27. Sep, 2016

Helping nature a hand in underwater photography

Photography is often seen as a way to copy reality. Pictures, or ‘stills, are frozen images of parts of the environment that have attracted the  photographer’s attention.  Often they are unique moments that show up, and spontaneously catch the eye of the photographer.  These moments do not enter our head randomly, but are the result of selection. As the famous French photographer  Cartier-Bresson has put it:  Reality offers us such wealth that we must cut some of it out on the spot, simplify.  Yo put it even more simply: a picture often comes from the merging of an idea and an image.

Distortion is part of the game  A picture need noalways  be an exact copy of the real world. Think of  the paintings of some great artists: the hallucinating painting of a starry night above the Provence by van Gogh. Or the paintings of Rembrandt with their  magic  ‘clair obscur’: the enhanced lighting of a group of persons against a darker background.   Here the artist has deliberately chosen to  let his inner sense of beauty  dominate the visual scene.  The same principle seems to holds for the underwater photographer that deliberately exaggerates aspects  like lighting, color and perspective. Or even adds or  leaves out details of the environment.  Think of  the  wide angle photographer with his fish eye lens,  and the macro photographer creating that  beautiful  ‘bokeh’ behind its goby or pigmy seahorse. 

Special  techniques.  There  are several techniques or rather ‘tricks’  to create  special effects in your underwater pictures. I already mentioned the use  of the fish-eye lens to exaggerate the perspective. Other examples are:  long exposure, remote strobe lighting, panning and spins and double exposure. It’s a bit like van Gogh  transforming a landscape. Hiding  a torch or a  remotely  controlled strobe in a shipwreck  can add a magical touch to the often  darkish and gloomy landscape of a sunken ship.  In above-water  photography double  exposure  is often used to produce  surreal or ‘psychedelic’ pictures.  The picture  is not  the real image but not an overlay of two images taken at different moments.  For mixing  a macro exposure with a wide angle shot  under water you need  two different lenses on two separate dives. The wide angle  and macro shots are then overlayed  during the editing process. Double exposure  can also be performed directly in the camera without changing the lens and making two consecutive shots. When done cleverly, it hard to tell from  the  image alone if it was a genuine single exposure (e.g.  a Close Focus Wide Angle shot)  or a double exposure composition.  Photoshop also offers several tools to enchant or  'fool' your public, for example using  filters or  copying a butterfly fish couple to get a whole bunch of butterflies against a nice blue background (see my picture above). Nothing wrong with that, as long as you tell the public about the trick you have used.

Helping nature a hand  Making pictures  underwater is not an easy  job. The sea is not a photo studio but a difficult and ever changing environment.  Even in  ideal conditions, your favorite subject may not show up, and when it finally does will not ‘behave’ as it should.  The goby or anemone  fish  may not be in the right position, or  it may be hard to find that sharp focus of its eyes. The best strategy then is to take  multiple shots or ‘samples’ of your subject, and select the best after you have returned to the surface. With rapidly  moving subjects  like dolphins  one  simply has no other  choice than to just  click away  at very short intervals and fast shutter speeds.

Underwater photography  is  often a question of waiting  until the ideal moment arrives. To make things at bit easier we sometimes help these moments to arrive sooner  by manipulating the underwater environment. With  big  predators like sharks that normally tend to  keep their distance, baiting has proven to be a relatively safe and effective  way to bring them closer to your lens. It  can also produce a beautiful two layered picture by hiding the bait under a sea fan and wait for the shark to pass by on the background.  

The critter manipulation debate If the UW subject is a very small and rare subject like a critter,  but not in the ideal  position  some people are tempted  to move or replace the little creature.  I must  confess that I also once replaced a red sea star (Echinaster sepositus) in the Mediterranean from its original position on the sand, to a higher place to get in the blue background.  In some Asian  ‘critter havens’  photographers have the habit  of  poking a tiny goby  while sitting on a coral while taking photos, disturbing sea urchins and shrimps living on it.  Dive guides have been seen moving nudibranches to please the photographers. Here, 'helping nature a hand' takes the form of  manipulation in the literal sense, namely to ‘take by hand’. Maybe it’s something we should not get too much upset about, as long  there is no damage done to the reef and its fragile inhabitants.  Still,  critter manipulation  violates  the generally  respected underwater code : ‘don’t  touch parts of the underwater world’,  be it a coral, a sea fan  or a small fish. And  it remains  a quick and  unprofessional way to get a result that perhaps will give you many likes on the facebook,  or even a medal in  a contest. It is also often hard for the judges to know whether the critters have been "re-arranged" to suit the photographer.  Apart from the ecological  issue,  the 'fair competition'  principle has been an important argument  for those that  participate in underwater photo competitions.  Should critter manipulated pictures be allowed to enter these competitions?  The debate is  reminiscent of the commotion around  the use of performace enhancing drug in cycling, where 'users' seem to have an  advantage above 'non users'.