If you’ve read Michaela’s blog, you already know that this was the trip of a lifetime. She covered everything above water, so I’ll try to cover everything below. If you want to skip the wall of text about my new obsession with photography, just scroll down to where the pictures start!
So I’ve always wanted to learn how to take underwater photos, but the cost of equipment coupled with the ridiculous amount of required information and my general laziness made it all equate to a simple shrug of the shoulders and a “someday”. I just wanted to snap my fingers and bypass all the research and studying. My attitude changed when I booked this Indonesian live-aboard dive trip and knew I’d have plenty of time to learn the basics. We were spending 6 weeks in Cozumel (diving area in the Caribbean) a few months back when I met a girl that broke down underwater photography and camera types for me in a really simple 15 minute conversation. She explained what features were important for a novice like myself and which features were required at the expert level and thus could be avoided. I raced home, found a good site that sold an underwater package including the camera she highly recommended, housing (to make it waterproof), strobe (external underwater flash), red filter (to make videos less green/blue), and all the pieces to make them talk and play nice with each other. $1,000 later I was in business. Thank you Christina!
In preparation for all of my downtime between dives, I downloaded every article I could find on the internet about underwater photography (we would be offline for the two weeks on the boat). Of course I only got through two articles the entire trip!
When we arrived on the Arenui we were introduced to the crew and guests. The main salon had several camera desks, which are areas to work on your camera, recharge batteries, store ancillary equipment, and so forth. The two main photographers immediately began setting up their equipment and it was obvious that Larry took his photography very seriously. His setup looked like an octopus with arms, lights, strobes, buoys, and lenses reaching out like tentacles in every direction. I was surprised to see how fast he set everything up and that he then directly went topside to just relax. I assumed he would have fiddled with it for hours.
I introduced myself and we immediately had a connection. I asked some general question about photography to get the conversation started while trying not to sound like a complete novice. He was so volunteering of information that I conceded quickly that I didn’t know the first thing about photography. It was the equivalent of a Pop Warner kid asking a NFL veteran for some pointers. He gave me some excellent advice from a very broad and large perspective. Some of it didn’t make complete sense at the time, but it did as the days melted away. For example, he told me that this was a very special trip we were on (there were several places we visited and sites where no one had ever dove) and that I should make an effort to enjoy and absorb every aspect of it, as opposed to obsessing about my camera, my photos, my photo editing, etc. I had to chuckle a bit to myself on the inside since that definitely would not be my sort of problem. I hadn’t spent more than the 15 minutes with Christina and the hour buying the gear online and had no intention of doing much more than pointing and shooting and learning from there.
I didn’t take the camera on our first dive just to make sure all of our diving gear was sorted out. On the next dive I only used the camera to shoot video since it is much easier to get decent footage than still photos. The cruise director, Edu, noticed that I had the same camera he did and he showed me a few settings to make the videos a bit sharper and get the color correct underwater. It worked out beautifully that he had the same camera because over the next 2 weeks he taught me technical and minute things about my specific camera that I never would’ve figured out on my own or through reading articles. I was impressed with the video quality and it tempted me to stay away from the daunting still photos, but on Day 2 I started taking pics with a flash diffuser (a piece of plastic that covers the built-in camera flash to spread out the light more).
This is a very simple way to take stills since you can just shoot in auto mode and have the flash set to always fire, just like on land. The problem is that the flash isn’t very strong and it always fires in the same direction so that you can’t manipulate the lighting of the shot. The other problem is that when the flash is firing in the same direction as the shutter, the particles in the water reflect the light which causes the famous “backscatter” in the photos where it looks like it’s snowing. I was still pleased with the photos, but could realize that it was time to start learning the strobe.
That night I asked Edu to help me set it up. He gave me some great tips that I understood immediately and many others that were beyond my current scope. Most camera/strobe combos have a feature called TTL, or Through The Lens, which basically means auto-mode. I had specifically made sure that the camera/strobe combo I purchased had this feature as I had been told that the strobe was one of the more complicated apects of the process and any automation like TTL to remove another variable would be wise for a novice.
Well, Edu would have none of it and insisted that I shoot the strobe in manual mode, along with all the other camera settings. I could already tell that I was hooked and decided to just use all manual settings, no matter how annoying and poor the shots would be. Edu gave me the basics of f-stop, shutter speed, ISO settings, and strobe settings. Those are the four basic variables that a camera shooting in auto mode would do on its own. Of course those four settings were three too many for me to focus on underwater and I would therefore just concentrate on one variable for the entire dive. I could see the effects quickly and had hoped that adjusting that feature would become second nature. Of course that would be too easy! I would constantly get flustered and mess up the settings. I therefore practiced taking shots above surface around the boat to try and learn without the added variables of being underwater.
