IT DOESN’T SEEM THAT LONG SINCE underwater photographs were all shot on film. With the loss of colour at depth, the only way to achieve good results was a fine balance of flash with the natural light.
Film had poor exposure latitude, particularly when shot using slide film. If photographs were not correctly exposed, little could be done with them.
As a photographic student in the early 1990s, just before the digital age, I was encouraged to try out as many film-processing techniques as possible.
I spent many an hour in the darkroom push-processing, cross-processing and experimenting with images using solarisation and polarisation techniques.
Many of these darkroom techniques have been replaced in the digital age by “plugins” added to photo-editing software. These allow photographers to manipulate images in a multitude
of ways.
I have experimented with dozens of plugins and have generally been unimpressed. When I came across high-dynamic range imaging, or HDR, I felt I had at last found a technique with good potential.
HDR involves taking a selection of differently exposed images around the correct exposure of a single subject. The idea is to capture the greatest dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas in the images.
Once you have the images, you process them in software that stitches them together intelligently to produce a picture that is representative in both dark and light areas.
The nice thing about digital cameras is that they have a huge dynamic range – typically 14 stops (the human eye has only 10).
There are a lot of HDR plugins that can be added to photo-editing programs.
I opted for one of the most popular, a standalone called Photomatrix Pro.
Little has been done under water using this technique, so I was keen to see what I could achieve. A Caribbean dive trip offered the perfect opportunity to experiment.

I LOVE CARIBBEAN DIVING – the slow island lifestyle, the friendly locals and the beautiful clear turquoise waters, rich in marine life. My trip began in one of my favourite destinations, Turks & Caicos. We were hosted by Dive Provo on the main island of Providenciales.
We boarded the dive-boat and a 30-minute ride brought us to a site called the Gully. I followed my buddy Andy down to the reef, on a sandy plateau at 12m. Descending headfirst we made our way to the gully wall, which fell to 25m.
As we swam along the reef, schools of jack cruised below, hunting for small fish that had ventured from the safety of the crevices.
I spotted a large grouper hiding in the shadow of a ledge. It seemed relaxed as we approached, so I gently moved closer and managed to get a good portrait.
I was keen to find some static subjects for HDR, so decided to test it with a large sponge. I carefully balanced my camera on a nearby rock and composed my shot. Once ready I set the camera on fast motor drive, then to auto-bracketing, with two ¾-stop increments either side of the correct exposure, giving me a total of five images.
I did this on a number of shots on the dive, including a few using Andy as a model.

THAT EVENING I started to process the images on my laptop and found that many of the shots I had taken weren’t working properly, with ghosting appearing on most of them. Even the static shots of the sponge hadn’t worked.
It seemed that the only way to get the perfect shot was to use a tripod. It was clear that this technique was not going to work on moving subjects, so would prove a challenge for any shots under water!

OUR NEXT PORT OF CALL was Harbour Island, and the friendly Valentines Dive Centre. The facility was small but apparently popular with A-listers from the USA and Europe.
A few weeks before our arrival, we were told, Paul McCartney had dived there with his entourage!
We headed out to the Cut Dive, a local drift between two islands. Dive-centre owner George was our skipper for the day and, following a briefing, he took us a mile upstream.
Masks on, regs in and with all air expelled from our BCs, we jumped in unison, like a team of paras jettisoned from the back of a Hercules aircraft.
It was an impressive formulated manoeuvre, and I couldn’t help feeling a thrill amid the rush of adrenalin as we all plunged directly under the surface.
The seabed lay at 12m, and I teamed up with Andy and Charlie there, planning to find the tunnels in the reef.
The current was 5-6 knots, so it was virtually impossible to stop. Even a pause created too much pressure, risking flooded masks and lost regulators.
We followed the sandy bottom, and got dragged down a narrowing gully, where we finally ended up in a sinkhole. The team all wedged themselves in the lea of the small wall, in a futile attempt to resist the powerful current!
Above us schools of batfish and jack swirled about, finning frantically against the wavering current.
Our bubbles were testament to the wild and chaotic forces – they went up, swirled about, went back down and then spiralled off in multiple directions.
Not wanting to end up being tumbled like clothes in a washing machine, Charlie led us out and we headed over the reef to swim sideways into a short tunnel. The strong current picked up once again, and we found ourselves torpedoed through and unceremoniously spat out the other side.
Our last 20 minutes was a rather more sedate drift. I rarely come back from dives without a photograph but that day the power of the elements thwarted all efforts. However, we all enjoyed the experience so much that we ended up doing three back-to-back dives on
the site!
No dive trip is complete without at least one good wreck dive, so we moved on from TCI to the neighbouring Bahamas to dive mv Comberbach.
This 33m vessel was built in Britain in 1948 and, following decommissioning in 1986, was scuttled by the local dive resort. The wreck is a 10min boat ride from the Cape Santa Maria resort on Long Island and sits in 30m on a sandy bottom, surrounded by coral bommies.
The wreck made a perfect static subject for shooting HDR, so I set my camera up with a fisheye lens.
However, because of the wrecks light and position the wide-angle shots I had planned involved me shooting from open water, and that didn’t work.
It proved impossible to get a sequence of perfectly sandwiched images without any image ghosting. I compromised by balancing the camera on the superstructure of the wreck and left it with plenty of great images – but not the HDR ones I had hoped for.

