Photo opportunities under water

How to improve your underwater photographs
by  J Floor Anthoni (2005)
Already many of your opportunities and required skills have been dealt with in the introductory chapter, including the influence of weather and waves. In this chapter we explore the opportunities offered by the nature of your subject, the shape of the environment and the way you (should) behave. We also touch on your model who can be an asset or a liability. These are the finer points of successful underwater photography, that nonetheless have an unexpectedly large influence on the quality of your photos and the number of successful ones you take home.
What kind of photo do you want to take and what kind of photo can you take? What will you do with the result?
The shape of the seascape predicts where you will find your opportunities, and some will present themselves.
The way you behave is often of critical importance to success.
The model can be an asset or a liability. Here is some advice for her and for you.
Some changes to your equipment increase the chance of success.
For comments and suggestions, e-mail the author. Read tips for printing.
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Very few underwater photographers have only one type of underwater photography in mind, but they do exist:
  • scientists: many scientists take photos just to document what they are doing or to register the environment for measuring later in the laboratory. Photography is also used to explore the deep sea with remotely operated vehicles (ROV).
  • fish-scientists: some scientists specialise in the knowledge of fishes (ichthyologists). What they need are 'frying pan' shots of fish side-on with all their fins erect and scales visible. Many of these photos are also provided by amateurs, and this makes it a sought-after category which is amazingly difficult to take, however boring its result.
However, for most people who just enjoy their diving, underwater photography enables them to take back 'snappies' to show others and to paste into their photo albums. Only for a very few, does underwater photography become an obsession and a passion. They compare their skills by competing in underwater photographic competitions, and suddenly the continuity of their underwater experiences is carved up into arbitrary categories that live separate existences while requiring different standards of judgment: The above categories have been gleaned from the conditions of entry of a number of underwater photographic competitions. Most of these competitions still won't accept the Digital Darkroom as a valid technique, inseparable from photography. The main question I want to raise is: why do you take underwater photos? If you want to win competitions, you must study how this is done, by observing the winning photographs of many competitions. The Internet provides excellent opportunities for this, but perhaps these are the qualities the judges fall for: As you can see, it is not necessary to win competitions in order to enjoy underwater photography. It is perhaps better to develop your own style, even though this may not be appreciated by self-appointed judges. You will most likely develop all possibilities from super macro to super wide angle if you can afford so. But here are a number of tips as far as opportunities relate to subject matter:

The form or topography of the seascape is often decisive on what works and what doesn't. To enhance your chances, it would be a good thing to at least know about these rather fine nuances (shades) in underwater photography.

opportunities by topography

The image above shows some of the most important opportunities given by the form of the seascape (from left to right):

seaweeds and Snell's window
f039315: necklace seaweeds in a shallow estuary. The blue sky penetrates through Snell's window with some of the shore as well. Strobe light was used to balance the scene. 13mm lens. Viz 3m. You need to hold your breath for this.
reflections in shallow water
f042432: tree stem and weeds in a freshwater lake, with a model behind. Notice the ledge in the foreground. The wide anlge lens was aimed horizontally, revealing only the reflections. 13mm lens. Viz 10m. No strobe.
rich life under a ledge
f038305: under a ledge, often at the entrance to caves, abundantly rich life can be found. 28mm lens. Viz 8m.
deep sea life on a shaded wall
f038723: on a shaded wall, one finds sea life which is normally found much deeper down. 35mm lens. Viz 20m.
blue sky, calm water in a lake
f042314: a blue sky and calm water in the early morning give the right conditions for wide angle photography in a lake. 13mm lens. Viz 6m. No strobe.
a natural cave with two windows
f042636: peeping out from a small natural cave with two entrances. The image was overexposed and colour-corrected in the digital darkroom. 13mm lens. Viz 8m. No strobe.
elegant wrasse Anampses elegans
f042911: elegant wrasse (Anampses elegans) is rare in NZ, and very skittish. A repeat dive was made to cash in on the progress made in the previous one, resulting in several good shots. 50mm lens. Viz 10m.
longtailed stingray and snorkeldiver
f029214: a snorkeldiver follows a longtailed stingray (Dasyatis thetidis) during its departure from the sand. Taken by natural light, the belly of the stingray is lit up by reflection from the sand. 16mm lens. Viz 8m.
cathedral light radiating from a kelp
f012813: cathedral light radiating from a stalked kelp hiding the sun. Because this plant is the most common, this kind of opportunity can easily be found. 16mm lens, 7m viz. No strobe.
jackackerels resting above the sand
f021031: a school of jack mackerels (Trachurus novaezelandiae) resting above a sandy spot. Notice their bellies glowing from the reflected light. Natural lighting. 35mm lens. 10m viz.
Exploring coral caves
f044829: a diver explores a cave system under a coral flat. For best cave photos choose shallow caves and an overcast day. Use fast film and a tripod and let the model move slowly. 13mm lens. 25m viz. No strobe.

