lose the strobes on bad viz days as it leads to a lot of unwanted backscatter. If you don’t have your fisheye lens, don’t be afraid to use a wide or macro lens instead. I found that the 12-24mm Nikkor tends to give a softer image, but if I used an f-stop of 14 or higher, stayed close to the subject and away from the zoom it worked better to produce a sharper image. I have also used a 60mm macro and got some interesting shots.

 

 

Relax and Observe

My photo teacher in high school had a full length banner across the blackboard that stated “RELAX”.  That’s what you should do when you enter the water: relax and observe. Look at your subjects and see how they are behaving with you and with the other sharks in the water. Or their behavior with bait in the water. Look at which direction the sun is shining from. Sharks that swim up into a chum slicked current can set up a great shot. Pay attention to their different postures of arched backs and protruding pectoral fins.  Observe, relax and keep things natural as possible to get the best experience they can offer you in their environment, their home. Continually look in all directions to find your best shot.  That’s the best way to make it happen. Blend in, make yourself at home and don’t draw to much attention to yourself.

 

 

 

Try to learn as much as you can about your subjects, dive operator, location and underwater environment as possible. I have been on and worked on a lot of dedicated shark trips. Sometimes I knew beforehand that the weather was going to be undiveable due to high winds and large swells. Do use good judgment on diving in unsafe conditions with large predatory animals. Remember that they rely on surprise and that diving in low to no vis means they have the added advantage. This is their realm and their eyesight and sensors are well adapted for it. Also remember to make eye contact to establish that you are aware of their presence.

I have learned that some research can go a long way. Try to find out if there is a certain time of year that attracts more or different types of sharks. Is there a certain color of water you are looking for like clear shallow turquoise blue or a bottomless deep blue? Increase your chances for success by choosing a week long live aboard or a shore base operation that offers multiple days to a few different sites. Connect with other photographers/divers that share your passion and enjoy one another's tips and ideas on how/what to shoot.  Make sure the Capt. and boat have the necessary experience, license and safety equipment aboard. Make sure also, that you to are up for the task and are a competent diver that has the safe skill set to undertake this new photo adventure.

Remember to RELAX, have fun and to take in all that is happening around you.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Ellis: Sharing bottom time with some of the smartest & friendliest in the ocean to some of the largest & most feared (by some), has given me unique opportunities to photograph the popular, playful Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, to the less popular, agile Tiger Shark & much more.  It has also strengthened my compassion towards them & the vital roll they play in the delicate balance of the oceans.  It is my hope to convey this thru my photography.  That people will look upon my images & share my concerns of acts of greed & inhumanness that bring many to their plight. And also to feel the heart n' souls of the ocean & how we all need each other.  "For the oceans!"

onaiaphoto.com   |   Instagram.com/onaiaphoto   |   Facebook.com/mike.ellis.9678067

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An introduction to ambient light shooting, plus instructions for setting manual white balance for underwater photo and video on the Sony a6300 and a6500
By Steve Harms

Guide to Manual White Balance on the Sony a6500

Steve Harms
An introduction to ambient light shooting, plus instructions for setting manual white balance for underwater photo and video on the Sony a6300 and a6500

We share our underwater photos with others in the hope of inspiring awe for what we see and experience in our dives.  Personally, I hope that awe translates into respect which encourages ocean conservation.  To that end, ambient light provides the ability to offer a more realistic view of what we actually see underwater.  Colors fade out more naturally and subjects appear more part of their environment.  It also offers the secondary benefit of making our rigs much smaller and more compact.

Read our Sony a6500 First Look or in-depth Sony a6300 Review.

 

 

Setting Ambient Light on the Sony a6500

Ambient light is completely dependent on sunlight.  Bright days are wonderful and cloudy days are challenging.  I find the key to shooting in natural light is adding custom white balance to the list of factors used in determining settings.  I took a Sony a6300 on a recent trip to Roatan, Honduras.  Both the a6300 and the a6500 support custom white balance and offer the ability save three different custom settings.  You’ll need something white or gray as a reference for setting white balance.  I carry a 5” X 7” piece of a white plastic cutting board on a lanyard with me to use a reference.  The following steps are used to set Custom White Balance on the a6300 and a6500:

  1. By default, the C1 button is set for White Balance adjustment.  Press this to start the process.  If you’ve changed the value for this custom button, you can use the Menu to choose another custom button for White Balance.  If you have none to spare, the white balance is available from the Menu as well. 

