How many of you have gone wreck diving and tried to take a few pictures only to be amazed at how much silt and sediment is in your photo?
While working on board the Chuuk Aggressor for two and a half years as Photo Pro and Captain, I have developed a few techniques that you can apply to shipwrecks anywhere.
The nice thing about the wrecks of Chuuk Lagoon is that they offer several types of photography. Beautiful marine life grows in abundance on the exterior of the ship. The interiors, where the marine life does not flourish as well due to the lack of sun light and water movement, still prove to be great photo subjects. You still get the feeling of being on board a ship with it's great superstructures still intact.
Wreck diving and penetration are indeed advanced diving skills. Going inside these hulls to take photos requires even more advanced diving techniques. The key word is buoyancy. Proper buoyancy and controlled breathing will be a key factor in determining how clear your pictures will be. The interiors of wrecks, wooden walls, and other building materials decay and settle to the bottom mixing with sand to create a fine silt that takes a long time to settle once stirred up. Unfortunately the best way to get a good interior shot is to be first inside and we know that is not always possible. However, even with a moderate amount of silt in the water, proper strobe placement will still give you a very clear picture.
Photographers have a tendency to point strobes directly at the subject. This will cause more particulate matter to be lit in your pictures. Strobes put out an arc of light, not a shaft of light. By pointing your strobe outward or slightly away from the subject your photo will be hi lighted more by the edge of the strobes arc of light and will light up less reflective matter in front of the lens.
When working with wreck interiors, there are two ways three ways to show the erie feeling of the inside of these great hulks beneath the ocean. They are of course strobe lit, natural light or a combination of both. Make sure with a strobe lit shot that you are not trying to cover to much area with your strobe, don't try to light up an entire room. Adding strobe light with natural light can also make a great shot. Using two strobes doesn't necessarily constitute a better picture. If you know the limits of your own personal camera set up, it will keep you from taking pictures you know won't come out clearly.
If the interior shot has any kind of ambient or natural light coming in through windows, port holes, sky lights, or just deteriorated openings in the ship, look around to see if light is being cast down upon the interior of the ship itself. If it looks good to the eye then there is a chance that the picture will come out nice. People seem to agree that a natural light picture gives more of a feeling of being inside the wreck because more area can be seen with natural light, when your strobe is turned off, many cameras give more shutter speeds to work with. You can then concentrate on balancing the natural light of your picture. When using a strobe along with natural light in a picture, divers tend to come up with dark backgrounds and backscatter lit fore grounds.
With your strobe turned off, point your camera out towards the subject (pilot houses and structures on deck work very well with this since there are usually more openings allowing in more light). I am a fan of shooting in manual mode, it takes a little more work but the results are worth it. With the camera set on manual, check the view finder for a shutter speed value, if it shows that you need more light open your f-stop to allow maximum light. Even with shutter speeds slower than 30/sec you can still hold your camera steady long enough to snap the shutter. Raising the ASA setting on your camera helps but optimum quality of pictures is said to be between 200 and 400 ASA.
Something I have done numerous times is to brace the camera against something on the wreck itself, to avoid shake. Using a tripod can also be very effective. If you can see the streams of light penetrating inside you can usually capture it on the shutter plane with a little patience. Take a picture, observe the results (digital photography makes it easier!) then make a change with shutter speed or with f-stop. digital is more light sensitive and you will usually have the shutter open all the way and dropping the shutter speed until the image starts to appear on playback. remember the playback window is small and what looks clear in the camera may look fuzzy on the computer screen.
When I once spoke of what film to use we now now know that we use photoshop to make small corrections on our pictures. Notice I say SMALL! since I am still a firm believer that you should still try to shoot a picture correctly before taking it to photoshop.
Most wreck shots work best with a wide angle lens. Most divers wish to get a nice shot of a wreck and to take in such a scene, wide angle is the choice. Wide angle lenses allow you to shoot the scenic overall picture of a wreck at the same time you can get very close to single artifacts that might be laying about on the ship.
The last thing to keep in mind is that these magnificent wrecks are now home to a large host of marine life. Referring back to proper buoyancy will help you treat the wreck with respect. It is in fact a living reef now and we want to be able to return to these sites and continue to photograph all the beautiful marine life found here.
To sum up:
Practice your buoyancy before picking up a camera. When taking a camera down with you it becomes part of weighting, so adjust accordingly.
Point your strobes outward to avoid back scatter.
Decide ahead of time if the shot is going to be natural or strobe lit. Determine if there is enough ambient light or if the area is to large to cover with strobes. In the case of a strobe lit picture, know the limits of the lens and strobe of your own system. Other photography teachers can offer advice from there own experience but now one knows your camera rig better than yourself.
The lens de jour is wide angle. It's the best way to capture the scene of a wreck. Purchase what you can afford and learn the limits of that lens...don't shoot more than the lens can see. Closer is always better with underwater photography and when getting close to wrecks wide angle is better.
Finally, treat the wrecks with respect, they are now are home to new inhabitants. Divers now have a growing concern for reef ecology we will carry this over when wreck diving, they are also living reefs too.
Good diving, good pictures, good luck and don't forget to have fun!
The picture above was taken with film circa 1991. The Nikonos V camera was braced against the railing, shutter set at 2.8 and the shutter stayed open for app. 7 seconds. Light comes in from above through a skylight on the Kensho Maru in Chuuk,
so the scene has even lighting. Dan Bailey who wrote the definitive book on the history of Chuuk uses this picture and the clarity is excellent.
Hand holding a single strobe
Taken in circa 1990, this has a strobe placement from the right. my left hand is crossing over and the single flash gives the shot an erie look and to help bring out definition in the eyes.
It's all flash in this picture
Artificial light only is used here. Two strobes pointed more so straight ahead and not inward gives the light an even look. mounting arms generally hold the flash out to the side, and then you keep the flash angle pointed slightly outward to achieve a better look to the photo.
Shutter speed improves the blue water
Don't settle for second best. Take the shot as best as you can in the camera. Some people may take the photo on the left and say yeah,
thats good! But by increasing the shutter speed,
you will achieve a better look.
On the left the shutter speed is 100. So raise the shutter one increment and shoot. raise it again until you see a better look to the blue water. shutter speed usually deals with ambient light or the blue water column.
By shooting several shots and making a change
on the camera, this is known as bracketing.
Take a shot make a change, take another, get it better!! When you use photoshop to fix photos to much you will loose some quality.
On the right my strobes are to close. Glare in the upper left and lower right can be seen, they are almost in the picture.
I pulled them back, changed position and the results are much better.
In 2009 I was able to go back and shoot nearly the same photo of the engine room with the digital camera. Shoot a frame, observe the results, make adjustments and shoot again. ambient light from above help to make this an excellent photo opportunity. It looks like you could go down there and start the engines up!
this picture will look better as a natural light photo. Even though f-stop could change the look of the picture, shutter speed will help to improve the blue water, and with the right setting, you will get a better look to the interior of the pilot house.
On the left, our scene is wider. On the right, we move in closer to the compass stand and we can use the flash to add color to the shot. I now use f-stop to adjust for the flash exposure and change the shutter speed for the blue water in the background