Nowhere on the planet is the collection of color and form so engaging as what we find under the sea. Photo images of underwater art forms appeal to a wide variety of people, some of whom have no interest in swimming and exploring the water first-hand. It seems the whole world finds itself captivated by the beauty of a tropical fish, a coral reef formation or an eel popping out of his hole in the rock.
How do we go about getting that great underwater photograph? It's all about trust; a deep trust that develops through patience and a commitment to connect with your surroundings. Your goal, as a photographer, is to become a non-threatening, even welcomed, guest in a new environment. This allows you to observe the habits of the fish you're there to capture on film. It's never as simple as just showing up and snapping the picture. Whether snorkeling or diving, it can take quite a while for normal marine activities and behaviors to resume once you've entered the scene.
Divers talk about anchoring their finger on a rock and, in the absence of strong currents, being able to remain fairly still for up to 20 minutes. Breathing slowly and rhythmically, they wait for eels to pop out of their hiding places and for local fish to resume their swimming. Eels are really shy but when they feel safe, they'll start a series of appearances from various openings in the rocks. Knowing this, you can wait by one of the holes and be ready for the next appearance instead of chasing the eel from hole to hole.
Besides building trust, another great tip I've picked up from seasoned professionals is to do what photographers call bracketing, that is, taking a lot of shots. These days, with digital cameras becoming the norm, bracketing is easy to do. In the old days, entering the water with a roll of 36 exposures, we had to pick and choose carefully to get the most out of the snorkeling or diving event. Now, we can load a hundred shots on a memory card, giving us the latitude to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. And, we can preview shots right on the spot. What could be better?
Many digital cameras have a bracket setting which causes the camera to automatically shoot one 'best' exposure and then two others, one slightly underexposed and one slightly overexposed. If your camera doesn't do this automatically, you can adjust the exposure by hand to accomplish the same thing.
Observing fish photography, we see two distinct kinds of pictures. One is encyclopedic, with intent to inform and give data about the species. It may be shot from the back or the side, giving a full view of the structure, color and patterns. While these photographs show the body of the fish and are wonderful for species identification and other instructional materials, they don't show you what it's like to be a fish.
The other kinds of shots are portraits, intended to capture the personality of the fish. With these shots, you want the fish looking at you; you need to establish eye contact. This is where the trust and patience come in. You need to hover for a while, just hang out in non-threaten positions in their environment. At first the fish will swim away from you but if you remain fairly still, they'll return. After 20 minutes and lots of shots, they'll become comfortable enough for you to shoot their eyes. Of course I'm talking about bigger fish. The fast little fluttery ones are hard to make eye contact with, though it is possible to get some good front-on views of them.
It's true that scuba divers bring us the majority of the intimate marine images that we see in books and on postcards. They swim to great depths and hang out with the creatures they photograph. So, it makes sense that most of our photo tips come from their experience. I recently heard a well-known underwater photographer say that the best thing he could tell fellow photographers was to, "Get down, get close, and shoot up" He talked about the advantage a sea floor drop-off provides; it allows you to get below the surface of what you are shooting.
The underwater photography vantage point for snorkelers is generally a bird's eye view as it is difficult to get down deep enough and stay long enough to really hang out with the fish. A lot depends on the snorkeling destination you've chosen. It's for sure that your best shots will come when you take your camera to shallow marine reserves teaming with color and life. The knowledge and tips we pick up from scuba divers are useful, especially when the sea life is close to the surface. We can look for opportunities to dive down and shoot up, knowing that we'll be creating that optimum shot.
In our next article we'll explore underwater photography equipment options, the digital disposable camera, amazing new housings for your regular digital camera and the more sophisticated cameras, lighting (strobes) and housings available and accessible for amateurs and professionals alike.
As always, Happy Traveling!
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