Underwater photography is a very different animal from photography done on land. And, for me, it is somewhat Zen-like. To get appealing images underwater, I have to think and be in a space that is calm, self-aware and fully present. While I’m certainly not an expert, I have been photographing underwater on our dive trips for several years and I wanted to talk about some of my experiences and share more of my photos from my recent trip to the Lesser Antilles islands in the eastern Caribbean.
First of all, when I bring my camera with me on my dives, I have to think about the additional buoyancy that the camera produces and I have to figure out how to hold the camera while I’m also doing all the things that I have to do to stay neutrally buoyant and safe while diving. These things include: checking my dive computer, adjusting the air in my buoyancy control device (BCD for short – the vest that you wear that holds your tank and helps you to hover in the water), paying attention to my breathing and where my body is in relationship to the reef and watching out for my dive buddy (Peter) – all the basic things that a diver does without the additional issues of handling a camera, light system and operating said equipment.
Then there’s the consideration of how to compose shots, how to approach subjects and how to get the best lighting for the shot. A big factor in shooting underwater is the water. Even in perfect 120 foot visibility, colors – especially reds – disappear very quickly the further the subject is from the camera lens. Also reds go away the deeper one is in the water, so lighting is very important. So a basic rule of thumb is: get as close to the subject as possible. Because the further away I am, the less color I’ll see and everything starts to become blue. Zoom lenses are simply not an option in underwater photography. Yes, I could zoom to get a larger image of my subject, but if I’m any distance away, I’ll still have all of that water between my camera lens and the fish I’m wanting to capture and my image will just turn out murky and blue – maybe bigger, but still murky and blue.
Since most of the interesting underwater subjects (at least those I like to photograph) live on coral reefs, getting close to them can be a challenge, especially the macro shots of small subjects. Take this arrow crab, for instance. It’s a small critter – about three inches across, legs and all – and it likes to hide in small crevices, barrel sponges and holes in the reef. So I have to get close and not bang into the reef while hovering in the water often with a current, holding a camera, and making adjustments to the exposure and lighting. The trick here, too, is to keep breathing steadily because, as any diver knows – when I hold my breath (as is my tendency when concentrating on taking a shot), my lungs fill with more air and I become positively buoyant rising up in the water several feet!
Here’s another issue -I can’t chase fish! When I chase fish, all I will get is fish tails. Patience is the key. Many fish on the reef have a general territory where they feed and hang out. When photographing fish, I approach them slowly. Often, they’ll swim away, but if I wait, and don’t make any sudden movements, they’ll come back into my close photographing range and I can shoot away.
Finally, after all of the above considerations, composition in underwater photography requires a different way of thinking/being/creating. When a diver decides to take up photography, their first attempts will often be very disappointing (as were mine). New photographers tend to hang out at the top of the reef and shoot down. This is called a “birds-eye view,” and only with a few exceptions is it ever interesting. We humans on this earth are used to looking at landscapes with a blue sky and land or sea of some kind. So in composing shots underwater, I try to plan them and place myself in a position where I’m shooting from below my subject and up. This creates a familiar, and often subconsciously pleasing shot – one with the blue sea in the background and the subject highlighted by a foreground of reef.
So the next time you pick up a National Geographic and find within those pages some magnificent photo of a whale shark or a lovely clownfish or some other beautiful undersea creature, take a deep breath and enjoy. While that professional photographer makes it look easy, they have spent many years learning their craft. And in my opinion, the more Zen-like I can make underwater photography, the more I enjoy it and the better my shots come out.
P.S. I’ll be posting a short photo essay on the island of St. Christopher AKA St. Kitts today on CathyUlrich.com followed by an Awards post. I’ve been racking them up and waiting until I got back from vacation to acknowledge and pay it forward – so it’s time. Then, later this week, I’ll post a final photo essay here with more underwater shots as a gallery.
©CathyUlrich and LargeSelf, 2012