BE THE CHAMP! - Swimming in currents
“NO CURRENT, NO FUN!” beams Semi our Fijian dive guide, flashing a grin as bright as the tropical sun. I am pretty sure that his usual end-of-briefing tagline is designed to remind us that although moving water makes diving more challenging, it certainly brings dive-sites to life.
In-water skills such as buoyancy and stability are essential for underwater photography. Most important of all, they help to preserve the beautiful environments we explore.
More directly, they benefit our images by helping us to avoid stirring up clouds of backscatter and letting us position our camera carefully to unlock the best compositions.
Stability is particularly important for macro photography, where we need to accurately focus and compose a photo on the millimetre scale.
Our body control is also really valuable in wide-angle photography, not so much for our framing, but for our lighting. If we are not stable in the water, our camera is never in the same place twice. In essence, we are chasing a moving target, and any changes we make to our lighting won’t have their intended effects.
In short, a stable photographer is an able photographer.
Currents and surge test the diving skills of everyone, but are a fiercer challenge for underwater photographers because we typically need to manoeuvre close for our pictures, and we need stability once we are there.
Underwater photographers definitely have a love-hate relationship with moving water. This month’s column is here to help you get more of the former and less of the latter.
MOVING WATER breathes life into the underwater world – soft corals unfurl, polyps of seafans open, fish line up and big beasties appear. This is the time to take stunning shots, but we need to know our adversary for the best results!
Surge is caused when the large waves of ocean swells move into the shallow water. Friction with the seabed turns the circular water motion of waves into the backwards and forwards motion of swell.
Walls, rocky gullies and the spur-and-groove formations of coral reefs actually intensify this movement, and as a diver you can find yourself flying backwards and forwards.
Surge makes photography very difficult, and it is tempting to just avoid it. Unfortunately, the small Pacific islands like Galapagos, Socorro, Cocos and Malpelo that are renowned for surge are also famed for spectacular marine life. There are times when you just have to take it on.
Fortunately, surge is easy to predict before a dive. If you can see large, long waves on the surface and the dive is going to be on the exposed side of an island or reef, in shallower depths, then swell is likely.
Under water you can minimize its impact by going a bit deeper, or by swimming to the sheltered side of a reef or rocky pinnacle.
Surge intensifies close to the topography, so keep a little distance when you can, set up for the shot and then move in.
CURRENTS ARE less problematic, although they can build up to a point at which photography becomes impossible. Sometimes we have to go with the flow and capture images only in our minds.
Many currents are driven by tides, and experienced captains will put you on sites at slack water, or when the current is running in a favourable direction.
British dives are commonly dictated by the tides. Many UK skippers study them in detail and will make sure you hit the best sites in the best conditions.
Timing is particularly important when shore-diving the necks of sea-lochs, which harbour incredibly rich life, but require precisely timed dives.
Overseas dive operators tend to be less driven by tides and more by their daily schedule. They will certainly avoid dropping you in with the strongest currents, but far more is left to chance, which does not give you the time to change your camera.
Once under water, the complex topography of dive-sites means that there will always be areas where the water is squeezed and currents are strongest, and also areas for shelter.
Currents often cause back-eddies, downstream of where the topography juts out into the flow.
You can exploit these to navigate against the flow or hold position, with minimal effort, in a prime spot.
PLANNING FOR the conditions and keeping things simple are the keys to successful images in moving water. Kicking into a current and fiddling with camera settings and strobe positions is a recipe for frustration.
Instead, set up your camera for a specific shot, and then drift along shooting it again and again.
The image will be the same technically, but the subject matter will constantly change, brought to you on the current conveyor.
When approaching a promising scene, fin gently against the current to slow your pass, take a few frames and drift on. Wide-angle is always easier to shoot than macro in moving water.
In strong currents I will often shoot my fisheye from the hip, holding my camera out and aiming it the scenes without looking through the viewfinder.
This is surprisingly reliable with a bit of practice. Ultimately it is better to get a shot that needs a crop than no shot at all.
Fish can be one of the least co-operative underwater subjects, but few things whip them into photogenic formations like a current.
Often you can hide in the lee of the reef planning the shot and setting up your camera before swimming into the flow, puffing and panting to get the shot.
CURRENT HOOKS are not ideal for photography, but on some of the world’s best big-animal dives the dive operators demand them. Drift-dives, such as Blue Corner in Palau or in the passes of atolls in places such as the Maldives or French Polynesia are spectacular, but many dives are planned with time hooked in.
For a diver, hooking in and watching the show is great, but for photographers it can be frustrating. Hooking in normally leaves you and the fish both facing into the current, meaning you will only get butt shots!
Attach your hook to the side of your BC, which will rotate you on your side, allowing you to shoot the subjects as they swim towards and past you.
Safety is paramount when diving in more challenging conditions. No underwater photograph is worth risking your life for.
Two of the hardest skills to learn as a photographer are when not to take your camera on a dive and when to say no to a dive completely.
It is always better to be on the boat wishing to be under water than vice versa.
In moving water, use your brain as much as your fins. You will never out-muscle the ocean.
Fortunately there is always protection from moving water somewhere on a site. Try to shoot in the protection, or at least set up for your shot in sheltered areas.
Scenery blooms in the current, but working with a model is very challenging because the photographer and model, positioned on either side of the subject, will experience opposite currents.
It is much easier to hold position swimming into the current, so ask your model to do this while you shoot with the current at your back.