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.
Shooting tips, light casts, best subjects and techniques for using a snoot underwater
By Mike Bartick

Ultimate Guide to Snoot Photography

Mike Bartick
Shooting tips, light casts, best subjects and techniques for using a snoot underwater

Its been said many times before that lighting is everything in underwater photography. Lighting is without a doubt a prime method to create drama, add color and contrast, create shadows, add dimension and much more to each image. Controlling that light is totally up to the photographer and his/her ability to manipulate it.

In the macro world, even the most interesting of subjects are easily lost on a confusing backdrop of sponge, hydroid or algae. Macro subjects tend to hide themselves within the substrate so well that even the best of attempts can result in a linear image. 

Snoots are a highly effective tool that will enable you to isolate your subject by surgically controlling and manipulating your strobe flash to precisely where and how you want your subject to be lit. This precise method of lighting will create the desired negative space in the frame, and with a little practice, result in some new striking compositions.

 

What is a Snoot?

Snoot, snoot, snoot what the heck is a snoot anyways? Well I'm glad you asked... Simply put, a snoot is a tool placed over the strobe head. The snoot controls and directs your strobe flash by creating a narrow or broad light beam in its cast, depending on the effect the shooter desires. Snoots do not create the flash – they are merely a tool used with your existing strobe to direct the light. 

 

How to Choose a Snoot

Not all snoots are created equally, so try to find the one that best fits your shooting style and budget. There are many snoot brands on the market and depending on the build quality, they can deliver dramatic differences in performance. Optical snoots are made with lock line filled with polished fiber optic cables, while others are more barrel-style with a diffused collector and iris masks to control the diameter of the flash beam. Other designs resemble funnels, and I've even seen a beer cozy being used with the bottom removed. And while all of these different snoots might work to some degree or another there are a couple of functional features that you will want to pay close attention to.

Read Bluewater Photo's Snoot Showdown: A Review of the Best Snoots for Underwater Photography.

 

Light Quality

This is the first important feature, and should never be compromised. You will need the light at the end of the snoot to be just as clean and bright as when it leaves the strobe head. Any loss of light means compensating with higher ISO or a wider f-stop, which can result in digital noise, shallow DOF, too much contrast, etc.

 

Flash Iris

Aka the diameter size options for the beam. You will want your snoot to have interchangeable tips or a way of controlling the light from a wide cast to a narrow beam without major changes of your strobe’s position. Once your snoot is in the right position, having the ability to narrow the beam quickly is a highly desirable feature.

 

Quick tips for learning how to use your snoot:

 

•   Attach the snoot to your left strobe so that quick adjustments can be made and you can easily check images. Task loading your right hand is extremely cumbersome.

•   Tripods are another method that ads to the task load and takes away from the organic feel and freedom of attaching the snooted strobe directly to your housing (via strobe arm).

•   Use a wider lens like a 60mm lens (DSLRs) or 30mm lens (mirrorless). This will help you to see the tip of the snoot or the flash point in the top of the frame and to create a variety of compositions.

•   Make subtle changes and move the camera around slightly for final corrections rather than moving the strobe head.

 

The most common snoot technique in the beginning is direct lighting from above, but as you learn to use your new tool you will discover other ways to create drama in the frame. Front, back or side lighting, rim lighting and even super-macro techniques can all be applied.

Your images can still be over/under exposed and contrast is greatly affected by the nearness of the snoot’s tip in relation to the subject. As the snoot tip moves closer to the subject the result will be a hotter strobe flash and tighter beam. Pulling it up or away will decrease the harshness and broaden the beam, much like shining a flashlight on a table.

 

 

Underwater Snoot Photos

 

Hairy frogfish have always posed a challenge for me to shoot well. Whether the contrasty colors, sandy or algae habitat or even dark water at night, for some reason all of the shots just feel plain and very common. The first time I shot one with a snoot, I knew I was on to something different. By pulling the snoot tip up and allowing the cast to broaden, I was able to capture a slightly larger subject.

Nikon D7100

1 YS-D1 strobe 

Subsee Optical snoot

60mm lens

F9 @ 1/250

 

A brightly colored yellow ribbon eel is easily separated from the rocks directly behind it in this image. Having an undesirable or confusing background can take away from an image very easily. I enjoyed the challenge of shooting this one and trying to get it to line up properly.

Nikon D7100

1 YS-D1 strobe

Retra-LSD

105mm lens

F18 @ 1/320

 

Creating a little drama, the snoot effect will not preclude the user from shooting a black subject. Opening the aperture a little will allow for better exposures with darker subjects.

Nikon D7100

1 YS-D1 strobe

105mm lens

F13 @ 1/160

Subsee optical snoot’s

 

Blennys are a great subject to work with as they don't normally bolt from their hole when you begin to photograph them. The biggest challenge is separating them from their surroundings. What I like about the Retra snoot is that once the critter is dialed in, you can change the shape of the light cast by moving the light shaping mask. Starting with a broad and more forgiving beam and then work your way down to smaller casts. 

Nikon D300s

1 YS D1 strobe

105mm lens

f14 @ 1/320

Retra- LSD

 

Even in bright shallow water, negative space is easy to achieve when using your snoot with a fast shutter speed. Sometimes I like to see the circle of light that surrounds the subject as well. 

Nikon D7100

105mm lens

F18 @ 1/320

1 YS D1 strobe

Retra LSD

 

Snoots aren't just for exotic waters either - they can be used anywhere and at any time. One of the hidden and added benefits is less backscatter. This can be very helpful for better lighting when diving on a silty substrate or in an area that has low visibility.

Nikon D300s

105mm lens

F18 @ 1/320

1 YS-D1 

Retra LSD

 

S. smaragdinus perfectly match their algae host, both resembling green champagne grapes. The snoot lighting is a great tool for translucent subjects, as the light seems to help create the glow effect while eliminating the extra light. A wide and direct strobe flash can be a bit overpowering at times, over-lighting an area and taking away from the subtle details of your subject.

Nikon D7100

60mm lens

F22 @ 1/160

1 YS-D1 

Retra LSD

 

Re-visiting a subject with a new trick can sometimes be just what it takes to freshen it up. Setting up the snoot becomes second nature as you gain a natural feel for your lens’ working distance. The Retra snoot allows the user to operate the aiming light on the strobe and line it up with the subject. This is very helpful for subjects that aren't sensitive to it. 

Nikon D300s

105mm lens

f29 @ 1/320

1 YS-D1 strobe

Retra LSD 

 

 

The subsee snoot gives a shooter just a little more distance to work with for shooting long macro images - great for flighty subjects. The light quality is good and the lock line articulates well. 

Nikon D7100

105mm lens

F13 @ 1/250

1 YS-D1 and Subsee snoot

 

 

Snoots are a great tool to add to you kit and should be on your list of things to take on your next dive trip (to Crystal Blue - =) ). Remember, lighting is everything, so why not enhance your lighting skills, create something new in your portfolio and challenge yourself at the same time. And like always….