  2. Use the dial to scroll down to the Set Option (You’ll pass the 1,2 and 3 settings to get there)

  3. Push the middle dial button to Enter the setup.  A small round circle will appear on the screen. 

  4. Point the camera so that the circle is on your reference slate or if you don’t have one, a patch of white sand will work in a pinch, and push the middle dial button again to accept the setting.

  5. The camera will sound like it just took a picture and present you with the option to Select a Register.  Whichever on you last selected will appear but you can use the dial again to change to 1,2 or 3.  The camera may throw and error but this can be ignored.  Not sure why it happens but it does not appear to impede the process.

  6. The custom setting is now saved and ready for use.  Since the setting is saved to one of the registers, you can return to that setting by pressing the C1 button again and scrolling to the Register you want to use.  I use these registers to save setting at different depths, for example, 1 is at 15’, 2 at 30’ and 3 at 45’.  More precise color balance adjustments can always be made in post processing. 

 

 

Settings for using Manual White Balance

In addition to the Custom White Balance, the settings for ISO, aperture and shutter speed still play a huge role.  Maximizing available light means striking the balance between these values.  This is where the elegance lies.  ISO tends to be the biggest variable so generally I set this set to Auto with a Max value of 1600 and let the camera figure it out.  The Sony cameras have excellent processors so even at relatively high ISO, you can get good image quality.  Aperture I set for f/5 - f/8 and shutter speed between 1/125 and 1/200 depending on the subject and how much available light I have.  Cloudy days are challenging. 

If you’re shooting a smaller subject, the trade-off of ambient light is that you can’t get as close and get a good depth of field due to the higher aperture required to get light.  If you’re in shallow water with lots of light, you can shoot smaller subjects with a tighter aperture but you may need to slow down your shutter speed and increase your max ISO depending on how much your subject moves.  Play around with the settings and find what works best for you. 

Shooting with ambient light offers some real challenges but the rewards of being able to capture subjects in their natural habitats, and landscapes as we see them is worth the effort. 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Harms lives in Palm Harbor, Florida and has been diving since 1971.  He has been taking underwater photographs since 2004.  When he’s not out blowing bubbles and shooting pictures, he spends his time as a husband, father of three daughters and grandfather to two and works as a computer geek. 

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Philip Thurston shares his tips in creating an epic backlit wave photos
By Philip Thurston

The Art of Backlighting Waves

Philip Thurston
Philip Thurston shares his tips in creating an epic backlit wave photos

The fundamental principle to good photography is understanding light; where it’s coming from, and where it is going. In this article we are going to explore the art of backlighting when it comes to moving masses of water and waves.

If you’re on an east facing coast, morning is going to be your time to get creative with back lit lighting. For western facing coasts, you don’t have to get up as early, as it’s the evening that’s going to provide these kind of shooting conditions. Light bounces and reflects off surfaces with greater densities, so when it shines down into or across water, it creates all kinds of refractions, sending light in all sorts of weird and wonderful directions, creating a myriad of beautiful colours. To utilize this natural phenomena, it comes down to positioning - where you are in the water in relation to the wave and the sun. The position the sun rises throughout the year is always moving, and so is the place in which a wave breaks. The variables to consider can be swell direction and size, tides and winds on the day.

Having to align so many conditions and elements can be difficult, but that’s one of the joys and burdens of wave photography. Getting a really top notch shot is hard, and if you miss an opportunity, it might not come back around for awhile, if ever. The key to nailing an epic backlit wave shot is to align yourself with the wave and light source (sun) as best as possible, so that the wave breaks through the light, illuminating the pitching lip, face of the wave and back of the wave as it breaks past you.

 

The Hulk

A favourite of mine shot on the South Coast, NSW, Australia. On a running tide, reefs like this can create all kinds of crazy shapes, all the more angles for light to bounce off!
Canon 5D Mark 2 and Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 at 1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 160. 