The usual routine became that I would come up from a dive and show my results to Edu. I would scroll over the crappy shots and try to show him my “good” shots, but he immediately asked, “Hey, what are you doing? I want to see all the photos!” I explained that most of them were either crap or literally unrecognizable. He explained how each photo has the meta data displayed on it so that we could see the four variable settings. He would then explain why that particular combo of settings were inaccurate for that shot and what they all should have been to get the ideal photo. In the extremely rare case where the photo looked decent, he would likewise explain why the settings worked for that particular photo.
This is when the learning curve really exploded. I would take in all this invaluable information and apply it on my next dive. After every dive we would repeat this learning process and hone the shots. Because of the nature and physics of diving, we are limited to about 60 minutes of dive time and require 1.5-2 hours on the surface to burn off the excess nitrogen in our system before we’re allowed to dive again. This “surface interval” became my classroom and as each dive passed, the errors became fewer and fewer.
By the fifth or sixth day, I had the variables under reasonable control and Edu moved the lessons towards artistic composition. He showed me the photos in the classification books lying around the salon and explained that they were decent photos, in focus, correct color, and one could easily identify the subject in question. He then showed me some of his personal photos as well as his favorites and it was quickly obvious how the photographer can use many more tangible and intangible tools to create something closer to art than merely an identification photo.
A good example is that many of the underwater photos that leave the viewer awestruck have a black background. I was always a bit annoyed that these Nat Geo photographers had the audacity to remove the creature from its home and shoot it with a black background. How naive! What really happens is that the shutter speed is set so that it is slow enough for the flash to arrive at the subject and light it up, but fast enough that the ambient light from the background never makes it to the lens, hence a black background.
On the occasions when Edu was busy during the surface interval, I would pick the brains of Nic (Nichole), Indra, or Larry and ask them a question or two about a photo that I had just taken that was “off”. They each had their own artistic style and while their answers were similar from a technical standpoint, I could quickly see how many different ways you could shoot the same subject and get widely different outcomes. Indra usually gave me advice on the equipment itself and how to get the most out of it. Larry continued with his large scope views and would give sage advice that would put a nice umbrella over the whole project. Oftentimes the three boys would get ahead of themselves and start on tangents that would fly right over my head. That’s when I would have to make a list of notes and take them to Nic to have her translate what the hell they just said. She would patiently explain the nuts and bolts of the photos that the boys would sometimes gloss over.
I had downloaded photoshop before I left New Zealand and figured it was time to throw this piece into the mix as well. With the guidance of my instructors, I realized that what I really needed was a program called Lightroom. Luckily I had a similar program and started editing my photos at night. This was much closer to my wheelhouse since my life is spent on a computer and I had used similar software back in my engineering days at Anatech. I quickly learned what parts of the photo could be polished and which could not (i.e. focus). From that point on, I could “see” the photo before shooting underwater and would try to concentrate on the most important variables: light, focus, composition, and shooting angle.
That first night I cracked open the software, I became utterly consumed and stayed up til 3am! Boat life starts early, so I was a zombie through little breakfast. Edu took one look at me and chuckled since he knew what had happened. Remember at the beginning of this blog when I scoffed at Larry for telling me not to obsess about the photos and camera and to just relax and savor the entire trip? Yeah, right!
When I returned home and shared my stories with my sister, who is a professional photographer, she was floored that I got so much specialized attention. She explained that she goes to paid workshops and conferences and usually leaves with some additional information and tips, but nothing like having your own personal quiver of professors that analyze your work all day long. I was truly blessed that these four took the time to help me work through the growing pains and find the fascination on the other side. Thank you!
OK, so now to the fun stuff – the photos!
Well, before any photos, let me start with a video. We pulled up to a tiny island with a village of about 60 inhabitants to drop anchor and spend the night. As was customary, we sent over a couple of our Indonesian dive masters to ask permission to dive their waters (the villagers often times mistake our boat for a fishing vessel). The chief was intrigued and took our boys to a secret pinnacle a mile offshore that he said was teaming with big fish.
We were giddy with excitement about what we might find in this new location. Since it was surrounded by deep water, we were diving the edges of it hoping to see something big pass by and we did indeed see a large marlin (amongst many other great things)! The currents picked up, so we hooked into the reef, which meant each of us was tethered to the reef with a six foot rope so that the current couldn’t sweep us away. I was situated in front of my buddies, so when this eel came up out of the reef I had no warning. Since my anxiety level was already high at this virgin location, I really thought he may want to do more than check me out. The problem was that I was physically attached to the reef and couldn’t go anywhere!