Have fun!

 

Further Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Bartick is an avid and experienced scuba diver and Marine Wildlife Photographer. He has an insatiable love for nudibranchs, frogfish and other underwater critters, and is the official critter expert for the Underwater Photography Guide. Mike is also one of the UWPG trip leaders. See more of his work at www.saltwaterphoto.com.

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Essential tips, advice and best accessories for capturing wave photos and videos with your GoPro camera
By Brent Durand

How to Shoot Wave Photos with your GoPro

Brent Durand
Essential tips, advice and best accessories for capturing wave photos and videos with your GoPro camera

GoPro Hero cameras are tough, easy-to-use and produce great photos, making them a great tool for wave photography. Traditional scuba diving housings are not designed for shooting waves – they’re bulky, heavy and use the wrong ergonomics for the positions you’ll be shooting waves from. Surf housings for DSLR cameras address all these issues but they’re expensive. So, this leaves many of us shooting waves with GoPro.

There are many experienced photographers shooting waves out there, but these are some basic tips from my experiences with GoPro surf photography.

You can view a slow motion video of a breaking wave filmed with GoPro here.

 

 

GoPro Camera Reviews

 

GoPro Tutorials

1  Get the Right Accessories

Handholding your GoPro just doesn’t work… unless your fingers are the size of a jellybean. Investing in a nice handle or trigger grip is essential for good surf photos with a GoPro. The handle provides much more reach, especially for keeping the camera inside the wave as it passes by. 

There are a number of different handles and triggers available.  A great, versatile GoPro handle is the BTS GoPro MultiGrip Handle. It’s very tough, but you will need to push the camera shutter button (in burst mode) with your second hand. There are many other brands of GoPro handles available for shooting surf photos or just general use.

Be sure to wear a wrist lanyard, because at some point, the ocean will knock the camera out of your hand and you'll be glad it is attached.

 

gopro wave

Right on the sand. Malibu, California

 

gopro handle for waves

My GoPro handle for shooting waves. I have no trigger on this, but had these Ultralight parts laying around to make a great, multi-angle GoPro handle.

 

2  Use the Right GoPro Setting for Waves

Waves move surprisingly quickly; I’ve been in, on and around them my entire life and still get surprised. The best GoPro setting for wave photos is the burst mode, which has a number of different options. Chances are that your battery will die far before you run out of space on your memory card, so try shooting with 30 frames over 2 seconds. This will allow you to capture every moment of the breaking wave and then select your favorite frame. Note that the GoPro takes a second to begin firing after you press the shutter button, so account for this as the wave is about to break and you're moving into final position.

Yes, this is a bit of “spray and pray”, and you’ll have thousands of photos to glance through, but it’s the best way to ensure you get the best shot and maximize your time in the water.

 

gopro wave

Burst mode settings on the GoPro HERO4 Silver.

 

3  Stay Still and Let the Wave Come to You

Chasing a wave is a bit like chasing a fish – it’s going to outmaneuver you most of the time. The best way to shoot GoPro wave photos is to wait at the point where the wave is breaking, whether on your feet close to shore or treading water further from shore. If you read the waves well and position yourself at that spot where the wave is breaking, you’ll find yourself in “the green room” every time.

 

gopro wave

Frothy. Malibu, California

 

gopro wave

Crisp. Venice, California

 

4  Stay Safe

The ocean, and waves in particular, can be dangerous and unpredictable. Most of the wave photos you see are from photographers with many years of experience surfing, body boarding, paddling, lifeguarding and other waterman activities. Many of the photos (unless you’re Clark Little) are also shot in waves much smaller than you would expect, so there’s no reason to go out if the waves are big and there are dangerous currents and rip tides.

 

gopro wave

gopro wave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

gopro wave

Pangea. Malibu, California

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brent Durand is a weekend wanderer, story teller and image-maker from California.
BrentDurand.com   |  Facebook  |  Instagram

Brent is the editor of the Underwater Photography Guide and leads several photo trips and workshops for Bluewater Photo (see below).  Email Brent at brent@uwphotographyguide.com.

Bali & Lembeh Strait Workshops (Sept '16)   |   La Paz Big Animal Photo Trip (Oct '16)   |   Sri Lanka Wrecks & Reefs OR Whales & Dolphins Workshops (Feb '17)   |   Alor, Indonesia small group Photo Trip (Oct '17)

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Bring your macro video to the next level with these simple tips
By Sascha Janson

3 Tips for Underwater Macro Video

Sascha Janson
Bring your macro video to the next level with these simple tips

 

3 Tips for Underwater Macro Video


Bring your macro video to the next level with these simple tips

By Sascha Janson

 

 

 
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Most cameras nowadays are able to capture HD video (some even do 4K), and more and more underwater photographers want to take advantage of that movie feature to take home some video of the amazing macro life seen while diving. It can be tricky at first, but don’t give up after one dive. Here are three tips that will help you get better results.

 

Use a Lot of Light

When shooting macro video, we want to overpower the ambient light whenever possible to get the most vibrant colors.

In the image below (screenshots from video) you can see the difference between footage filmed with only ambient light and with a high power underwater LED video light – the colors get more vibrant with the more light we put on the subject.

 

 

You can also watch the video here:

This video was shot with a Canon 7D Mark II, 60mm macro lens. 1/60sec, f13, (ISO was set to AUTO to show the different results best)

 

For shooting macro video with DSLRs I recommend using two LED video lights with a wide, even beam and at least 2000 lumens. Using more powerful lights will let you close the aperture on your camera further, which gives you more depth of field. If the lights are too powerful for some scenes, you can always choose a weaker power output. It’s not impossible to get good footage with a weaker light (below 2000 lumens), but the more power you have on a light, the easier it will be.

 

 

Use the Magnify Button

Of course shooting macro video with a DSLR is more challenging than wide angle, because most DSLRs generally don’t autofocus well in video mode (some of them only focus manually). Judging the focus in the Live View on the camera’s LCD (or even on a larger monitor) is sometimes very tricky. Using the “Magnify” function and manual focus helps to fine tune the focus.

 

 

In this example of a hairy frogfish it is very difficult to see if the eye is actually in focus or not, because the whole subject is on the LCD and the eye itself is tiny.

 

 

By moving the little white square to the point of interest (here the eye) and then pressing the magnify button (red arrow) we are able to fine tune the focus.

 

 

Now we have a 5x magnification preview, which is enough most of the time to be able to judge the focus (by pressing the magnify button again, we can even have 10x magnification) and we can easily fine tune the focus manually. When the eye is in focus we can start our recording. Unfortunately, this only works before we hit the record button, we cannot do this while recording. This works best with stationary subjects or at least subjects that don’t move fast.

I used a Canon 7D in a Subal CD7 housing for this tutorial, so note that the buttons are in different positions on other housings. Newer DSLRs like the Canon 7D Mark II actually do a pretty good job with continuous auto focus, but for really small subjects, camouflaged subjects or when shooting at larger apertures the magnify button and manual focus are still essential.

