A brief history of Sebastião start in photography and philosophy.
Sebastião Salgado’s is a true inspiration, whenever he has something to say people should listen. Great advice in here for all photographers.
Anything from 8mm-100mm is useful underwater, it is even possible to fit zoom lenses with gears to zoom in and out if required. I use the following lenses and when I checked through my recent photos I used all of them equally. I use 3 lenses – 15mm Sigma Fisheye, 100mm Canon Macro and a 16-35mm fixed to 24mm. When I was only using natural light the lens I used almost exclusively was the fisheye.
Fisheye Lens: The fisheye is fantastic for wrecks and landscapes, the combination of this lens’ ability to focus close-up and deep depth of field helps to reduce the distance between you and your subject. This reduces the water column between the camera and subject resulting in clearer, sharper photos.
Macro Lens: For a full frame camera, a 1:1 macro like the 100mm is superb for really getting into the detail. Combined with twin strobes you should be able to get fantastic photos with excellent colour and clarity. For a cropped sensor camera a 60mm would do the job just as well. The 100mm also can be used as a fixed zoom to get close to some of the more timid animals or even to capture the face of a fish before if swims off as you approach.
24mm Lens: The 16-35mm fixed at 24mm lens is a new addition to my arsenal and I absolutely love using it. I do not own a 24mm prime and 24mm is as wide as I can go without cropping causes by the ports I own. What is best about using a 24mm focal length is that I found when I am capturing a subject with it they are exactly as I see it with my eyes. This means 90%+ of photos from this do not need any cropping resulting in maximum resolution and the ability to print LARGE! The exception to this is when I need to use it as a macro lens on a dive - as there is no option to swap lenses underwater so you might as well capture it anyway and crop later!
Capturing The Image
It is time to bring it all together and press the shutter button. Load memory card, batteries, choose lens, strobes and port, assemble case and make sure all cables are inside the case. I can vouch for the fact that leaving a cable hanging out of the case will flood your camera and ruin it within seconds! I have a rule about camera assembly – I always do it the night before, not when I am rushing and drowsy in the morning! Using the SLR underwater is much like using it on land apart from your camera weighs in at 7kg and you only have a tripod made of water.
I look through the viewfinder to compose my shot as I would do on land. This takes some getting used to and there are magnifiers available to make this easier. Some of the magnifiers are also angled to make it easier to get low down shots but I find, now that I know my setup, in this situation I can aim the camera in the correct direction and then review immediately underwater. I have never needed to use a magnifier and as they come in at £1000 ish I think I’ll skip them (for now).
I find liveview way too slow to capture anything including coral underwater. I am using central spot focusing but I do move the spot around for composition at times, although this takes a little longer and a patient subject.
To get the most of the images from underwater I find post-processing to be an essential component and here I cover the essentials that are needed to be done rather than an in depth guide on how to do them. To get the most about of the images we need to ensure that photos have been captured in RAW! We will not be using any of that JPEG nonsense here! We are using a calibrated screen as it's essential for all post-processing and this is no different for underwater photography.
During post-processing I apply white balance, black and white adjustments, contrast curve adjustment, shadow recovery and sharpening to all of my photos. Cropping is also done here to compensate for my position in the water as necessary. For these changes and photo cataloguing I use Lightroom. I have been using this since version 1.0 and know my way around it very well. As a final step if there is a lot of backscatter on an image I like I will bring it into Photoshop and apply layers with "Dust & Scratches” filters to the required areas. Good knowledge of whichever software you use is essential to get the most out of your images.
I want to be able to share this magnificent environment with the rest of the planet and I believe to do it the justice it deserves and share its beauty I must strive to ensure my photos are of the best standard and quality I can manage, each and every time. I'll leave you with a couple of my favourite images.
Light is all that we capture as photographers. The more we understand how it behaves the more control we have over out images. Underwater light acts differently and is affected by: 1/ Distance from subject 2/ Floating materials in the water – plankton, sand and so on. 3/ Depth 4/ Weather 5/ Time of day 6/ Surface conditions
Additionally water is 800 times denser than air. So what!? Well this increased density means water absorbs light, decreases contrast and sharpness resulting in dull monotone images. So being close your subject and/or having ideal conditions with minimum particles in the water is essential for clarity in images. There are many times when this is not the case and to get the best images you will have to repeatedly go back until the conditions and light are correct – much the same as other forms of nature photography.
Depth has the effect of filtering colour out of the water and past 5 meters red has already totally disappeared with all other colours other than blue rapidly disappearing by 30 meters. You can see this in the image above! Some of this light can be restored using strobes. The direct effect of water filtering light is, that no matter how powerful your strobes are, if you are more than 2.5 meters away from your subject (5 meters travelled for light to go from strobe to subject to sensor) you will not have red in your photo – no matter how big or expensive your strobe are!
The weather affects the amount of ambient light available with clouds additionally filtering out much of the light, this is exasperated in underwater photography compared to land based photography as the water surface reflects light too. The amount of surface light reflected is directly related to the angle of the sun and wave condition. The lower the angle and the smoother the sea (less waves!) the more light is reflected and does not make it into the water.