AFTER SCANNING through a myriad of disappointing results, I came up with a possible solution. My idea was to export a correctly exposed image from Lightroom in RAW mode, as I had shot it.
I would then overexpose the image by about one stop, increase shadow detail and export it. I would then export the image about -1 stop underexposed. This would give me three images that I could import into the HDR software.
Once imported, I used the wizardry in the software to produce the effect and look I required. This process seemed to work well, and although not technically correct the results were very similar to conventionally processed HDR images.
I felt this was a perfect solution to shooting moving subjects where a tripod was impractical or impossible.

WE LEFT THE QUIETNESS of Long Island and hit the Bahamas busy capital city of Nassau on New Providence island. Our next site was Stuart Cove, world famous for its shark feeding.
It had been more than 20 years since my last visit, and I was keen to catch up with old acquaintances, swap diving stories and try the HDR on a shark!
If you haven’t done a shark dive, Stuart Cove is the perfect place. The man who gives the dive centre its name started back in the late 1970s when he worked on the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me as a shark wrangler.
Today he runs the largest dive operation in the Caribbean area specialising in shark dives.
The crux of the briefing is to keep hands and arms closely tucked in at all times. As we dropped into the Arena, dozens of Caribbean reef sharks and thousands of yellowtails circled in anticipation.
The divers knelt on the sand in a large circle, crossed arms and waited.
I was given permission to enter the middle of the Arena and get close to the action. The chain-mailed feeder appeared with a box, trailing fish oil.
The whole reef appeared to wake up with the smell of dead fish; the sharks were in a frenzy of excitement.
A resident Nassau grouper also turned up, and helpfully perched himself in front of my camera.
I sat about 2m from the feeder, and as fish morsels were pulled from the fish box, so the sharks darted in and took them off the end of the feeder pole.
The more frantic it got, the more sharks appeared. There came a point at which I couldn’t see the shark feeder at all, just grey noses and white teeth!
As the fish supply ran out, the feeder moved off into the reef with a trail of sharks following her. The divers moved into the circle and scoured the sand for any stray shark teeth lost in the feed.
After the dive, the boat-deck was buzzing as divers recounted their experiences to each other. It was a great way to end a Caribbean assignment, and feeling that I had some great HDR shark shots in the bag was a bonus.

SCEPTICAL AT FIRST, I have become increasingly excited and enthusiastic about HDR. Digital photography and techniques like this are expanding limits and creative possibilities.
I plan to experiment further, and am looking to try out the technique in the UK. I think it will work especially well in bringing wrecks to life in murky and dimly lit waters.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Direct flight to the Bahamas and TCI. with British Airways, www.ba.com
Diving & ACCOMMODATION TCI - Providenciales: Ports of Call Resort & Dive Provo, www.portsofcallresort.com, www.diveprovo.com (pictured). BAHAMAS - Harbour Island: Valentine Resort & Dive Centre, www.valentines resort.com, www.valentinesdive.com. Long Island: Casa Santa Resort & Dive Facility, www.capesantamaria.com. New Providence: Stuart Cove, www.stuartcove.com
WHEN TO GO You can visit all of the locations year round, but the best time of the year is from June through till September. Water temperature is a tepid 30°C.
MONEY Both island groups trade in US dollars.
PRICES Dive Worldwide can offer seven nights’ B&B on Prividencials, TCI, at Ports of Call Resort (twin-share), 10 boat dives with Dive Provo and return BA flights from £1895pp; or a New Providence, Bahamas, package including seven nights at Orange Hill (twin-share), 12 boat dives with Stuart Cove and BA flights from £1590pp. It can also tailor-make a TCI trip to include Grand Turk and Salt Cay or a Bahamian adventure to include the Out Islands if requested. www.diveworldwide.com
TOURIST INFORMATION www.bahamas.co.uk, www.turksandcaicostourism.com