 

Spend Time in the Water

Shooting backlit waves may sound easy enough, but it’s a multitasking mastery of sorts that really only comes with good old experience and practice! To progress, get out and swim around as much as you can with your camera and housing, so that changing settings on the fly and keeping yourself composed becomes second nature. The more things that become second nature to you, the more capacity you will develop when it comes to capturing that finite moment. While you’re at it, be mindful of how the changing light direction affects the waves.

Practice is going to teach you the fundamentals about handling the wave environment. Honestly, the biggest advantage I have in wave photography is simply being comfortable amongst the waves. I’ve spent enough time amongst them that all the stressful elements that comes with shooting waves like tidal surges, undertows, impact zones and hold downs, whitewash and wipeouts, creatures and impending crests, don’t stress me out as much because of the experience I’ve had with them. Thus I’m able to focus more on positioning myself to get the shot. It’s all about getting in the right spot - having the correct settings and pressing the shutter is the easy part.

 

Atomic

A stormy morning (which often provides amazing lighting) shot when the sun just popped out for a minute or so, illuminating the lip of the wave with the turquoise and green colours.  Shot on the south coast, NSW, Australia.
Canon 7D Mark 2 and Canon 8-15mm f/4 at 1/1000, f/4.5, ISO 640.

 

Exposure for Backlit Waves

With a backlit subject, you can generally approach the shot in one of two ways. You can expose for the shadows, creating a very high key effect, or expose for the highlights, creating a silhouetted sculpture of the wave. Both have equally epic and very different qualities to them. I’d encourage mixing both of them up by experimenting with your shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Time of day is obviously important as well. For me on the southeast coast of Australia, early morning is going to be the opportune time to get out and get creative with backlighting, and depending on the time of year, that low lying light doesn’t last long! (Tongue twister right there..)

 

Generous

An open ocean bombie that the sun was rising directly behind - a recipe for epic shots! While beautiful, it was a nightmare to stay in the right position with the huge amount of water swirling and moving around, and no real defined sweet spot or channel to sit in. Shot on the South Coast, NSW.
Canon 5D Mark 2 and Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 at 1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 320.

 

The Hydra
A great example of backlighting, exposed in between the highlights and shadows, shot early in the morning on the south east coast of NSW. Not even really sure what is happening in this image!
Canon 5D Mark 4 and the 70-200mm f/2.8 at 1/1600, f/6.3 and ISO 100.

 

Time Warp

A combination of back lighting and in-camera shutter blur to create this effect. Something that a lot of practice will help you achieve, as you really need to be comfortable in the water enough to give your full focus on the camera controls. 

 

Viper
An image created by exposing for the shadows, creating a high key effect in the highlights with a bit of golden light leaking over the lip. Shot on the south coast, NSW.
Canon 7D Mark 2 and 50mm f/1.2 at 1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 100. 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Philip Thurston:  My goal with Thurston Photo is to create beautiful imagery and literature that provokes positive thought and inspires people to see life from a new perspective. Through my experiences and lessons learnt, I've come to know my purpose in life is to inspire faith in others to live a life of fullness with an eternal perspective, and to help others realise their own dreams, potential and purpose that's worth pursuing with all their heart. I strive to be conscience of this with my words, output and actions. I really do enjoy what I do and I think that makes a big difference with the result. I'm known to happily spend hours straight in the ocean or spontaneously launch myself into the wild in the hope of encountering and capturing creation in a new and exciting way.

Website:  www.thurstonphoto.com          Facebook:  /thurstonphoto          Instagram:  @thurstonphoto

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Improve your marine life behavior shots with these tips for maximizing photo opportunities and and telling the best story of the encounter
By Serge Abourjeily

Tips for Capturing Marine Life Behavior

Serge Abourjeily
Improve your marine life behavior shots with these tips for maximizing photo opportunities and and telling the best story of the encounter

As photographers, we are always after images that have a strong impact on the viewer. Of course, nice colors, good composition and a good mastering of your photographic equipment and technique are essential. But in underwater photography – like in most types of photography – you also have to tell a story. Behavior is a very good way to do so.

"How did he get that shot?" This question is the greatest compliment you could receive on a behavior shot. Here are 3 straightforward tips that I would recommend to anyone asking that question.

 

Know Your Subject

There are always lucky shots and if you dive with a camera often enough you will capture special moments. However your chances to get it done on a more regular and predictable basis increase if you learn more about your subjects. Some key behavior shots are reproduction (mating, spawning, courting, laying eggs, guarding eggs, hatching, nesting), feeding and cleaning.

