Subscapes

Landscape photography has remained a popular art form since the birth of the art of “painting with light”. Many photographers simply record views of landscapes seen while on holiday, others go to extremes to capture the right view, in the right light, at the right time of year, whatever “right” means to the location and the photographer.

Many years ago, I met one such photographer who had waited five years to capture one particular landscape, full of daffodils, within one hour of dawn, within a very short calendar period, having been rained off for the first four attempts. Such dedication is to be admired of course, but few of us have it.

The basic rules for landscape can be summarized as follows:

Select the film/digital media appropriate to the required result (projection, printing, large area printing, etc.).

Use a good quality metering system, whether in the camera or external to it, and consider bracketing.

Select a lens of suitable focal length for the proposed view.

Use a tripod to remove camera-shake, as you may be using slow shutter speeds to gain high aperture settings.

Finally, ensure that the sharpest focus point is near the camera, as this reproduces the human eye view, where distant points are less sharp. Something of interest in the foreground makes all the difference to a landscape view. To confirm this – spend a day in an art gallery viewing the works of Turner, Friedrich, and Constable.

Some years ago, I took up SCUBA diving and having enjoyed landscape photography I noted that the vast majority of underwater images in the public view at that time were of brightly coloured fish, often in exotic seas, many of the shots being flash lit.

An obvious challenge was to capture larger areas, “underwater landscapes”, and to capture them in the often less-than-perfect conditions around the UK. Like so many aspects of diver training, if you can handle the UK conditions, you are likely to handle overseas destinations relatively easily.

The rules for subscape and landscape photography are the same. The desire for a large depth of field requires high f-stop settings, even with a wide-angle lens, and thus a slower than may be wished for shutter speed. The risk of camera shake then arises. On land, the tripod is the obvious solution and few good landscapes are shot by purely hand-held cameras. Many photographers will place the camera against a wall, a tree trunk, or rock, when a tripod cannot be accommodated.

Underwater there are similar possibilities, and certainly on a wreck site there may be perfect camera rests available. Elsewhere, the problems associated with this idea include disturbing the bottom as you place the camera, immediately creating clouds of particulate in your view, and finding a surface at a reasonable angle for the camera. Why is there never a tall boulder with a flat top when you need one?

Keeping the camera still once you have composed the shot is the first skill to master. Without a support, your buoyancy skills come into critical view – no pun intended. Underwater photographers have a reputation for disturbing the sediment as they kneel on the seabed to enable a steady camera position. Learn to settle gently and to lift off again with the minimum disturbance. Keeping your knees bent, push yourself off the bottom with one hand while taking a deep breath to give you extra lift. As you clear the seabed, breathe out again and fin gently away.

Practice is the only approach, and a readiness to shoot the same view several times. Those of us who started on roll-film cameras appreciate the multi-shot features of digital camera systems. On that subject, I strongly suggest that you set your digital camera to the following four selections:

Shoot RAW images.

Set the largest image size your camera will give you.

Install a large memory card – memory is now very economically priced.

Select an ISO suitable for your location. (No faster than 400ASA/ISO)

 

If you can set Manual Focus, do so. We are looking for a large depth of field, and using a wide-angle lens, so it is likely that setting your camera to focus at between one and two metres will generate good results.

Auto-focus systems can struggle underwater as they tend to work on contrast within the field of view. In UK waters, this can be very subtle indeed, and there is nothing more frustrating than having set up a shot and having the camera refuse to shoot.

Having accomplished the required basic skills, prepare to review your work critically, prepare to delete more than you save on you home computer. As you progress you will discard fewer images, but I have yet to find any photographer who achieves a one hundred per cent success on any shoot.

At this point, we have yet to add lighting systems to the mix. The equipment available today offers many possible options. Your photographic requirements and budget need to be balanced. You may decide to use wide-angle video lighting with your stills camera, pure strobe lights, or strobes with built-in modelling lights.

One of the main problems in underwater photography, when using artificial lighting, after getting the exposure right, is suspended particulate generating backscatter. You see it when you switch on your torch as the natural light dims, and on so many occasions, you will have realised that it is better to allow your eyes to acclimatize.

Your Subscape will be similarly affected. Positioning the light source(s) is critical. Deciding whether to use them at all depends on your evaluation of the particulate on the day. Can you shoot with available light or not, depending possibly on the practicality of holding the camera steady? Can you find a suitable support for the camera housing? Artificial lighting should only be as “fill” lighting. Most of you will be aware that flash can overpower the whole scene rendering much of it in shadow.

This is not at all acceptable underwater. The ideal is simple, angle the camera upwards toward the daylight at the surface, and use artificial lighting to lift the closest items, which should also be you point of focus. The upward angle is likely to be between 10 and 30 degrees , unless you are shooting an over-hang.

Underwater landscape photography is not for the faint-hearted. Having mastered the skills of SCUBA Diving, and learnt to relax sufficiently to operate other equipment such as still or video cameras, you need to operate efficiently within the environment. In the UK this often means coping with low temperatures, as the best visibility is invariably in the winter months. As with landscape photography, you may return often to the same area seeking the shot that captures the vista completely.

Underwater imaging equipment is available on the market today at prices to suit most budgets. The most expensive items tend to the artificial lighting units, whether strobes of video lights. This may come as a shock to many photographers, when they are asked to spend up to ten times the price of the camera on two flashguns.

My Nikon D5000 in an Aquatica housing remains in use today, nearly ten years on, and with a wide-angle adaptor, it has produced excellent work. A single Sea & Sea strobe completes that set-up.

My main camera is a Nikon D70 fitted with a SIGMA 12~24mm EX lens, in an Aquatica housing, with two Sea & Sea strobes with diffusers.

Mike Hamilton Scott

Mike Hamilton Scott

Mike Hamilton Scott is a PADI Instructor and Assistant Tutor with the Nautical Archaeology Society. He specialises in underwater imaging. “Subscapes” is the name he gives to underwater landscapes, often containing sections of wrecks, sunken piers, and other sunken settlements.

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