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June 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 34, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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How You Can Get Great Underwater Pictures

start raw, stalk your subject, and more tips

from the June, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Underwater photography has never been easier. Gone are the days when divers came back from a trip with 20 rolls of film shot but very few keepers. Visits to the Dive Equipment and Marketing Association's annual trade show, a major stop on the dive industry's circuit, now leave me thinking that underwater photography is being positioned as the main reason for going diving. This is all thanks to the digital revolution.

However, divers new to underwater photography often come back with disappointing results, even now, despite all that practice with selfies making them proficient at dry-land photography. Why is that?

When George Pan Cosmatos made the horror movie Leviathan back in 1989 (the crew of an underwater geological facility are stalked and killed by a hideous mutant creature -- critics panned it, but Academy Award winner Stan Winston did all the special effects), he chose not to film the movie underwater. Instead, he filmed many of the underwater scenes using smoke effects in the air to create the sense of being underwater. Same effect, fewer screw-ups.

Like Cosmatos, I believe in using easy ways to solve the problems of shooting in water, and I offer them up to novice underwater photographers. Not only have my mentees gotten satisfying results, some have won international competitions. Here are the six main things you need to do.

Get Rid of the Water

It has a greater turbidity than air. If you could see 100 feet out underwater, you'd call that "gin-clear," but if that was the visibility you had while driving on a freeway, you'd call it "fog." Water is not as optically clear as air; things quickly become less sharp at a distance.

Water also absorbs light, so it gets dark quickly, depending upon the amount of turbidity. But water absorbs light selectively, too. As sunlight travels through water, the longer wavelengths of red quickly get absorbed. Even in the clearest water, red light disappears after only a few feet, quickly followed by yellows and greens, leaving only the short wavelengths of blue light to penetrate very far.

Your brain compensates for a lot of this when viewing underwater scenes at the time, but divers new to underwater photography are disappointed to find their initial efforts turn out as a monochromatic blue. Now you can see why Cosmatos made his decision with Leviathan -- water doesn't let you take good shots.

So the cardinal rule of successful underwater photography, whether shooting stills or live action, is to reduce the amount of water in the equation. It means getting as close to your subject as possible to get sharp pictures. This may result in not being able to include the entire subject in your frame, which is why successful underwater photographers resort to the widest-angle lenses possible to get it all in from such a close camera position. Hence the popularity of fish-eye lenses, which have the widest angle-ofview of all.

Take Your Own Light Source

Getting as close as possible may help with the sharpness of the image -- the focus -- but it doesn't help with the color. If you are near enough to the surface for some red light to penetrate, and you are using a digital camera, you can always enhance the red and yellow parts of the image in post-processing (Vivid-pix is a good software program for underwater photos). Pros shoot what's called RAW files, which give them the greatest scope for adjusting by computer later.

Using a red filter doesn't make the scene redder. It just filters out light that isn't red. If there is no red light available because of the depth you are at, you might as well leave the lens cap on. Super-sensitive digital cameras can make use of the tiny amount of red light that may still be present, but often with the result of a very grainy image caused by digital noise. That's another reason why pros use cameras with very large (and expensive) sensors -- they are less prone to this noise at higher sensitivity settings.

But this doesn't really solve the problem of selective light absorption. Better to take your own white-light source with you, either in the form of a photographic strobe or a video light. It doesn't matter how bright they are; they're still subject to the laws of physics, and their light is selectively absorbed, too. Once the light from strobe or video light has passed through more than, say, six feet of water, its color is compromised, too, no matter how bright it is. And don't forget, that's the total distance from the light source to the subject and back to the camera. So simply getting a brighter light might not be the answer.

This is the reason for the popularity of macro photography among newcomers. With macro, the camera lens is close to the subject, and so are the lights. Granted, the advantages of macro photography are revealing the details of tiny critters you'd otherwise miss and lighting them up in brilliant colors not apparent to the naked eye -- it's an art form all of its own. However, if you move further away to get wider pictures, disappointment will soon ensue.