So you need to know where your subject lives, what it feeds on, when and where it mates, where it lays its eggs – and what time of the month and day it does it. Is it a cleaner? Does it get cleaned – and if so – by whom? Where is the cleaning station? These are all questions you should ask the dive guides and dive operators you are diving with. You should then make a plan based on this information, choose the appropriate lens and go shoot.

 

Goby Oxygenating its Eggs
Little Gobies stay with their eggs. Watch their position ... even if they move when you approach, they’ll come back to the exact same position.
7D Mark 2 / Nauticam Housing / Nauticam SMC / EF 100mm L Macro / 2 x Sea&Sea 250
ISO 200 / f13 / 1/250


Read the Pattern

If you watch fish or other animals, their movements and behavior often seem random at first. Here it pays off to observe before shooting. Watch what your fish does. Displaying male fishes, fishes in cleaning stations, courting fishes ... they often follow movement patterns that you can use in your favour. Learn how to position yourself in a spot to where you know your subject will return. This will not only help you to get the best angle, but also to set up your camera and strobes for this particular angle and create the image you want. This strategy is clearly better than swimming behind your subject and leaving the results to pure luck.

 

Grouper with Cleaner Wrasses at South Africa
Big Groupers in caves or under overhangs are often in company of cleaner wrasses. They are not very shy and you can get very close – watch your strobe position!
7D Mark 2 / Nauticam Housing / Tokina 10-17 / Zen Minidome / 2 x Sea&Sea YS 250
ISO 320 / f8 / 1/60s

Become Invisible

In underwater photography you always want to be close to your subject. The problem with behavior shots is the comfort zone of your subject. If you go too close, they often stop doing what they would be doing if you weren’t there. The key is to become invisible. Of course, not literally... but there are ways to make subjects more tolerant towards you. Much more tolerant if you do it right.

The first thing is always to choose the right subject. If you have a choice of several, then always go for the one in the best position and/or the one that seems least shy. So if you want to become invisible to a garden eel you have to choose the one that lets you come closest before retreating into his hole.

Then you can start working on becoming invisible by simply approaching in a sensitive and observing way. Use good buoyancy control, move slowly, exhale slowly and steadily – even with small bubbles only from your mask if you have to. And always watch your subject. Whenever it starts changing its behavior (for example, a garden eel that stops feeding and begins to retreat, or a goby warning its shrimp and freezing its motions) you have to stop. Breathe even more carefully, move even slower and maybe even move back a bit. As soon as your subject starts behaving normally again you restart your approach with the same care. Repeat this cycle several times. You will see, that after some time you will end up much closer to a relaxed subject than you would have guessed is possible. Spending 5-20 minutes just stalking and becoming invisible can pay off for some shots.

Lizardfish with Cleaner Shrimps at Lembeh Strait
Cleaner Shrimps often hang around little anemones. Locate those cleaning stations and see what’s around. Lizard fishes are very common visitors and are relatively easy to capture as they stay around for a while.
7D Mark 2 / Nauticam Housing / EF 100mm L Macro / 2 x Sea&Sea 250
ISO 160 / f11 / 1/250

 

For me, these three steps work really well and I think you should give them a try. But in the end, don’t become blind to everything else around you when working on a behavior shot. Just because you are planning to capture one specific behavior doesn’t mean that other stuff doesn’t happen. So keep your eyes open – the more knowledge about behavior you have in your head (Tip number 1), the more chances you will get to capture it.

 

Dolphins Feeding on Sardines
Sometimes the best preparation for a behavior shot is not done by yourself but by very experienced dive operators – like the skippers on the sardine run in South Africa. They learned how to observe the birds to spot baitball action.
7D Mark 2 / Nauticam Housing / Tokina 10-17 / 1 x Sea&Sea 250
ISO 320 / f9 / 1/160

 


Nudibranchs Laying Eggs and Feeding on Eggs
This Hypselodoris bulloki is laying its egg ribbon while it’s beeing eaten at the same time by a Favorinus Nudibranch. Always watch Nudibranch eggs very closely!
7D Mark 2 / Nauticam Housing / EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro / 2 x Sea&Sea 250
ISO 160 / f18 / 1/250

 