Now I come to how I set up my camera, it is not the only way, but hopefully this will give you some tips and get you thinking about your camera setup. To capture the photos I use only RAW. As mentioned the underwater world is not an easy environment for photography and cameras have not really been designed to work in this environment, so the ability to fine tune the images in post-process is critical and JPEGs just don’t cut it when it comes to the required post-processing!
For the setup of my camera with strobes I favour full manual control over ISO, shutter and aperture settings with autofocus on and in servo mode. I do not have TTL connectors (through the lens light metering) for my housing so the strobes are set to manual as well. In fact I am not sure how effective TTL is underwater anyway.
If I am not using strobes I use aperture priority (Av) mode and an ISO of 800+ trying to achieve as high a shutter speed as possible for a sharp image. (Note: It is nearly always necessary to underexpose by a full stop or two with the fisheye).
For focus setup I use single spot focus on the centre point as that is the most sensitive focus point and with the low light environment the autofocus can be fooled at times and end up hunting. You can get around this issue for close subjects, with a focus light – conveniently built into my strobes. This is much better than a torch as it automatically turns off before the strobes fire and back on again after.
A tip for focus lights use - if you use a red filter you are much less likely to disturb the animal before the strobes fire as most fish do not see red. A white light exposes them to predators and so they tend to move off.
For 10 years I used only natural light for my underwater photographs but recently have started using strobes which works especially well for macro. However the addition of strobes has also added complexity. It seems you do not get anything for free!
Strobes and Sync Speed
Once you move onto using artificial light there are some issues you may not have thought about. Yes here we are talking about sync speed! My initial use of strobes brought the subject of sync speed to the forefront of my attention. After getting out of a dive and finding black bands through all my photos I thought my camera had malfunctioned but alas no – sync speed! What does this mean? Well essentially with my Canon 5D mark II, I can only use a maximum shutter speed of 1/200th because any faster results in banding. All SLR cameras suffer from this limitation but not all cameras have the same sync speed - this is where Nikon SLRs do have a better offering with a sync speed of 1/320th. Some micro four thirds cameras also have higher sync speeds.
I have not found it to be a massive hindrance and for macro it is rarely an issue as when using such small apertures of f/16 and below there is little ambient light to worry about. For landscape and portraits however the limited shutter speed can cause motion blur to the background. Although I use Canon exclusively I would consider changing to Nikon next time I upgrade - which is a shame as I own much Canon glass and other bodies. Finally there is one other alternative to combat sync speed - but there is a cost and I cannot afford to get a medium format camera, lenses and housing; and that would also be MASSIVE underwater!!!
I find strobe positioning to be subjective and I am forever moving mine around underwater and adjusting the power output as required. However the objective is not just to light the subject and control shadows but also to minimise backscatter caused by particles in the water. Having the strobes angled to the subject and back slightly from the front of the lens while not directly parallel will help a lot. To further minimise scatter shooting across the direction of natural light helps too. Ultimately, the strobes bring out the wonderful colours of the underwater world, as you can see in the image of the clown fish above.
In the next and final section I will cover lenses, capturing the image and post processing.
While on a recent photography trip to the Maldives I was focused on some of the more technical aspects of underwater SLR photography. With this still fresh in my mind and after what I consider to be my most successful photography trip, I have taken the time to colate the most important aspects and share them with the community.
I hope that they will assist and inspire other photographers out there to capture the images that they desire. There are many aspects to underwater photography and this article goes someway to discussing them, covering my equipment, diving, photography, camera setup, strobes, lenses, capturing the image and post processing.
I believe equipment is a good place for us to start. There are indeed many options out there. The list below is the setup I used on the last trip and it worked very well for me.
- 1 x Canon 5D Mark II Full Frame SLR – excellent for macro and awesome sensor for post process colour recovery
- 1 x Aquatica Pro Housing
- 1 x Macro port
- 1 x Extender port
- 1 x Fish eye dome
- 2 x z240 INON strobes
- Multiple arms, floats and connectors
- 1 x 15mm Sigma Fish Eye
- 1 x 100mm Canon Macro
- 1 x 16-35L II 2.8 (Fixed at 24mm)
- Bungees to attach the above to yourself so you don’t lose the camera to the depths!
- Flash sync speed understanding (for use with strobes, discussed later)
Before we get into the nitty gritty photography side let us take a moment to consider the diving requirements. Being comfortable and confident in the water is essential for underwater photography and the following skills form the cornerstone for that: Advanced diving skills and experience; good buoyancy control; patient buddy; air! If you are thinking "but I want to start taking photos underwater immediately and I can learn to dive at the same time,' here is my response. STOP! You are not ready yet!
There are good reasons for being an advanced diver before you start out on your underwater photographic journey. Primarily is the fact that you’ll be totally focusing on the photography so all diving related activities should be second nature to avoid too much task loading and minimise risk to yourself and the environment.
Good buoyancy is required as when diving we work in 3 dimensions and being at the right position without crashing into the environment is essential. The ability to dive upside down is a real bonus too when that is the only way to position the camera where it needs to be. Add to that the weight and resistance the camera creates through the water and one sees why good diving skills are so important.
