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August 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Flashing the Marine Life

from the August, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Thereís a new fashion among dive guides in Red Sea waters. They ask photographers not to use flash or strobes when taking pictures because it might disturb or damage the wildlife. The manager of Emperor Divers, a big Egyptian liveaboard fleet operator, asked me my opinion. This is the gist of what I told him.

I spend a lot of time underwater. I have been a full-time underwater photographer for 17 years but before that I was an advertising photographer for 25 years and did a lot of work with animals on advertisements for British pet foods. For those photographs, I used 24,000 joules of flash strobe. A typical professional underwater flash/strobe is about 40 joules, and a compact cameraís light output is a lot less. You can see the difference.

My experience underwater is this: Animals ignore the emission of light from the flash. I normally use a fish-eye lens and get very close to my subjects, all of which have the option to move away. I also have a super-sensitive underwater camera that needs no flash, so I can directly compare both methods. What appears to disturb the animal more than anything is the movement, the actual noise or the vibration of the camera operating, and the looming shape of the photographer, especially if it obscures the light source (sunlight). Quite frankly, two Inon strobes discharged from a distance of a few inches seem to get no reaction whatsoever.

Recently, I made a sequence of a dozen pictures of a large grouper in a wreck. I left the wreck from time to time to allow disturbed sediment from my air bubbles to settle, but by moving stealthily, I was able to go back and find the grouper lying exactly where I left it. Iím sure that if it was disturbed, it would have swum away. At Cocos, Iíve lain in cleaning stations using a silent closed-circuit rebreather and photographed skittish hammerhead sharks that almost touched my dome port. I noted that if I kept still, firing my camera - - with flash - - when a suitable picture presented itself, they never noticed me. If I moved at all, they were off in a trice. I have a quarter of a million other examples in my picture library.

So I essentially told the boss of Emperor Divers that if his dive guides were really worried about their effects on the wildlife, they should get out of the water and take their noisy air-bubbling divers with them. As for their boats..

- - John Bantin

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