Technique/Tutorial

Underwater photo tutorials, techniques and tips for all types of underwater photo and video, including macro, supermacro, wide-angle, composition and best camera gear.
Lessons learned and great macro shooting using the compact but very capable Olympus TG-5.
By Sibylle Gerlinger

Making Underwater Photography Simple with the TG-5

Sibylle Gerlinger
Lessons learned and great macro shooting using the compact but very capable Olympus TG-5.

Editor’s note: The Olympus TG-5 is one of the best value compact cameras out there, with its microscope mode allowing for fantastic macro shooting. It is a perfect camera for someone looking to get into underwater photography, but is also used by many highly experienced underwater photographers to take excellent underwater shots (as you will see with Sibylle’s fantastic images below). Check out our TG-5 camera review for more information.

 

Nudibranch. Olympus TG-5, Nauticam Housing, Weefine ring light, 12mm focal length, f/14, 1/200 sec, ISO 400.

 

It took me nearly 28 years of diving before I finally started underwater photography. It took me so long because I simply wanted to enjoy the dive and the underwater scenery, instead of bothering with extra equipment, extra weight, and extra thoughts about technical details.

My first attempt at underwater photography began with a Nikon AW 100. It was a simple little compact camera, waterproofed up to 30 meters of depth without a housing, and accompanied by a small video light. My husband Gerald Nowak, a professional underwater photographer himself, had to push me in this direction. He encouraged me to “just try and have fun”, adding “if you break it, don’t worry”. Following his suggestion, I had fun – and I broke it. But I learned an important lesson: I was hooked on underwater photography, I wanted to move on and improve!

 

Nudibranch. Olympus TG-5, Nauticam Housing, Weefine ring light, 10mm focal length, f/3.5, 1/200 sec, ISO 200.

 

The Advantage of a Compact Camera

During the last few years there has been amazing development in the compact cameras arena for underwater usage. If you take underwater photography seriously, you will need a housing, but there is a wide range on the market for the popular compact cameras. I am using an Olympus Tough TG-5 in a Nauticam housing and I am very happy with my choice. Especially when photographing all the fascinating macro creatures and critters, this camera suits all needs. It provides beginners with good results which are easy to achieve. The Olympus TG-5 is able to shoot jpg and RAW with 12 megapixels and has little noise up to ISO 800. The equipment is handy and not too heavy in a backpack, although it still has negative buoyancy underwater. For beginners I would always recommend starting with macro photography. The animals usually move more slowly, which makes it easier to take pictures, and you don’t need to add the extra expense of a wide angle wet lens.

 

Hairy Frogfish. Olympus TG-5, Nauticam Housing, Weefine ring light, 10mm focal length, f/5, 1/400 sec, ISO 400.

 

Auto vs Semi-Manual

Don’t bother with the technical details too much at the beginning. Use the Auto exposure setting. Learn by trying. I always take some pictures in the Auto setting first, before starting experiments in the more manual Program and Aperture modes. This makes sure that you at least come up with some nice shots, and gives you the patience you need for shooting photos with a bit more manual control. (Editor’s note: although the TG-5 has semi-manual control, it does not allow full manual functionality).

The TG-5’s microscope mode is an extra bonus, which makes this little camera my best friend. It enables me to take good pictures of very small organisms like Shaun nudibranchs, which are the size of a grain of rice, without needing to use an additional macro lens.

 

Nudibranchs. Olympus TG-5, Nauticam Housing, Weefine ring light, 18mm focal length, f/14, 1/100 sec, ISO 250.

 

You Need Light

The photographer takes the picture, not the camera. But it is the light that creates the atmosphere. Without an external light you will not receive satisfying results underwater. I prefer an LED video light (e.g. from Orcatorch or Weefine) to a strobe. The usage is simple because you see exactly where the light is pointing, and what is being illuminated. Of course, a strobe with a minimum brightness of approximately 100,000 lumens is much stronger than a video light, with a maximum of about 10,000 lumens. But as long as you take macro pictures, using a video light is not a big disadvantage, and it can provide decent enough lighting.

If you want to light your whole subject equally from all sides, I would recommend the Weefine Ring Light. This LED light provides four different light intensities, in addition to red and UV light, and can also be used as lower-power strobe.

Opposite to this I also love snoot pictures. By lighting only a small spot or a part of the object, you can create magical scenery. (Editor’s note: if you want to learn more about snoots, check out our Ultimate Guide to Snoot Photography).

 

Yellow Pigmy Goby. Olympus TG-5, Nauticam Housing, Bubblescuba BB-S1 Pro snoot. 18mm focal length, f/14, 1/125 sec, ISO 200.

 

Creativity

As well as light, you need some creativity and ambition to shoot nice pictures. Take a look at what the “big players” do, try to think of a different angle. It is less important that you find a rare creature down there. The most ordinary nudibranch can be a very suitable and interesting subject if you find a new point of view or a different way of lighting. Good pictures are very much about patience and waiting for the right moment, and the right movement of the animal. Always take your time; never hurry!

 

Nudibranch. Olympus TG-5, Nauticam Housing, Supe Snoot. 18mm focal length, f/14, 1/100 sec, ISO 200.

 

Nudibranch. Olympus TG-5, Nauticam Housing, Supe Snoot. 18mm focal length, f/14, 1/100 sec, ISO 250.

 

Underwater Ethics and Skills

First of all: don’t start with underwater photography if you don’t have good diving skills. Good buoyancy is essential! When you are still learning to control your buoyancy and fighting with your camera underwater, you will break corals, chase fishes or inadvertently step on small creatures. Always be aware of yourself and your gear (very often your octopus or gauge will be hanging under your body, which can easily damage corals). Control your fins.

I think we should always be aware that we are only guests in a beautiful world which is not ours, and we should dive with respect. I don’t move, replace or try to harass any animal under water. I don’t dive with a pointer. One of my role models for underwater photography is the wonderful Ellen Cuylerts. She put it in very simple words: “Work with what you get.”

Since I started doing underwater photography, many things have changed for me. Divers who do not carry a camera often say that photographers see less under water because they always focus on looking out for scenes and subjects to shoot. I think that this is not true. I definitely spot much more during my dives now. Only, the perspective is different. My dives have changed from a leisurely stroll into a concentrated walk.

The biggest change of all, though, has been for my favorite buddy, my husband Gerald. He lost his underwater model, but he gained a companion in photography.

 

Frogfish. Olympus TG-5, Nauticam Housing, Bubblescuba BB-S1 Pro snoot. 18mm focal length, f/4.9, 1/200 sec, ISO 100.

 

Gear Used

  • Olympus Tough TG5
  • Nauticam Housing
  • Weefine wideangle wetlense WFL02
  • Weefine Ringlight
  • LED light Weefine smartfocus 6000
  • LED  light Orcatorch D950V
  • Subtronic Strobe Pro 160
  • Supe and bubble scuba snoot
  • Diving equipment supplied by mares

Bluewater Photo Gear Links

Bluewater Photo, sister company to the Underwater Photography Guide, carries the TG-5 and many accessories. Some links are provided below.

Additional Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sibylle Gerlinger has worked for more than twenty years as a journalist for German and international dive and travel magazines, together with her husband, underwater photographer Gerald Nowak. Despite her long-lasting commitment to the diving industry, Sibylle only started taking pictures underwater about three years ago, focusing mainly on macro life. Her favorite destinations are the Philippines, and the Azores (in the Atlantic Ocean). You can check out more of her work on Instagram or on her website.

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Time-saving tips for the time-consuming part of an underwater photographer's post-processing workflow.

Lightroom Tutorial: Time-Saving Tips for Managing Photos

Time-saving tips for the time-consuming part of an underwater photographer's post-processing workflow.

Culling and managing photos is easily one of the most painful and time-consuming parts of my post-processing workflow, and I think that goes for most underwater photographers. By the nature of what we do, a lot of our photos don't quite turn out the way we want. It is often necessary to take many attempts at a subject to get what we want. This can leave us with 10, 20, or even more photos of the same subject to sort through, without one clear "perfect" shot standing out above the rest. 

Although it's more exciting to focus on learning new techniques and tricks for processing individual photos, if you are not a well-tuned photo culling machine, the biggest area for time-saving in your post-processing workflow is likely photo culling. 

This video covers some Lightroom tips and tricks I have picked up through my experiences. None of this is rocket science, but that doesn't make it any less important. If you do not want to watch the video (I don't blame you, as that involves listening to me) but would rather see this information in article form, I have included that below as well.

1. Quality Over Quantity

If you are looking through someone's photos, would you rather see an album of 30 photos, with 20 great shots and 10 decent ones, or an album of 80 photos, with 20 great shots, 20 decent ones, and 40 mediocre ones? I always prefer to see a smaller album of higher quality images, and I think most people are the same. Seeing many different takes on the same subject can be interesting, but I really want to see the best one or two takes of that subject, and then move on. Not only that, but if some great shots are buried in a bunch of mediocre ones, I might even skip over those great ones because the mediocre ones just make me skim the album!

Of course, when it comes to culling photos, this is easier said than done. What makes it so difficult to be ruthless with our photos is that we put a lot of time and effort into them, and we have a personal story and a context for each photo. This is even more true with underwater photography, as it is a lot more difficult than most land photography! So it's important to remember that other people don't have the story or context; they just have the photo (plus whatever caption we use). 

I'm not advocating ruthlessly getting rid of all of your fun photos and ones with genuinely neat stories. Or that one not-the-best shot of a blue-ringed octopus, which happens to be the only one you have ever gotten of that subject. But, overall, less really is more. Every mediocre photo you include in your album takes a little bit away from your really great shots. As some photographers say, you are only as good as your worst shot. So trim as many of those mediocre shots as you can, and make room for the great shots to really shine!

Below I have posted screenshots of two of my albums, to demonstrate this. The first is from my very first underwater photography trip, in the Sea of Cortez. It has 131 photos, many which are repeats of the same subject. There are some good photos, but they get drowned out by all of the mediocre and similar shots I decided to keep alongside.

The second is from a recent dive trip to South Australia. I did about half as many dives there as in the Sea of Cortez, but I only kept 23 photos. Yes, there are lots of sea dragons, but that was really most of what I was shooting, and they are mostly quite different subjects, different backgrounds, and different compositions, each which I think adds something. There are a few 3-star shots, but most I rated either a 4 or a 5 out of 5 (see below for more about rating photos).

