Tips to ease back into the underwater photography world
We all know that when you do not use a skill, you get rusty, muscle memory fades, and things you used to know by heart get a bit foggy. Unfortunately, underwater photography is no different.
Many of us have been stuck indoors for what seems like a very long time without the chance to get in the water. No surprise you may feel a bit apprehensive about your first diving trip in a while. Today, I would like to go through some basic skills and techniques we all can review to help us get back into underwater photography.
BEFORE YOUR TRIP
Start a few days before your trip. Especially if you have not used your camera in a while. Fully charge the battery and refamiliarize yourself with all the controls. Take a few pictures around your house or garden to remind yourself of the position of all the buttons and controls. If your housing is not too heavy, repeat the process with the camera inside it to get that muscle memory back.
Many housings have vacuum systems built-in. These handy devices work with batteries so make sure you put a new one in and test it to make sure is working properly. Once the pressure is set, push the buttons and work the levers to check all the small O-rings are in good working order.
During lockdown we all found small projects around the house and, if you are like me, you have raided your camera toolbox for Allen keys or any other bit. Check all your tools and spares are back where they belong. The last thing you want is to be away on a boat and realize you are missing the exact tool you need.
The last thing I tend to do before any trip is to check my camera and strobes are working fine, set up your kit as if you were diving, and take some test shots ensuring the flashguns are synchronizing properly. Taking pictures of a mirror or a reflective surface usually works great as you can clearly see the light of the flashguns. Change the strobe settings if needed and test the flash at different power settings to check everything is working ok.
WHEN YOU GET TO YOUR DESTINATION
You have finally arrived at your destination, unpack your kit and find yourself full of excitement. Be careful, this is the moment when many photographers make some catastrophic mistakes by rushing the set-up of their rig.
Take your time to set your kit up, ensure all the O-rings are clean and properly greased, your batteries are fully charged, and you have plenty of space in your memory card. Do not forget to secure your lanyards. If you have a vacuum system in your housing, pressurize it and leave it overnight.
Task loading can be a serious problem while diving and can lead to accidents. If you haven’t dive in a long time is not a bad idea to take it easy and if needed, leave your housing on dry land for the first dive. Get back your buoyancy skills before you start taking pictures. Okay, camera and housing are in perfect working order and you are happy with your trim and buoyancy and you are starting your descent. Give yourself some time to remember some basic skills before you unleash your creative mind on that unsuspecting clownfish.
If you are using a wide-angle, this is a good time to practice how to control the background exposure and color. Keep in mind the sun position, after all, it is your main source of light, and try, whenever possible to keep it behind you to avoid washed-out blues and to get beautiful surface textures.
Remember that increasing your shutter speed will reduce the amount of ambient light the camera sees and therefore make the background darker. Slowing the shutter speed will do the opposite and make them brighter. I always take a few test shots pointing my camera into the blue, first choose a mid-range aperture that will yield a good depth of field, then vary the shutter speed until you are happy with the background color. Be prepared to change it if you change your depth or point the camera in a different direction. At this point do not worry about the foreground, it will be lit by your flashes and the shutter speed will not have any visible effect.
Work on carefully positioning your strobes, pull them as far back as possible to avoid hotspots, and reduce backscatter. If your subject is far away, position your strobes wide apart, and the closer you move to the creature you are photographing, the closer to the housing you will have to bring the flashguns. Be prepared to increase the ISO a bit if you find that to achieve the background color you are looking for your shutter speed has to be too low to prevent camera shake.
If your strobes creep forward too much, you will start to see backscatter and hotspots on the sides of the images. Always remember to zoom in when you check your pictures and adjust the position of your flashguns if needed. If on the other hand, you decide to keep your rig a bit smaller and try a bit of macro, there are a couple of things you want to practice. Black backgrounds and shallow depth of field.
A black background in macro will always help to make the subject pop and focus the attention of the viewer directly where you want. It will also be very useful when trying to hide the distracting environment. The easier way to achieve a black background is by framing the subject against the blue so the strobes will not light the surrounding area. Using a very fast shutter speed, a small aperture, and low ISO will ensure only the light of the flashguns can be seen by the camera making everything else black.
Another technique you can practice getting up and running is shallow depth of field or SDF. SDF produces very soft images with only a key element of the subject in focus (usually the eyes) giving a very light and ethereal feeling to your images.
To obtain this effect you will need to completely open the aperture and to get as close as possible. These two things will dramatically reduce the area of the picture in focus (depth of field) and create the ‘Bokeh’ effect. By opening the aperture, you will let a lot of light through, for this reason, you may have to reduce the power of your strobes and move them away from the subject to avoid overexposing the image.
Hopefully, you will be soon preparing for the first diving trip since lockdown started, and after a long time is not a bad idea to treat your first photo dive like a scuba review. Give yourself the time to refamiliarize with these basic techniques and use them to rebuild the skills needed to get those fantastic shots you want. Just remember, take your time, and do not rush. A bit of patience and practice will get you ready to start working on those amazing pictures you have been planning in no time.