Be the champ! - Maldives
FEW PLACES EXPLODE with marine life like a certain 500-mile-long, double chain of atolls, reefs and small castaway islands, sitting just north of the Equator in the Indian Ocean. The Maldives is a true divers’ paradise, but the very thing that brings the richness also makes it a challenging place for underwater photography.
Strong currents pump water in and out of the many atolls, and with such complex underwater topography, including countless submerged thila reefs, diving conditions are almost impossible to predict.
Outgoing tides can often suck surprisingly murky water onto a dive site, or when you least expect it the current shuts off, the soft corals close up, the schooling fish disperse and life drains away.
Whether you are island-based or cruising via liveaboard, most diving is actually done from small dhonis.
So even though dive-guides almost always make a last-minute current check, as an underwater photographer you are often locked into diving with the lens that you chose an hour before, in your room or cabin.
In short, while the dives are spectacular, more often than not the conditions are unpredictable. So as a photographer you have to be ready to think on your feet, adapting your techniques to what you find and ready to take it on the chin when you jump in with a macro lens and find yourself surrounded by a vortex of mantas in 60m visibility.
Sometimes in the Maldives, enjoying the ride has to come before the photos.
BEING ADAPTABLE STARTS with the camera gear we choose. Those with compact cameras are at a distinct advantage because it is easy to carry both wide-angle and close-up accessory lenses.
Mirrorless and SLR shooters probably won’t want to change lenses on the dhoni, but it is definitely worth travelling with a good all-rounder zoom lens, for those dives you’re just not sure about. But don’t get lazy and zoom in instead of trying to get close. It is best to start with the lens at its widest angle and then zoom only when you can’t physically get closer.
We also need to be flexible with techniques. If we expect poor visibility, we should go with a macro lens, but if we find clear water then we can always use it for shooting fish portraits.
If we are shooting wide angle and find ourselves in dark, murky waters, then rather than push our strobes out wider, we should pull them in tight, get in very close and make close-focus wide-angle pictures.
THE MALDIVES HAS PLENTY of iconic subject matter. There are endemic and regional species, including several snails and nudibranchs and the ubiquitous blackfoot anemonefish.
But the reefs are perhaps best known for simply being fishy, which is something we should always try to communicate in our photos.
Schooling fish make excellent subjects in themselves. And there is lots of choice in the Maldives: including oriental sweetlips, several species of snapper, jack, bannerfish, and fusiliers. We should always look for pleasing formations, with the fish all lined up in the same direction, for the strongest images.
We can also utilise this fishiness in the backgrounds of wide-angle photos, to give the image more visual depth and a greater feeling of a reef thriving with life. Schools of redtooth triggerfish are often helpfully positioned up in the Maldivian water column for just such needs!
Many reefs also have healthy reef-shark populations. Grey reefs will often keep their distance, but go for a snorkel off most islands and you should be able to get close to reef blacktips.
Sleeping whitetips can often be approached closely, and at night on Maaya Thila, hunting reef whitetips can be encountered reliably.
Turtles are common. Hawksbills are found on most dive-sites and every now and then you will find a particularly friendly individual, or at least one so engrossed in its dinner that you can hang out with it for a while. This is when the best images come.
Green turtles tend to be encountered in good numbers on specific sites, such as Kuredu Caves.
Their particularly pretty shells work well photographed from above or, if they are resting, their characterful faces also make for memorable portraits.
Turtles are always more reflective than the reef, so if you remember one thing, always click down your strobe power when you see one!
MANTA RAYS ARE THE CLASSIC Maldivian subject. There are many manta dives across the atolls, most at cleaning stations, where the giant rays come in for their spa treatment.
Great photos come with patience, and the less you move the closer the rays will circle. The challenge for dive guides is often communicating this to everyone in the group!
But if all the divers stay still and don’t block access to the station, then the mantas will often come right overhead and stay in orbit for the rest of the dive.
Despite the rays often filling the frame, generally we want our strobes right out on long arms for these dives, to minimise backscatter when trying to illuminate such big creatures.
If the rays aren’t coming that close, we can look for a colourful foreground subject, like an anemonefish, a soft coral etc and use the mantas as a background.
If the visibility is poor, we should think about turning off our strobes and shooting silhouettes. Even if the visibility is great, mantas look fantastic in silhouette.
It is also possible to encounter mantas feeding near the surface, either at dedicated sites such as Hanifaru, or fortuitously when travelling to and from dives.
Such encounters usually occur while snorkelling, but provide the chance to photograph the mantas with their mouths open and feeding.
There are many feeding behaviours to shoot, such as barrel rolls and, most spectacular of all, chain-feeding, where manta after manta lines up in formation to feed.
Chain-feeding is something I have yet to see, and is just another reason why I can’t wait to head back to the Indian Ocean and pit my wits against the challenging photographic conditions of the Maldives.
The Maldives is very fishy, and shooting fish portraits is possible on every site. Island house reefs are often best, as the resident fish are used to divers and sometimes even accustomed to hand-outs.
Remain motionless and wait for the fish to turn to face you to capture its character.
If the visibility is poor when the big animals turn up, think about turning off your flashes.
Get below and frame the creature against the surface for the most contrast. Turtles, mantas and even divers look great as silhouettes.
You may have travelled to the Maldives dreaming of sharks and rays, but if you are land-based make sure you head in snorkelling to shoot the shallow reef scenics.
Think about reflections and half-and-half shots of reef and island for a classic Maldivian scene.