TO SOME PEOPLE, black & white photography is like going to a nightclub in a smoking jacket - a step backwards. Why, in this age of digital delights, when almost every diver thinks he or she can take a picture, would anyone return to the dark ages of photography Porthkerris Dive Centre is on the eastern side of the Lizard and runs both RIBs and a hardboat. It has a dive shop, air and nitrox fills and food, and has its own house reef, www.porthkerris.com
Well, just as a smoking jacket has class where a crop-top and cheap bling has none, so black & white has the same edge over a digital snap. Black & white, or monochrome, has an elegance that can transport the viewer to a world of the three Cs - classic photography, contrast and composition.
With that in mind, I decided to step out of my comfort zone of wildlife photography and set myself a mono challenge. I searched for suitable subject matter. Cuckoo wrasse were out, as were cuttlefish or anything colourful.
I settled on corroding lumps of metal covered in silt, about as colourful as a rundown council estate. Shipwrecks are perfect for black & white photography.
To find my wrecks, I decided to play a little game. If mono is about the three Cs, I would develop that theme, and invited diving friends to suggest some suitable subjects beginning with that letter. Mike from Porthkerris Divers offered a perfect trio - the Camarthen, Citrine and the City of Ghent, all fairly close to Cornwalls Lizard Peninsula, and within recreational diving range.
Of the several advantages to shooting wrecks in monochrome, the best is that theres no need for flash light. Ensuring no snowstorm of backscatter, this opens up the visibility.
Too often underwater photographers simply blast away with flashes on full power and end up with well-exposed lumps of wreck surrounded by darkness. This has done much to compound the myth that UK diving is dark and murky.
With black & white you can do the same, but the results are rubbish. My aim was to dispel this misconception about visibility and get some eye-catching pictures at the same time.
Yet, to get a good shot requires more than blind hope and a lot of snapping. Without colour as a distraction, you cant get away with shoddy composition or poor exposure control. Thought has to go into each shot, though at 20m and below, time is of the essence. This is when a photographer falls back on ability to see a shot rather than plan it.
A little practice never hurts, so I went out to the Mohegan just off the Manacles. It was just one dive, but I took a lot away from it. Not in terms of images, but in experience, as I tried various exposures, angles and techniques to keep the camera still.
Like most professional underwater photographers I use digital cameras - in this case, a Nikon D2X. This allows me to set black & white, but when it captures the RAW file (the digital equivalent of a film negative) all the colour information is also collected.
I then remake the mono image on a computer. The advantage is that, should I come across a particular subject I want to photograph in colour, I can still shoot in black & white, knowing that I can get the colour image from the RAW file.
My first C was the Carmarthen, a Welsh steamship torpedoed during WWI by a German U-boat, the UC50, which had been laying mines off the South-west.
She was in ballast and rode high in the water. The damage was bad but not catastrophic, and it was decided to beach her. However, as she was passing Black Head, she took on too much water and sank in 20m.
The shotline was draped over one of the massive boilers. Standing upright like a memorial to a forgotten battle, these towered above the seabed, which was strewn with the detritus.
All around were twisted girders, broken pipes, flattened sheets and other unidentifiable pieces, like a massive Meccano set picked up from the outside lane of a motorway.
The force of sea and salvage has blown the Carmarthen apart and created something of angular beauty out of what in life was a rather dull-looking creation.
I stayed close to the boilers, working on getting shots of at least a whole one. Visibility wasnt too bad, but a late algal bloom was knocking it back somewhat.
I hadnt expected to be dealing with this in mid-September.
The light was OK, but I wanted a decent depth of field, so set f/11 as my aperture. This gave me an exposure of around 1/15th second even with ISO 400. So I thought I would need a way of keeping the camera very steady to avoid camera-shake.
However, because movement is much smoother and slower in water, I could handhold at this speed and still retain the sharpness. With slower exposures, I rested the camera on the wreck or seabed to add further stability.
