What lies beneath: mastering underwater photography - part one
09 January 2015 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer
There's life galore in the world's oceans, seas, lakes and even your garden pond, and there are more opportunities than ever to take amazing underwater images. In the first of a 2-part blog exploring the wonderful world of underwater photography, 2015 judge and previous WPY winner, Alex Mustard, explains why he thinks the best place for a wildlife photographer is below the surface and offers some practical tips on how to make a splash with your photography.
Underwater wildlife photography deserves so much more attention than it gets. We know that that 70 per cent of the planet's surface is covered in water, but we forget that oceans are on average 3.8 km deep. In terms of the volume of planet inhabited by life, 99.5 per cent of it is underwater, and the moment you stick your lens below the surface, you're transported to a weird and wonderful world. You don't need to be a SCUBA diver, live next to the ocean or spend a fortune to take amazing underwater images, so it's truly something that anyone can try their hand at. Whether you want to dip your toe or dive right in, here's how to succeed in the magical world of underwater photography.
Find some water - any water! Underwater photography isn't all about seas and oceans; there is life galore in streams, rivers, lakes or rockpools and garden ponds. As long as it's deep enough to submerge your lens, you can take underwater images. In 2013, Theo Bosboom took his winning image, Fish-eye view, kneeling in shallow water in his waders.
You don't need to be a SCUBA diver to take award-winning underwater images, as Theo Bosboom's WPY2013 entry demonstrates
Be competent. Whether you're wearing wellington boots, waders or a wetsuit, you need to be comfortable and competent in the water before you start taking pictures. A camera can be a big distraction even for the most experienced scuba diver, so never compromise on your own safety. A distracted diver may also damage delicate marine life such as corals by bumping into them. Photographically, you also need to know how to remain stable in the water otherwise you'll find it impossible to compose images, frame high magnification macro pictures and avoid blur when shooting longer exposures. Once you are experienced, it is actually easier to hold your camera steady in water than on land, because water (being denser than air), naturally dampens movement.
Sweetlips undulate their bodies to confuse predators. To capture the defensive dance of this juvenile sweetlips, I had to hold the camera very still during the one-second exposure.
Use flash to restore colour. Underwater visibility is never as good as on land: typically you can see about 15 metres, but sometimes you cannot see your hand in front of your face. If you shoot through too much water, your photos will lack colour and contrast. Also as you descend deeper, water absorbs the warmer wavelengths of light until all your pictures are just monochrome, rendered in different shades of blue. The solution is usually to use flash to restore colour (most importantly), but also contrast. In fact, probably the biggest challenge in taking up underwater photography is learning to master flash, not only to give correct exposures, but to create a pleasing quality of light and lighting effects that show off your subjects as you want, while at the same time not lighting up all the particles in the water.
To emphasize the unusual hairy camouflage of this striated frogfish, I placed one flash behind it to backlight the hairs; this was fitted with a snoot to restrict the beam. Then I put another flash in front providing a small amount of fill.
Using flash creates technical challenges, especially when it comes to lighting the subject in murky, particle-filled water, but it also creates opportunities. I try to use flash as subtly as I can, even when I have to light the whole scene. I don't want the viewer to be taken out of the moment by seeing the hand of the photographer in how the image was taken. For this reason, underwater photographers typically use two flashes, along with diffusers to soften their light and give a natural looking illumination.
I photographed this coral reef at sunset by placing my camera half-in and half-out of the water. When I exposed for the sunset, the reef was too dark, so I lit this with flashes. Although this is entirely lit artificially, the use of multiple flashes maintains a realistic atmosphere.
Get close. The best solution to poor visibility is to get close and use either wide angle or macro lenses, which transform tiny creatures into titanic ones. Underwater animals don't have a natural fear of humans, so you'll regularly be rewarded with close encounters if you play by their rules and understand their behaviour. You can't use hides, and so you are really out there stalking creatures in plain sight. If you want to get close enough for the shot, you need good field craft skills so that you can recognize which individual animals are in the mood for being photographed, and which want to be left in peace. That said, some animals will be as interested in you as you are in them.
This young grey seal in England just wanted to play, and so I turned my camera back on myself to capture the fun.
Do your research. There are still discoveries to be made. The world watched Star Wars and Indiana Jones before scientists discovered that corals spawned in mass synchronous events. The timings are different in different parts of the world, but most of the 800 or so species of coral spawn for no more than a 20 seconds each year. More than 10 years ago now, while I was still working as a marine biologist, I calculated the first correct spawning predictions for the Cayman Islands and my prediction has proved accurate every year since. I used that insight to get my camera and flashes in place for the moment this mountainous star coral spawned.
Look out for the second part of Alex's blog, coming soon, for more practical underwater photography tips.
ABOUT DR ALEXANDER MUSTARD
Alex is probably the UK's best known underwater photographer. He has been taking underwater photographs for 30 years, and has been working as a full-time underwater photographer for the past 10. His innovative photographs are respected and celebrated around the world. He has pioneered many techniques within underwater photography and is held in particular esteem by the underwater photography community for continually sharing his secrets through talks and workshops. His photographs have attracted many awards including Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the British Wildlife Photography Awards. His last book, Reefs Revealed, won the International Grand Prize for the best book of underwater photographs. In 2013, he was named European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the first time an underwater photograph had ever won this award. Alex is a regular columnist and features writer for many publications in the marine, wildlife, diving and photographic media, and to date has published more than 400 articles. He was on the team for the 2020VISION conservation photography project in the UK and also runs highly popular underwater photography workshops at top diving destinations around the world.