2. Rate or Reject Each Photo

The first step of my culling process is to run through each photo individually. This can be done in Library mode or in Develop mode. Any photos which are clearly blown out, blurry, out of focus, or otherwise flawed I flag them as rejected (keyboard shortcut: X), and move on.

Any photos which may be worth keeping, I rate from 1-5 stars, 1 being barely keepable, 5 being fantastic (keyboard shortcut: 1-5 keys). If a photo is keepable but I know I have a better shot of the subject, I will usually just reject it. 

3. Reject (Most) 1 Star and 2 Star Images

Once the initial rating process is done, I use the filter to pull up only my 1-star and 2-star photos. Now, having gone through everything, I have a pretty good idea of what 3-5 star shots I have. Unless the 1-star or 2-star shot is of a special subject, unique behavior, dive buddy, or something else I really want to keep, I flag all my 1- and 2-star shots as rejected.

After completing this process, I go to the Photo Menu -> Delete Rejected Photos (keyboard shortcut ctrl + backspace) and then select that I want to remove them from disk. I don't see a point in keeping them, but if you want to you can just remove them from your library. (But keep in mind that requires a lot more disk space!)

4. Use Survey View to Trim Shots by Subject

After my initial rating and culling process, I am typically down to around 30-50% of my original photos. Now I make sure I am in Library mode, and use the Survey View function (keyboard shortcut N) to compare all of my shots of a given subject. So if I have 10 shots that I kept of a certain nudibranch, I select them all (holding down ctrl and clicking on each one individually) and then hit N. Lightroom puts the photos up side-by-side so I can compare what I have. Now I go through and try to whittle down my shots to 1-2 if possible. If I really did a lot of experimental shots or had some cool behavior, then I might keep 3-5 shots. That is, unless I was doing something like a week-long humpback whale photo trip - in those cases I will try to keep around 1-4 shots of each whale - I mean, it's a whale! Whales are awesome and do lots of cool stuff!

Anyway, for each shot I want to get rid of (and the star ratings I did earlier help make this faster), I hit the X key to reject, and then click on the "x" in the bottom right of the photo to remove it from the survey view. As I get rid of photos from the survey view, Lightroom enlarges the remaining ones, making it easier to discriminate between photos of very similar quality. Any subjects where I am stuck, I remind myself that if I really can't pick between them, then one is as good as the other. Sometimes, this is enough for me to arbitrarily pick one over the other. But if there are some photo groupings I can't fully cull, rather than agonize about them for a lot of time, I save them for the next step.

One other note: if there are photos which require relatively large edits (like split shots) then I do some quick editing on them and then compare. It can be hard to tell just from RAW images which one edits best, but it's easy to tell after you spend a couple of minutes on each of the shots.

5. Get Help from a Friend!

After I finish culling a batch of photos, I will typically be left with a few small groups I want to cull further. In this case, I get my fiancee to come and take a look. I show her each grouping and ask which are her favorites, or which ones I should get rid of. She is a lot less biased and less emotionally connected to the photos than me, so she can pick very objectively the ones she thinks are best, based on their merits as photos. With her help, it usually takes less than 15 minutes to clear out what would have taken me an hour or two to do on my own. 

This does not have to be an underwater photographer or any kind of photographer at all. In fact, having a non-photographer can help with getting an unbiased opinion. 

 

6. Go Through as a Whole Album

Now that I've completed my culling by subject, I should be down to maybe 10-15% of my original photos. I then look at them all in Survey or Grid view, to see how they look as an album. Sometimes, a couple of shots stand out as being lower quality than the rest of the album. Then I have to decide if keeping any of these shots is worth bringing down the overall quality of the album. If not, I will delete them as well. 

7. Keep Your Recycle Bin Around Until You're Done Editing

I delete rejected photos and send to my recycle bin, but I don't get rid of my recycle bin until I am done editing the photos I kept. Sometimes when I get into editing, I will find an unexpected flaw with a photo and want to bring back an alternate. In this case, I can restore some from my recycle bin, and pick the next best alternative. 

Anyway, that is my culling process in a nutshell. Now, the fun part begins...editing. But at least I only have 20 photos to edit, instead of 200!

I hope you find this useful. As always, you can drop me an email at bryan@uwphotographyguide.com if you have any questions!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryan is an editor for the Underwater Photography Guide. He loves any activity that takes him out into nature, and is especially fond of multi-day hiking trips, road trips to National Parks, and diving. Any kind of diving. He discovered the joy of underwater photography on a Bluewater trip to the Sea of Cortez, and after "trial and erroring" his way to some level of proficiency, has been hooked ever since. He has not done nearly as much diving as he would like, but has so far taken underwater photos in a diverse range of places, including BC, the Sea of Cortez, Greenland/Iceland, Northern Norway, the Galapagos and French Polynesia.

After working as a chemical engineer at a major oil & gas corporation for 9 years, Bryan finally had enough (and it didn't help that he was living in landlocked Edmonton, Canada with frigid winter temperatures and no real diving to speak of). He and his girlfriend decided to pack up their things and travel the world; they started their journey mid-2018 and will visit a number of great dive locations along the way. He is very excited to expand his underwater photography experience and skills while experiencing new cultures and exciting parts of the world. Though he is also a bit worried about the following equation that has so far defined his dive travels: Corporate job ($$) = Dive travel ($) + Underwater Photography ($). Taking away the left side of that equation seems like it might put things a bit out of balance. But as he reasons, what's the point in life if you can't take some big risks and have some fun along the way?

You can find more of his photos on Instagram at @bryandchu and check out his travel and relationship blog at www.bryanandlisa.ca

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The top underwater photography and video gear for kids and young photographers
By Nirupam Nigam

Top Underwater Cameras for Kids

Nirupam Nigam
The top underwater photography and video gear for kids and young photographers

As with everything else, the future of underwater photography rests on the backs of our youth. Young people have an exceptional ability to learn and adapt in our increasingly technological world. This is especially true in gear-heavy fields like underwater photography that can require a high level of learning before even getting to the starting line. Having started my underwater photographic career at the age of 15, I do not believe I would be where I am today if I had not absorbed photographic techniques early. I have witnessed photographers even younger than 15 grasp a full understanding of photography and take better photos than many divers I know 5 times their age. The biggest hurdle most young photographers face is limited disposable income. But there are many cheap and easy-to-use underwater set ups that have amazing potential for budding photographers. Beautiful underwater images and videos are more accessible than you might think! 

Here is our selection of top underwater photo and video gear for kids and young photographers:

 

1. Olympus TG-5 

Best Overall Camera: Great for snorkelers, tide-poolers, divers, macro photographers, and people on a budget

 

 

The Olympus “Tough” TG-5 is the perfect all-around underwater camera for kids and young photographers. It is known for its versatility, ruggedness, fantastic macro capability, and high performance-to-cost ratio. As its name suggests, this camera is tough. Without an underwater housing, it is waterproof down to 50ft (15m), and with an Olympus PT-058 UW housing, it is rated to 147ft (45m). This makes it great for snorkelers and tide poolers. It also provides extra protection for divers in case of a housing flood at depth. This camera can take 4K video and has a very capable “microscope mode” for macro photos of small creatures like snails and nudibranchs. Although it cannot be controlled by a full manual mode, it has an aperture priority mode which is great for learning about aperture and depth-of-field. 

Click here for our full Olympus TG-5 review

Retail Price: $499.99


 


The Olympus TG-5 is available now at Bluewater Photo!

 

2. Canon G7X Mark II

Most Teachable Camera: Great for young photographers learning the basics about underwater photography

The image quality in the Canon G7X Mark II competes with high-end compact camera set ups like the Sony RX100 V, at an affordable price. It also has a full manual mode, unlike the Olympus TG-5 which makes it great for learning the basics of photography. You can change your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO at will and learn about how each control affects your exposure and quality of the image. Video is available in 1080p, full HD.

Click here for our full Canon G7X Mark II Review

Retail Price: $679

 

The Canon G7X Mark II is available now at Bluewater Photo!

 

3. Paralenz Dive Camera

Best Overall Video Camera: Great for young divers looking for great video, awesome accessories, and the ability to track their dive

As Paralenz likes to say – this is a video camera made for divers by divers. It is the easiest-to-use dive video camera to date with a lot of accessories and features made specifically for divers. Using it is much like a flashlight, with a single switch and a turning ring as the only controls for this camera. It’s very easy to tell when the camera is on, when it’s off, and when it’s recording or taking photos – even without looking at it. It has the capability of taking 4k video up to 30p and 2.7k video up to 60 p, as well as 8 MP still photos down to 250 meters/820 ft. But the most exciting aspect of this camera is that it records your depth and temperature throughout the dive and color corrects your video based on the depth!! This is a great for any young diver who wants to know the exact depth and temperature at any point in their video. The color correction function (DCC) works great in green and blue water. One notable accessory available for the camera features a 3rd person viewer (selfie) stick that can float the camera into the water column and film you or the scene with no effort on your part. 

Retail Price: $699.00


 

 

The Paralenz Dive Camera is on sale now at Bluewater Photo!

 

4. SeaLife DC2000

Best Starter Camera: A great camera for young divers, snorkelers, and tide poolers taking their first steps into underwater photography

SeaLife is a company known around the world for making affordable underwater cameras perfect for budding underwater photographers. The DC2000 is SeaLife’s most advanced camera to date, featuring a 20 MP sensor, full HD video, and built-in color correction filters for snorkeling, deep water diving, and green water. The housing can withstand depths of up to 200ft/60 m, and the camera can survive depths down to 60 ft/18 m without a housing. Due to the built in modes, this is a great camera if you are less interested in fiddling with manual controls and would like something a little more “point-and-shoot.”

Click here for our full review of the SeaLife DC2000 Underwater Camera

Retail Price: $699.00

 

The SeaLife DC2000 is available now at Bluewater Photo!

