THOSE PEOPLE WHO EXPECT TO USE WIDE-ANGLE LENSES from the same sort of distances as they would use for longer focal lengths, simply as a way of getting more into the picture, are way off the mark when it comes to underwater photography. Get in close and personal must be our motto, because this is the only way to create dramatic perspectives.
The great advantage of a wide-angle lens is that it will divide the frame into a dominant foreground and a scenic backdrop. An added bonus is better colour reproduction resulting from your greater proximity to the subject.
Because wide-angle photography allows greater subject angles than other forms of photography, it also requires a different approach to flash illumination. Under water, this is accentuated by the presence of floating particles which become far more obvious than when using longer focal-length lenses. So we kill both birds with one stone by positioning the flash as far from the lens as possible.
In my experience the ideal configuration for use with a 20mm lens (96 subject angle) is to mount the flash on a 2 x 400mm ball-joint arm. For greater angles use 2 x 600mm and, for fish-eye lenses, two flashes on two 2 x 400mm ball-joint arms.
This postcard format approach is best suited to photographing large objects such as wrecks, photos of reef formations, or divers accompanied by large schools of fish or giant animals. Fisheye lenses do the best job here.
Usually shots in this category are of the mixed-light variety, where the exposure is determined by existing light and the flash is used as a fill-in only, and never in TTL mode.
To introduce perspective, choose a low position and shoot slightly towards the surface. Avoid landscape shots from a birds eye perspective, by looking down, or youll end up with a flat photo without contrast or definition.
Portrait-format pictures usually show a diver in action - perhaps with a sizeable fish or going about some more or less important underwater business. Using a 20mm (96) lens at a distance of about 1m, you can capture your average-sized diver full-frame and with perfect reproduction of detail.
Because of the great distortions a fish-eye lens is less well-suited in this situation. And while flash illumination will dominate this category, dont forget to take available light into consideration to create atmosphere.
However, to emphasise the subject in the foreground the backdrop can be underexposed by about one f-stop. Direct your flash so that the divers face is illuminated, and make sure that he or she looks at whats going on and doesnt stare into your lens.
Unfortunately, most underwater photographers dont use this technique much with a wide-angle lens, which is a crying shame. Imagine having a lens that allows you to close in on your subject to about 25cm and not use this opportunity!
Admittedly, its not all that easy finding the right camera angle, positioning the subject, and adjusting flash angle and direction to minimise backscatter from debris. But the results are definitely worth your trouble. Practice makes perfect, though not the kind of practice gained in a tiled pool, Im afraid!
But keeping at it and honing your act in this category of underwater photography will pay big dividends in the long run. The results are usually stunning and are particularly popular with non-divers because, the main subject apart, they show a lot of scenery.
Pictures that combine short and long-distance shots are the pinnacle of wide-angle underwater photography. When taken with a fish-eye lens, they can appear truly three-dimensional.
This depth is achieved by leading the onlookers eye from a close-up foreground to the main subject area in the middle field, and on to the scenery out back. The tricky bit here is to combine three factors - focus, lighting and composition.
To ensure accurate focus on foreground and subject, you need to focus on a distance about a third of the way into the frame. Direct your flash at the main subject and rely on available light to illuminate the rest. Add a touch of artistic composition and you can be sure of pleasing, if not stunning, results.
For instance, using an upright frame place a red soft coral or similar in the bottom-right corner as a foreground. Your main subject, a school of yellowtails, takes pride of place diagonally positioned in the centre, and you can finish by positioning your diving buddy, complete with deep blue water, top-left at the back.
With luck the result will be fit to grace the front cover of your favourite diving magazine next month - or to win you a major prize at Image 2003!
ONE Longer focal lengths make no sense with wide-angle - get close is the rule if you want to create dramatic perspectives.
TWO The position of the flash is very important to avoid backscatter and get balanced illumination. The wider the angle, the further the flash should be from the lens.
THREE Wide-angle lenses give you great depth of field so it is unnecessary to use f-stops smaller than f8. Larger apertures bring ambient light onto your film and you wont have big flashguns to get in your way.
FOUR In a wide-angle picture the light source for the foreground is the flash, and ambient light must take care of the rest. It helps to spend some time studying light-mixing techniques.
FIVE The first step in catching ambient light to mix with the flash is to prolong shutter speeds, perhaps from 1/60sec to 1/30 or even 1/15sec. This means that 100 ASA film is the best to use - it allows you to use appropriate shutter speeds even where available light is very low, as at depth.
SIX Ideal conditions are clear water and high sun to give plentiful ambient light, so do all your wide-angle shots while the weather holds good and keep your macro lens for those rainy or stormy days.
SEVEN Wide-angle landscapes, especially with fish-eye lenses, are always spectacular because they show more or less the same sector as the human eye sees.
EIGHT Wide-angle lenses are superb for pictures of divers because even over very short distances you can keep your model full-size in the frame. If the diver is the only or dominant subject, be careful not to exceed a picture angle of 100, or he or she will become distorted.
NINE Good picture composition is vital but the rules are the same as on land. A strong wide-angle shot should be in three parts: a very close foreground, a middle section and the background.
TEN Wide-angle is the most difficult of all underwater photo techniques to get right. You have to combine many factors and having the correct equipment configuration is important. Keep your feet on the ground and start with picture angles of 80-95. Get confident with that before flirting with the 180 fish-eye!
LANDSCAPES: Large objects such as wrecks - this is the French submarine Rubis in the Med - require the biggest picture angle possible, ideally using a full-frame fisheye lens. To minimise distortion, especially noticeable with wrecks, avoid taking pictures from high angles above or below the level of the subject
CLOSE-UPS: This pack of moray eels at Malpelo in the Pacific was taken with a fisheye lens from about 40cm. The difficulty with wide-angle close-ups is in illuminating the subject - even with two strobes, you have to maintain the faraway flash positions that are the rule in wide-angle photography. A small torch attached to the flash helps to aim the flash at the subject
COMBINING DISTANCES: Most wide-angle scenes divide up into three parts - foreground, middle and background. Especially with fish-eye lenses, this can make the picture look almost three-dimensional. In this one, taken in Flores in Indonesia, the vertical format is helpful in allowing the blue water and the sunlight to be shown
PORTRAITS: For wide-angle portraits dominated by a diver or divers, many factors have to be taken into account. To avoid unreal proportions and distortion, the picture angle should not be more than 96. Use a 15mm amphibious lens or a 20mm housed lens behind a dome port. Shooting very close, as here, a 24mm lens is ideal