 

Use a Tripod

It is very important for macro videography to be steady. Even super sharp focus, perfect light and composition will fail if your audience gets seasick. Use a tripod to get steady footage!

Example video of handheld vs. tripod underwater macro video.

 

There are many different models of tripods available – you have to choose which one is the right one for you. I prefer a tripod which doesn’t add extra height to the the housing so I’m able to shoot with the port down as low as possible, but this would not be my tripod of choice for shooting pygmy seahorses.

 

DIY locline elements tripod.

 

 

 

Further Reading

 

About the Author

Sascha Janson is passionate about diving and photography and spends a couple hours underwater every day with his camera to capture special moments of the underwater world. When he’s not diving, he’s running the photo-center ‘Cameras@Lembeh Resort‘, where he helps fellow underwater photographers with camera problems, teaches courses and produces underwater videos (click here for the Lembeh Resort video gallery). You can see more of his work at uw-pix.com.

 

 

Support the Underwater Photography Guide:


The Best Service & Prices on u/w Photo Gear

 

Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!

 


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Bluewater Travel is your full-service scuba travel agency. Let our expert advisers plan and book your next dive vacation. Run by divers, for divers.

 


 

 
 
SHARE THIS STORY

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

The Best Service & Prices on u/w Photo Gear

 

Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!

 


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Make dramatic improvements in your underwater supermacro photos
By Scott Gietler

Top Tips for Super Macro Photography

Scott Gietler
Make dramatic improvements in your underwater supermacro photos

Mantis shrimp eyes, Nauticam SMC diopter F20, 1/250th, ISO 320

 Supermacro can be a very demanding, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding segment of photography. Acheiving focus, depth of field, and sharpness can be very difficult, and can finding the proper subjects and conditions. It takes a lot of practice, and there will not be many "keepers". However, it can be mastered, and your persistence will pay off.

Below are a few tips that can immensely help your super macro underwater photography. If you have never done supermacro before, read our intro to supermacro article.

 

#1  Hold your left hand under your port 

Most people hold both of their tray handles when taking a macro or supermacro photo. When shooting super macro, let go of your left handle and instead support your port or wet diopter from below. It will feel strange at first, but you will find out it is a much more stable setup, and you'll be able to find your subject easier and keep it in the frame longer.

Supermacro tutorial underwater
Single soft coral polyp from Anilao, taken at F18

 

#2  Brace yourself with excellent buoyancy

Supermacro photography requires excellent buoyancy skills, as it is very important not to hit the reef or damage any marine life. There are many reefs that have so much coral and reef, I don't even like to shoot supermacro there because of the danger of bumping into something.

I usually look for supermacro subjects on large areas of open sand or over large areas dead coral, so I can gently brace my entire rig using a finger, a metal stick, or in some cases using my using a very small area of my left wristbone on the ground. This must be done in conjunction with the technique explained in tip #1 above. By using tip #1 & #2 together, you'll get a rock-solid super macro rig that can lock in your target with a minimal amount of "having your subject fly around in the frame".

Note that it is very important not be laying on the reef, or have your fins or knees touch the ground. You must keep your contact with the reef to an absolutely minimum, and only if the area you are contacting is dead. It will help to have a photo instructor watch you shoot and give you feedback your technique and buoyancy. 

Using a backplate/wing for better buoyancy, and using stiff paddle fins can help make this exercise easier.

After you are done shooting your supermacro subject, gently inflate your BCD slightly, turn away from the subject, and slowly frogkick away, keeping your eye on the subject to make sure your fin kicks don't propel water into your subject. 


Tiny single "knob" of a starfish, F25, bracing myself with my wristbone on dead rubble

 

#3  Align your key focus points in one plane

If you subject has 2 eyes or 2 rhinophores that you want to get in focus, they must be aligned in the same plane. If the subject is a shrimp with 2 eyes and 2 claws, now you have 4 points that need to be in 1 plane. Think of it as a geometry test! This tip is very important because your depth of field is very limited when taking a super macro photo.


Tiny Hairy shrimp from Anilao. I carefully aligned the shrimp so it was all in the same plane


Brent was able to expertly get the shrimp eyes and front claws in one plane, resulting in a great photo. From Manado, Indonesia

 

#4  Point your strobes inward

To bring out the detail and texture of your supermacro subject, point your strobes inward towards your port. You'll see some photos of this techinque at the bottom of our underwater strobe position article


X-mas tree worm closeup, strobes pointed inward, F22, 1/250th, ISO 320

 

#5  Get enough depth of field

When shooting supermacro, you have only a tiny depth of field. Unless your subject is fairly flat (in which case you can get away with a larger aperture to keep more detail), you'll need to shoot at a very small aperture. F8 for compacts, F11 for Sony RX100's & G7X, F18 - F22 for mirrorless setups, and F22 - F29 for cropped sensor dSLR and F25 - F36 for a full-frame dSLR. Do keep in mind that you are gaining depth of field at the expense of detail at the 100% crop level. However, for many super macro photos, the additional depth of field will be more important.


Spanish shawl, D7000, Subsee +5, F32, photo by Scott Gietler

 

supermacro tips for underwater photography
Spanish shawl eggs,  D810, 105mm VR lens, Nauticam SMC, F40. By shooting at F40, I was able to get most of the eggs in focus, although at 100% crop you can see the effects of diffraction.

 

#6   Practise on land first

This is possible the most important tip. I have literally seen fifty different photographers try to take supermacro photos underwater, without understanding that when you use a macro lens, you can only focus at one particular distance, usually 2 -4 inches from the port. Try your setup on land first, on a table, to find out what that distance is. Rock and back and forth until you see your subject in focus. Once you learn that distance, you'll notice that you can only take a supermacro photo at that distance.

 

#7 Compact shooters - zoom in!

If you are using a compact camera with a zoom, like the Canon G16 or the Sony RX100 series, you will be better off if you zoom *all the way or most of the way in* when using a wet diopter. This will give you two huge benefits. #1 - you will get more magnification, and #2 - you will get more working distance. Yes, more working distance! I know it is counter-intuitive, but just try it. Note - when using tip #7, you must also follow my instructions in tip #6 above to avoid massive frustration.


Sony RX100, F11, Nauticam CMC, zoomed in, strobes pointed inward

 

#8   Get a great macro lens

There are several good wet diopters (macro lens) on the market - I've used the Bluewater +7, Subsee +5, Subsee +10, the Nauticam Super Macro Converter, and the Nauticam Compact Macro Converter. I've used them alot! Feel free to email me to see what would be best for you.

 


5D Mark III, 100mm lens, Subsee +10 from Bali

 


Olympus E-M1, 60mm macro lens, Bluewater +7 macro lens

 

#9   Join a macro workshop

We have great macro workshops coming up in Bali, Lembeh, and Anilao. Check them out - these destinations offer great guides, a cornucopia of macro subjects and excellent conditions for supermacro photography (e.g. - not too much surge). Our LaPaz trip this September will also offer some good macro.