The art of wide-angle photography is to light the foreground in such a way that the monochromatic background becomes acceptable. It's like the aerial perspective seen in landscapes, in both paintings and photos. We're used to the spaces around, and in between, the subjects, so we accept it.

Know How -- and Where -- to Position Your Light

With macro set-ups, it's possible to enter the water with your camera and lights pre-set. You know how close (more or less) you are going to be, and you can have your light mounted on the camera in such a way that you're take a mini-studio setup down with you. But what about backscatter?

The flash built into your camera is set too close to the lens. You need to blank it out in some way so that it's only useful to trigger (via a fiber-optic cable) your off-board strobe. This will inevitably be placed a long way from the lens axis so that detritus floating in front of the lens doesn't get lit.

This happens more when you use a fish-eye lens. That's when it's necessary to get the off-board light positioned much farther away from the lens axis, either by having one or more of them fixed at the end of long mounting arms or turned away from the optical axis of the camera and utilizing only the "edge" lighting. You need to be sure that the cone of light revealing detritus directly in front of the light source does not intrude into the view of the camera. If it does, it's called "backscatter," and it's the unsightly curse of many an effort made by new underwater photographers. It's like driving your car through fog with the headlights on full beam.

A few ambitious pros take photographs of wide scenes (mainly within wrecks) by lighting small parts of the area with numerous independently operated and strategically placed lights. If they use strobes, these need to be triggered by a "slave unit," a light-sensitive device for a second strobe unit that can be placed out of sight somewhere within the scene and is triggered by the primary strobe. But that's beyond the scope of the ordinary recreational diver because these shots need time and patience to set up.

Choose Your Camera Angle Wisely

It's too convenient to look down at subjects when you're diving. The clever photographer gets his camera down as low as possible and tries to get that eye-to-eye shot, or even look up at the subject. The LCD viewing screen in a compact camera helps with this, while those with bigger cameras in submarine housings can often add a 45-degree viewfinder so that the camera's lens can be positioned lower than the eye of the diver.

The same rules apply when shooting video; the difference is you need to shoot various shots to form a sequence or story. Famous film directors like Ridley Scott cut their teeth shooting television commercials compiled of moments that told a whole story within a 30-second timeframe. Keep your video camera still and let the action happen within its view. Don't try to use it like a firehose and cover the entire scene -- the result will be unwatchable.

Stalk Your Subject

If you are photographing wildlife, the same rules apply whether you are underwater or not: You need to stalk your subject. Understand what it is likely to do and where it is likely to go, and be patient. Of course, your non-photographer dive buddies will have their patience tested to the limit.

Start Raw, Use the Magic Touch Later

If you shoot RAW files in camera and process them later with a converter such as those in software programs like Photoshop and Lightroom, you have the option of controlling many aspects -- exposure, color, contrast, brightness, sharpness -- long after you've grabbed the shot and left the water. Store your RAW file in the way you would keep an old-fashioned negative, and make a JPEG from the adjusted picture.

You can then clean up those modified pictures with spotting tools to rid them of the odd bits of underwater detritus in the water, and use "Content Aware Fill" to remove unwanted elements -- like that other diver's intruding fin tip. The magic of software allows you to delete any offending item and replace it with background to match the surroundings. This is particularly successful with underwater subjects, and I have been able to offer magazine editors exactly the same pictures with or without divers in them.

Masters of underwater photography are also masters of computer applications. You can be, too. It takes a little practice, but you can't go wrong, because you always have your original RAW file to go back to if you don't get the right result first time around -- all the information is recorded and waits for you to select later. If you shoot JPEGs in camera, you can use software programs to make changes, but they cut data instead of rearranging it, which reduces the quality should you wish to print any pictures later.

The tip I offer most, whether you're shooting video or stills: Get close, and then get closer still. If it's beyond arm's reach, it's too far away to get anything but a silhouette against the sun. And take some white light with you, or else confine yourself to snorkeling depths where a full spectrum of sunshine penetrates.

A quick way to get proficient is by taking a course. Learn from being in the company of other underwater photographers. Once you have really caught the bug for underwater photography, and received consistent results, you can do nothing but improve. Then it's time to enter the international competitions.

- John Bantin

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