 

5. Kraken Universal Smart Phone Housing

Best Budget Option/Smart Phone Option: Great for smart phone users wanting to take their phone underwater

As a significant portion of divers and young divers have smart phones, this is a great way to get photos underwater and immediately share them with your family and friends. The Kraken Universal Smart Phone housing is compatible with many popular smart phones on the market. It allows you to use the touch screen to take photos! A basic housing is available as well as one with a temperature and depth sensor. It can also be used with wet lenses and lights. If you just want to get photos from your underwater adventures, and don’t want to deal with the extra equipment needed for underwater photography – this is the option for you!

Click here for examples of shooting a smart phone underwater

Retail Price: $299.00


 

The Kraken Universal Smart Phone Housing is available now at Bluewater Photo!

 

6. GoPro Hero 7

Best GoPro for Diving: Great option for GoPro lovers that are looking for a GoPro that performs well underwater

The GoPro Hero 7 Black action video camera is great for young snorkelers, divers, and beach goers that want to take excellent quality underwater video. The GoPro Hero 7 offers 4K video up to 60 fps with very accurate underwater color correction. The camera itself is waterproof to 30 ft/10 m, and with the GoPro Super Suit it is waterproof to 196 ft/60 m. The camera also features a SuperPhoto mode with HDR photos, 12 MP photos, and voice control. Of all the GoPros available, the GoPro Hero 7 performs best underwater. 

Click here for our beginner's guide to GoPro Underwater Video

Retail Price of GoPro Hero7 Black and Super Suit: $449.94

 

The Gopro Hero 7 Black and Super Suit is available now at Bluewater Photo!

 

7. Ikelite Housings 

Best Underwater Camera Housing for Young Photographers

Ikelite Underwater Housings are well known in the dive community for being an affordable, high quality option for underwater photography. They are often one of the first companies to come out with an underwater housing after a camera release and frequently offer the lowest price. They are a great option for a young photographer with a limited budget to take their camera underwater. The housings are clear which makes it easy to visualize a housing flood and gives you more time to try and save the camera. On the flipside, Ikelite housings can be slightly larger than competing brands and more difficult to operate. 

Click here for our review of Ikelite Housings

Retail Price: Varies by Camera

 

The Ikelite Housings are available now at Bluewater Photo!

 

8. iDiveSite Symbiosis SS3 Strobe and Video Light

Best Underwater Strobe for a Young Photographer/Videographer

The Symbiosis SS3 strobe and video light is the perfect option for a budding photographer and videographer. It offers a two-in-one video light and strobe at an amazing price. High-end, professional strobes can cost almost twice as much. Yet this strobe offers 2800 lumens LED output with up to 700 flashes in a charge. This makes great color in both underwater photos and video instantly accessible.

Retail Price: $399.00

The Symbiosis SS3 Strobe is available now at Bluewater Photo!

 

9. Olympus PEN/OM-D Series Cameras

Best System to Learn How to Use Interchangeable Lenses

When I started becoming serious about my underwater photography, I switched to an Olympus PEN mirrorless camera. This gave me the capability of taking dedicated macro and wide-angle photography with high quality interchangeable lenses at a relatively cheap price. The Olympus PEN/OM-D series offers a variety of cameras that work with their popular Olympus 60 mm macro lens and the popular Panasonic 8mm fisheye for wide angle. Lenses of this quality can really make a difference in one’s underwater images. The image quality of many PEN/OMD series cameras rivals the quality of more professional setups.

Click here for our Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Review

Retail Price: Varies by Camera

 

The Olympus PEN/OM-D is available now at Bluewater Photo!

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nirupam Nigam is a dedicated underwater photographer and fisheries scientist. While growing up in Los Angeles he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. He received degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, at the University of Washington. Now he works as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific. When he is not at sea, he is traveling with his fiancee and taking photos. Check out more of his photography at www.photosfromthesea.com!

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

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Every wondered how to get a nice bokeh (blur) in your underwater photos? Here are our top ten tips....
By Nirupam Nigam

Top Ten Tips for Nice Underwater Bokeh

Nirupam Nigam
Every wondered how to get a nice bokeh (blur) in your underwater photos? Here are our top ten tips....

One of the most frequent questions I hear from new photographers is “how do I get blurry backgrounds in my photos?” Bokeh, the Japanese word for fuzzy or blurry, describes the quality of the blur in the out-of-focus area in an image. To get a nice blurry background is to have nice “bokeh.” 

Getting nice bokeh can be hard enough as it is above water. Getting good bokeh underwater can be even more challenging when considering factors such as backscatter, artificial lighting, moving subjects, and complex substrate/backgrounds. 

Many underwater photographers, especially macro photographers, use bokeh regularly to accentuate different aspects of their subjects. Bokeh is useful for pointing the viewer to the “best” part of the image, creating a dramatic effect, and/or obscuring an unsightly background. Here are ten tips for getting nice underwater bokeh:

1. Open your aperture

An open aperture on your lens increases the amount of light hitting your sensor and decreases the depth of field (amount of in-focus area)* in your image. Therefore, increasing your aperture brightens your image and creates a blurrier background. To do this, shoot at a smaller f-number (e.g., f/2.8, f/5.6, f/6.3). 

*Click here for a description of Depth of Field

2. Get Close

Distance to a subject directly affects the depth of field. The closer you get to a subject, the shallower the depth of field, and a greater part of the image will be out of focus. This roughly translates to better bokeh.

3. Keep the most important part of your image in focus

 

In images with a lot of bokeh, the viewers eyes gravitate to the in-focus part of the image. This means the most important parts of an image, such as the eyes, face, rhinophores, etc., should be in focus. One of the first rules of shooting portraits is keeping the eyes in focus. This even more true for photos with a small depth of field. To do this, you can move your autofocus point so that it is over the area of the subject you want in focus. You can also lock-in your autofocus to the point you want in focus, and re-adjust your composition before taking the shot. Some photographers like to switch to manual focus and pan in and out with their camera until the correct part of the image is in focus. 

This image of a blue banded goby by Helen Brierley won Bluewater Photo's SoCal Shootout 2017 best of show. IT keeps the important parts of the image in focus - the goby's eyes and yawning mouth. Helen used the Nikon D500 with the Nauticam D500 Housing, flash trigger, Nikon 105mm VR lens, two YS-D1 strobes and the Subsee +5 diopter. Her settings were 1/200th, F18, ISO 200. Check out the story behind the shot.

4. Be wary of your background

Backgrounds are especially important to consider when shooting an image with a lot of bokeh. A wide aperture has a twofold effect on the background of an image. 

1. It becomes harder to isolate the subject with a black background 

2. It becomes easier to isolate your subject using a shallow depth-of-field

When shooting with a wide aperture, you should be wary of how background textures and colors affect your image. How complex is you background? Do your background’s color schemes match or complement your subject? What kind of bokeh are you trying to get – spots, polygons, swirls? Are you trying to get bokeh in the background or foreground?  

5. Get artistic with your lighting

Underwater photographers who shoot with wide apertures for the first time often struggle with their lighting. A wide aperture lets in a lot of ambient light and makes it harder to get good colors with your strobes. It’s important to mix ambient and artificial light to create a seamless color scheme that isn’t blue or washed out. There are a few ways to do this:

1. Bump up your shutter speed. Shooting with a quick shutter speed and wide aperture lets you get more artificial strobe light in the image but a smaller depth of field for good bokeh. 

2. Use a snoot – a snoot is a bundle of fiber optic cables that directs the light from your strobe to a smaller tipped end of the snoot, producing a tiny circle of light. This small circle of light can be used to illuminate your subject and help create contrast in your background, particularly in the form of a “black background image.” Too much of a black background can eliminate your bokeh. But mixing the black background with available bokeh produces an intriguing image. 

3. If you're shooting close focus wide angle with a shallow depth of field (open aperture) - get your strobes as close to the subject as possible without blowing out the image and creating backscatter. Reduce the power on the strobes to make sure they don't blow out the image.

6. Accentuate a pattern

As I mentioned before, bokeh helps define which part of the image is “important” by leaving important parts of an image in-focus. It can be especially hard to differentiate an important section of a pattern-type image. Bokeh makes it a little easier to appreciate a pattern in an image by artificially highlighting different sections of the pattern.

Take the image below, for instance. With a large depth of field, this would just be an image of tentacles. With a shallow depth of field, your brain first processes the in-focus tentacles and then sees the out of focus tentacles. The image leaves you imagining how the reality must look. It’s an image that makes you think.

7. Use a motion blur to produce bokeh

A wide aperture isn’t the only way to produce bokeh. Motion blur can have a similar affect on depth of field with a little more flexibility in the motion of the bokeh. To get a nice motion blurred bokeh underwater, lower the shutter speed (think 1/8th of a second or slower) and compensate for the influx of light by increasing the f-stop (close the aperture). Turn off your image stabilization and keep your strobes on. When you press the shutter, pan the camera steadily in the direction that you wish the blur to follow. The strobe will “flash freeze” the in-focus subject in place and the slow shutter will allow for the background to blur and blend together in a singular direction. 

8. Shoot wide (close-focus wide-angle)

Although popular with macro photographers, bokeh is a quality of all photos. And it’s widely ignored by wide angle photographers (pun intended). However, a good bokeh can be essential when shooting close-focus wide-angle. In order to do this, open the aperture and get close to your subject. Lighting can be difficult, so make sure your strobes are close enough to the camera without producing backscatter. The resulting image will highlight your subject and isolate it from the background. 

9. Bigger is better: shoot a camera with a larger sensor, and a lens with a larger focal length

There are plenty of benefits to shooting with a larger sensor – good bokeh is one of them. Cameras with larger sensors shoot with a shallower depth of field compared to cameras with smaller sensors (equivalent focal lengths and f-numbers). This means that full frame cameras will produce a better bokeh than cropped sensor, four-thirds, or compact cameras. Compact cameras are the most difficult to produce a good bokeh.

A larger focal length will also produce a shallower depth of field. So, shooting a zoom/macro lens (e.g., 105mm) will have a shallower depth of field than shooting with a fisheye (e.g., 8mm).

10. Get Creative! 

Post-processing has opened up a whole new world of bokeh effects. Although it would take another article to go over types of synthetic bokeh, check out our photoshop lesson on Gaussian blur. But synthetic bokeh isn’t found only in the realm of computers. You can also produce your own DIY bokeh with a nail polish and a slate!

