COMPLETELY NEW TYPES OF UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHS are a rare treat indeed. They are certainly something that I challenge myself to try and come up with! Often they fail, regularly they are greeted with “so what?” and just occasionally they hit the mark, generating real excitement and flattering imitation!
These days images and ideas proliferate so quickly on social media that they can be duplicated even before you return from a trip.
And the profusion of facsimiles can mean that the community often fails to celebrate the originator.
I am pleased to break this tradition by relating the events that occurred in Plymouth in the summer of 1986, at the BSoUP Splash-In – the on-the-day underwater photography competition organised by the British Society of Underwater Photographers.
The contest was a simple one. Everyone was given a roll of film in the morning and sent off diving. Films were processed in the evening, the best slides projected and the winners voted on.
It was a format that was ideally suited to the photographic technology of the day, and that year attracted 76 of the UK’s most serious submerged shooters, all looking to win.
But the results weren’t even close, because Peter Scoones revealed a photo that was so novel, so incredible, that he won at a canter.
His winning image combined, in the same frame of slide film, a macro foreground with a wide-angle background. In the days when Photoshop was just a twinkle in Thomas Knoll’s eye, Scoones’ double exposure was epoch-making.
Soon everyone wanted this unbelievable shot, and there was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when winning an underwater photography contest with a standard shot was impossible.
However, like all fashions, the love for underwater double exposures has waned, not least because the capabilities of Photoshop mean that viewers are no longer wowed to the same degree by a seemingly impossible image.
NEVERTHELESS, this isn’t a technique that should be relegated to the passé pile. Double exposures have undoubted impact, and we can certainly take them further than ever with modern technology.
The maestro is no longer with us, but a few years back Scoones explained to me that it was, in fact, technology that led to underwater doubles in the first place.
“It was the Pentax LX camera that made it possible,” he said. “It came out in the early 1980s, and it allowed you to accurately reload the film so that the images from the second dive exactly overlaid those from the first.”
Many modern digital cameras offer two methods of creating double and even multiple exposures. The first is a multiple exposure setting that takes a subsequent picture on top of the original. We can actually use this mode to overlay as many pictures as we like, and it will work intelligently to stop images overexposing the frame as they mount up.
The positive of this method is that it is allowed in almost every contest. The downside is that it is not possible to change lenses between shots, so misses out on the most powerful type of double exposure, which shows a macro foreground against a wide-angle backdrop. That always require a change of lenses, and therefore two dives.
The preferred method for classic double exposures is using the Image Overlay or Combine Images function, where two pictures (sometimes more) are combined in camera to create a completely new RAW file.
The images are overlaid exactly as if they were exposed on the same piece of film. This means that light areas are visible and black (unexposed sections) are not. Photos cannot be rotated, but images shot at different ISOs can be combined.
This means that photos don’t have to be subsequent, or taken with the same lens or same location. The photo of the triplefin was produced over consecutive dives on a reef in Thailand, while the nudibranch and kelp forest is half from the Atlantic (Norway) and half from the Pacific (Canada)!
It is a tribute to BSoUP legend Warren Williams, who famously left a gap of six years between starting and completing a double exposure on film!
TO CREATE THE CLASSIC double exposure of a vertical frame with a macro foreground and a wide-angle background (typically in silhouette), requires planning and precision photography. For the effect to work, it is important that everything is in focus.
Sloppy execution can lead to a strange-looking image with a focused subject, an out-of-focus middle distance and a focused background.
I start by dividing the vertical frame into thirds and visualising what I’m after. The aim should usually be to have the macro subject on the bottom third and the wide-angle subject on the upper third. The middle third is for the transition, which always takes up more space than I expect!
For the background, it is best to shoot in silhouette and use a closed aperture to maximise depth of field. Compose so that the picture is bright upper third and a very dark in the lower third. Shooting when the sun is low in the sky will help produce this. Diver, reef, wreck or kelp silhouettes are the classic options.
For the foreground it’s important to have everything in focus and for the subject to be framed against a black background. We shouldn’t go for too small a subject, because the lack of depth of field makes it hard to keep everything in focus. A snooted strobe can help with lighting subject and not surroundings.
It is always worth taking a series of both the foreground and background frames to use in overlay. We should take shots with the subject moved 10% either way to give us options later. Although we can wait until after the dive to make the overlays, I prefer to do them under water so that I can reshoot if necessary.
As Peter Scoones comments, a double exposure “makes you think much harder about what you want as an end result and how to go about it… you will find it will have benefits to your underwater photography way beyond the mastering of the technique itself.”
Photography has changed much since the 1980s, but Scoones’ words remain as true as ever.
Double exposures work best as verticals, using the classic recipe of colourful macro foreground set against wide-angle, silhouetted scenery. Decide which way you like to hold the camera for verticals, because most overlay options don’t allow the images to be rotated.
Use the multiple exposure mode to liven up your pattern pictures. Set the mode, then take two, three or more pictures of the same subject, but with the camera at slightly different angles.
This works well with coral abstracts, but is also very effective with schooling fish, such as fusiliers or snapper in the blue.
Software now exists to cleverly combine many exposures, such as for HDR scenes, focus staking, panoramas, star trails and more.
Remember that you don’t have to use it for what it was designed for! With detailed planning, all these software packages can produce even more novel multi-exposure images.
A classic double exposure combines a macro foreground with a wide-angle background, keeping everything in focus.Taken with a Nikon D2X. Subal housing. 2 x Subtronic Alpha Pro.
This image overlay combines pictures taken at different times – an Atlantic nudibranch with Pacific kelp. Taken with a Nikon D700 and Subal housing. 2 x Inon Z240.
A multiple exposure (two frames) of schooling grunt creates a sense of movement.Taken with a Nikon D5. Subal housing. 2 x Seacam 150. Taken with a Nikon D5. Subal housing. 2 x Seacam 150