Be the champ - Red Sea reefs
I DON’T KNOW THE FIGURES, but I’d guess that British divers log more minutes under water each year in the Red Sea than anywhere else, even including our home waters. So in this mini-series on getting the most out of popular locations, I had to cover Cousteau’s “Corridor Of Marvels”.
The sun always shines on the Red Sea, and visibility is almost always excellent. Combine these advantages with impressive shipwrecks, rich and colourful reefs and plenty of bigger creatures and we have the perfect recipe for an irresistible wide-angle location.
Macro subjects abound too, and with marine life that’s used to divers, it is a great location for fish portraits.
But going wide should be our default. There are too many places around the world where we dream of wide-angle conditions like those found daily in the Red Sea. When we have them, we should make the most of them.
So this month I am focusing on reef wide angle. Throughout the Red Sea the reefs stretch right to the surface and the vertical walls pulsate with life, with bright red and pink soft corals.
Completing the scene are clouds of anthias, which always seem much bigger and a more pure orange than elsewhere in the world.
Set against bright, almost electric blue water, this creates a dazzling and specific colour palette that is unmistakably Egyptian. South-east Asian reefs may support more species, but to my eyes it is the compositional simplicity and intensity of these primary hues that makes Red Sea reefs the most beautiful in the world.
SUCCESSFUL REEF PHOTOGRAPHY is often about finding the shot in this bustle of life. If we try to capture it all our photos lack direction, the viewer left dissatisfied by the messy composition.
Our goal is to simplify, and build our photo around a key feature in the scene. Framing and lighting are our main tools in distilling the natural world’s beauty into a concentrated graphic image.
Simplifying the natural world into visually powerful images is a main tenet of all wildlife photography, neatly summarized by Andrew Loomis: “The novice snaps his camera carelessly at nature. The artist seeks to arrange it.”
In practice this means we should focus on a single seafan, or a particular attractive piece of soft coral, anemone or small coral head, rather than trying to shoot the whole wall. Frame this against an interesting background and wait for some fish to swim into the picture.
And work in background elements to give the image depth, perhaps a more distant silhouetted reef wall, or a diver.
The world is three-dimensional, but photographs are a flat medium. Building compositions with depth will make our wide-angle photos stand out.
RED SEA REEFS are more than just walls. Pinnacles are often well-suited for photography, supporting particularly dense life. They also make for excellent backgrounds when we can find a good foreground subject close to their base.
Many Red Sea reefs are also cut with caves and caverns. The shallow ones are perfect locations for images of light beams spearing down through the ceiling. It’s often dark in these caverns, so preset and lock your focus before entering, and be prepared to turn up the ISO, open the aperture and lengthen the exposure time.
As a general rule, the less we light a cave shot with our strobes, the more atmosphere our photos will have. We should turn off our strobes and switch them on only if there really is a subject worth illuminating. A seafan, soft coral, anemone or small school of fish can really complete a cave shot. But the shots still work without them, so there is no need to force the issue.
Our widest lenses are the best for these shots, because light beams look much better when they have a start and finish within the frame, often working well as either completely vertical lines or diagonals, if we rotate the camera.
Light beams are fine with a bit of fisheye bend, but it’s worth seeing how they look with some lens correction in Lightroom, to straighten them back out.
BACK IN THE OPEN, there can be a downside to all the sunshine, especially in the middle of the day, when the powerful sun can be tough to control in wide-angle exposures.
When the sun is overpowering, it’s best not to use it in our pictures. If we look for a subject in the shade, when we frame it up the sun will be helpfully hidden behind the reef. The alternative is to leave the ball of the sun out of the frame and work just with the rays.
The desert climate is often windy, so look for protected areas (by the reefs or a boat) to get the smooth surface texture that gives the best sun rays.
Later on, as the sun dips towards the horizon it becomes less intense and far more suited to be incorporated into our images. We should plan dives during the last hour before sunset, and almost any subject photographed in front of this gorgeous evening light will look superb.
Furthermore, many fish become more active at this time. Lionfish, for example, are often out and posing. Soft corals usually inflate and anemones ball up, revealing their colourful skirts. It’s a great time for scenic photography.
One final treat lies in store before these dusk dives end. The Red Sea is not usually great for split-level photos. Yes, the reefs reach the surface, but there is rarely good subject matter above the surface. The mountains are usually too distant, there are no palm trees overhanging the water and there aren’t even clouds to add interest to the sky.
But at sunset we finally have topside interest, when we can shoot the shallow corals, lit with our strobes against the pretty colours of the sunset above water.
Focus on the corals, expose for the sky and light the reef with flash.
The Red Sea’s comparative northerly location and isolation from the rest of the Indo-Pacific gives it a distinct character among coral seas: it has a high number of endemic species as subjects and is strongly seasonal. Go in summer for schooling fish and winter for sharks.
The Red Sea attracts divers from many different countries at all levels of experience. To get the most out of many of the sites you need to dive them as a photographer.
More than in most other regions, joining a trip for photographers can greatly enhance your productivity.
Look for a hero fish to finish off your wide angle scenes. Red soft corals and anthias look fantastic, but are even better with a colourful reef fish in the foreground to complete the scene. Red coral groupers or yellow butterflyfish are the perfect candidates to try and work into our scenics.