 

 

* A shallower depth of field roughly equivocal to better bokeh. Depth of field is defined as the distance between the closest and farthest points in an image that are in focus. It helps to know the math behind Depth of Field:

Depth of field ≈(2u2NC)/f2 

C = circle of confusion

f = focal length of the lens

N = f-number

U = distance

As you can see, a shallow depth of field means decreasing the distance to the subject (u), opening the aperture (N), and increasing the focal length of the lens you shoot (f). For more information on depth of field check out our article explaining aperture, f-stops, and depth of field underwater.

 

Further Reading about Bokeh:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nirupam Nigam is a dedicated underwater photographer and fisheries scientist. While growing up in Los Angeles he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. He received degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, at the University of Washington. Now he works as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific. When he is not at sea, he is traveling with his fiancee and taking photos. Check out more of his photography at www.photosfromthesea.com!

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Helpful tips and techniques from an expert sea lion photographer's experiences leading tours in the Sea of Cortez.

7 Tips for Great Sea Lion Photos

Helpful tips and techniques from an expert sea lion photographer's experiences leading tours in the Sea of Cortez.

For many years I admired from afar the playful images of California sea lions coming out of the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. They were imprinted in my mind; I could only imagine the personal interaction with such playful and curious creatures, and the underwater experience that came with it. So when the opportunity came to make the Sea of Cortez my work space, I didn’t have to think twice.

Territorial bull male guarding the harem at La Reina, La Paz.
Canon 5DIII, Aquatica housing, Sigma 2.8 15mm fisheye lens. f/8, 1/250 sec, ISO 320.

 

California Sea Lions of the Sea of Cortez, Baja California Sur, Mexico

Upon my first arrival to the sea lion colony of Los Islotes, a grin from ear to ear spread across my face as our group was surrounded by the distinctive barks, growls, and grunts from the 500+ sea lions that inhabit this small volcanic rock island. Our grins quickly turned into hysterics as we watched them waddle, jump, and push each other off the rocks.


Juvenile sea lions practising territorial battles at Los Islotes, La Paz.
Canon 5DIII, Aquatica housing, Sigma 2.8 15mm fisheye lens. f/9, 1/250 sec, ISO320.

 

During my years as an underwater photographer, nothing has filled my heart more than my interactions with California sea lions, experiencing all of their playfulness and curiosity. These guys play, nibble, roll, chew on your camera, and push up against your face; before you know it, your dive time is up, and you just can’t wait to get back in the water with them.

Spending most of my days now in the water with California sea lions has taught me some key lessons and techniques. So here are my top 7 tips to help you capture some great underwater images of these playful puppies of the ocean.

A happy juvenile sea lion of Los Islotes, La Paz.
Canon 5DIII, Aquatica housing, Sigma 2.8 15mm fisheye lens, 2x YS-D1 strobes. f/9, 1/250 sec, ISO320.

 

1. If They Play with You, Play Back!

With a curious and playful nature, sea lions generally won’t leave you alone in the water and are always more than happy to be in front of the camera. That being said, juvenile sea lions are like big puppy dogs of the ocean, and will lose interest quickly if you don’t interact with them. So remember to take in the moment, interact with them, spin when they spin, let them play, and fire off some snaps within those moments - you can make a friend for the whole dive. 


Photographer capturing a sea lion laying in the canyon of La Reina, La Paz.
Canon 5DIII, Aquatica housing, Sigma 2.8 15mm fisheye lens. f/7.1, 1/250 sec, ISO 320.

 

2. Know What You Want to Shoot Before You Get in the Water

These guys move, and fast. This means that changing between camera settings when interacting with a sea lion is nearly impossible. I generally get into the water with an idea of the image I want to try and capture - whether it’s a portrait, a silhouette, them playing together, or them interacting with divers.


 
California sea lion coming in for a closer look at Los Islotes, La Paz.
Canon 5DIII, Aquatica housing, Sigma 2.8 15mm fisheye lens, 2x YS-D1 strobes. f/6.3, 1/250 sec, ISO 320.

 

3. Set a High Shutter Speed

Because of sea lion's fast and rapid movements underwater, a fast shutter speed is required. Shooting with the Canon 5d iii, my strobes sync at 1/250th of a second. But in ambient light shots, even higher shutter speeds can be required.

 

Juvenile sea lion at Los Islotes, La Paz, coming in for a chew on the camera.
Canon 5DIII, Aquatica housing, Sigma 2.8 15mm fisheye lens, 2x YS-D1 strobes. f/10, 1/250 sec, ISO 640.

 

4. Close Down on Aperture (Increase F-stop)

Closing down on your aperture with these quick moving subjects also helps keep them in your focus points. I usually start at f/9 and will close it down if required; this in turn means some sacrifice with having to shoot a higher ISO.

Juvenile sea lion inside the cave at Los Islotes, La Paz.
Canon 5DIII, Aquatica housing, Sigma 2.8 15mm fisheye lens, 2x YS-D1 strobes. f/11, 1/160 sec, ISO 320.

 

5. Use Strobes When Close

Sea lions play near the surface, and generally aren’t found much deeper than 7m. Most days are bright and sunny here in La Paz, which gives us plenty of ambient light to work with. And if the sea lions are closer than around 2 m, adding some low amounts of artificial light helps bring out the detail in their fur and more of their colour. It also helps freeze their motion for the image. While conditions are normally excellent during the summer months, there is always potential for backscatter, so keeping your strobes out helps minimise this.

Portrait of a juvenile sea lion at Los Islotes, La Paz.
Canon 5DIII, Aquatica housing, Sigma 2.8 15mm fisheye lens, 2x YS-D1 strobes. f/9, 1/250 sec, ISO 640.

 

6. Go for Portrait Shots!

Portrait shots are one of my favourite images to capture - those big bulging eyes, tiny streamlined ears, and of course, their super sensitive whiskers. As they move around so rapidly, when I try for portrait shots I generally shoot blind and move the camera around with them. This also keeps them interested, with having a big weird flashing thing waving about in front of them. Strobe power and positioning is crucial for portrait shots, so pulling your strobes in tighter and a little higher to the camera helps make sure the light completely spreads over their face and nose.

 


Juvenile sea lion taking a well deserved nap at Los Islotes, La Paz
Canon 5DIII, Aquatica housing, Sigma 2.8 15mm fisheye lens. f/10, 1/250 sec, ISO 640.

 

7. Look for Sea Lions Napping on the Surface

There is something so cute about a sea lion napping at the surface, and this makes for great over/under shots. Sleeping at the surface means they aren’t looking for interaction and we need to respect that. Approach them very slowly and cautiously, and make sure they are comfortable with you being there. During the shot above, I was heard breaking the surface of the water. He opened his eye, checked me over for a second, and then went straight back to drifting along.


My Equipment:

For Sea Lions I shoot with the Canon 5d III with a Sigma 15mm 2.8 fisheye lens, inside an Aquatica housing with an 8” Dome Port and two Sea & Sea YS-D1s. 


Where:

Among other locales, California Sea Lions inhabit the Sea of Cortez all year round, between Los Islotes, San Rafaelito and La Reina. The volcanic rock island of Los Islotes is a more known colony with over 500+ individuals. Being a prominent breeding ground with more active juveniles makes this site ideal for photography opportunities.


Raft of sea lions taking in some sun at San Rafaelito, La Paz.
Canon 5DIII, Aquatica housing, Sigma 2.8 15mm fisheye lens. f/9, 1/250 sec, ISO 320.

 

When:

California sea lions breed once a year, and during this time the male sea lions become more territorial. Although the occurrences of actual attacks on divers are next to none, to safeguard against this and to let them do their thing during breeding season, Los Islotes is closed to tourism during the months of June, July, and August.

Sea Lion heading back for the island of San Rafaelito.
Canon 5DIII, Aquatica housing, Sigma 2.8 15mm fisheye lens. f/11, 1/250 sec, ISO 320.

 

How:

My recommendation is to go with a well-established operator with experienced guides who understand and respect sea lion behaviour. You can join me at Pro Photo Baja (www.prophotobaja.com) with the Cortez Club, as we run daily specialised photography excursions to the sea lion colony of Los Islotes. 

 

Book your Sea of Cortez Trip!

Bluewater Travel can help you plan and book the perfect Sea of Cortez dive trip. Visit Bluewater's Sea of Cortez Scuba Diving page or email bookings@bluewaterdivetravel.com.

Bluewater is also offering the following Sea of Cortez group trips:

 
 Sea Lion racing against a Giant Pacific Manta Ray, La Reina, La Paz
Canon 5DIII, Aquatica housing, Sigma 2.8 15mm fisheye lens. f/9, 1/250 sec, ISO 320.

Additional Reading:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Growing up on the south-east coast of Australia, Nick discovered his passion for the ocean at an early age. Wanting to raise awareness of the underwater world, he picked up his first underwater camera, a Sony RX100, in 2013. He has not put one down since.

He has worked in several different countries and had his images published by international agencies such as National Geographic, Greenpeace, PADI, and several newpaper agencies. He is now based in La Paz, Baja California Sur, where he currently runs underwater photography workshops and excursions in the Sea of Cortez.

To see more of his work, check out his website www.nickpolanszky.com or Facebook @nickpolanszkyphotography

"With a deep passion for the ocean and photography, I hope my work helps bring awareness to the need to preserve our underwater world."

 

 

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A few tips to guide you on shooting subjects that are moving using a snoot
By Nirupam Nigam

Tips for Lighting Quick Critters with a Snoot

Nirupam Nigam
A few tips to guide you on shooting subjects that are moving using a snoot

As with any art form, trends come and go in underwater photography. But perhaps one trend that is here to stay is the use of snoots. Snoots are devices used to reduce the wide output of a strobe into a small ring of light - usually only a few inches in diameter. This smaller output enables a photographer to control the lighting of their image better, and introduce much more contrast and direction. Most often, snoots are the prized tool of macro photographers as they are the most foolproof way of achieving the coveted black background.