Anilao Dec 2015

Anilao April / May 2016

Bali Sep 2016

Lembeh Sep 2016

 

 

Further Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Scott Gietler is the owner of Bluewater Photo, Bluewater Travel, and the Underwater Photography Guide. Bluewater Photo, based in Santa Monica, CA is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious underwater camera stores, serving many thousands of customers each year, where nothing is more important than customer service. The Underwater Photography Guide is the world’s first website to feature free tutorials on underwater photography, and has become the most trafficked resource on underwater photography worldwide. Bluewater Travel is a full-service dive travel wholesaler sending groups and individuals on the world’s best dive vacations. 

Scott is also an avid diver, underwater photographer, and budding marine biologist, having created the online guide to the underwater flora and fauna of Southern California. He is the past vice-president of the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society, has volunteered extensively at the Santa Monica aquarium, and is the creator of the Ocean Art underwater photo competition, one of the largest underwater international photo competitions ever held in terms of value of prizes. He lives in California with his wife, newborn girl and scuba-diving, photo taking 4 year old son.

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

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Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!

 


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How to capture dramatic photos of manta rays in shallow water
By Rodney Bursiel

3 Tips to Capture Manta Ray Action

Rodney Bursiel
How to capture dramatic photos of manta rays in shallow water

I recently read an article that noted human encounters with giant mantas are very rare. This may be true in most areas, but not in the Socorro Islands. If you are looking for the perfect opportunity to photograph these gentle giants, this is the place. The dive site El Boiler off the island of San Benedicto is a cleaning station where the mantas come in for a cleaning by the resident clarion fish. They tend to be very curious and love getting bubble baths from the divers.

Below are a few tips that will help you bring home some exciting images.

 


Book Your Trip to the Socorro Islands

Bluewater Travel can help you plan and book the perfect Socorro Islands dive trip. Visit BluewaterTravel.com for more info.

 

 

 

Have the Right Equipment 

There are just a few simple things that I would recommend in order to get the best shots of the mantas at Socorro. The more important tip for capturing great manta shots takes place before you get into the water:  you need to have the right equipment. You will have the opportunity to get extremely close to the mantas, so I would highly recommend a fisheye lens. For these shots I had a Nikon 10.5 DX fisheye on my Nikon D800, which I’m actually looking to trade for a 16mm FX. The lenses are essentially the same, but the 16mm FX will provide better results for my large prints. 

 

socorro manta ray

 

 

Know Your Lighting

I was shooting with dual Ikelite DS-160 strobes, but these were not necessary since the average depth for this dive was about 40 ft. You can go deeper, but in my experience there was better action in the shallower water, and better light if you don’t have strobes. I used the strobes for a certain effect; I liked adding that pop to the picture. Just be careful not to have them too strong if you are especially close. The white on the mantas is highly reflective and can wash out your shot. Also, when not using strobes, make sure the sun is behind you to light the subject with ambient light, unless you are going for a silhouette.

 

 

Position Yourself and Be Patient

Be patient and let the manta rays come to you. The mantas will make their rounds checking out all the divers, so don’t waste your energy chasing them around. You will get a much better shot if you wait. When I see a manta approaching me, I like to position myself just above or just below its intended path. Straight-on shots just aren’t as dramatic-looking in my opinion, as I like to capture more of the animal to get more energy into the shot. I also like to include the bubbles of the other divers. To me it creates a much more interesting photo. If you are going for the bubble shot though, make sure to clean them off your dome port before you shoot. 

 

socorro manta ray

 

 

Go Have Fun

Shooting mantas is pretty simple. Just relax and let them come to you, and remember: they love the bubbles, so the more bubbles around you the more action you will get. Be careful and pay attention to your surroundings – Socorro is in the middle of the ocean. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment with one of these guys and stray off course. And remember to have fun!

 

socorro manta ray

 

 

socorro manta ray

 

 

 

Also by Rodney Busiel

Author's Gear Profile

Nikon D800 with Nikkor 10.5mm fisheye lens. Dual Ikelite DS160 strobes.

 

Further Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rodney Bursiel is a music, surf and underwater photography. When he is not at home in Austin photographing the music scene, he is traveling the world chasing waves and capturing the underwater world. You can see more of his work at www.rodneybursiel.com.

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

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Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!

 


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A tutorial on how to compose your images for the most visual impact
By Ken Kiefer

Creating Simple and Strong Compositions

Ken Kiefer
A tutorial on how to compose your images for the most visual impact

Creating a strong image that holds visual appeal requires many components working together, including an interesting subject, lighting, focus and depth of field.  One of the most important elements in a good image is composition, which unfortunately, isn’t a straightforward science. While composition has some general rules, it involves the photographers’ artistic involvement and can be very subjective.

As underwater photographers we bring the element of diving to our photography, making it even more challenging.  Not only are we now trying to use the perfect settings for our shot, but we must keep track of strobe placement, watch our buoyancy, check our gauges and follow the divemaster – all in addition to composing the shot through a mask and a tiny viewfinder! 

For shooting wide-angle and big animals there are several things that can help with composition and capturing a strong, appealing image.

 

 

CONTROL YOUR BACKGROUNDS

Be aware of what the background in your shots will contain.  Don’t only pay attention to your subjects, but understand what may be distracting or could enhance your shots.  A sure way to help a subject pop is to get close and have nothing but clear blue water surrounding it.  Likewise, a sandy bottom can work in conjunction with your subject as a great background.

 

Underwater Photo Composition

The incredible blues of the deep ocean surrounding Cat Island provides an amazing backdrop for the sun’s rays over this oceanic whitetip.

 

Underwater Photo Composition

This mother and daughter Atlantic Spotted Dolphin glide through the clear Bahamian waters over a beautiful white sand background.

 

 

FILL THE DIAGONAL

Subjects that trend towards the diagonals of the frame, either through position or patterns help catch the eye and provide a good balance to an image.  Combining a diagonal with the horizon line of the water surface or sea bottom is also a helpful technique.  The placement of horizon lines is important as well, relating to the important Rule of Thirds concept.  Generally, you want the portion of the image with the most interest to be in the 2/3 area of the image. 

 

Underwater Photo Composition

While in Isla Mujeres, my freediver buddy mimics this whale shark as it begins to go vertical to gulp in large amounts of fish eggs.

 

Underwater Photo Composition

This lone Great Hammerhead shark glides over a perfect background of white sand.

 

 

STUDY YOUR SUBJECT AND LOCATION

Pay attention to animal tendencies and direction of the sunlight to help put you in the best position when possible.  Sometimes you may want the sun directly in your face to get a silhouette or sunball shot.  Other times you want the best clarity and contrast from having the sun at your back.  Some of these options aren’t available to you on every dive, but keeping your options in mind on every dive will enhance your photo composition opportunities. 

