Be the champ! - The bigger picture
FEW DIVERS will turn down a dive on a wreck, indeed many will always favour rust over squidge for their underwater thrills.
But despite being guaranteed not to move, wrecks are among the most challenging subjects to shoot well. Winning images are far more likely when we follow a few simple rules.
First, we need to take a step back in time and remember how we imagined shipwrecks before we ever dived on one. Tapping into this memory will reveal an idealised view of a wreck – the type of image, if reproduced in a photo, that strikes a chord with any audience.
My own imagination always returns to a wooden galleon sitting upright and intact in the pages of Tintin & Red Rackham’s Treasure! Whatever the specific example, this is how non-divers imagine wrecks: a complete ship resting peacefully on the seabed.
To replicate this in our photos, we need to go for the big picture and strap on our widest lens so that we can photograph this large a scene from as close as possible. Yes, size matters in wreck photography. If you want to shoot wrecks you should invest in the widest lens, typically a fisheye, available for your system.
If we can see the whole wreck within the visibility, then we should try and show it in its entirety. Much of the time, this is not possible, so we should instead focus our efforts on large recognisable features, such as the bow or stern, which still give the impression of an entire ship resting beneath the waves.
GOING FOR THE big shot will usually mean that our subject will be too large to light with flashguns. Therefore wrecks are typically best photographed in the ambient light.
The angle of the light is crucial to light up the different sections of the wreck the way we want. As we can’t move it, we have to learn about the light on a wreck and dive at specific times, when the sun is lighting the features we want to photograph.
Serious photographers will always dive a wreck at various times of day, and focus their efforts on specific parts of the ship on different dives.
Photographers soon learn the right times to dive a wreck. For example, I know that the photogenic stern of the Thistlegorm is best photographed on an early-morning dive, and the stern of the Giannis D around lunchtime.
Such precise dive timings for wrecks are often something for which normal dive trips don’t cater.
It is rarely information that dive-guides will even recall, because their focus is on giving guests the best dive experience on the wreck, and the angle of the light is of little relevance.
This is why photographers often choose to travel together on group trips or workshops, so that the dive itinerary can be focused on images.
In lower-visibility conditions, light is more diffused and timings less critical.
Once we have the ambient light where we want it, we have three main lighting options with wreck photos: blue/green colour cast, black & white, or white balance and filters. All have their merits.
The simplest approach is a blue or a green image, where often the colour cast of the water creates a pleasing atmosphere, one that suits the feeling of the wreck and communicates the sensation of a ship under water. Hergé’s wreck drawings were always blueish!
We can most easily add an additional point of interest by including a diver, which can be especially effective in darker conditions if he or she is using a powerful torch to light up the wreck.
MONOCHROME SUITS many wrecks. Converting our pictures to black & white emphasises the sense of history and allows us to boost contrast and make the ship pop out of the gloom.
When converting to black & white, we should tweak the colour channels (particularly the blue) with the aim of making the water either lighter or darker than the wreck, to help it stand out further. There is no right or wrong: a light wreck looks just as good against dark water as a dark wreck does against light water.
Probably the best improvement we can make to our monochrome pictures is by imagining them as black & white scenes when we compose.
You can change your camera into black & white mode when shooting, so that your LCD screen shows you the shots in monochrome under water.
If you are shooting RAW, the files will still have full colour information.
The best monochrome wreck images are usually planned as such, rather than simply sucking the colour out of a failed colour photo!
Black & white images work particularly well when shot across the light, so that the three-dimensionality of the wreck is revealed, with strong shadows and interesting forms. It pays for us to think in monochrome while under water.
The final option is to use filters in conjunction with white balance to reveal the colour of the wreck as we see it. Using white balance alone usually sucks the colour out the water too, leaving you with an unattractive and unrealistic grey-looking water column!
Using a filter in conjunction with manual white balance will reveal better colours on the wreck and hold
the blue water, so that the scene still looks like an underwater one.
We will get the best quality from this technique if we set the white balance under water and then just fine-tune in post processing.
There is a widespread misconception among underwater photographers that any adjustments made to a RAW file are free. Working on RAW files is much better than working on JPGs, but large colour corrections do degrade image quality, if you are after the highest-quality results.
The wreck isn’t going anywhere, so there is not excuse not to try to get everything spot-on in camera.
Pay attention to the direction of the light and position yourself so that it is coming over your shoulder and illuminating the wreck. Unusually, a slightly downward camera angle can really help.
It follows that you may not be able to photograph all features on one dive, but concentrate on getting the best results with the ones that you can.
When visibility is poor, it is best to shoot against the light to naturally boost the contrast of the image.
Look for features of the wreck that you can frame against the surface, and that will be recognisable in silhouette.
Passing fish schools or a diver with a torch will add significant interest to this type of shot.
A wreck doesn’t have to be the main subject of a photo to work, and can be used as an excellent background in a wide-angle photo with flash. Look for colourful corals, interesting inhabitants (such as crocodilefish) or divers to use as a main foreground subject, and then use the wreck behind to extend the depth and context of the image.