Be the champ! - British viz
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION! Where you dive is a crucial factor in underwater photography, and the different conditions and subject matter in each locale usually require quite different approaches if we want to produce winning images.
In the next few issues of DIVER I want to look in detail at three destinations that dominate the British diver’s agenda: the Red Sea, the Maldives and, to kick us off this month, British Seas.
Each throws up unique challenges, and I plan to tackle the key issues for shooting great images at each spot.
Poor visibility is the biggest constraint on photography in British Seas.
One of John Bantin’s favourite photography gags sums it up well: “If you want better pictures, invest in better water.” And JB’s point is particularly true here in the UK.
I know we can’t just buy better water, but even before we get wet we can greatly improve our images by searching for the best conditions.
Periods of calm weather with a lack of rainfall means less sediment and run-off, although during the first half of the season, such conditions are perfect for kicking off a bloom.
Trying to second-guess the vis is a thankless task, but there are a few rules worth following.
Head west for the clearest water. Cold, dry winter weather usually brings our clearest water. Early-season dives are often particularly good. Calm summer weather improves the vis on the shore dives in the south of England.
And popular sites, particularly shore dives, are much clearer on a weekday than at a weekend!
However, even the most experienced visibility soothsayer will be proved wrong by the fickle nature of British seas. As I write, the past two weeks have had fairly stable weather, and last weekend I popped to Babbacombe to see the cuttlefish. The day before in Plymouth we’d had close to 10m vis, but in Torbay it was less than 1m.
Then, just five days later, with no obvious change in conditions, it was up to 6m and my buddies nailed some truly excellent images. As one of the local divers said to me: “Nobody can explain why it suddenly improved”.
THE BEST INFORMATION is local knowledge. Local dive shops will usually have a good idea, but they can have a slightly optimistic bias!
Your best bet are local photographers, using forums or Facebook to ask about the vis. There is even a Facebook group called UK Viz Reports.
If possible, always ask photographers, as they will understand the difference between workable and unworkable conditions.
Before I dive in the UK, I am always on the phone with my buddies. And our conversations contain much more “How’s the vis” than “How’s the wife”
All the leading British underwater photographers are equally obsessed, and most of us are decent enough to email our buddies when we find surprisingly clear water on a popular site.
That said, I always take both a macro and wide angle lens in the car and will always choose wide when the conditions allow, simply because good-quality macro can be achieved in both good and bad conditions.
AS YOU PROBABLY KNOW, backscatter is caused when particles in the water reflect the light back to the camera, in extreme cases covering the image with an unsightly blizzard. We’ve all been there!
There are lots of solutions, and almost all of them are completely logical when we understand the cause properly.
Put simply, we get more backscatter the more particles that both the flash illuminates and the lens sees.
We can’t decrease the concentration of particles in British seawater, but poor inwater skills can increase them! Good diving skills, including buoyancy and fin awareness, really make a difference.
Many British dive sites are silty, and if you plummet into the sediment or plough through the kelp, your pictures will always have more backscatter than those of the more careful photographer. The less you move, the less you disturb.
However, while we can’t reduce the concentration of particles in the water, we can decrease the number by simply moving closer. I know it sounds obvious, but it is the best way to reduce backscatter, and is often overlooked as photographers confuse themselves with ever more elaborate strobe angles.
One tip is to go one lens wider and force ourselves to get closer. So if you normally shoot a critter with a 105mm macro lens, try a 60mm if the vis is poor, and so on.
And if you are already under water and finding it murky, think of compositions that will work when you are close, such as not shooting the whole animal, or concentrate on non-moving subjects, which will allow you to shoot from very close.
STROBES CAUSE BACKSCATTER and while we need strobe light to illuminate the subject, we don’t need it everywhere, otherwise it is just lighting up particles in the water.
It is a truism of underwater photography that when a photographer buys a second strobe, he or she will rarely dive with just one strobe again.
Yet, in murky conditions, going back to a single strobe can halve your backscatter in a simple step.
We can improve matters further by restricting the beam of the strobe, using
a snoot. The aim is not to create a spotlight of light in the picture, but to illuminate the subject properly and not the surrounding water, therefore greatly reducing backscatter.
Many leading British photographers dive with plant-pots, funnels and spare bits of neoprene on their strobes to narrow the beam and minimise backscatter in this way.
Finally, backscatter shows up most clearly against a brilliant black background, so when conditions are bad we can hide the fact by shooting a subject against the seabed, or using a long exposure to frame it against green water.
However, subjects often look at their most spectacular against a strong black – they jump off the page and the background emphasises their graphic qualities. So these solutions, while necessary at times, will reduce the impact of our shots.
The take-home message is to shoot to the conditions, and where possible to ensure that our camera is heading for the best conditions even before we leave the house.
Concentrate on colour. People expect British seas to be drab, so seek out gaudy nudibranchs, flashy wrasse and bright soft corals and anemones. Colourful images will always catch the eye.
Visit specific sites for specific subjects. There are plenty of spots known for particular subjects, so go there and really work the opportunity. Plan a trip to shoot wide-angle soft coral-covered rocks in St Abbs, tompot blennies under Swanage Pier and so on.
Dive with other photographers. Club trips are great fun, but choosing diving that “pleases everyone” rarely yields the best images in challenging UK conditions.
Instead, plan some photography-focused diving with a friend and take in popular imaging spots, such as the sea lochs of the Scottish west coast.