 

Underwater Photo Composition

I tried for this shot for a week before it finally happened.  A split second after I snapped this shot, the cephalofoil of the hammer banged into my dome port!

 

Underwater Photo Composition

This Nurse Shark creates a great diagonal line with the horizon lines of the water’s surface and the sandy bottom.  I watched her approach the surface and then dive several times and was able to move into position to capture this action.

 

 

BE READY FOR THE UNEXPECTED

Don’t put on blinders that may keep you from missing a great opportunity.  It’s great to have a ‘shot sheet’ of looks and angles that you want to accomplish, but keep an open mind and watchful eye so that you are ready for other options, fast actions and unique behaviors. 

 

Underwater Photo Composition

I was chasing my wife and a pair of dolphins trying to get a shot of them together, when I saw this pair of males out of the corner of my eye.  I readjusted quickly and was able to frame them for a quick shot.

 

Underwater Photo Composition

This oceanic whitetip was swimming near me with nothing in sight but deep blue ocean.  I love the shot in color, but using the black and white adjustment tool allowed me to make the blue into black and further isolate the subject.

 

 

USE YOUR DIVE BUDDY

I’ve heard many photographers complain about inconsiderate divers ‘ruining their shot’ by not paying attention and just swimming around without considering other divers.  This can sometimes be a problem, but when it can’t be avoided, look for ways to incorporate divers into a shot to provide scale and as a way to balance the composition. 

 

Underwater Photo Composition

My dive buddy was in a good position to balance out this shot.

 

Underwater Photo Composition

This was the first whale shark that my wife and I ever encountered.  It has a huge gouge from a propeller that has healed over.  Having her in the shot provided a great way to judge the size of the shark.

 

 

AIM FOR BLACK AND WHITE

One of my favorite ways to bring out the intensity of an image is through the use of black and white.  Black and white can help simplify an image to bring out the essential subjects.  It can also add great drama and clarity.  Shooting with black and white in mind helps focus my thoughts and eye for composition towards the key ingredients for a strong image, including background clutter.  

 

Underwater Photo Composition

The Freediver provides a wonderful balance to the hammerhead and making the image black and white adds drama and contrast.

 

 

 

Further Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ken Kiefer is an underwater photographer that specializes in big animals and fashion/fitness shoots.  He uses his images of sharks to educate children about the realities of sharks –vs- media portrayal.  

View more of Ken's work at: www.kenkiefer.com.

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Video Demo and Guide to Using GoPro Filters and Underwater Lights
By Brent Durand

When to Use GoPro Filters Underwater

Brent Durand
Video Demo and Guide to Using GoPro Filters and Underwater Lights

Producing high quality underwater video has never been easier. Small, easy-to-use cameras at great prices have lowered what was once a very high barrier to entry. GoPro leads this charge, which comes at no surprise if you’ve been on a dive trip in the last couple years. On every trip you’ll spot several divers with GoPros, whether mounted on poles, trays, handles, larger camera housings or even diver heads.

It’s a simple thing to take the GoPro out of the box and press the record button a few times, instantly becoming a bonified underwater videographer. But how do you take it to the next level? How do you capture video you will actually look at on your computer? What gear should you add to your GoPro Hero kit to increase the quality of your video.

In this latest installment of UWPG’s GoPro tutorial series we show you some examples of using underwater filters, video lights and more.

 

Using Underwater GoPro Filters

Underwater filters are designed to bring color and contrast back into your underwater video. These colors are lost as we descend in the ocean, starting with red, which is why these filters are red or magenta. By bringing the reds back, the GoPro will also be able to select a more accurate white balance when recording clips. You can see the differences that filters make in the sample screenshots below.

I always recommend using a filter with your GoPro, unless you are using video lights for a close focus wide-angle shot (see section below on video lights).

A Red filter is the most commonly used. This filter is optimized for use in blue water, while a magenta filter is optimized for use in green water. During my test dive in Anilao, Philippines, the water was definitely a bit green, but nothing like in the photos I see from BC and the Pacific Northwest, or off the beach in Malibu when we have an algae bloom. You’ll notice in the video below that the red filter nicely brings the colors back into the video, while the magenta filter doesn’t make much difference. It's important to point out that you should definitely keep that magenta filter on hand, as you never know when you'll come across that green water.

I was happy to be using my GoPro Hero4 Silver for this review since it has an LCD screen built into the back, allowing me to view the changes made by the filters. Of course, the screen helps with composition too. If you have another GoPro model, you can purchase an LCD Touch BacPac to make sure you can see every shot you make.

GoPro underwater filters review

GoPro Filter Test Photos

 

GoPro underwater no filter

No Filter.  GoPro Hero4 Silver video screenshot.

 

GoPro underwater red filter

Red Filter.  GoPro Hero4 Silver video screenshot.

 

GoPro underwater magenta filter

Magenta Filter.  GoPro Hero4 Silver video screenshot.

 

GoPro underwater no filter

No Filter.  GoPro Hero4 Silver video screenshot.

 

GoPro underwater red filter

Red Filter.  GoPro Hero4 Silver video screenshot.

 

GoPro underwater magenta filter

Magenta Filter.  GoPro Hero4 Silver video screenshot.

 
 
GoPro underwater red filter

Red Filter.  GoPro Hero4 Silver video screenshot.

 
 
GoPro underwater magenta filter

Magenta Filter.  GoPro Hero4 Silver video screenshot.

 

 

Using Video Lights with GoPro

GoPro underwater filters are perfect for shooting subjects that are more than a couple feet away from the camera, however if your subject is close to the camera, you will get much better video by using video lights.

Video lights are similar to the underwater strobes that still photographers use in that the artificial light brings all the color back into the reef. It’s the same reason that most smart divers use a flashlight when looking at details of the reef or critters – even with the sun high overhead.

There are two things to keep in mind when using video lights with your GoPro underwater. The first is to make sure you are close enough to the reef (or swimming subject) so that it is well lit by the light(s). This is generally less than 4 feet. The second thing to be aware of is that the GoPro has a minimum focus distance of 12 inches, meaning that you cannot place the camera less than 12 inches from the subject or it will not be in focus (sharp focus is essential for a good video clip). This is tricky because you won't be able to tell if focus is sharp while underwater - only once you have loaded the video onto your computer. That said, Polar Pro makes a macro wet lens that magnifies the scene and decreases that minimum focus distance.

 

GoPro underwater video lights

GoPro underwater video lights

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My GoPro light setup, built from some spare parts and powered by two I-Torch Venom38 video lights.

 

GoPro underwater video lights

Video Lights, no filter. GoPro Hero4 Silver video screenshot.

 

 

Custom White Balance

I’ve added a section on custom white balance for advanced GoPro users who are shooting in Protune mode with the intention to post-process video clips and create a movie of their dive or trip.  In short, custom white balance will allow the GoPro user to select a custom white balance to best fit the scene they are shooting. Choices include Auto, 3000K, 5500K, 6500K and Native.