Snoots can be homemade contraptions that simply reduce the area of output by blocking parts of the strobe, or professional devices that use flexible fiber optic cables to achieve the same goals. But the one thing that unites every snoot photographer is frustration. Controlling such a small beam of light can be difficult at best. In rugged underwater environments it can seem downright impossible. Snoot photographers must deal with current, surge, moving subjects, slow shutters, and a large host of other obstacles. Trying to position a two-inch beam of light over a two inch moving fish and actually getting the photo is like trying to make a half-court shot at the last second of the game. Take a look at the SD card of a snoot photographer and all you might see is a bunch of black slides and perhaps one or two unidentifiable blurry spots. But the rare success makes all the sweat, pain, and tears well worth it.


 

The difficulty of taking snoot photos often limits the subjects available to a snoot photographer. Many only attempt snoot photos on still or very slow-moving subjects such as nudibranchs, corals, frogfish, and shrimp. Attempts at anything quicker only yield more frustration. However, with enough practice and the right technique, a snoot photographer can expand their selection of subjects to include even the quickest of critters. Here are our top tips for doing so:

 

1. Start with a Rock


 

I never begin a snoot dive without a few nice photos of rocks. When photographing quick subjects, planning is everything. It is essential to anticipate the size and shape of the subject you intend to shoot before finding it. After this determination, find stationary substrate with a similar shape and practice lighting it. Rocks are good subjects as they tend not to diffuse light, so you can see exactly what on the subject the snoot is illuminating. After getting a feel for the distance needed between the snoot and the subject as well as camera angle and output strength, I maintain my settings until I find the desired subject. Even if the subject is speeding by, usually the preset snoot will perform quite well when “calibrated” with a rock.

 

2. Use Your Finger to Evaluate Distance

Depth and distance can be difficult to judge when snooting moving schools of fish. Placing your finger at the desired distance can be a good way to help judge where to shoot.

 

One of the hardest things about snooting quick subjects is maintaining appropriate distance. If I’m busy swimming after the subject, the quickest way to determine how to position my camera and snoot is to place my finger where I want the subject to be and imagine the light from the snoot hitting it. Then, when approaching the subject, I try to position the subject to be where my finger was.  This can be a particularly useful technique for small reef fish.

 

3. Only Move the Snoot’s Position After You Illuminate the Subject

Very small subjects such as this mosshead warbonnet need large amounts of adjustment before getting the right lighting in the shot. However, if I made adjustments before I knew that I could illuminate the subject, I would not have “found” it with the snoot.

 

Unless the snoot is wildly misaligned, I find that moving the snoot after failing to light a subject is more detrimental than repositioning the whole rig. Often you get stuck moving the snoot all over the place without once getting light in the photo. It is better to first find the light in the frame, even if the photo does not have good composition. After that, the snoot can be moved incrementally along with the full rig in order to create better composition and lighting with micro adjustments.


4. Anticipate Where the Subject Lands in the Frame

I anticipated that this garibaldi would swim into the frame by watching its movements, and lit the small are with my snoot before it swam in.

 

This tip is especially useful for wide-angle snoot photography. Fish are often predictable in their movements. One of the best ways to capture a quick fish with proper lighting is to guess where in the frame the fish will end up, light that area, and finally wait for the fish to swim to that part of the frame. Sometimes this technique fails if you misinterpret the fish’s movements. But when it works, it works quite well.


5. Let the Critter Come to You

This juvenile emperor angelfish was swimming erratically from coral head to coral head. I realized the best way to photograph it was to sit still and wait until it swam by, yielding this photo.

 

It is nearly impossible to try to catch a fast-moving critter with a two-inch beam of light. Therefore, it is often better to station yourself along the path of the animal and wait for the animal to cross your path. This can be easier said than done.

Many fish also have the tendency to find protection when they see a diver. This can be used to your advantage. A fish that hides in a cave or overhang eventually feels the need to leave the protection. I find that the best moment to photograph small reef fish is when they emerge from protection.

 

Eeltail catfish often hide in fast moving schools under coral for protection. A snoot can weave around tough-to-reach spots in order to easily photograph fish that would normally be moving quickly.

 

6. Snoot at an Angle

Although I lit this juvenile garibaldi from above, I moved the snoot a little to the side to have a better chance of lighting this quick critter.

 

It is clearly a popular technique to shoot macro snoot photos with the snoot directly above the subject, forming a nice ring of light. Often this is not possible when photographing quick subjects. If you point the snoot at a bit of an angle when shooting from above, you are more likely to illuminate the subject as the beam will cover more area.

 

7. When in Doubt, Point the Snoot Forward

I lit this angelfish by pointing the snoot directly forward from the camera so I had a better chance of lighting it as it swam by.

 

Perhaps my favorite way to shoot a quick-moving snoot subject is by pointing the snoot directly forward from the camera. Pointing a snoot directly forward yields much more successful results lighting a subject than pointing a snoot from above. Often, the snoot will not need to be adjusted at all throughout the dive. The largest concern when lighting your subject this way is that the snoot may light some of the background as well. Though this can be a problem, quick subjects are often photographed slightly up in the water column. If there is negative space behind the subject when you are photographing it, the coveted black background should be within reach.

 

Conclusion:

This is by no means a comprehensive or complete guide to photographing moving subjects with a snoot. Snoot photography, more than any other kind of underwater photography, is often intertwined with equipment and diving style. As with diving style, what may work for one underwater photographer may not work for another. Snoot photography is very much an artform of circumstance. One can only be successful by making micro adjustments of their technique as circumstance requires.


 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nirupam Nigam is a dedicated underwater photographer and fisheries scientist. While growing up in Los Angeles he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. He received degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, at the University of Washington. Now he works as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific. When he is not at sea, he is traveling with his fiancee and taking photos. Check out more of his photography at www.photosfromthesea.com!

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A few helpful tips on how to take awesome photos of eels and eel-like fishes
By Nirupam Nigam

Top 10 Tips for Photographing Eels and Eel-Like Fish

Nirupam Nigam
A few helpful tips on how to take awesome photos of eels and eel-like fishes

 

Eels are the snakes of the underwater world – evoking excitement, curiosity, and fear in those lucky enough to behold them. They slither through the cracks and crevices of the deep, often hidden in plain sight by their ability to blend in with the substrate around them. Because many eels and eel-like fish exhibit a wide range of habitat distribution, colors, patterns, and behaviors, they are coveted by underwater photographers in almost all dive destinations. One might think that photographing a relatively stationary eel would be easier than swift schools of ever impatient pelagics. However, an eel’s complex habitat, body structure, and patterns can create a significant puzzle for the underwater photographer. Here are some of our best tips for photographing eels and eel-like fish…

 

1. Use Contrast and Depth of Field to Isolate Your Subject 

 

An eel’s habitat introduces the majority of the problems that underwater photographers face when photographing them. Eels often live at the bottom of the ocean, slithering through holes between medium sized rocks. They rarely protrude above the substrate, and often blend in with the rocks or coral themselves. This makes it very difficult to isolate an eel from its background – often producing a cluttered or flat photo. The reason it can seem that reef fish are easier to photograph, even if they are quicker, is that reef fish hover above the bottom. This isolates them from the background and contrast is created with the blue water behind them.

So what’s the best way to isolate an eel? Contrast and depth of field! Contrast can be created in the image in many different ways. The most effective method is to shoot from below the eel (if it is coming out of its den) so that the background is mostly blue water. However, it can be very difficult to find an eel in a position to take this photo. Another option is to use a single strobe and light the eel from the side. This can be effective to varying degrees. If the eel is in its den, sometimes you can get the light from your strobe to just touch its face so the rest of the den remains dark. If you are proficient with a snoot, attach it to the single strobe, and it will create even more contrast/ black background in the image.


 

If I feel that the eel cannot be isolated from the substrate using light, then I will isolate it using a shallow depth of field. The best way to do this is to shoot with a fast macro lens and lower the f-stop so that the aperture is close to as wide as possible. This will keep the head of the eel (or parts of the head) in focus while the substrate and rest of the body is blurred into a nice bokeh. It’s important to keep aesthetic features (especially the eyes) in focus for the full effect of the bokeh. 

 

2.  Catch it with its Mouth Open!

 

Perhaps the most charismatic eel behavior is their constant “breathing.” Because eels don’t use gill covers (operculum) to pump water across their gills, they have to open and close their mouths to breath. When you capture an eel with its mouth wide open, it can create a threatening and fierce look in your image.

With my mirrorless camera, I often time my photo by pressing the shutter right as the eel finishes closing its mouth. The inherent lag in the device will make the shutter coincide with the opening of the eel’s mouth. I use single auto focus instead of continuous because it helps me compose the image a little better. I have the focus lock on a point, point the camera to my desired composition, and click the shutter at the opportune time.

When the eel’s mouth is open, be on the lookout for little cleaner shrimp and fish that meander about the mouth looking for a morsel among the teeth. 

 

3.   Teeth Add a Little Character

 

Teeth in an eel photo can make the subject look menacing – particularly with eel species that inherently have big teeth. Teeth can be tricky photograph. For the full effect you need to isolate them and make them the focal point of your image. As mentioned before, it’s important that you time your photo so the eel’s mouth is open. But most importantly, you need to be able to light the eel with a beam of light pointed directly at the side of its head. This creates contrast and shadow that bring out the shape of each tooth, giving the eel a fearsome grin. 

 

4.  Use a Fiber Optic Snoot for Dramatic Effect

 

Our first tip was to use contrast to isolate your subject. Well the absolutely best way to do that is with a fiber optic snoot. A snoot is a flexible bundle of fiber optic cables that attaches to the front of your strobe and concentrates the light into a smaller, moveable circle of light. Although traditionally used to create black backgrounds with small macro subjects, snoots can be very effective lighting even medium sized eels. Instead of placing the snoot in the default position directly above the subject, I often point the snoot directly in front of the subject or from its side. This can create nice dramatic, contrast with the substrate behind it.  Black background can easily be created as long as a little bit of open water lies behind the subject. Fiber optic snoots are also great for lighting an eel that has retreated far back into its den.

 

5.  Shooting from Directly in Front of the Subject is Thought Provoking

 

As much as photographers warn against perfect symmetry in photos, people are often drawn to symmetry naturally. Shooting from directly in front of an eel or elongated fish creates an unusual symmetry with a comical feel to the image. The eel will appear slightly whimsical and bug-eyed. 

