Tips, ideas and advice for budding underwater photographers
by Nick Robertson-Brown FRPS
Part 5: Composition – Baseline
When considering how to compose your image, it is important to consider the part of the picture that supports the subject – this is known as the baseline. Unless you are going to black out your background, the baseline will put the subject into perspective and this is particularly important in underwater photography, as many of the subjects are not animals or artefacts that are known to everybody.
Apart from super close-up macro shots, it often pays to present the subject in its environment and it is nearly always the case that the image will work better if you get the whole subject and baseline into the frame. There are times, of course, when this is difficult as you may not have the right lens on your camera, and changing lenses underwater is obviously not an option. You could of course change the angle or distance that you are shooting from to bring the whole subject into frame, but the more water there is between your camera and the subject, the less detail and light will be in your image.
It can sometimes be difficult to get the baseline set correctly and you may often find there is too much negative space either in the foreground or background, or even both. Whilst your subject may create a pleasing image, very often the subject itself can be lost in the environment. It is a case of balancing the subject against its environment, and the best way to do this is to capture several images of the same subject from different angles or by moving closer or further away. Modern cameras, with high ISOs and dynamic range, allow you to crop the image far more so than you would have done just a few years ago. However, less cropping will give better resolution so it is always best to take the image as you would want to present it. In many ways it is like telling a story; if you close in on the image too much, then you may miss out on showing why the subject is doing what it is.
Take a look at these images. The first one shows a diver with a torch, but there is no baseline, and therefore, there is no story. You cannot see what the diver is looking at or shining their torch on.
In the second image, the barrel sponge provides a baseline and also begins to tell the story. The diver is not simply hanging in midwater but shining a torch on to a subject.
The third image gives an even wider view of the reef the diver is exploring. Now it is a matter of personal taste and what story you are trying to tell.