Finding the right white balance will depend on the filter (or video lights), depth and water conditions, so make sure you're using an LCD display if you plan to set your own WB.

 

 

GoPro Filters & Lights Demo Video

 

 

UWPG's GoPro Tutorial Series

 

 

Other Recommended Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brent Durand is a weekend wanderer, story teller and image-maker from California.
BrentDurand.com   |  Facebook  |  Instagram

Brent is the editor of the Underwater Photography Guide and leads several photo trips and workshops for Bluewater Photo (see below).  Email Brent at brent@uwphotographyguide.com.

Bali & Lembeh Strait Workshops (Sept '16)   |   La Paz Big Animal Photo Trip (Oct '16)   |   Sri Lanka Wrecks & Reefs OR Whales & Dolphins Workshops (Feb '17)   |   Alor, Indonesia small group Photo Trip (Oct '17)

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A Macro Photo Tutorial on Shallow Depth of Field
By Mike Bartick

Macro Wide Open

Mike Bartick
A Macro Photo Tutorial on Shallow Depth of Field

 

Is underwater macro photography trendy? Of course it is. The key to great shots is to try not to get caught up in the regular macro styles, but to try something different. When you do, all kinds of good things are bound to happen.

‘Macro wide open’ uses the bottom end of your lens’ f-stop range to help create extreme bokeh in your images. In fact, these images are mainly comprised of the bokeh with just the slightest anchor points of sharpness for the viewer’s eye to hold on to. Leaning towards reverse ring macro, this wide open technique is a sure fire way to expand your portfolio right away without spending more money on expensive or confusing gear.

 

 

Its All About the Bokeh….

First, lets address the creamy, buttery portions of the image referred to as bokeh. Simply put, bokeh is the natural depth in an image and occurs naturally in photography/cinematography. This natural depth is created in an image by framing the sharp focal point that then fades away out of focus through the frame. The focal range creates a plane of focus and shallow depth of field that many shooters attempt to forever enlarge by increasing their f/stop settings (to create more depth of field and less bokeh).

The amount of bokeh is dictated primarily by the f-stop setting of the lens and can expand or collapse depending on the shooter’s desired aperture selection. Nearness to the subject and background, light and other elements including lens build also play heavily into creating interesting bokeh.

So what would happen if we concentrated on dramatically expanding the soft area before and after the focal point, creating an image with the narrowest depth of field possible? What would happen if we were to isolate an anchor point and to exaggerate the bokeh to the maximum? What would happen if the image were all about the buttery and creamy portions of the image; more importantly, how do we get there?

 

Mike's Gear Box:


 

Purchase the gear Mike uses at Bluewater Photo.

 

Camera:  Nikon D7100

Lenses:  Nikkor 60mm, Nikkor 105mm

Housing:  Sea & Sea MDX D7100 Housing

Strobe(s):  1 or 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobes

Arms/Clamps:  Ultralight / Beneath the Surface

Accessories:  1 high-powered diopter (like the SubSee +10)

(Aquako or Subsee are both used in this write up to decrease DOF)

Accessories:  1 FIX modeling light

 


 

What is "Wide Open"?

Shooting Wide Open means just that: shooting at the bottom end or lowest aperture number (smallest number) of your lens. In fact, for this wide open project the lower the better. By simply dialing back your f-stop to its widest setting, like f/2.8, you will notice a few things occurring immediately and be met with the following challenges:

1  -  A rush of incoming light and overexposed images

2  -  Blurry, soft images

3  -  Lack of color or a color shift in your images

4  -  Extreme narrowness in the depth of field

 

Take on each of the above challenges one at a time to conquer them. This can be done quite easily and you will soon be on your way to gaining a better understanding of your lens, lighting, composing with more bokeh and how they all combine in creating your image.

Breaking away from some of the rules of composition (like shooting up) to shoot at a downward angle will help to increase the bokeh while working with very tight compositions or when the background is very close to your subject.

Load your images onto your computer and check them for the best results, as the LCD on your camera isn't a very good way to appreciate or grasp what is happening in the image. Look hard into the bokeh and see how the light ripples, buckles, kneads up or swirls. The newer lenses work hard to avoid this effect but older lenses can be easily obtained to create more interesting natural bokeh.

 

 

Tutorial in Photos

 

Peppermint Patty

Gear:  60mm lens, + 15 diopter to decrease depth of field, f/3.2 @ 1/320

Technique:  Medium power constant lighting and lowest power on the strobes for color in the foreground.

Caption:  Candy Crabs are interesting and common subjects that mimic the soft corals on which they are found. Their lightly colored carapace are easily over exposed and will make a great test subject. Review your images and adjust your strobes and modeling light.

 

Purple Polka Dots

Gear:  105mm lens, +15 diopter to decrease depth of field, f/3 @ 1/250

Technique:  Foreground lighting with FIX modeling light on lowest power and low power on the strobes.

Caption:  Having both eyes reasonably sharp for this image was important, and getting them both evenly distanced from the lens was hard work but is necessary on all these kinds of images.

Notice how the light distorts and begins to buckle. Some of this is created while locking the focus and then pulling back, as most diopters are the sharpest in the center. This technique will help to decrease the DOF even further than the aperture setting.

 

Donuts

Gear:  60mm lens, +15 diopter to decrease DOF, f/4.5 @ 1/100

Technique:  Front lit with FIX light. Background is lit with low strobe power.

Caption:  Knowing that the light in the background would create pastel colors and distort the bokeh, the strobe lighting really came into play while making the image. Notice the hydroid and how the bokeh begins to bead up into soft round orbs; this is regarded as good bokeh.

The now-hated mirror lenses of the 70’s and the 80’s created a certain donut shape in the bokeh that many photographers ripped apart and regarded as poor bokeh. I happen to like it, especially since creating that with a quality (new) lens is nearly impossible.

 

Lemon Drop

Gear:  60mm lens, using Retra Snoot, f/16 @ 1/200

Caption:  These small Lemon Gobies are very popular to photograph when they take up residence in bottles, and photos of them are seen frequently as they are a habitat conducive to creating cool images. This one is shot using a snoot at a higher f-stop for a greater depth of field and dark negative space that fills the frame. I’m rim lighting the subject and the bottle, but as much as I like this mage its seems a bit ordinary.

 

Lemon Butter

Gear:  60mm lens, f/3.2@ 1/160

Technique:  FIX constant lighting in the foreground

Caption:  Here is an example of the same Goby in the same bottle but shot in a different manner. At f/3.2 the narrow depth of field and nearness of my lens to the subject creates an extreme example of the buttery bokeh that I find interesting and quite different from the rest.

 

Dippin Dots

Gear:  60mm lens, f/3.2 @ 1/250

Technique:  Two YS-D1 strobes, low power

Caption:  The plane of field is also something to play with when shooting this shallow. I liked the way the light played out in this image with the lavender colors. The Anemone is quite different and filled the frame nicely for this image.