Moving on to your buddy - a patient buddy or a qualification in solo diving is required as once you find the next most amazing/ winner of the next wildlife photographer of the year subject for your photo you’ll be there for quite some time snapping away.
Obviously we need air to live but also you want to have enough with you to ensure you have the opportunity to capture your photos. Due to the extra effort of moving, exhausting breath to move down, inhaling to go up, holding breath to stay still…and so on I my air consumption goes up by 20% (this is not a common problem for on land photography!) compared to when I am not taking photos. So if you have high air consumption, as I do, I would suggest a 15L tank, which tends to give me at least an hour under water. I also recommend using Nitrox for extra bottom time. Beyond this I would suggest rebreathers, I myself do not have one – the primary benefit for the photographer here is the silence in the water apparently allows you to get much closer to the wildlife.
As with the diving requirements there are also essential photographic skills and knowledge that will make the process easier and lead to higher success when capturing your images. Where do you start? I suggest:
1. Thorough familiarity with your chosen SLR
2. Thorough familiarity with your chosen camera housing
3. Understanding of shutter speed, aperture and ISO triangle relationship
4. Ability to use SLR in full Manual mode
5. Appreciation of how the water effects underwater images
6. Flash sync speed understanding (for use with strobes, discussed later).
Okay, you have chosen to go and take photos underwater, you can dive and you have all the gear - are ready to capture the perfect image? No! So what are your challenges you face? Well here are a few...
You are moving. Your subject is moving. Your subject is shy and not to mention damn fast! Your subject could be dangerous – even if it is a coral. There is a low amount of light. There is a lack of colour (all red light is filtered out by the water from a depth of 5m and other colours rapidly disappear below that). The water is full of particles that reflect the meagre light supplied by your strobes…and then…just as you are about to take your photo…the clouds cover the sun and all the settings you just got right are all out again!
These difficulties are much easier to overcome if you know your camera and housing intimately as the ability to change the settings on the fly without having to look for a button or switch is quite often the difference between getting "the” shot or a shot of - "Oh yeah, you see that space? That’s where the eagle ray/harlequin shrimp/moa moa/insert name of favourite animal here was!” Remember that the layout of the buttons on the housing are not exactly where they are on the camera and that will also take some getting used to.
In the next section I shall continue with light considerations, camera setup and strobes and sync speed. Coming Very soon!!!!
As I reviewed the photos of my recent Namibian safari I noticed that there were quite few images taken at night, at the floodlit waterholes in Etosha. Here I explore some of the photographic challenges faced in these conditions and how to overcome them to successfully capture a shot such as the one below.
- Level - Intermediate to advanced
- Subject - Technique
- Camera type - Digital SLR
Essentially there is but one challenge - a lack of available light. Although the waterholes are floodlit, do not imagine some brightly lit football stadium, they are lit just enough to see with the naked eye. In order to capture as much light as possible it is necessary to use longer shutter speeds so the stability of the camera becomes critical. Also the low contrast causes mayhem with the autofocus so manual focus is often required, which is tricky in low light.
Stability of the Camera
Our subject, the lion, is essentially static, calmly drinking at the waterhole. Therefore the only source of potential motion blur is the movement of the camera itself, exacerbated by the long lens.
So here are Martin's top tips to stabilise the camera:
- Place the camera on a tripod! Honestly, even if you do nothing else, this will massively improve the chances of getting sharp photos....Got it? PLACE THE CAMERA ON A TRIPOD!
- Tighten any clasps - spend 20 seconds ensuring the tripod will not collapse!
- Weigh the tripod down - you will find with a heavy camera and/ or a small amount of wind that even on a tripod there is still some unwanted movement.
- Remove any straps from the camera or lens - this minimises any movement from the wind and removes the chance of accidently snagging the strap at just the wrong moment.
- Use "mirror lock up" - even the movement of the mirror causes camera shake.
- Use a cable release, remote trigger or self timer to trigger the shutter - otherwise every time you press the shutter you are just moving the camera!
And that is it! Easy as that :)
To maximise the chance of success with autofocus, use spot focusing and select the centre spot. Typically the centre spot is more sensitive that any other and therefore offers the best chance of achieving focus.
However, once it has got too dark for autofocus to work and you have finished verbally abusing your camera, it is time to go pro! MANUAL FOCUS to the rescue!
So here are Martin's top tips for manually focusing in the dark:
- Temporarily set the camera to its highest ISO setting - we are going to use live view to check focus and this brightens the image on the screen.
- Obtain initial rough focus with the naked eye - this can be done through the view finder or with live view but you are going to need live view next.
- Fine tune the focus using the magnification available in live view - the ability to magnify the image allows you to see the fine detail required to get the photo not only sharp but focused where you want it.
- Reduce your ISO back to an acceptable level - you probably do not want to be taking the image as ISO 25,600+ if you can help it!
At this point I normally turn live view off and use my binoculars to view the subject to then trigger the cable release at the right moment.
More on macro roday, easy to follow technique for achieveing a black background for your macro photos.