Male Anthias have lots of females, and they protect them against intruders … and if you stick around long enough also against yourself. Find the right spot and wait fort he right moment.
7D Mark 2 / Nauticam Housing / EF 100mm L Macro / 2 x Sea&Sea 250
ISO 320 / f10 / 1/250

 


Take a Look at Serge's Gear

Canon 7D Mark II  -  Nauticam NA-7DMKII Housing  -  Sea & Sea Y-250 Pro Strobes 


 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Serge Abourjeily has been a u/w photographer since 2005, living and working in Indonesia. He has spent the last 7 years in the famous Lembeh Strait (recently as Dive Manager at NAD-Lembeh) where he collected a lot of experience with critters and macro Photography. Beginning in 2017, Serge will be working on the Samambaia Liveaboard, cruising the Indonesian seas enjoying wide-angle AND macro. 

www.serge-mondial.com

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Tips for selecting underwater images that will stand out to judges and win photo contests
By Brook Peterson

How to Choose Award Winning Images

Brook Peterson
Tips for selecting underwater images that will stand out to judges and win photo contests

Competitions are a great way to find out how you measure up to all the great photography out there.  Competitions are also a good way to get you some recognition for your work by getting your name out there among other members of the underwater photography community. Having a good understanding of what makes a good image is critical to being a top notch photographer, but it is also important to remember that some aspects of the judging process are subjective.  The following guidelines will help you pick your best images for any competition.

 

Stand Out

First impressions are important, especially when hundreds or thousands of images have been submitted to the judges.  There is always a preliminary elimination where the competitions judges will go through the images and select those they think are worthy of a second look.  If your image stands out, and catches a judges eye, it is more likely to make it to the next round. When I prepare to choose my images, I put them all in the grid view of the Library module in Lightroom.  Any software that allows you to see several images at once will work.  Then I let my eyes wander around the images and I pay attention to which ones I look at several times. Of those I will pick five or six, and then use other techniques to eliminate from there.

 

 

Eliminate

Now let's say I chose these seven images, because they caught my eye the most:

 

 

Detach Yourself

Now it is time to eliminate further. Sometimes this part of the process is difficult because you have emotional attachments to some of the images even though they might not be winning material. For example, the hunting eel image was very exciting to me because I captured the thrill of the hunt.  However, the image has several issues.  It is too dark, part of the eel's body is cut off, and it isn't tack sharp.  So I will eliminate that one.  The same is true of the amphipod inside a tunicate.  This was a difficult shot and although that carries some weight, a judge might eliminate the image because part of the tunicate is cut off, or that little piece of algae in the top right is distracting. You see, you want to choose images that are as technically perfect as possible so that a judge has no reason to eliminate it.  I would also eliminate the wire coral shrimp because the wire coral does not go perfectly from corner to corner.  That leaves us with these four images:

 

 

Fine Tune

Each of these images is composed well, lit well, the focus is tack sharp, they are eye catching and they tell a story or give a sense of character.  The images are colorful and interesting.  Certainly the level of difficulty in making the image is a factor. At this point, any one of them could be a winning image.  The rules of many competitions might be specific to how much you can crop an image, or how much editing you can do.  I would have to eliminate the goby on the whip coral if global changes are all that is allowed, because I had to remove a distracting bit of coral from the image with the healing brush tool in Photoshop. (A local tool).  Now I will compare my image with its RAW counterpart and determine how much editing I have done.  The less editing the better.  If your image makes it to the semi-finals of a competition, the judges will often ask to see the RAW file for that very reason.  You will want to submit images that have the least amount of editing and are sound in every other way to give yourself the best chance for a winner.  Remember to be honest with yourself and try not to let your emotions override your judgement.  Most of all, remember that when the Judges have a large number of images that are perfect in every way, the final call will be subjective, so if you feel you should have won with your image, try entering it again in a different competition.  Maybe some other judge will choose it over the others.

 

This column originally published on Brook's blog, titled And the Winner Is...


A young sea lion barks at the camera. This image earned Brook the Best of Show award in the 2015 Socal Shootout.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brook Peterson is an avid scuba diver and underwater photographer who enjoys capturing the beauty of the under water environment throughout the world. She is an original member of the SEA&SEA Alpha program. Her work has been featured in both print and online magazines.  She is the owner of Waterdog Photography and authors a blog on underwater photography and techniques.  More of her work can be found at:

www.waterdogphotography.com  |  Facebook  |  instagram@waterdogphotography_brook.

