I’ve recently returned from the Maldives on the rather swish and fabulous MV Orion, one of the stars of the Constellation Fleet. Your approach to taking pictures in the Maldives has to be altered as the seasons and locations alter.
At times of the year the visibility can rival the Red Sea; however, a lot of the time it is compromised by comparison. One of the reasons that the waters in this area are frequented by large pelagic beasts like Manta and Whalesharks is because of the tiny plankton providing the major food for these ocean giants. This tiny plankton, in the main, is what hampers the visibility. If you’ve kept track of my recent Facebook posts of those Manta and Whalesharks though, you could be forgiven for thinking that the visibility was crystal clear. And certain adaptations are what is needed to shoot in this less than perfect visibility to make your photos look like the viz is clearer than it is.
I find that the age old adage of underwater photographers to “get close” is never more apt than when in these slightly murkier conditions.
A Fish Eye View
So I choose to shoot with a fisheye lens and really get close when shooting reef scenes, placing the main object of interest in the forefront of the frame. This tends to lead the eye into the picture which is a great compositional stand by, and it also has the benefit of shooting through much less water for this close object, so even if the background isn’t crystal clear and distinct, the foreground will be.
One of the more frustrating creatures to shoot well in the Maldives is the relatively frequent visiting reef sharks. Usually White Tips swirling in the currents at the edges of channels, but occasionally you may get visited by Grey Reefs too.
I have always had difficulty shooting these with my standard weapon of choice, the fisheye lens.
And so on occasion I have resorted to using longer focal lengths, from standard wide angle lenses all the way through to short telephoto or macro lenses. This is of course a compromise, and you still end up shooting through plankton-filled water, but at least you can get something. In fact if you have a compact camera with a range of focal lengths you may well end up getting closer and often better shots than those of us sporting super wide fish eye lenses.
Go Big, or Go Home
Luckily the largest of the Maldives marine life, the Manta’s and Whale Sharks, are usually quite easy to get close to, so it’s back to the fisheye and wide-angle lenses for these.
You still have to be careful though as one of the other unwanted side effects of shooting in plankton-rich water is that your strobe positioning needs to be attended to with more care, as the plankton will cause back scatter really easily. So I always make sure that my strobes are positioned well behind the dome lens front, and also pointed slightly out.
For the picture below of the Whale Shark I’ve used the exact same technique that I used in Mexico to shoot the Whale Sharks there, with Shutter Priority.
The Whale Shark was only encountered from a snorkelling viewpoint and so to make myself more streamlined and hydrodynamic I removed the strobes from my rig. Just like in Mexico I only managed a few shots, before I ran out of steam, as the Whale Shark “sped” by me in a rather languid fashion!
So in summary the trick to getting clearer shots is very simple – you need to get rid of as much water between you and the subject as possible, so the order of the day is a wide angle lens of some description, and generally with the exception of shooting shy sharks the wider the better.
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.