Shooting Big Stuff

How to Shoot Big Stuff (Wide angle photography) part I

whale shark wide angleIntroduction
Wide angle photography of large subjects underwater is one of the hardest types of underwater photography to master, for several reasons. Fundamentally, there are so many different variables to master such as lighting, f stops, composition and general diving environment, that it takes some time and patience to be able to nail on those great pictures of big subjects (such as Similan islands whale sharks). Added to that is the fact that you generally also have to be able to deal with the unpredictable and occasionally random actions of a marine species. So here are some tips and techniques to start perfecting those wide angle photos.

Camera settings

To have any joy with wide angle or panoramic shots you will need to master your camera settings for almost every picture. Luckily for us, when it comes to f stops there is an old adage in photography “f8 and be there” which means that in most situations you will be able to use the f8 setting to produce a quality image. (F-stops explained) Adopting this technique of a set aperture allows you then to use your strobes to properly light the foreground of the picture, and using your shutter speed to control the background lighting of the photograph.

When it comes to lighting the background of the photo, you will often need to adjust the camera shutter speed since most cameras have auto exposure settings that will tend to produce a background that is too bright with an unattractive pale blueish color. To get that rich darker blue colour you will need to increase the camera shutter speed. This reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor and creates a nicer more attractive blue background.
Find out more at: UWPhotoGuide

Dome Ports

dome port If you have seen underwater photographers entering the water with what looks like a giant bubble attached to the front of their camera, they are probably going in the water to shoot some wide angle images. A dome port is invaluable to shooting great wide angle pictures even with a good wide angle lens, since this port enhances the qualities of your lens, and more importantly, allows you to get closer to your subject. And as you probably know by now, the closer you get to your subject – regardless of the type of photography you are doing – the better image you will produce. Dome ports are so valuable and sometimes expensive to photographers that outside the water you will often see them wrapping it up and treating it like their first new-born child. In addition to great underwater shots they are a key component to producing absolutely stunning over-under images.

Zero in your Exposure

There is no quick shortcut to getting your exposure spot on due to the variables of light and water conditions on every dive. But you can learn the broad settings through some patience and practice. The first step to take in learning to zero in your exposure is to turn off your strobes and then take some images of just the blue background of the images. Adjust your settings to get the exposure spot on. Now you can turn the strobes back on, and experiment with how much strobe power you need to use to properly separate the background from the foreground of the subject. You will invariably find that it is quite rare that you actually need to use your strobes on full power on most average images.

The easiest way to sort out this zeroing in process is to choose some stationary objects like coral to take pictures of. This gives you the time you need to experiment with your camera and learn the vagaries of your setup. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.
underwater photography tipsdome port picture

Can I use the same strobes I have for macro with wide angle?

Yes, you can use the same strobes when taking macro as well as wide angle pictures. The fundamental issue with strobes is one of power, too powerful will cause your macro pictures to be over exposed, too weak will cause your wide angle shots to be under lit. Fortunately, there is a solution for shooting macro with powerful strobes, they vary from being able to change the power settings to angling your strobes further away from the subject to cut down the amount of light reaching it. On the other hand, there is no solution for strobes that lack the power to light up you wide angle shots properly. The general guideline when it comes to buying strobes is buy the best you can afford, don’t try and scrimp and save.

What is the best style of composition?

This is an interesting point from a diver’s perspective, since as a diver seeing a dolphin or a shark, or even a ray underwater is the highlight of the dive within its own right, but for photographers its more complicated. If you are shooting pictures that look like they belong in a species identification book, then you are getting too excited about seeing the subject, and not the quality of the photograph. Pictures need to be interesting. To achieve this, try and get one or two subjects in the pictures and if they are interacting, even better. Alternatively, try and capture the subject doing something interesting. A beautifully shot picture of a shark swimming along belongs on Wikipedia. Pictures of the same shark turning to face the diver with its body curved belong in a diving or wildlife magazine. Activity is key to interesting pictures.

Do I always need to shoot with the sun behind me, particularly in the tropics?

Funnily enough, no. While it is a general recommendation that you take wide angle shots with the Sun behind you so that it fully and equally lights your subject, artistic composition can let you get some amazing shots with the sun behind the subject. The classic example of this is with slower moving large animals such as turtles, dugongs etc. where you can position yourself with the sun behind the subject. Doing this particularly when the water is clear and particle free, and when the sun is high in the sky around noon to early afternoon can produce some amazing pictures with ethereal light rays cutting through the water.

Does shooting shallower provide better results?

Absolutely and without a shadow of a doubt, the shallower the better; shooting shallow really eases off the pressures on lighting and settings, and generally makes the actual diving load easier. If you cast your mind back to some of the most impressive pictures of sharks and dolphins you have seen, in all likelihood most will have been taken very close to the surface, some of them will have been even shot half in and half out of the water.

