Donât try to take all the shots at once â work through your ideas methodically. The settings, strobe powers and positions are completely different for this picture and the next photo. Taken with Nikon D700, Sigma 15
Be the champ! - Seals
LAST MONTH WE LOOKED at conjuring sparklingly clean images in British conditions. This month we’ll look in detail at a subject that gives us our best chance of producing prize-winning pictures in our seas.
I’ve joked before in this column that jellyfish are the competition judge’s kryptonite – juries seem unable to resist giving gongs to medusa.
Well, in British Seas the short-cut to silverware is certainly shooting seals.
In the most recent DIVER/BSoUP British prints competition, judged by you, the visitors to the last NEC Birmingham Dive Show, Saeed Rashid won the Standard category and Eleonora Manca won the Advanced category, both with pictures of grey seals.
And I’ve had plenty of success with this subject too; including twice winning categories in the prestigious British Wildlife Photography Awards with pictures of seals.
In short, if you want prizes for your pictures, you could do a lot worse than aim your camera at everyone’s favourite furry friend.
There is no doubt that seals, known as sea hounds in most other European countries, fill the viewers of our pictures with puppy love.
But they are also probably the most photographed British diving subject. So we need something very special to ensure that our shot is top dog.
WE’RE VERY LUCKY that British seas are such a stronghold for seals. We have two resident species, the common seal, which is only rarely seen by divers, and the grey seal.
About 40% of the global population of grey seals lives and breeds in British seas. They are found all around our coasts, with the highest numbers in Scotland, but the best locations for photography are where they are used to seeing divers.
Seals swim about a thousand times faster than Michael Phelps, and we’re only going to get images when they want us to see them.
The classic locations for seal dives are in the Farnes, Scilly Isles or Lundy, where, on almost any dive, we’ll always have a good chance of an encounter.
But getting top-quality photos takes more dedication. Great seal images require devoted seal diving.
The best plan is to find a few friends who fancy some seal dives and charter a boat. My favourites are the Jessica Hettie in Clovelly and the Ocean Explorer
in Seahouses, but I am sure there are plenty of other skippers who know exactly how to get you into position for the best shots.
And once we’re in the right spot, patience becomes our main virtue.
We really need to dedicate an entire dive, or ideally a day to be sure of playful pinnipeds.
I’ve had plenty of days when the seals are just not interested on the first dive, and then later in the day we’re pushing them away.
Chasing seals will always drive them off and never produces memorable shots. I like to get in, settle in a seal-rich area and start taking photos of the seaweeds. Ignoring such naturally inquisitive creatures seems to drive them wild with curiosity. And soon I am the centre of attention.
You can further pique their interest by playing games of hide-and-seek, ducking down in the kelp and then popping back up. I’ll even stick my head down into the seaweed and flirt with my fins, waggling them around. And soon enough a seal will cruise in to investigate.
It is only when I am getting reliable encounters that I start to think photographically.
ACTION-PACKED almost sounds like an understatement when describing the dives when the seals are really playing. And while getting caught up in the moment is clearly part of the fun, a cool, detached approach will yield stronger images.
A common mistake is to track the seals with our camera and try to take all the different types of photos at once. It is the jack-of-all-trades syndrome, and while you’ll get a nice range of OK shots, you won’t get the very special ones.
The different types of shots – verticals, horizontals, full body, mouth gapes, seal with diver, seal in Snell’s Window etc – all require different strobe positions, powers and setups, especially in the unforgiving murky waters of Britain.
Get it wrong and you’ll still get pictures – you just won’t do as well as you might have.
Trial and plenty of error has taught me to divide these action-packed dives into 10-minute chunks, working through each photographic idea one by one.
I tend to start with the seal in scenery shots, with my strobes out wide and lifted up a bit to create a pool of light in front on the camera.
Then I’ll work on verticals of the same scenes, with the top strobe doing most of the work. Next I’ll work on seals on the dome, with the strobes now pulled in tight, getting shots of whiskers, teeth and seals chewing on my fins.
And after this, I’ll pull my strobes back out and swim round my buddies, getting shots of them interacting with the seals. I’ve even been known to turn the camera round and point it back at myself!
I’ll always try to react to what’s going on. If the visibility is low, I’ll focus on shots on the dome, or if the sun is out, I’ll try to get sunrays into my shots. But all setups benefit from some discipline with our techniques.
One of the first rules you learn about diving is to plan your dive and dive your plan. And while seal encounters are never predictable, prize-winning pictures are much more likely when you stick with a photographic plan on these high voltage dives.
Turn off your strobes, at least for part of your dive. Even if visibility is good, divers playing with seals can stir up lots of particles.
Most seal dives are shallow, and while strobes give you more contrast, shooting without them is the safe way to ensure that you bag some shots.
Increase your ISO. Seals are usually on the move, and it is often dark in British seas, so higher ISOs are very valuable.
How much you can turn it up depends on your camera, so do some test shots at home first at different ISOs.
Invite a non-photographer! Pictures of divers playing with seals are always well received both in competitions and by publications. So invite a non-photographer along, so there is someone to aim your camera at.