This blog is all about getting back to basics, and learning how to master the art of available light while shooting underwater.
When I first got into underwater photography, I only ever shot available light, eschewing the benefits of strobes until much later. I did this because although I was involved in professional photography onland, I never imagined that I would want or need to be weighed down with too much kit on a dive, so I shot with only a compact camera and a very wide angle lens. This helped me to understand the requirements of the fast growing number of divers keen to document their underwater experiences, for whom diving definitely took first place over photography. This coincided with the compact digital photography market place starting to produce very capable small point and shoot cameras, with useful functions for underwater use.
And so I started to champion this style of unhindered shooting as a great way for all divers to get great pictures, and my first articles were all about how to do this effectively and with the minimum of expense and equipment.
I have since also embraced the use of strobes too, but this style of minimalist photography is still enormously appealing.
This shot below was taken on my first ever Liveaboard trip nearly 9 years ago with a digital camera and using an add on fisheye lens with an old Canon Ixus compact camera, and this was the moment when I realised that this “new fangled” technology had some enormous benefits over the bulkier, strobe laden kit of the past.
So, what first to think about with available light shooting?
I would personally suggest that you think very seriously about tricking out your camera with a very wide angle lens.
If shooting with a compact camera, and your camera is a compatible one, then the lens as it is will be fine if you are shooting fish ID shots of the usual reef denizens.
However if you want to get good colours and great shots of larger things, like the dolphins in the main photo above, or clear shots of wrecks or reefscapes, then you need to go much wider than the camera will go with its built in lens.
Why is this?
Well the medium within which we choose to indulge our hobby, even at its clearest, is much denser than air, and colour contrast and clarity will drop off very quickly as you increase the distance between you and the subject. Those dolphins above were around a metre or so from me, which is one of the reasons you can make out the finer details in the shot.
And if I had been using the camera unenhanced without a lens attached that had nearly 180 degrees of view, then to get this group all in shot I would have needed to have been around 10 metres or so away.
Getting close to your subject is the key element here, and if it’s a larger subject like a wreck or a reefscape, pod of dolphins or your buddy even, then the only way that the shot is going to be as clear as the shots you see in the magazines is if you are using a wide angle lens much wider than you may be accustomed to. These attach using simple adapters or screw into the front of your housing, and really expand on your underwater photographic possibilities.
If you are in the market for a simple compact camera and want better than average results in these scenarios then please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will give you the current up to date advice on what the best choices are for underwater. Sadly just because a camera is great on land doesn’t automatically make it suitable for underwater use.
Of course this simple physics issue also applies to higher end cameras like DSLR’s or Mirrorless cameras, but generally those folk have already come to that understanding as they have travelled up the learning curve, and purchased the relevant lenses and equipment.
Banishing the Blues in Part 2
The shot above was taken with a fisheye lens attached to one of the early Mirrorless cameras, and what I have explained above is one of the reasons the shot is clear and showing good contrast. However in the second part of this series I will be showing you how to get the great colours we associate with this type of shot, by using a variety of techniques to remedy the boring blues that blight a lot of available light for underwater photographers.
Duxy is the in house photo-pro for UK-based dive tour operator Scuba Travel. To find out about availability on Scuba Travel’s underwater photography workshops hosted by Duxy click here.