Shooting Big Stuff Part II


Last week, in our guide to shooting big stuff and wide angle photography, we talked about exposure, camera settings, and dome ports. Today we expand our underwater photography guide and talk about lenses, diving skills and that holy grail of underwater photography: composition. But never forget that theory is never a substitute to actually taking pictures underwater so after reading this, grab you gear, camera and housing and go out and start shooting.

Lens choices

fish eye vs rectilinear
There are two choices of lenses when it comes to wide angle photography: the rectilinear lens and the fish eye. So the question is which one to get? Well this depends on what you want your pictures to be like; they both have their uses, and in fact most professionals and high-end amateurs use both for different effects. The fundamental difference between both is that a fish eye lens will bend the picture to give an extreme field of vision as well as a very good close-up focus.

Rectilinear or flat lenses have a flat surface and do not bend the image at the edges. It is noteworthy that much more care has to be taken when selecting a rectilinear lens since it has to be compatible with your camera’s sensor. They also have to be tuned with your dome port.

Choosing which one to start with is a matter of personal choice, although generally speaking a rectilinear lens is probably a better choice to start learning with, especially with compact cameras.

It’s about the Composition

underwater photo composition This is probably the hardest thing to teach someone – in fact, this is where talent trumps everything else. No matter how good your set up, and how well technically versed you are, there is absolutely no substitute for developing an eye for taking that perfect photo. Whilst there is an element of “God-given talent”, you can achieve some great things with hard work, perseverance and dedication.

To start, experiment with different types of shots to see what works and what does not. Try some over and under shots. These are always impressive. Shoot in portrait and landscape to get a feel for which shots work best with each setting. Develop your ability to spot wide angle subjects in the foreground with interesting backgrounds, or even blue backgrounds that help enhance the composition.

stingray wide angle Finally, review every picture you take; this is probably the simplest and easiest way for you to start developing your skills. Always ask yourself with each picture “how could I have shot this better?”, “What elements would have made this a better picture?”, “Does the background enrich the composition of the picture?” With time, you will develop the eye to be able to almost instantly spot the opportunity for a great picture underwater.

Colour Conversions

editing underwater pictures Although we live in a colourful world, with cameras and lighting that are phenomenal at producing amazingly high resolution pictures, there is still scope for the classical black and white images. Black and white images have a knack of creating a particular emotional response in the viewer, since the lack of colour really cuts out the distractions and let you focus on the essence and subject of the phots. In fact, some of the best underwater photos you have seen will probably be black and white conversations. Needless to say, conversions are done in post-production with photo-editing software like Photoshop or Lightroom.

Diving Skills

On a final note, one of the keys to great underwater photography is your overall diving skills. In order to be able to take great photos, you must have absolutely rock solid fundamental diving skills. This is because the effort and concentration required to take shots underwater are substantial and will take most of your focus. As a result, your diving skills should be completely second nature and almost automatic. There are no great underwater photographers with average or mediocre diving skills. Don’t expect to produce a quality picture if you can’t hover and take the shot without thinking about it.

So how important is it to edit photos?

How To Edit Underwater Photography A little photo editing is a very important step in underwater photography. The days of having to produce the perfect image in water are long over. A little bit of editing is key to fine tuning an image and really turning a great underwater photo into an exceptional one. One thing of note is that when we say a little bit of editing it is that only, removing a few blemishes or sharpening the contrast extra. Removing or adding elements to a photo should not be done nor is it ethical. It is downright cheating, and on top of lying to people who see the photo, you are lying to yourself.

What kind of strobe arms do I need to get?

Selecting the right strobe arms can make an enormous difference to your overall experience of taking pictures underwater. While you do need relatively large arms to get the lighting right for those big wide angle shots, some can be very heavy and negatively buoyant underwater. This will ultimately have a negative impact on your photos underwater. On the other hand, some of the better strobe arms on the market are finely balanced with compartments that add buoyancy to the arms so that they are light as a feather underwater. These types of arms make handling a large unwieldy rig a breeze underwater.

I read somewhere that zoom lenses for wide angle photography are not that good?

This was relatively true a few years ago, where zoom lenses tended to lose a lot of their focus at greater zoom levels. However, today, life has changed; there has been a marked increase in the capabilities of modern lenses, and a huge improvement in performance. Modern lenses make a great tool for close up wide angle as well as big wide angle shots. One thing to note though is that modern rectilinear zoom lenses have to be teamed up with a great dome port for best results.

What is the rule of thirds in photography?

The rule of thirds is a compositional technique, whereby it is imagined that each image is divided into 9 squares by two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. The intersections of these lines are considered crash points, that when objects are placed at this virtual intersection create more drama, tension and add quality to the photo. This rule of thirds can be very helpful and works quite well. A classic example of this in a typical over-under shot: an image split 50/50 is generally not as emotionally powerful as one where the dividing line between air and water creates an image that is two thirds underwater and a third out of the water or vice versa.

National Geographic