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Underwater photo tips for capturing dramatic photos of fast-moving sharks paired with a crisp sunburst
By Mike Ellis

Shooting Tips: Sharks and Sunbursts

Mike Ellis
Underwater photo tips for capturing dramatic photos of fast-moving sharks paired with a crisp sunburst

A few years back I worked as boat crew during a shoot for the Animal Planet network.  Their main goal was to shoot nighttime shark sequences.  In keeping with my regular hours, my goal was to be up at sunrise. I carried through with my various boat duties and also made sure fresh bait was in the water to help keep the sharks around.  Early to rise also meant I was the only one up and therefore had the ocean all to myself.  The conditions could not have been better…a gentle east breeze, sunshine with the occasional passing cloud, clear blue water and yes, sharks.

Not long after sliding into the water, I noticed what I will say was a very lazy swagger to the sharks posture and demeanor.  It appeared this was going to be a very uneventful dive.  Especially since most of the larger sharks had left the shallow waters for the cooler waters found in the deep.  This left me with a bunch of Lemons… sharks that is.  I got my Nikon all warmed up with some of my normal type shots.  But then as I was standing in 18 feet of water just taking in my surroundings with sharks swimming over my head, I spread my strobes as far as they would go and just started composing and capturing that slow swagger in the rays of the sun.  I enjoy the results of that combination so much, it easily became something I strived to do with every dive. 

 

Shooting Tips

 

Dealing with a big bright ball

I have yet to see a digital camera work as good as a film with the same settings with the sun, so I try my best to block out the center mass of the sun with the subject or an object. I found that the camera and I could work with the sunrays a lot better using this technique.

 

Flash sync speed

My first DSLR was a Nikon D70s. It was a great camera with a flash sync speed of 1/500 sec.  Now it seems like the fastest sync speed you can get is 1/250 sec. But If you shoot in Manual without iTTL you can cheat by using a small piece of tape over the hot shoe pins that control sync.  Just leave the main pin untaped and try turning up your shutter speed till you start seeing a black line on the bottom of your photos, then back off untill it’s gone. I was able to get my D90 to go to 1/250 (normally the max is 1/200). That might not seem like a lot, but when shooting in the clear shallow waters with midday sun every little bit helps.

 

Calm is cool, but rougher water at golden hour is magic

If you can see the light rays you can grab them. On the way back to the swim step I looked west and saw lots of shark action that I did not see from below. Shooting horizontal in that special hour just under the surface, I waited and watched till the sharks and the golden sunrays came together for this shot. I had turned down my strobes to ¼ power so as not to drown out any of the magic.

 

A large part of the best sunburst / light ray photos I have captured have been in the winter or spring as the air column has less water in it. But there are always exceptions to the rule. Any day that has low humidity and wind under 15 knots can produce great underwater sunburst photos. With wind above 15 knots, I find the salt in the air just makes for a blinding whiteout underwater. 

As always with underwater photography, get close, trust your histogram over your display, compose so the majority of the sun is not in the frame and above all have fun trying and learning new techniques.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Ellis: Sharing bottom time with some of the smartest & friendliest in the ocean to some of the largest & most feared (by some), has given me unique opportunities to photograph the popular, playful Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, to the less popular, agile Tiger Shark & much more.  It has also strengthened my compassion towards them & the vital roll they play in the delicate balance of the oceans.  It is my hope to convey this thru my photography.  That people will look upon my images & share my concerns of acts of greed & inhumanness that bring many to their plight. And also to feel the heart n' souls of the ocean & how we all need each other.  "For the oceans!"

onaiaphoto.com   |   Instagram.com/onaiaphoto   |   Facebook.com/mike.ellis.9678067

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Secrets and guidelines to capturing great shots with Canon 5D Mark IV when shooting in less-that-ideal visibility.
By William Winram

Shooting Tips: Canon 5D Mark IV in Poor Vis

William Winram
Secrets and guidelines to capturing great shots with Canon 5D Mark IV when shooting in less-that-ideal visibility.