 

6.  Fill the Frame

 

Filling the frame with your subject is good practice in all underwater photography. But with eels in particular it is important to fill the frame with the eel or you can lose sight of it with all the surrounding substrate. It is generally easy to fill the frame with an eel since they don’t tend to move around much.

 

7.  Keep the Eyes in Focus - Not the Snout

 

When taking a very close photograph of an eel's head it is important to set the right focal points. The best place to focus is the eel’s eyes. It maintains the eel’s character in the image and lets the viewer appreciate what the eel might be thinking or feeling. It is a common mistake to have only the snout in focus (especially when shooting with a shallow depth of field). This can be a cool effect, but the loss of eyes to bokeh detracts from the image.

 

8.  Know Where to Look


 

Although eels can sometimes be difficult to find, it definitely helps to know where to look! Eel habitat is fairly predictable. They like medium sized substrate with a lot of holes and tunnels to navigate and slither through. In the tropics they often hide among a network of tunnels formed in coral heads. In cold water they can be found on rocky slopes and rock piles. Eel-like fish often share similar preferences of habitat. Some eels will live in the same general area for a long time. It can be nice to get to know an individual and photograph them over the course of their life.

There are also some locales that are more prone to having eels than others. I find that tropical destinations with moderate diversity and moderate to low abundance often have a lot of eels. In particular I have found a lot in Mauritius, Hawaii, and the Dominican Republic. Locally in California, my favorite place to find moray eels is Casino Point on Catalina Island. In very cold water, such as in the Pacific Northwest, wolf eels and wolf fish fill the eel niche even though they aren’t true eels. 

 

9.  Be Patient

 

Fish that live in dens can be wary of the big, wide world. I find most eels to have a cautious but curious disposition. If you sit quietly at the entrance of their den, they may become curious enough to slowly approach you and your camera. However, if you immediately shine your light directly at them and blow a lot of bubbles, they tend to shy away. I also find that some eels don’t mind being photographed more than others. Usually after sitting outside of a den for a minute or two, I can get a feel for if an eel will be cooperative or not. If it won’t, I move on. If it is, however, I will take a couple of test photos and then slowly inch forward if the eel lets me until I have an image where I can fill the frame with the eel. Never feed eels to get them out of their den! Some eels will learn to associate divers with food. If they bit your hand, even mistakenly, the angle of their teeth will leave the flesh cleaved from your bone at best. Eels have been known to bite fingers off. But if they aren’t fed, they usually have a very nice disposition. 

 

10.  Go Wide!

 

Most people associate eel photography with shooting macro. This is certainly not the case! If you are working with a cooperative eel, going wide gives you the potential to take an even more striking image. A fisheye lens will not only capture the habitat of the eel, but it will capture negative space in the form of water. This will give depth and contrast to the image, solving the issue of clutter in eel photography. The trick to shooting wide with eels is to inch very slowly towards the eel and shoot from the side of its head. Make sure that half your dome is angled to its head and den, and the other half of the dome is angled towards the outside of the den and water above. This will create the illusion of being inside the den with the eel. Shooting a little farther away from the eel can create a photograph where the eel becomes part of its environment – also an interesting artistic endeavor. 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nirupam Nigam is a dedicated underwater photographer and fisheries scientist. While growing up in Los Angeles he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. He received degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, at the University of Washington. Now he works as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific. When he is not at sea, he is traveling with his fiancee and taking photos. Check out more of his photography at www.photosfromthesea.com!

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Photographer Jason Washington divulges his technique for taking amazing ambient light underwater photography

Ambient Photography: An Artist’s Pursuit for the Most Natural Underwater Photography

Photographer Jason Washington divulges his technique for taking amazing ambient light underwater photography

Surrounded by two thousand meters of crystal-clear cobalt blue water, the Cayman Islands (pronounced “K-Man” for those of you who want to fit in with us locals) are home to some of the best visibility found anywhere on planet earth. These three small islands aren’t home to the usual environmental factors impacting water clarity found in other popular diving destinations. The lack of rivers, lack of neighbors, and a deep bottom where all the suspended particles can sink out of sight are all reasons that make ambient light photography a great choice when diving Cayman.

A little less battery power and a little more solar power 

This style of photography might not be your cup of tea. Many enjoy the challenge of lighting an underwater scene by illuminating the phenomenal colors found on a reef with artificial light. I must admit, I also found this appealing for many years. Like other things in life, my tastes changed as I grew older. Now my search for the perfect underwater image calls for a little less battery power and a little more solar power. This likely comes from an extensive background in underwater videography. Years of shooting ambient light underwater video gave me an appreciation for the natural look found beneath the surface. It’s not to say that I don’t shoot artificial light. I do. But I much prefer the natural tones found without the use of powerful lights. Dark blue backgrounds and bright colorful sponges are without a doubt beautiful, but it’s not what I see with my eye while diving.

What to consider when taking ambient light photos

When considering ambient light photography, you must first ask yourself a few simple questions.

Firstly, does the dive destination have decent visibility?

Murky, turbid water is not the best place for this style of photography.

Secondly, how much ambient light can be expected at depth? 

If you’re cave or night diving, break out the strobes.

And lastly, can the camera preform a custom white balance?

This is not absolutely necessary, but if your rig isn’t capable of this, you should probably think about lights and/or filters.

The Pros and Cons of Ambient Light Photography

Pros

Streamlining

When considering the advantages of ambient light photography, several things come to mind.First, this type of photography utilizes less gear. Less gear means more money in your pocket. More money means more dive travel!  More dive travel means more time underwater, and more time underwater makes you a better photographer. Therefore, ambient light makes you a better photographer. Well, if only if were that simple. 

The second thing that I love about my strobe-less rig is its usability in the water. Take free diving for example. Kicking up and down with a fully rigged DSLR can be cumbersome and tiring for even the most experienced free diver. By removing the strobes, the rig becomes notably more streamlined, making for a much easier, sustained breath-hold. While this effect is less noticeable while diving on scuba, the biggest advantage I find here is getting in and out of the water. We all have that crazy jigsaw puzzle movement where we try and fold up the camera into a manageable position so the dive master can easily lift your baby from the water without damaging one of your many attached investments. It’s SO much easier without the arms required by video lights or strobes. Setup and breakdown is a lot easier with this configuration. There is no need for sync cords, less o-rings to clean, no strobe batteries to charge. This is something to consider if weight is a factor in your dive travel plans.

Having said all that, 90% of the time I’m carrying strobes on my rig. I don’t have to use them, but if the situation calls for artificial light, I’m ready to go. On some shoots, I’ll even carry video lights in conjunction with the strobes. This makes for one cumbersome beast on the surface, but prepares me for any situation I may encounter underwater. At the end of the day, do what you’re most comfortable with that will help you achieve the image you’re after

Natural Tone

The tonality of an image for me is key. It’s the main reason I prefer ambient light photography. Shooting ambient light will always give your water the natural tones provided by mother nature. This look is achieved by white balancing your camera to the ambient light. That’s not to say that this look can’t be achieved with the use of strobes. It certainly can. As a matter of fact, I often use my strobes on a very low setting to fill in some of the shadows on close subjects.

Frame Rate

Ambient light photography lets you push your framerate to optimal levels. My Canon 5D Mark IV has a maximum frame rate of 7 frames per second. This is one of the biggest advantages of shooting ambient light. I don’t have to wait on my strobes to recycle. Or if I am shooting my strobes, the setting is so low that they have no problem keeping up with the camera… for the most part. Capturing the split second when your subject is in the perfect position is much easier at a high frame rate. For this reason, when shooting ambient light, I ALWAYS shoot in high speed continuous mode.

Cons

Constant White Balance Changes

For me, the biggest drawback of ambient light photography is amount of attention needed to get it right. Let me explain. Every time the light changes you need to re-balance the camera. This means that if a cloud moves overhead, your scene will be overly cool. On the other hand, if you balanced the camera with a cloud overhead and it moves exposing the reef to the sun, your scene is overly warm and a new white balance is needed. Every 10 feet of depth gained requires a new balance. Conversely, every 10 feet of depth lost requires a new white balance. 

Some will say, “I shoot in raw, so I can adjust white balance in post.” To some extent, that’s correct. For me, this is not an option. I want my image as close as possible in camera, so I constantly change my white balance when I shoot. Also, for those of you who think that shooting RAW is the solution to your white balance needs, remember, you can’t correct a color that doesn’t exist in your image.

Contrast

Adequate contrast in one’s photos is another issue when shooting without external lights. Separating your subject from the background is easily accomplished with artificial light. Ambient light photography requires you to place your subject against a contrasting background. My favorite background is a white sandy bottom, followed in close second by the beautiful blue water found at the edge of a drop off. These techniques require a little more work. Getting out in front of your subject is key to an amazing image.

Macro Photography

Macro photography is also not very well suited to ambient light. Often, the tiny subjects in macro and super macro need to be separated from the background with a combination of shutter speed and light. While this is possible with ambient light, it’s not nearly as cool as a well-lit snoot shot.

Night Photography

Night photography underwater with ambient light is pretty much a no-go as well. While there are many creative ways to light your subject underwater, they all pretty much involve flooding the scene with artificial light.

The path to amazing, natural, ambient light photos

Whether you choose to shoot only ambient light or add a little artificial fill light, the process is basically the same. To achieve this, one must be able to properly preform a custom white balance. This is a very simple process of telling the camera what is white at a given depth. While this process is different on all cameras, the environmental factors remain constant. Firstly, I recommend carrying a white slate; mine is fairly small – about four inches in diameter. It’s clipped to my BCD where it lives 24/7. This insures it’s never left behind and always at the ready when needed.

White Balance

Metering with your slate

When using a slate to balance your white underwater, the white card must ALWAYS be illuminated by your light source. This typically means sun over your shoulder, with the card held at arms length in-front of your lens. To properly preform this, you must first zero out the light meter in camera. This process is simple, but different on all camera models. If you’re new to underwater photography, simply throw the rig into full auto and take the shot. This will insure proper exposure. Now all you need to do is select the image and tell the camera to use it as white. Many of the new mirrorless rigs will have a simplified version of this whole process. But as mentioned, the basic function of illuminating the card and zeroing out the meter remains the same.

