Be the champ! - the inside story
LAST MONTH I extolled the virtues of attempting the big shot with shipwreck exteriors, a composition that succeeds because it taps into people’s idealised mental image of a wreck.
Such images undoubtedly impress, but they don’t tell the whole story of many wrecks. Often, to capture the most interesting images, we must head inside.
Think of the Thistlegorm. Do you dive there to see the bow or stern or, when you think of Thistlegorm, does your mind fill with bikes and trucks hidden within the holds There is no doubt that with many wrecks the most compelling images come from below decks.
That said, shooting inside a wreck is not easy, and throws up a number of special challenges.
But because most photos taken inside wrecks are little more than snaps, if we can craft a good-quality image we have a high probability of producing something that will really stand out.
The first step to success is good subject selection, and the best features are those that are instantly recognisable.
Such images resonate with the viewer, because they see an item they know – but under water. Again, a perfect example is a motorbike on the Thistlegorm, but this visually satisfying set-up works with any feature of the ship that is immediately identifiable.
However, more important than the subject is how we frame it, because this is where most internal wreck photos fall down. I believe that the most crucial element for success is a blue (or green) background.
This endows the image with two important qualities: first, it adds visual depth to the picture, giving it a more three-dimensional feel. Second, it emphasises the underwater feel, reinforcing the message of an object juxtaposed in the underwater world.
Getting a blue background rarely happens by accident. If we swim inside a wreck and take pictures of what we see, we will end up framing them against the insides of the hull.
Instead, we usually have to swim round to the other side of the object and frame it against the light that’s coming in through the entrance we’ve just used.
NOT ALL SUBJECTS in a wreck are ideally placed to be framed against the blue, and we should concentrate our efforts on those that are.
Each year I run Red Sea photographic workshops, and the Thistlegorm features on most trips. We never dive it just once, and we’ve put a great deal of effort into finding the subjects that are ideally placed for photography.
This wreck is full of great subjects, but not all of them are positioned to make great photos. Down the years we’ve given nicknames to the features that are ideally placed so that they can be framed against the blue.
This way we all know where they are and how to unlock the shot. We have Ele’s Bike, Damien’s Truck, Phil’s Bikes, Yasser’s Hole, the Bubbling Bike and many more!
One of my favourites is Julian’s truck, discovered by talented underwater photographer Julian Cohen on one trip.
The angle that unlocks the shot and allows you to frame the truck against the blue can be achieved only with a fisheye lens, and then only by holding the camera back against a bulkhead and shooting blind! But the resulting image is a cracker.
Among the most attractive backgrounds for a photo taken inside a wreck are light beams shining in through portholes. Capturing these requires dives at specific times of day, when the sun is hitting the hull on the side where the portholes are.
The other important element in giving our subjects an underwater feel is fish. Our scaly friends like wrecks, and they particularly enjoying hanging out inside.
Big fish or schools of smaller species make good foreground subjects in themselves but, more importantly, we should always try to incorporate them in our wreckage shots when we can.
The main problem is that when we’re shooting, busy fiddling with our cameras and flashes trying to perfect the shot, the fish tend to drift away.
So when we get a shot we really like, it’s worth going away for a minute or two to let them return, before re-shooting it with fish included.
SHOOTING IN THE darkness inside a wreck gives us a few technical headaches. Even the simple act of focusing becomes problematic. If we use a torch to help, the beam may show up in the image if we use a long exposure (or high ISO).
I find it best to set the focus at the appropriate distance outside the wreck, and leave it locked when I move inside.
It is important to set the focus in the water, otherwise it will not account for the optical effect of the dome-port.
It is also important to consider lens choice. I’m a big fisheye-lens fan, but for wreck internals I often choose a rectilinear wide angle to keep the straight man-made lines from bending.
Fisheyes are still useful, because being so wide they open up the most space inside a wreck, and with careful composition their distortion can easily be hidden, or these days even corrected in post-processing software.
Probably the biggest challenge of the dark comes with lighting.
Our foreground lighting will come entirely from our flashguns, so how we aim them is crucial. Mistakes are ruthlessly revealed.
The most common pitfall is to position our flashes in the same way that we use them on the reef – with one either side of the lens. This is not the best lighting solution, because the darkness will accentuate the rapid fall-off of light away from the camera.
THE SOLUTION IS TO PUSH our flashguns up on long arms and create a pool of illumination in front of the camera by top-lighting the scene.
We call this positioning “rabbit-ears”, and it gives a much more gradual fall-off of light away from the camera.
Finally, we need to have the confidence to lengthen our exposures to burn in the ambient light and get that all-important blue background.
Tucked away deep in a ship, this usually means a long exposure, but because there is no ambient light on the subject you will be surprised how long you can push the exposure and still get a sharp image, courtesy of the flash.
A quarter- or half-second is common, but one of my widely published wreck internals is an eight-seconder!