It had been more than 20 years since I had last dove in La Paz, Mexico and this was long before I ever thought about taking photos underwater.  Our time in La Paz was to be split between sessions with the whale sharks and sessions freediving on a line working on technique with our young ambassadors and instructors before heading out to sea with the Nautilus Explorer to tag scalloped hammerhead sharks in the Revillagigedo Archipelago.

 

Notes on Testing the 5D Mark IV

Prior to the trip, I procured myself a new Canon 5D Mark IV and did some tests in the pool back home to see that the extension ring for the Canon 16-35mm lens was optimal and allowed for clear images. With my previous camera (Canon 5D Mark II), I was never able to capture the same clarity in my photos as I could with the Sigma 15mm fisheye.  I later discovered that the issue was that the extension ring not properly sized for the lens.

And so I spent an hour in the pool playing with my new camera.  Not easy shooting in the pool since I only use natural light and the pool is not particularly well lit, but it was enough to know that the housing set up worked for both lenses.

 

 

 

Canon 5D Mk IV in La Paz

Day one in La Paz, Mexico was the first day in the sea with the Canon 5D Mark IV. We arrived to the dive site after a 10-minute ride in a panga.  Almost immediately there were whale sharks.  I jumped in, turned the camera on and took a look around, assessing that there was barely 2 meters of visibility as the water was filled with plankton!  I spun around, grabbed the edge of the boat and pulled myself up enough to place my camera back on the bench in the boat.  I was not at all excited at the limited photo opportunities possible with such poor visibility and actually thought that it was hopeless.  After all, earlier in the year I had been in the Maldives with visibility much better than this and even then it was challenging to capture an image that was not “foggy” with the plankton. 

I paused as I placed the housing on the bench and decided to persevere with the camera to at least get comfortable with the set up and controls of the new system.  This was, after all, a chance to work with the camera before heading out to the Revillagigedo Archipelago.

 

 

As I turned around and dropped back into the water a medium-sized whale shark swam into view, opening its mouth to feed.  I snapped the first photo and as I reviewed I was shocked!  I looked at the image in the camera, looked out into the murky bay, back at the image, back into the murk… how was it possible that the camera captured an image that even my eyes did not see!!!  

I was completely blown away by the camera and as I compared the images to those from buddies shooting with the 5D Mark II, it was clear that the Mark IV was on a completely different level.

I still needed to be mindful of the position of the sun relative to myself and my subject, or else even this camera was challenged by the poor visibility.  As the morning progressed and as the sun moved higher into the morning sky it became more challenging as the sun lit up the plankton.  The key, it seemed, was to be in the water early in the morning when there was sufficient light but before the sun was too high in the sky.

 

 

Out of five days we had two that were really good for both the lighting and the sharks - when the whale sharks showed up early in the day so the sun was low in the horizon but with still enough light to get some nice photos.  The other days it seemed the whale sharks decided to start their day later in the morning and with those overhead light conditions I found it much more difficult to get close to a clean shot.

I cannot complain about the number of sharks we encountered nor the conditions, but I left La Paz pining for a return trip during a season that had better visibility.  I am hoping to return later this year and to spend a bit more time in the area enjoying La Paz and the Baja Peninsula with the Canon 5D Mk IV.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

William is an ocean explorer, IUCN Oceans Ambassador,  founder of The Watermen Project NPO and Deepblu Brand Ambassador.  His images are taken during scientific and conservation related missions around the globe on a single breath of air and using only natural light. 

www.WilliamWinram.com   |   www.TheWatermen.org

 

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Comprehensive tutorial on producing sharp underwater photos, starting in camera and ending with detailed post-processing enhancements
By David Fleetham

Pro Tips for Achieving Sharp Focus

David Fleetham
Comprehensive tutorial on producing sharp underwater photos, starting in camera and ending with detailed post-processing enhancements

Focusing takes place twice for me: once in the camera when I capture an image and then a second time when I work on that file in Lightroom/Photoshop. We will look at both of these moments in this tutorial and how I personally deal with obtaining a sharp photograph.