At 20m time rushes by, and on air with a strict no-decompression rule, I soon found myself heading back up. Aboard the Celtic Cat, Porthkerriss excellent catamaran hardboat,
I reviewed the images. Some were no good and were deleted, others better and some just what I wanted.
The Citrine lies further inshore, close to the village of Cadgwith. She was carrying limestone in heavy weather in January 1956 when waves broke her forehatch and water cascaded inside. She foundered and sank in 21m.
Although the wreck lies upside-down, its hull is opening and is becoming quite smashed-up, which allows greater exploration. As a photographic subject, Citrine is full of potential. There are lots of large lumps, and its possible to sneak just inside the upturned hull.
I came down the shot first to get the best visibility, but the bloom was still masking the full potential of the wreck.
However, it was clear enough, and I started to find various angles and compositions to exploit.
I found my way inside and worked at getting light penetrating the hull. It wasnt easy, the darkness forcing me to use very slow shutter speeds, so this time more shots failed because of camera shake.
Outside in the debris field I photographed a diver looking at one of the many pieces of wreckage lying forlornly without a purpose.
Back on the shot, I swam over a pair of large eyes staring up at me. They belonged to a conger, which quickly backed under a sheet of metal. As I settled down it emerged again, and stared at its reflection in my lens port.
Mike and I had worked the timing of this trip to coincide with a weak neap tide, so that water movement would be less of an issue, which is whats needed when diving the City. The wreck lies just off Lizard Point in the full force of the tide created when the entire Atlantic Ocean tries to get into the rather diminutive English Channel.
Thats why the area is out of bounds to divers during spring tides, but even during a neap the diving window is fairly small.
The wreck lies turtle, which has helped it stay relatively intact in the daily tidal onslaught, but it is breaking apart and has opened up nicely.
The shotline went in towards the bow and lay draped across the hull when I got down. I swam out over the debris field to the landward side of the wreck and captured a few angles with the hull in the background. Then, back at the wreck, I made for the stern, which is more open, spacious and so accessible.
Its possible to swim through almost the entire length of the ship, but from the stern I could look into the sun, which would backlight the twisted pipework and girders nicely.
A small shoal of bib hung inside, like a gang of teenagers outside an off-licence, and stayed for a few shots before a buddy-pair swam down inside the wreck. Their forms added to the picture, and one had a torch that I used to create a point of interest.
With time running short, I moved out to look up at the surface-pointing keel, and captured a shot of the buddy-pair investigating it. I then made my way back down the upturned hull to the shotline and up.
The current had never stopped fully, but on the ascent it started to increase. Being a neap, it was not going to overwhelm me, but was a testament to the unpredictability of conditions here.
On the surface I signalled to the boat and let go of the shotline. Mike expertly manoeuvred the large cat and I drifted onto his new double lift, the only one in the country and able to take a pair of fully kitted divers.
I always set my camera to RAW and jpeg, so I get two files from one shot. The RAW is my negative, which I work with later back at my studio. The jpeg is for instant review. I separate the files, import the jpegs into iphoto on a Mac laptop and run a slideshow to get a full-screen-size set of images. I then decide what to keep and what to bin.
Some of the images I discarded were blurred through camera shake, others because of bad composition or extraneous elements that strayed into the shot. Cuckoo wrasse are like those people who spring into a holiday picture with goofy facial expressions, so those pictures are dumped straight away.
Next go shots that just dont look right, with poor composition or inaccurate exposures. Exposure creates the life of a black & white picture, so while capturing an image I will take
a number of frames using slightly different exposures. Reviewing on the cameras small screen wont reveal the best because it tries to even out the errors, so I wait until I get the shots into a computer before deciding.
Its a time-consuming process, but one I carry out fairly instinctively these days. I was pretty happy with my first attempt - I had some shots that made me extremely happy, others with which I was reasonably pleased and others Id like to try again.
Next time Im going to try a tripod, but will test this out in a pool first before task-loading myself too much. Its bound to be an adventure in mishapland - what I like to refer to as an experience.