 

Pika Chu

Gear:  60mm lens, +15 diopter to decrease depth of field, f/3.2 @ 1/250

Technique:  Front lighting with FIX constant light and backlit with YS-D1 strobe, low power

Caption:  The Bokeh swirl is also another dreaded pitfall for some, and something that lens manufacturers try to avoid. Slightly apparent in this image, the swirl is caused by locking the focus and pulling back slightly to the most minimal focal plane possible without losing the sharpness on your anchor point.

 

Comet Trail

Gear:  60mm lens, f/3.2 @ 1/250

Technique:  Two YS-D1 strobes, low power

Caption:  Dropping the angle of view and capturing the whip coral in the background with such a low f-stop created a very smooth and textured swath of color behind our common subject. In my imaginative mind I see a goby riding a comet!.. No comments please..

 

Phoenix

Gear:  105mm lens, f/4.2 @ 1/320

Technique:  Front lit with FIX constant lighting, back lit with two YS-D1 strobes

Caption:  This Tambja nudibranch, sitting on a hydroid perched with the back of its foot just touching the rocks behind it, begged for a creative image. The first few shots were so generic and full of muddled clutter in the background that I nearly swam off. Taking a few minutes and thinking about what was being presented quickly had me changing my strategy on how to shoot the nudi. The result was much more gratifying than the prior images and a lot more fun to make.

In Conclusion

Shooting wide open is a fun and challenging way of creating images that closely resembles “reverse ring” image making without the added costs. It’s also much more convenient. Experimenting in shooting wide open will quickly teach you how to shoot using the full range of your lens and expand your portfolio. Have fun!

 

Further Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Bartick is an avid and experienced scuba diver and Marine Wildlife Photographer. He has an insatiable love for nudibranchs, frogfish and other underwater critters, and is the official critter expert for the Underwater Photography Guide. Mike is also one of the UWPG trip leaders. See more of his work at www.saltwaterphoto.com.

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Basic Tips and Advice to Help you Start Shooting Amazing Macro Images
By Gaby Barathieu

The Quick Guide to Macro Composition

Gaby Barathieu
Basic Tips and Advice to Help you Start Shooting Amazing Macro Images

Composition is paramount in underwater macro photography. Poor composition can quickly make a photo of a very interesting subject look drab and boring or give it the spark to stand out from all the others.

It is essential to always be aware of composition when thinking about your shot – even before you move into shooting range. Most good underwater photographers will know the composition, settings and strobe position they will be using before even looking through the viewfinder.

Here are 3 crucial rules and quick guide for macro composition. Keep these in mind on your next trip and you’ll be sure to bring home some great images!

 

 

1)  The Basics

The best macro compositions depict the subject from the front or the side view (profile).

We all know that harrassing marine life is never acceptable. Along these lines, no one wants to see a photo of a fleeing subject (typically from the back or as it moves in avoidance). If the subject is not interested in staying in place for a photo – move on. Experienced divers and photographers can easily tell when a subject has been manipulated, so don’t insist on capturing those images. Instead, spend your limited bottom time with more willing subjects.

Another major rule is never to shoot a subject from above, as it tends to make the subject look flat in the image. A careful approach is best, making sure to get low and get close!

 

Harlequin Shrimp (Hymenocera picta)

 

2)  Composition

The most important rule of composition is to avoid placing the focal point of your subject (or all of your subject) in the center of the frame. It is much better to use what is called the Rule of Thirds, where you place this focal point at the intersection of one of the third lines.

Along these lines, it is important to leave some open space in front of the subject. For example, if the subject is facing right, there is open space to the right, as in the photos below. This is sometimes referred to as "swim space" or "negative space". And while it important to leave some space, too much negative space will make the subject too small in the frame.

In the photos below, the negative space is on the right side of the subjects, in front of the faces. Notice that the negative space takes up only about 1/3 of the frame while the subject takes up 2/3 of the frame. You don’t want to use more negative space than that, as you will lose detail and focus on the subject.

 

Twin chromodoris (Goniobranchus geminus)

 

Large toothed cardinalfish (Cheilodipterus macrodon)

 

 

3)  Depth of Field

It’s common to think that photography is a two-dimensional art, but good photographers strive to create three dimensions !!!!!!!

Depth of field gives relief (aka depth) to the picture. Very shallow depth of field can also be used to highlight a specific point of a photo, like the eyes of a fish. This is most common when photographing a subject from very close and often with a diopter. The further you move back from the subject, the more depth of field is natually included in the image.

Shallow depth of field is particularly useful if you have a background that is distracting and drawing attention from your subject. You can experiment with this by testing your camera and lens at different focal distances to find a style that works for you.

 

Whip coral goby (Bryaninops yongei)

In the photo above, I chose a very short depth of field in order to highlight the eyes of the gobi.

 

Crinoid Shrimp

 

Conclusion

These are the basic rules to capture a great macro shot.

But like with many rules in art, they exist so that you can bend them. Each subject, enviroment and shooting style will dictate the use of different rules, but with these basic tips you will be well on your way to bringing home some great shots.

 

Juvenile Emperor Angelfish

 

 

Also by Gaby Barathieu

 

Further Reading

 

About the Author

Gaby Barathieu is a passionate underwater photographer based on Reunion Island. He and photographer Yann Oulia run the Reunion Underwater Photography website and Facebook page, sharing the incredible diving and wildlife encounters in the waters near their home. View their photography at www.RUP.re or on their Facebook Page.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gaby Barathieu is a passionate underwater photographer based on Reunion Island. He and photographer Yann Oulia run the Reunion Underwater Photography website and Facebook page, sharing the incredible diving and wildlife encounters in the waters near their home. View their photography at www.RUP.re or on their Facebook Page.

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Tips for Amazing Pelagic Invertebrate Encounters and Capturing Jaw-Dropping Photos
By Jeffrey Milisen

Photo Tips for Blackwater Diving

Jeffrey Milisen
Tips for Amazing Pelagic Invertebrate Encounters and Capturing Jaw-Dropping Photos

Are you the kind of person who will end each dive with a biology lesson?  Do you pride yourself on knowing everything you can about the natural underwater world? So tell me, hotshot, what do you know about perhaps the most common animal on earth: thaliaceans?

For starters, they are probably the most efficient animals that we know of. They pump water through a barrel-shaped body using very little energy and filter out plankton to feed. Thaliaceans can also reproduce and grow faster than any other multicellular animal and can be so thick that they clog up nuclear power plants. That’s because they lead two lives; a communal asexual phase where they reproduce very quickly through a process called selfing, and a sexual one where, well, you get the picture.  You might know them as salps or sea squirts and they are just one of the animals you will become intimately familiar with on a blackwater dive.

