Be the champ! - All-rounder
HOW DO WE GET winning images in all-rounder dive destinations, places that offer many different photographic thrills As an example, I’ve chosen the Cayman Islands, which serve up dramatic drop-off scenery, coral caverns, photogenic shipwrecks, playful stingrays and thriving reef and macro life.
With so many options, a disciplined approach pays dividends.
The secret to success is to have a plan for each type of dive we’re likely to do. We should regularly quiz the dive staff about our likely sites so we arrive on the boat each day prepared, both in terms of techniques and equipment. We don’t want to drop down at the prime macro spot armed with only a fisheye lens!
Those with compact cameras have the advantage of being able to change between their wet lenses as the subjects present themselves. On two-tank dive trips this can mean that those with interchangeable-lens mirrorless or SLR cameras have to either stick to their guns or consider changing lenses on the boat.
I’ve always been happy to change my lenses on dive-boats, as long I have a dry place to store them afterwards. And after thousands of dives I am still waiting for my first SLR flood.
Cameras get flooded when housings are put together without due care. Opening them on the boat isn’t a specific risk as long as we work as carefully as we do on land.
But success comes from more than just having the right gear – we need to hit the water with the right ideas…
LITTLE CAYMAN is celebrated around the world for the spectacular reef scenery of Bloody Bay Wall and the friendly Nassau groupers that call these dive-sites home. Wide-angle photography is a must.
Photographs are a two-dimensional medium, but the underwater scenery we want to portray is, of course, three-dimensional. Our challenge is to endow our two-dimensional wide-angle photographs with as much visual depth as possible, so that they invoke a feeling of real world scenery.
In short, we have to search for both a foreground and background for our pictures, and a precipitous wall is ideal.
It is best if we drop down over the edge and descend at least 5m below the lip of the wall before we start searching for subjects. This ensures that when we find one we should have a background (the wall) ready and waiting.
Bloody Bay Wall is covered in jaw-dropping sponge formations, but our wide-angle shots become even more impressive if we can work some marine life into the pictures too.
Options include the ubiquitous Nassau groupers, common hawksbill turtles or pairs of angelfish. Including them adds such dazzle to wide-angle photos that photographers often call it adding a “hero fish”.
BOTH CAYMAN BRAC and Grand Cayman are home to two of the world’s most photogenic shipwrecks: the Russian destroyer 356, renamed the Keith Tibbetts and the US Navy’s Kittiwake, respectively.
Grand Cayman’s Kittiwake, in particular, is still completely intact and is a huge draw for photographers.
On my photo workshops it earned the nickname the Wreck of a Thousand Faces because it offers so many angles for photography.
The most impressive images of shipwrecks are usually the big shots, that show as much of the recognisable structure as possible, and the clear Caymanian waters are ideal.
Such scenes are far too large to illuminate with flash and the Kittiwake is at an ideal depth for filter photography, which restore the colours of the wreck and helps to hold a strong water colour.
Using white-balance adjustments alone usually sucks all the colour out of the water, leaving a washed-out-looking image.
However, removing our strobes and adding a filter to our wide-angle lens is not enough. To reveal the detail and colour of the wreck we need a big light source – the sun.
It is very important to dive a shallow wreck such as the Kittiwake at the right time of day, so that the sun illuminates the parts we want to photograph.
An early-afternoon dive is the perfect time to photograph the bow from the port side, while the shapely stern is fully illuminated in the morning.
Seasonal Cayman favourites are the great masses of silversides that gather in certain coral caves around the islands in the summer months. These spectacular schools grow so large that a whole boat-load of divers can disappear inside them!
Spending a whole dive engulfed in fish is a mesmeric experience, and nirvana for underwater photographers.
Silversides offer quite a few options for images. Classic shots include waiting for a plundering tarpon or jack to burst through the school (we rarely have to wait long) or swimming slowly towards our buddy and taking a shot at the moment the silver curtain opens, framing them in a circle of fish.
Smaller schools often form pleasing shapes, and these patterns can look amazing in the dark of the caverns with cathedral light dancing with them.
Southern sting rays are another classic Cayman subject. The key to getting great shots of them is not to dive with them!
There are two sting ray spots in Grand Cayman: divers are taken to the original Stingray City, which is 3-4m deep, while snorkellers visit Stingray City Sandbar, which is only waist deep. It is the latter that offers the most amazing photos.
The shallow depth of the Sandbar brings seabed, rays and surface into close proximity, and we can use all of them in our shots. Plus we’ll usually have them in amazing light.
You don’t need strobes or filters here, just a camera with a wide-angle lens, and you have options to shoot fully underwater or split-level images.
Next month we look in detail at the technique of shooting those under/over shots.
When shooting without flashes, such as on shipwrecks or with stingrays, we must pay particular attention to the direction of light. For colourful pictures we need to shoot with the light, but for black and white photos we should shoot against or across it.
When shooting in caverns, such as with the silversides, we should always question how much strobe we are using. Usually, the less we use, the more atmosphere we will capture. Shadow is important.
Reef wide-angle photos are about celebrating scenery. We want the viewer to enjoy the scene and not get distracted by how we made the photo. We need to aim and set the powers of our strobes carefully, so that poor lighting doesn’t highlight distractions.