Custom white balance with mixed artificial and ambient light

I might also add, if you want to use artificial light in conjunction with ambient light, the process is basically the same. The one thing to keep in mind here when using artificial light is the distance to the subject. For example, if you plan on shooting a turtle with this mix of light, decide when you balance the camera how far you intend to be from the subject. If the turtle will likely be 3 feet from the camera, balance the camera with the white card three feet from the lens. You might find this process easier if you have your buddy hold the card. Other options are, find an area where the sand is nice and white and exposed to the sun. Fire your strobes here with your chosen distance and voila! Now you have a mixed-light, custom white balance. Some equipment manufacturers make white fins. These are great for balancing your camera without the help of a buddy. Mixed light with custom white balance can be a little tricky – always remember that if you move too close to your subject it will become overly warm. If you’re in a pinch and the turtle swims too close simply move back or turn down the power on your strobe. You can apply this same technique with video lights.

Base Line Settings

While all cameras will be different, the base line settings will be similar for most. I typically start out with my aperture wide open (lowest f-stop number). This allows me to get the maximum light to the sensor while keeping the camera as close to its native ISO as possible. Depending on the situation, I may even choose to close it slightly to increase depth of field if the light allows. My shutter baseline is 1/100th. Again, these are baseline settings, that give me a starting point from which to compose my first image. I find that 1/100 will sometimes give me motion blur – particularly when the subject is very close to the lens.

As mentioned, I like to keep the ISO at 100 (i.e., native ISO) if possible, so that’s where I start. If I’m shooting something that’s moving quickly, I’ll switch to auto ISO. A slow shutter and wide-open aperture will ensure it only goes up slightly, keeping the color noise at a minimum.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, shoot what makes you happy. Ambient light photography is a great option in underwater environments. Hopefully these techniques will help you get the most from your next underwater photography dive.

Happy Diving!

 

For more great photos and information check out Jason's youtube and instagram accounts! 

Further Reading

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Washington is the managing director of iDive Global Ltd and the owner of Ambassador Divers, a PADI Five Star facility located at the Comfort Suites Resort on Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman. Living and working on Grand Cayman as an underwater photographer/SCUBA instructor for the past 21 years, Jason's work has been featured in numerous documentaries and feature films and was the 2017 honoree at the International SCUBA Diving Hall of Fame.

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Captivating time lapse videos of tide pools with active starfish and sea urchins
By Bryan Chu and Mary Chu

Tide Pool Fun with GoPro 6 Time Lapse Video

Bryan Chu and Mary Chu
Captivating time lapse videos of tide pools with active starfish and sea urchins

I had the great fortune of growing up on Vancouver Island where my parents used to take my sister and me up to Tofino every summer or two. They used to get us to the best intertidal zones at the lowest tides possible, which unfortunately tended to occur at ungodly morning hours. I’ll never forget being woken up at 3 am, putting on our boots, grabbing our flashlights, and going looking for things you couldn’t find higher up the water line: moon snails the size of dinner plates moving along just beneath the sand; giant gumboot chitons (well, giant for the chiton world) cunningly stuck to the undersides of rocky overhangs; crabs which were, according to my Dad, of edible size and very tasty looking.

But probably my most enduring memories from those trips were of the countless times (during normal daytime hours) that we clambered over mussel-encrusted rocks to peer into one tide pool after another, looking for our favourite denizens. Each pool was its own little wondrous world, full of starfish, anemones, sea urchins, sculpins, hermit crabs, barnacles, snails and limpets.

Some of the large tide pools at Botanical Beach. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 12-100mm f/4.0 pro lens.

Tide Pool Expedition to Botanical Beach

I was recently back in Victoria, and my Mom and I decided to head out to Botanical Beach to relive some of our tide pool memories. But this time we were armed with my OM-D E-M1 in an underwater housing, a GoPro Hero 6 Black, a Sealife Aquapod and a GoPro Hero 5 Black. Our mission: take some time lapse videos of tide pool life.

We timed our visit for a decently low tide which did not require waking up at 2am. Once we got out to the beach, we found a lot of wide and deep tide pools. We started looking around in them, hoping to find some really cool action-packed ones. I thought about the amazing footage in Blue Planet II of a starfish chasing limpets around, but we could not really find more than a couple of colorful starfish wedged into cracks (and they did not appear to have any plans to move any time soon). So we combed back and forth over the rocks for awhile, keeping a few feet from the breaking waves and looking for the perfect tide pool. But they all seemed just…dead. Not dead in terms of life, but dead in terms of movement. A few anemones in some deep pools, just sitting there. Urchins at home inside crevices and crannies in the rocks. Nothing really moving.

I knew that we had to get started doing something, as we only had a couple of hours of low tide. So I put my GoPro Hero 5 onto my SeaLife Aquapod, set it for 4k video with a 1 second time lapse interval, and stuck it into a 3-4 foot deep tide pool in front of some anemones, hoping they would do something cool when we weren’t looking.  

Exploring the tide pools at Botanical Beach. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 12-100mm f/4.0 pro lens.

Slowing Down…

Then, as we returned to browsing back and forth through the pools in the area, I realized that I needed to slow down my thinking – after all, we were looking for time lapse video opportunities, not super-quick action-packed sequences. I was standing by a shallow pool no more than a foot and a half deep that did not look particularly special. But I made myself sit still and stare at it for a bit, and I noticed a little brown starfish inching its way over the rocks.

I called my Mom over, and we sat down to watch. After sitting there for awhile, we realized it was moving quite a bit. And there were limpets in the pool, and we saw them move when the starfish came too close! And the starfish appeared to be chasing the limpets!

I quickly set up my GoPro 6 for 4K time lapse video, on a 2 second interval. I set it in the pool in a couple of inches of water, on a rock overlooking the drama, and then we left to look in some other pools. Not having done my research beforehand, and with no internet access, I was unsure as to what frame rate the GoPro would record at. I remembered my E-M1 would do 4K time lapse at 5 fps, so I assumed it would be something similar. So after 5 minutes I figured I would have a decent amount of footage. Not remembering how to get the GoPro to play back, I could not check how the video looked. But I decided I should probably take some shorter interval time lapses as well, for comparison later on, so I set it for 0.5 second intervals. 

Here is a video I made of the best footage of the starfish in its little tide pool.

Time lapse video taken of a starfish in a tide pool at Botanical Beach, on Vancouver Island, BC. GoPro Hero 6 Black using 4K time-lapse video mode.  

Note that in the third clip, there appears to be some small bubbles on the lens. I was just using the GoPro without a housing, and the little lens cover that comes with it must like to collect bubbles when taken out of the water and then put back in. There were a number of videos I had with these spots in them. I am surprised I did not notice the bubbles on the lens protector piece, so I guess they could have been caused by light reflecting off of the lens protector. But based on what I saw in my footage I think it’s most likely very small bubbles. Next time I will watch out for this, for better understanding!

GoPro Farming

With both GoPros collecting footage, we went back and forth between the two tide pools to keep an eye on things…"GoPro Farming" as my Mom called it. I repositioned the GoPro with the starfish to keep tracking its wanderings, did a couple of anemone shots, and then after staring intently at a pool full of immobile sea urchins, noticed one of them was moving! So I grabbed the GoPro on the Aquapod and followed the urchin around. We went back and forth between the two "farms" for maybe an hour and a half.

And I was very pleased when checking the footage afterwards to see that some of the anemone footage had urchins moving about as well. However boring they may look at normal speed sitting in a crevice in a tide pool, they look really cool when they are on the move and sped up with timelapse video! Here's a video of the best sea urchin footage.

Time lapse video taken of sea urchins moving about tide pools at Botanical Beach, on Vancouver Island, BC. GoPro Hero 6 Black using 4K time lapse video mode. 

At a few points it started to rain, sometimes getting quite torrential. Fortunately, as born and bred Pacific Northwesters, we were prepared: rain jackets, rain covers for our packs, quick dry pants, and old running shoes that could get soaked. Good thing, too, as at one point we were a bit too close to the incoming tide and had a particularly large wave splash our feet.

What happened with my OM-D E-M1 in the housing? It stayed in my pack. It was just much too big to fit into a tide pool and capture the action, without causing significant disturbance or damage. With the starfish pool, it was physically too big to even fully submerge. 

Towards the end of our visit, we noticed a clump of gooseneck barnacles sitting in a pool which were feeding. We had never seen that before, so I switched the GoPro on the AquaPod to 4K video and put it nice and close, moving it around to get a couple of angles, and leaving it still for long enough that the barnacles would emerge and feed. 

Shortly after that, as the tide was coming in, we decided to put an end to our very fun and very wet afternoon. After putting things on the computer, I was very happy with many of the results. The biggest disappointment though was probably the barnacles; I had placed the GoPro too close for every shot, and all of the feeding footage was quite blurry. 

Good thing we were ready for the rain! Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 12-100mm f/4.0 pro lens.

What I Learned

1. Time Lapse Interval Timing

It takes longer to collect 4K time lapse footage on my GoPro than on my OM-D E-M1, due to the higher frame rate. The GoPro takes images on a set interval of seconds, and outputs it at 30 fps. Here’s how long it takes to get 10 seconds of footage for each interval setting:

  • 0.5 s: 2.5 minutes
  • 1 s: 5 minutes
  • 2 s: 10 minutes
  • 5 s: 25 minutes
  • 10 s: 50 minutes
  • 30 s: 2.5 hours
  • 60 s: 5 hours

I like the footage that is around 0.5 s to 1 s intervals, while I find the 2 s interval too fast. So I think I will use the 0.5 s interval in the future, as I can always speed it up in post-processing to make it equivalent to a 0.75 s or a 1 s interval.

2. GoPro Minimum Focusing Distance

I learned the hard way that the GoPro cannot focus underewater on any subject closer than about 12”. I wish I had figured this out before some of the footage I tried to take. I wasted a lot of time on blurry starfish and sea urchins, and all of my videos of the gooseneck barnacles were blurry. Rats! I am going to have to go back sometime with a macro lens for my GoPro, and probably should have read this article by Todd before going on the outing. 