One of the most interesting creatures in these waters is called a Nudibranch. Nudi refers to “naked” and branch refers to “lungs”. Their lungs on the outside of their bodies and they usually resemble a tail. There are over 2,000 different species and they are all extremely unique in appearance. Most of the ones we observed were about half the size of your finger, but they tend to stand out due to their striking colors. This is a defense mechanism from predators and warns them that they are poisonous and distasteful (although few are actually poisonous). Check out their lungs in these photos…
While the nudis rely on bold colors to warn off predators, most other tiny creatures rely on camouflage for survival and without the help of our unbelievable guides, we would never find 99% of them. Some are creatures that you’ve never seen or heard of before and look like something from the Star Wars cantina scene or the Avatar forest. Others are normal creatures with a twist. Here is a crab, but no ordinary crab. This is a Decorator Crab. They stick plants, anenomes, sand, and anything else from their environment to their bodies for camouflage…
Now here is a sequence of photos of a very special animal…
So now in this shot above I’m much closer to the sea fan. I am using the technique described above to shoot a black background for a more dramatic effect. Do you see the creature in this photo? Go ahead and click on the picture and it should give you a larger version. I’ve put a small scale in the corner to give you an idea of what size the creature is.
Do you see the seahorse in this photo? Not only are they masters of camouflage, but if they are sitting with their profile in view (as in the previous picture) they are more easily spotted and therefore in greater danger. Just when you think their camouflage can’t get any better, whenever another animal approaches them (like a photographer, for instance), they turn 90 degrees so that they just become a line. Trust me, they are incredibly difficult to see and equally difficult to get a good shot of. Talk about a kid who won’t smile for the camera!
So these guys are one of the top 3-5 things that we had slated to find on this trip. When we finally saw one, I was quite nervous to get a good shot without hurting him. I had the camera lens literally one inch from him while I was floating in a three dimensional space with currents, all the while being aware that if my exhale bubbles hit him it would most likely blow him into deep space. I got several great shots and was ready to explode when I got to the surface to analyze my treasures.
I immediately showed the shots to Edu and he kindly sculpted an answer somewhere between “congratulations” and “you’ve got a lot more to learn young grasshopper”. While the shots were decent (not the ones from above, but some close-ups), they weren’t in perfect focus. Of course a macro lens that magnifies would’ve made things easier, but he described the technique of how to shoot these guys in manual focus. Basically, the camera is focusing on a limb from the seafan or even the wrong part of the seahorse (you always want the eyes in focus). The “trick” is to use manual focus, keep shooting until you get the correct focus, and then commit that distance to memory. Then start swaying in the same rhythm of the seafan and seahorse in the current to maintain that distance and wait until he moves into a good position, then shoot! I only had one more dive to test it out as this was the last site to most likely see them, and indeed we didn’t see any others the rest of the trip.
Finally a profile shot in focus!
Another great camouflage creature is the flounder. This is a fish similar to a halibut that lies flat on the sandy bottom and has evolved to have both eyes on the same side of its head. This video below shows how well they conceal themselves.
As if that camo isn’t good enough, the juvenile version is much more amazing – they’re transparent! I have to apologize as that is my pointer that I am gently pushing under the sand to make him move. I now know that is a no-no!
The Lembeh Sea Dragon is also on the top 3-5 list of creatures to find on our voyage. While nearing the end of one of our dives, I could sense a lot of excitement and commotion in the water (which only means divers signaling each other with small sounds and swimming quickly). I knew that it was something very special but also that I was the furthest from it. That meant that all of the other divers would take turns to see it and I would most likely be last in line. I immediately ascended to save as much bottom time as possible and slowed my breathing to conserve air. After another 20 minutes I started swimming to where everyone had been, but since surfaced – including all my dive buddies that hadn’t noticed the “commotion”. I passed Nic on the way and it was amazing how much excitement she conveyed to me through a mask and all that gear. She was stoked for what I was about to see!
My divemaster Ronald led me to the dragon and I had to really study the area before I could ascertain what I was looking at. This is another type of seahorse with a tail the width of a few human hairs.
There were so many amazing creatures and I have a story for nearly all of them, but I think the simplest way to share them is by throwing them all in a video. Hopefully you can watch with the full screen settings (click the box in the lower right). Warning – it’s about 12 minutes long, but I save the best shots for last!