BE THE CHAMP! - Silhouettes
MANY ASPECTS OF DIVING benefit from the application of KISS. The phrase Keep It Simple, Stupid is particularly apt in the task-loading world beneath the waves. There is even a rebreather company named after the expression!
It is certainly an idiom well suited to underwater photography.
The importance of simplicity comes into focus when we consider the difference between a painter and an underwater photographer.
A painter starts with a blank canvas and needs to add only what is necessary to create an image, such as Picasso’s famous Dove Of Peace.
Conversely, an underwater photographer starts with the riotous canvas that is life in the ocean. To capture this natural wonder in a graphically strong and eye-catching composition, we need to simplify.
Photography has always been as much about what we exclude from the frame as what we include.
There are many strands to such “less is more” thinking, but in this month’s column I want to focus on excluding foreground colours and details from our frames, and shooting silhouettes.
That said, silhouettes are not colourfree images. Under water we will always have the rich colour of the water at diving depths. Getting a strong blue or green is essential for a successful image.
If we are very shallow, we can even silhouette our subject against the sky or, in certain environments, the colours that come from subject matter above the waterline.
Trees, cliffs, clouds and more will provide alternative background colours for underwater silhouettes taken just below the surface.
A big attraction of shooting silhouettes under water is that they simplify the photographic process and eliminate the risk of backscatter.
The basic technique is to aim the camera up, frame the subject against the surface and expose for the blue of the surface.
Framing the subject against the brightest water, which is that directly between us and the surface, will give us the greatest contrast and the most dramatic silhouette.
Also, exposing for the blue of the surface and framing the subject against it will nicely frame the subject within the darker tones of Snell’s Window.
WHEN WE USE A FISHEYE LENS and shoot directly up, we can get in almost the entire circle formed by Snell’s Window, creating a striking composition.
However, when we shoot towards the surface we will probably have to consider how we deal with the sun in our image. Unlike the early days of digital, our cameras now do a pretty decent job of capturing the sun, but in a silhouette shot we often don’t want it.
In any image, the areas of highest contrast will dominate the composition, and we want the viewer’s eye to be drawn to the main subject.
When the sun is in the shot, this will often be the area of greatest contrast, and therefore the sunburst will outcompete our subject for attention; ultimately meaning that the image is less powerful.
So in most silhouette shots it is best to keep the sun out of the frame or, even better, to hide it behind the subject so that it gives even more emphasis to it.
This sounds simple enough in theory, but we often need to put in quite a bit of legwork to get a subject directly between us and the surface. Especially when we are trying to place the subject precisely in front of the sun.
Furthermore, when shooting directly upwards, our own bubbles will float up and ruin the shot. Photoshop can come to the rescue here, but while it goes against the advice of training manuals, it is not a scoop to tell you that many photographers will carefully minimize their breathing when taking these shots.
Silhouettes obviously don’t need strobes, but it is time-consuming to reach out to each strobe and turn it off when a turtle suddenly decides to leave the reef and swim overhead.
It is much better to check if your camera and/or housing has a quick way to turn off the flash before diving.
Many underwater cameras now use pop-up flash to trigger our strobes, and the housings provide levers for both popping up the flash and putting it down again. Flipping the flash down is the quick way to be ready for shooting silhouettes.
On some cameras you can also set a customisable control button to act as a flash-off function. This is how I have my housing set up, where the lever next to my shutter-lever switches off the flash.
This means that when the turtle swims over my head, I can shoot both flash-fill and silhouette images at will.
WHILE SILHOUETTES might be relatively easy to take, using them effectively is not so straightforward.
Silhouettes are high-impact images. They get attention, but they usually leave the viewer wanting more. As a result they are usually at their strongest when part of a collection of photos.
Silhouetted images are often best appreciated when used sparingly in a slide-show, online gallery or portfolio. An entire exhibit of silhouettes is unlikely to be satisfying!
They are particularly effective at the start or end of a collection, or to divide sets of images.
Silhouettes are also very useful to publishers for background images for pages, which can still feature plenty of text. They are not to be overused, but it ingratiates us to editors when we include at least one in an article submission.
Silhouettes are simple but strong images that will add diversity and class to our portfolio, as long as we use them sparingly. As Leonardo Da Vinci put it: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.
The best subjects for silhouettes are those with characteristic outlines, such as sharks, turtles, mantas, divers, dolphins and sea-lions.
The classic subject is hammerhead sharks schooling, which when shot from below delivers the hammerhead wallpaper image. A shot I have still to capture.
Pointing our camera at the surface can mean much higher light levels than we’re used to on a dive.
Don’t be afraid to wind up the shutter speed, as we’re no longer restricted by the flash synchronisation speed of our camera. This is especially important for fast-moving subjects such as dolphins and sea-lions.
When wanting to capture silhouettes in Snell’s Window, plan shoots for early in the morning or late in the day. This ensures that the sun is at the edge of the frame and is less intense.
Furthermore, the light fall-off is greatest at this time, so the edges of Snell’s Window are at their darkest compared with the centre.