ACE SHARK-SNAPPER Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch once remarked: “When I started, it was an achievement to get the flashgun to fire and finish the dive with an unflooded camera.”
His words were meant in jest, but there is more than a nugget of truth in them.
Underwater photography used to be very difficult indeed. The equipment was a challenge to use and maintain, but the biggest problem was film. It was not so much the limit of just 36 clicks per dive, as the fact that it didn’t give the instant feedback of an LCD screen.
A few resorts and liveaboards offered daily processing, although this was expensive and could be unreliable, ruining otherwise perfect pictures.
This all meant that if you turned up at a meeting of the British Society of Underwater Photographers in the 1980s with a box of slides that were in focus, well-framed and had some colour, you won much respect.
The limitations meant that it was the ambition of all of us just to record what we saw under water, as clearly as possible.
Technology marches onward, and today photographers get their images to come out within their first couple of dives with a camera. Beyond that, the goal is to get their images to stand out.
This is especially true in the realm of macro photography, where every single critter has been photographed before.
Even species that have yet to be described by scientists usually will have won a few contests before they get their Latin name!
WHEN SEARCHING FOR fresh inspiration, I regularly look to the work of photographers from different genres. Time and again I find ideas that, with a bit adaptation, I can use underwater.
Over the past decade, the work of nature photographer Sandra Bartocha has been universally hailed for its innovation.
She photographs everyday nature, like flowers and trees, yet captures far more than just the subject. Her enchanted visions have heralded in a movement of shallow depth of field macro, where photographers don’t just concentrate on what is in focus, but actively use the out-of-focus elements to add far more beauty and feeling than pin-sharp detail ever can.
This is easy to try, by simply shooting macro with an open aperture. But the technique becomes most exciting when we start experimenting with certain old lenses, noted for how they render the all-important out-of-focus details.
The key word here is bokeh, which is a Japanese word (pronounced to rhyme with OK) that describes the character of how a particular lens renders the out-of-focus elements of a picture.
There is good bokeh, bad bokeh and much debate about which lenses have which!
Modern, high-quality lenses produce attractive, smooth bokeh. However, photographers get more excited by some older lens, the more basic constructions producing distinctive bokeh. Interesting lenses include Trioplan 100mm and 50mm, Revuenon 55mm, Primoplan 58mm, Diaplan 80mm and Petzval 85mm.
A few years ago these lenses were available for pocket money, but their secondhand value has rocketed as this type of photography has become more popular. It has even spawned modern versions of both the Petzval 85 and Trioplan 100.
Most of these lenses require adaptors to use on modern cameras, and therefore are totally manual.
They also do not focus close enough for underwater use, but this can be corrected with an extension tube between the lens and camera.
We can then use wet dioptres to give more magnification. Finally, you might need to employ some basic DIY skills to rig up a focus gear.
BEAUTIFUL BOKEH comes from finding the right subject matter and shooting it with the aperture wide open. It is essential that we look for both a good subject and a good background.
Open water won’t blur in an interesting way – we need a detailed background that is the right distance behind the subject to be out of focus.
We should seek a background with bright highlights, which will show up in the bokeh.
These should be a bit brighter than the main subject, because when they are defocused their light is spread out, so its brightness diminishes. Darker details don’t show up.
Because the background is so important, I often search for this first. If the background will be illuminated with available light, I tend to look for hard corals or seafans, backlit by the sun.
If the background will be lit with my strobe, I look for subject matter with bright flecks of colour (crinoids are a favourite).
Then, finally, I wait for a subject to swim in front, and more often than not this tends to be a damselfish. I jokingly refer to my Trioplan as my damselfish lens!
Shooting with an open aperture does cause some challenges. The most obvious when diving in the tropics is that there is too much ambient light, especially on bright, shallow dives.
Even using the lowest ISO setting, when we shoot at f/2.8 the ambient light will often be far too bright at the maximum shutter-speed we can use with strobes.
We can use a three-stop neutral density filter in these conditions to bring things back into range.
The final problem of working wide open is that focus becomes critical, especially with smaller subjects.
I set my camera to shoot continuously and take a series of shots, to be sure that at least one is perfectly sharp.
It sounds a bit spray and pray, but because we’re no longer limited to 36 frames, I believe in making the most of technology!
Start with subjects that don’t move, because you will be relying on manual focus. Muck-diving is particularly productive, because many critters are ambush predators.
Species with repeating patterns will create their own eye-catching bokeh.
We don’t need a lot of strobe power for these shots, so consider using a small video-light instead of strobes.
A Sola type light usually gives a good fill of colour when working at such open apertures. It also gives more flexibility on shutter-speeds, and doesn’t limit burst shooting.
If working with strobes, consider adding an extra layer of diffuser to reduce the power and give you more control. Without this you might be always at minimum power.
I use discs cut from plastic milk cartons (Cravendale is the best!) slipped behind my diffusers.