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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.