 

 

Blackwater diving is a special kind of night dive where participants are taken miles offshore over deep oceanic water. Weighted downlines are then tied to the boat.  Each diver is then attached to the downline via a shorter tagline.  These harness systems ensure that divers can’t wander too far from the boat, because if you find the bottom in 3000 feet of seawater, something has gone terribly wrong. 

 

The key to finding pelagic subjects like the pelagic nudibranch (Phylliroe bucephala) is to look small.

 

Clear photographs of salps and other gelatinous plankton can be tricky. They are always on the move, they don’t contrast against the background and finding the right camera settings can be tricky, but once you are all dialed in, making breathtaking photographs of a huge variety of body plans can be like shooting fish in a barrel.  Photo contest macro winners are frequently made on blackwater dives. This article will help troubleshoot three of the main issues unique to photographing while diving blackwater.

 

Phyllosoma and ctenophore. Larval animals often look nothing like their adult counterparts. This is a larval lobster carrying a ctenophore for reasons we cannot comprehend.

 

 

Focusing in Blackwater

Shooting gelatinous animals isn’t like photographing reef fish, corals or other typical subjects. As opposed to reef subjects that can hide against or behind objects in the substrata, pelagic animals have body structures that are designed to disappear in constantly moving open water.

One thing that will become pretty obvious from the moment you splash is that more light is better. Focus lights on a reef at night don’t have to be terribly bright to be effective, but gelatinous animals can soak up a lot of light before they appear in front of you. Also, try holding the light at an oblique angle to the camera. This will better illuminate odd angles on the animal better than lights that face directly forward.

Your camera’s sensor will be working extra hard to see through the backscatter to pick out the subtle contrasts and focus on the subject. It helps to have a DSLR with a dedicated focusing sensor, which in Canon and Nikon DSLRs is known as phase-detect AF. This passes a sample of light from the main aperture through a series of small lenses to produce two images. The distance between the images can be measured with a line sensor to tell the camera exactly where to focus. For comparison, contrast-detect AF is used in most compact and mirrorless cameras and is more of a trial and error process (Sony mirrorless cameras are the exception). Contrast-detect AF is much slower and can have a difficult time picking up clear plankton. Contrast-detect autofocus systems are at a disadvantage in the open ocean, but there are a few things you can do to help any camera system focus on what’s important.

One trick is to find the most contrasting point on the clear animal and place it on an autofocus point. This will force the camera to look at the animal instead of a piece of backscatter drifting between your port and the subject. And because the animal and photographer are affected differently by the movement of the ocean, keeping the autofocus mode on Al servo (or continuous focusing) will allow multiple shots of the same subject. 

Finally, some animals, such as the squid Megalocranchia, have highly contrasting pigment marks and body parts that the camera will want to pick up on instead of a preferred focusing point such as the eyes.  This brings us to the last tip to help focus on your subject. Many blackwater animals are very small and will be shot near the minimum focal distance for your macro lens. Because of this, it is helpful to use a wide depth of field with a very small aperture to help sharpen any mishaps in the focusing process and bring more of the subject into focus.  

 

Exocoetid. Many animals will reside within 10 inches of the water's surface. It can be very productive to spend some of your dive in just 5 or 10 feet of water looking up.

 

Strobes and Exposure

The two ways that small animals camouflage themselves in the open ocean is through clear gelatin and highly reflective body parts that blend in by bouncing available light back, matching the surrounding water almost perfectly. Some animals rely on both reflection and transparency. For a photographer striving to attain proper exposure, these two properties can prove be a nightmare. 

Open ocean animals almost invariably require an external strobe to illuminate properly. There are several benefits to using strobes. First, the wider beam angle illuminates clear animals better. Second, wide angled strobes reduce backscatter. Third, external strobes produce more light than onboard flashes, which in the case of gelatinous animals, means more detail in the final shot. Finally, external flashes enable the photographer to use direct, non-diffused light that will reflect off the gelatinous surfaces to better show the body forms.

One special case is when an animal such as a larval fish relies on both transparency and reflective body parts to blend in. In the case of the larval flounder, when the body is properly exposed, the eyes are blown out. Instead, it is preferable to expose for the eyes, thus preserving the detail in the raw image. The underexposed body details can then be brought back with the exposure bar in post-production.  Finally, use the burn tool (in Adobe Photoshop) to reclaim the details in the eye. 

 

Chascanopsetta prorigera. For animals that are both clear and reflective, expose for the reflective eye and bring back detail in the clear parts during post-processing.

 

Movement

The final challenge of the open ocean that must be overcome is the constant movement of everything in it. The boat moves differently from the divers that move differently from the plankton, and when that rare dolphin or shark does come through, they move much faster than anything else. It helps to understand what forces are acting on each element in order to be in the best position to capture the image.

A boat’s drift is a result of both current and windage. In the absence of wind, the boat and divers will move with the current at the same speed, giving the impression that there is no current at all. As soon as the wind picks up, however, the boat will act like a sail and drift in a different direction, dragging the divers with it. Animals will come flying out of the darkness in a unidirectional manner. To the divers, this will seem an awful lot like current. Many divers will just sit back and let the harnesses drag them around. The attentive divers, however, will swim against the apparent current until they come across an animal they wish to observe. Then they can simply drift back and photograph the animal until they reach the end of their down-line and are again being towed. This strategy gives photographers the most time with their subjects.

Controlling yourself in a soup of plankton is a somewhat different challenge. Small animals will be acted on by different forces than act on the divers, creating a somewhat chaotic effect that can be tough to follow through your eyepiece. Buoyancy and good body positioning are especially important when trying to focus on plankton. One errant fin kick or an unexpected stream of bubbles will not only ruin your shot, but probably destroy the animal you were trying to shoot. 

Finally, anything larger than a football (generally classified as nekton) is going to be able to move much faster than the clumsy divers. Blackwater divers are sometimes treated to the real rarities of the open blue such as tuna, dolphins, squids, and even oceanic sharks. There really is no big hint to getting into position for pelagic nekton except just being lucky. 

 

Xiphias gladius. Encounters with large nekton such as this swordfish are rare but can serve as a high point in just about any diving career.

 

Megalocranchia. You never know what you'll see when blackwater diving.

 

In Conclusion

Blackwater diving has a different draw for everyone. Some want to face the primal fear of the dark unknown. Others want to experience a whole community of animals they have never seen before. No matter how alien the pelagic environment may seem to us, billions of incredible life forms call it home. And that’s where the strange salp offers a sense of familiarity through a crucial body part called a notochord. In a watery world of sea freaks, it might be comforting to know that this harmless looking barrel-shaped organism is one of our most primitive relatives from a time when our distant ancestors had a spinal chord without any supportive skeleton. So when you look into the vast blackness and find a small pulsating ribbed drum, you will be forgiven if the first word that comes to mind isn’t “grandpa.”  But go ahead and give one a hug all the same.

 

Salp. Think of this salp as your distant cousin, only slimier.

 

 

Also by Jeff Milisen

 

Further Reading

   

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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