Go Wide: 5 Tips for Shooting Shipwrecks
This monthâ€™s topic is shooting shipwrecks, one of the more challenging aspects of underwater photography. Photographing sunken vessels typically means shooting with wide-angle lenses and it requires careful use of artificial and ambient lighting, but
By Donald Tipton
Welcome, fellow divers, to my first technique article for Seaduction.com. As the site’s resident Photo Pro, I’m excited that you have joined our community and I look forward to sharing with you the tips, techniques and “tricks of the trade” that professional underwater photographers use to capture eye-popping images. This is only the first of the many how-to features I’ll be posting on the site, but the beauty of an online format like this one is that we can also interact and continue the discussion in the comments section at the end of each article. There will always be an opportunity for you to respond with questions, comments and even tips of your own. I look forward to our conversations.
This month’s topic is shooting shipwrecks, one of the more challenging aspects of underwater photography. Photographing sunken vessels typically means shooting with wide-angle lenses and it requires careful use of artificial and ambient lighting, but when you master the techniques, the images you bring back are worth every bit of effort.
Diving on shipwrecks is a bit different from other forms of diving. Your subject is, after all, a part of human history, even when it is taken over by marine growth to become a living part of the sea. As divers, we should approach a wreck with the same care we use on a coral reef. Good buoyancy control keeps you from slamming into the wreck, damaging the structure and destroying marine growth that may have taken years to develop. It also helps you frame better images. Keep in mind that all wrecks (like reefs) are not created equal. A wreck off New Jersey will not have the same delicate encrustation of a wreck in the Maldives. Regardless of the environment, please be careful and aware of your dive location.
Capturing Wreck Images: 5 Pro Tips
1) Relax and take your time.
The first glimpse of a wreck can be a bit intimidating to a photographer. As you approach your desired depth and the full size of the vessel comes into view, this intimidation only increases. “So much shipwreck and so little time,” is a common reaction, as is frantic swimming around the wreck trying to capture as many shots as possible. This is a mistake.
As you arrive at depth, stop. Take a moment to survey the situation. What is the current doing? Where is my ascent point? What is my planned bottom time? What sort of images am I interested in taking? Once you have answered these questions, the rest of the dive will fall into place. Take your time. Stay in one area if you have to and approach the image-making process from the perspective of capturing fewer, top-quality shots, rather than attempting to capture a lot of bad ones. This will give you time to visualize and capture those perfect set-ups. You may surface with fewer images, but the quality of your work will be much improved.
2) Get the right wide-angle lens
Capturing the essence of a great wreck usually involves showing a fairly large section of the ship within the context of the water column, a task that definitely requires a wide-angle lens. Any lens with a focal length shorter than 28mm is considered a wide-angle lens, but for wrecks you want something in the 12mm to 18mm range. Keep in mind that there are “fisheye” and rectilinear lenses. A fisheye lens will allow your image to curve so that straight lines are bent. A rectilinear will correct this.
The advent of digital photography has complicated things a bit as to the effective focal length of a lens. You have probably seen the designation “digital lens.” One of the things this means is that the digital lens is designed to cover the CCD (which is smaller than a 35mm film plane) and yield the correct focal length. If you are using a film lens with a digital camera, your image will be magnified by a factor of 1.5 to 2 times, depending on the size of the CCD.
You should also take into account the magnifying effect of water refraction. Of course, the simplest solution for refraction is to use a housed camera with a dome port. As for my own wide-angle rig, I use a Nikon 12-24mm digital lens with a Nikon D2S in an Aquatica housing with a dome port. This set-up works great for wreck diving and serves me well in a great variety of other situations.
3) Use ambient light
There are basically two approaches to wide-angle wreck photography. The first approach is to use only ambient light. The second technique involves exposing for ambient light and then filling in details, textures and colors with light from your strobes.
When shooting ambient light, it is always important to consider and, if possible, make use of the direction of light. This is true for any photographic situation — underwater or on the surface. The direction of light gives shape and reveals texture in your subject. That is why I prefer to shoot in the morning or in the afternoon, when the light is from the side and presents many more creative possibilities than when the light is coming from directly above the subject.
In these two shots above, notice how the direction of light gives shape to the wreck. Before you dive, but after the dive briefing, you should have a good idea as to the orientation of the wreck in relation to the sun. You can then decide on the part of the wreck that would be the most interesting photographically. As you descend, refine that decision and start planning your shots. Since light is absorbed and reflected by the water column, depth is a very important consideration in planning your dive. Observe how the quality and quantity of light changes as you descend and use these elements in pre-visualizing your photos. Make use of the haze that is the result of horizontal depth and use the highlights and shadows created by the direction of the sun to give the image shape and depth.
4) Fill in the gaps with strobes
Once you are comfortable using ambient light, the next step is to add artificial light. I prefer using two strobes because it allows me to fill in shadows and create cross lighting to bring out interesting details. In this image from a wreck diving expedition to Midway Atoll
I was shooting ambient-light images of the wreck until this turtle came to visit. I decided to add just a bit of fill light from my strobes to give the turtle some separation from the background and it made all the difference. I also took some shots of the turtle using only ambient light, but the images with strobe fill worked much better. It’s always best to try a shot both ways and sort it out later.
The idea in this technique is to light the part of the image that is in the foreground so that its exposure balances with the ambient light of the water column. To do this, I first look at the shutter speed and aperture combination that yields a good exposure with ambient light, and then see if that aperture also works with my strobes. If not, I just adjust my shutter-speed/aperture combination until it gives me a good strobe exposure and a solid ambient exposure. For example: Suppose your best ambient light exposure is 1/125 at f5.6, but when you add strobes, you are overexposing the foreground. Changing the aperture to f8 will yield a better strobe exposure. You can then change your shutter speed to 1/60 to keep the proper strobe exposure in the foreground and restore the ideal ambient exposure in the water column. Why? Because 1/60 at f8 admits the same amount of ambient light as 1/125 at f5.6.
This jostling of aperture and shutter speed is not as intimidating as it might seem, just consult the exposure scales that come with your strobe. And if this technique is in any way unclear, please post your questions below.
This process works the same with one strobe as it does with two. The difference is that with two strobes you are able to light from two directions and fill shadows that one strobe would create. With two strobes, it’s important to “feather” your lighting. Don’t point both strobes directly at the center of your subject. Instead, point the strobes out, just a bit, so that the softer edge of the light cones overlap in the center. This avoids harsh and uneven lighting.
5) Practice, Practice, Practice
At the end of the day, these techniques are just tools that you use in the creative process of underwater photography. As you keep shooting wrecks, keep in mind that that we all learn as we go. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them in the process of correction. I hope that you will allow me to take part in your growing process as we learn together.