3. Bubbles on Lens Protector?

Next time I take the GoPro I will make sure I wipe the lens protector clean after submerging it. It's best to always be vigilant for bubbles intruding on the shot. I don't recall seeing them, but there must have been small ones on the lens protector during a number of the videos, as I saw a lot while looking through footage for post-processing. 

4. GoPro Size Advantage

GoPros really shine when it comes to revealing the secret lives of tidepool inhabitants. Their small size allows you to put them into shallow pools where nothing else would fit, without disturbing the marine life. Even better, they allow you to get a really cool perspective that a larger camera just can’t get; namely, being submerged in a tide pool that is only a few inches to a foot deep.

5. Slow Down!

The most important thing I learned was the best footage from tide pools comes from slowing down, and finding the subjects which you never see moving around when watching at “real life” speed. Yeah, hermit crabs and sculpins are fun to watch when you’re squatted over a tide pool. They are cool in time lapses too, but a video of just sculpins and crabs would become very boring and repetitive quite quickly. In my opinion it’s really all about the echinoderms – the starfish and sea urchins – as well as any barnacles if you can find them (and get them in focus!). Limpets are also neat if there are starfish to chase them around, and I imagine snails would be cool as well (though we didn’t find any to video).

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line at bryan@uwphotographyguide.com!

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Additional Reading

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryan is an editor for the Underwater Photography Guide. He loves any activity that takes him out into nature, and is especially fond of multi-day hiking trips, road trips to National Parks, and diving. Any kind of diving. He discovered the joy of underwater photography on a Bluewater trip to the Sea of Cortez, and after "trial and erroring" his way to some level of proficiency, has been hooked ever since. He has not done nearly as much diving as he would like, but has so far taken underwater photos in a diverse range of places, including BC, the Sea of Cortez, Greenland/Iceland, Northern Norway, the Galapagos and French Polynesia.

After working as a chemical engineer at a major oil & gas corporation for 9 years, Bryan finally had enough (and it didn't help that he was living in landlocked Edmonton, Canada with frigid winter temperatures and no real diving to speak of). He and his girlfriend decided to pack up their things and travel the world; they started their journey mid-2018 and will visit a number of great dive locations along the way. He is very excited to expand his underwater photography experience and skills while experiencing new cultures and exciting parts of the world. Though he is also a bit worried about the following equation that has so far defined his dive travels: Corporate job ($$) = Dive travel ($) + Underwater Photography ($). Taking away the left side of that equation seems like it might put things a bit out of balance. But as he reasons, what's the point in life if you can't take some big risks and have some fun along the way?

You can find more of his photos on Instagram at @bryandchu and check out his travel and relationship blog at www.bryanandlisa.ca

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Tips for taking underwater wide-angle photos in low light and limited visibility
By Nirupam Nigam

Wide-Angle Photography in Low Light Conditions

Nirupam Nigam
Tips for taking underwater wide-angle photos in low light and limited visibility

As a cold-water diver, one of the most frequent phrases I hear from other photographers encountering bad visibility is “I guess it’s a macro day!” Except in extreme cases of bad conditions, that photographer is often missing out. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to take quality wide angle images in poor visibility down to about five feet at any time of the day. It’s just a matter of understanding how light works. 

Painting with Light

As a photographer I only have one aspiration – to use light as a paintbrush in a way that extracts a work of art from a scene. I stopped “taking photos” years ago and switched to “painting with light”. The “painting with light” mindset is particularly essential for diver who do not have frequent access to the studio-like conditions of tropical sea, such as myself. The importance of quantity of light pales in comparison to understanding how it works. 

“Painting with light” is a mentality where you can picture in your head how the light you have at your disposal (e.g., the sun, strobe, focus light) will affect the image you are creating. It’s a skill that takes years to develop but ultimately results in a photographer being able to set up his/her camera and take an excellent photo on the first try. The best way to develop this mentality is to constantly change your settings and strobes. Taking multiple photos of the same scene will help you understand how each element of the available light is affected by each element you change. 

One thing I like to do is pre-create an image in my head at a dive site I know and then replicate it underwater. First, I will look at the sky and the clouds and determine what the sun will look like underwater. Then I pick a subject I know I can find, guess a depth it will be at, and determine how I would like to compose it. I think about where in the image I would like the sun to illuminate, and what I would like the strobes to expose. Finally, I choose a rough range for my aperture and shutter speed, pick my ISO, set my strobes, and hop in the water. You’d be surprised – it almost always works. Some of my best images were made this way.

 

Positioning 

The two golden rules of underwater photography are especially important in limited visibility. 

1. Get close to the subject

2. Shoot up at the subject

Shoot Into the “Sun”

The most consistent aspect of my photography in limited visibility is that I almost always shoot towards the sun. Even if it’s not a sunny day, I strive to position myself where the lens of my camera is pointed towards the highest amount of ambient light. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that if there is very little ambient light, shooting away from the sun will result in an image lit only by your strobes. This usually creates a black background. In a few circumstances an image like this can be desirable. But usually some amount of colorful water in the background will give your subject perspective. The second reason is that shooting into the sun results in the ability to use a higher shutter speed, small aperture, and lower ISO – all essential to improving the quality of the image. The third reason is the higher contrast resulting from multiple sources of light and shadow. Everything is more dramatic that way. 

Snell’s Window

Snell’s window is an optical phenomenon where an underwater viewer sees the surface as if looking through a tunnel to the light at the end. This effect can be easily captured when shooting into the sun, resulting in dramatic underwater photos. Low light intensifies Snell’s window in underwater photos because the edges of the tunnel become black instead of dark blue as they would in clear water.

Shooting with two strobes? Leave one at home!

When shooting in low light conditions, you need much less light to take photos. This is a counterintuitive concept that can be very difficult for some to understand. The reason for this is that strobes are used to balance ambient light in the background and artificial light on a subject. When there is a lot less ambient light in the background, you need to respond with less artificial light so that you don’t blow out the exposure of the subject. 

Although many photographers swear that two strobes increase artistic capacity, I disagree in low light situations. Many times, it is better to shoot with one! In limited visibility, I think two strobes can make wide angle photos look unnatural. This is because there is a larger gradient of ambient light in the image, especially in a Snell’s window. If too much of the foreground is lit, then it looks unnatural. Using one strobe will let you work with Snell’s window. This is done by lining up the subject you want to light with your strobe with the bright part of the window. The subject is then lit with the single strobe, but the rest of the foreground remains dark – naturally following the pattern of Snell’s window. 

Aperture 

Aperture can be a tricky thing to set in limited visibility. It’s the setting that I change the most. Many people start by shooting at f/8 as it’s the most neutral aperture. You will likely have enough depth of field in the image, but it also lets in a good amount of light. However, this aperture might be too small (i.e., too dark) in might low-light situations. I will often open my aperture wider than this, even taking the f-stop down to f/3.5. This almost always results in a shallow depth of field and a blurry background. However, I think that any image can be composed in response to any f-stop. Sometimes having a blurry background is worth having better lighting with more ambient light in the background. 

Shutter Speed

Different photographers have differing opinions concerning shutter speed. I like to keep my shutter speed consistently at the highest sync speed – 1/160 sec in my case. This results in a crisp image with no motion blur as well as better contrast. I find that if I let more ambient light into the image by decreasing the shutter speed rather than opening the aperture, the image can become rather flat in low light. There will be more ambient light in the background, but there is less of a gradient to produce a dramatic effect. 

One of the biggest benefits of shooting wide-angle in low light is the ability to take long exposure images underwater. These images result in artistic motion blur, further enhanced by panning on the photographer’s part. Remember to turn off your horizontal image stabilization if you’re planning on trying it. I find that shooting at 1/8 sec to 1/13 sec is the sweet spot. 

ISO

I am a firm believer of shooting with a camera’s native ISO, even in low light. It results in the highest quality image with the least amount of noise. My opinion is that it is best to bring out exposure in post processing instead of fixing noise. Fixing noise kills detail in the image. However, if your photos are resulting in a black background and you can’t afford to lower your shutter speed or open your aperture, bumping up your ISO to around 400 can be a big help. 

Strobe Positioning and Reducing Backscatter

Strobe positioning is essential in low light wide-angle photography. Poor positioning is the reason many people think you can’t take wide-angle photos in anything less than 20 or 30 feet of visibility. Perhaps the largest mistake photographers make in limited visibility is using too much light and not being close enough to the subject. Too much light increases the chance of having backscatter in the image and over exposing the subject. Being too far from the subject reduced the color of the subject and increases the chance of backscatter. Two strobes often exacerbate this problem by introducing too much light in all the wrong places.  The best way to get nice, even lighting and to reduce backscatter is by increasing the distance between the strobe and the dome while maintaining a close distance to the subject. There is an artform to being able to do that. Here are some of my favorite strobe positions in low light: 

1. Place the strobe(s) above the camera and behind the camera without creating a shadow in the image from the camera. In limited visibility, strobes act more like spotlights. Using the traditional position of placing the strobes on the side of the camera can result in strange shadows. Putting the strobes higher up makes the lighting more even and reduces backscatter. 

2. Placing a single strobe above the camera and as far behind the camera as possible. As mentioned before, a single strobe is often more than enough light in limited visibility and will make light more even if used correctly. I almost never shoot one strobe from any other position since it can often introduce unwanted contrast.

3. Place a single strobe right next to the subject but pointed away from your camera when shooting close-focus wide-angle and reducing the power. This will help properly light a close subject while allowing ambient light to properly expose the background. 

4. Use what works. It can’t be stressed enough that these are suggestions but not instructions. I almost never keep my strobes positioned the same way for more than one or two photos. The best position is the one that works!

Conclusion

Shooting wide-angle photos in limited visibility could be described as its own “genre” of photography – one that only a select few photographers capitalize upon. But taking the leap into low visibility and bringing along your fisheye can introduce you to a whole new dimension of art. It takes more experimentation, dedication, and failures, but it is well worth the effort. Beyond all else it’s important to remember that art can be made regardless of the conditions. You just have to let the light paint a nice picture. 

Additional Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nirupam Nigam is a dedicated underwater photographer and fisheries scientist. While growing up in Los Angeles he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. He received degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, at the University of Washington. Now he works as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific. When he is not at sea, he is traveling with his fiancee and taking photos. Check out more of his photography at www.photosfromthesea.com!

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