Shortly after digital cameras became standard for underwater photography, most housing manufacturers added an ergonomic control to effortlessly access a button on the back of the camera that you can set through a custom function to engage focus. On my Canon 5D Mark 4 this is marked as the AF-ON button and is one of three buttons together on the upper right corner of the back of the body. It is my understanding that a similar control is available on Nikon. Through the custom menu, I also turn off the shutter release to autofocus and use the AF-ON button exclusively to activate the autofocus. It can be challenging to have the correct feel for the shutter through the housing control and this is only exaggerated in cold water with the addition of gloves. Using this back-button focus technique eliminates (accidentally) shooting a frame when you are trying to focus with the shutter.

Lastly, I select the AI SERVO mode for focusing and turn on all the focus points in the camera. While holding the housing underwater I can then focus with my thumb and at the same time pull the shutter release with my trigger finger.

 

 

This two-step process takes a little getting used to, but it is now second nature for me. In the case of a wide-angle moving subject, I will hold the AF-ON button/lever down, allowing the camera to constantly update the focus while I am able to shoot frame after frame at the time of my choosing. This is essential for sharks, sea lions or dolphins that will keep a distance and then abruptly come up to kiss your dome port.

For macro, the AF-ON button can be used to “lock” the focus, in that when you are not holding down the lever, the camera will not change the focus. Often I will focus, frame and shoot a subject and then release the AF-ON button and recompose the composition and at the same time move the camera in and out to alter that critical plane that is sharp. I’ll shoot several images of the same subject, playing with its placement within the frame. This helps to eliminate the tendency many photographers have of centering the subject in a composition.

 

Post-Production to Enhance Sharpness

Once back in front of my computer I will then do my standard adjustments of color, highlights and shadows and any other needed corrections in Lightroom. The only thing I do not adjust is sharpening. Next, open the RAW file in Photoshop through Lightroom's 'Edit Photo In' tool and create five identical layers of the file.

 

 

On the top layer I go to FILTER – OTHER – HIGH PASS.

 

 

You will immediately see your image turn into a strange-looking cloudy negative.

 

 

Don’t panic. You will also see the HIGH PASS dialog box with just one adjustment called RADIUS. I start with it set at 3.5 for a file from my 5D Mark 4. The size of the file you are working with and the image itself will determine what the best setting will be. This is often a matter of trial and error. Click OK and then go to the layers panel and pull down the blending mode menu that is on NORMAL as default. Move down the menu and select OVERLAY.

 

 

Your image will now return to something you are more used to seeing, only sharper. Zoom in, move around the image and click the eyeball icon to turn visibility of the layer off and back on. You should see a substantial difference with sharpness of your image.

If you are pleased with the amount of sharpening, go to the LAYERS menu and select MERGE DOWN (keyboard shortcut COMMAND – E on a MAC) near the bottom.

We are not done yet. Double click the top layer (the sharpened one) and rename it 3.5.

 

 

I do this to remember the setting at which I ran the HIGH PASS filter. Next, drag that layer down one level. Now you now have an original layer that has not been sharpened on the top.

 

 

Click the three eyeball icons on the lower layers to turn them off.

 

 

Next, select the ERASER TOOL (E). In the case of this scorpionfish, I only want to sharpen the fish itself. I find that if you sharpen areas that are not in focus you tend to just add noise and/or unwanted artifacts to these areas. This is particularly true of blue water or any negative space that is a color gradient. Turn the OPACITY to 100% and then erase what you want to have sharp. Use a large enough brush to have a reasonable feather at the outside of your subject.

 

 

In doing this, you now have a graduated border leading to the sharpened subject. Anything besides the subject that is also in focus I will erase, in this case the coral polyps across the lower middle of the frame.

 

 

Now turn all the layers back on and click the 3.5 layer off and on to see the extent of what you have done.

 

 

If this looks good, you can flatten the image and then save it as you wish. If this is not what you want, you can then throw away the 3.5 layer and repeat the whole process using a higher or lower RADIUS setting to increase or decrease the level of sharpening.

 

Other Sample Photos Using These Techniques:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Fleetham is one of the most published underwater photographers in the world.  He began diving and photographing underwater in 1976 and has been in Hawaii since 1986.  David's photographs have been published around the globe, with over two hundred magazine covers to date. In 1991 his photograph of a sandbar shark appeared on the cover of LIFE. It is the only underwater image to ever be published on the cover. His award winning work has been published by National Geographic (he has done several assignments for The NGS), The Cousteau Society, and every North American diving publication.

Website:  DavidFleetham.com

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