In the introductory chapter we mentioned some of the skills you need to have, including dust-avoiding behaviour. In this chapter we'll look at your behaviour towards the living things and how you can improve your success. I am writing from over 40 years of diving experience, clocking over 2000 dives. And what did I learn at the very end of it?

I've underestimated the intelligence of the longer-lived fishes. Understandably, because aren't these just cold-blooded, primitive creatures? Yes, but I noticed that many species make chimpanzee-like decisions towards their partners and rivals and towards divers and one can meaningfully interact with many. But aren't they stupid enough to bite the bait and get caught? Yes, just as stupid as people who crash their cars on an icy road. It has to do with unfamiliarity with a new kind of situation. Likewise, we are equally stupid underestimating them.

The moment you splash into the sea, your arrival is announced in very loud terms to a large community who immediately confirm their observation to one another by a fright reaction (often very slight). And then they continue as if nothing happened. In the meantime your presence is carefully followed by some, and their reactions by others further away. If fish were really stupid, they would all take off immediately. Some large fish have indeed learnt to distrust people and they slide away unnoticeably.

I like to suggest to you not to underestimate the fishes you are going to take photos of, but rather, learn their body language to your advantage. Consider these elements of behaviour which may take years to acquire:

your most powerful move forward is retreat - Floor Anthoni (2005)


model and school of knife fish
f031026: on a single breath, the model gently herds a school of grey knife fish (Bathystethus cultratus) towards the photographer. A model who also has a way with animals is a gem to keep. Natural light. 28mm lens. 30m viz.
diver and young seals
f035011: diver and young seals in a protected corner of the reef. Repeating one's dives on the same spot will eventually familiarise the pups for real play. 16mm lens + strobe. 10m viz.
black-spotted puffer in hand
f045028: a black-spotted puffer (Arothron nigropunctatus) is comfortable being handled by the photographer. Notice that the strobe comes from the wrong angle and should have come from above-right. We changed the strobe bracket to do this quickly. 28mm lens.
inquisitive sharpnosed puffer
f029625: an inquisitive sharpnosed pufferfish (Canthigaster callisterna) inspects an outstretched finger. We are not the only observers and explorers. The strobe light should have come from top right. 35mm lens.

As mentioned earlier, the model can be an asset or a liability. We showed that her skills should match those of the photographer in  air consumption, fitness, confidence and breath-holding, but there is more. She may need to read this course in order to understand how the photographer thinks. A good partner and model, she can excel by mostly being a step ahead.
We've talked about avoiding dust, not beating one's arms and being perfectly trimmed for buoyancy and so on, but here are a few new considerations:
A photographer's lament
Why is she always in the shade? Why is she always on the sun side? Why does she always look away? Why does she make the fish point away? Why is she always moving further away? Why does she never look at my signal? Why is she always breathing out at the wrong moment? Why is her strap undone? Why can't she keep her depth and position? Why is her mask so often fogged up? Why is her nose bleeding? Why is she always fiddling with her gear? Why do I need to remind her to trim her buoyancy?
I have told her so many times. Why can't she learn? Why can't she remember? (sigh)

Being an underwater photographer is just being a diver and taking an underwater camera with you, isn't it? Wrong. A true underwater photographer is continually improving his luck, and this includes adapting his equipment. Think about the following:
See also the tips and tricks section for clever adaptations of camera gear.