One of the biggest differences between wildlife photography on land and underwater is movement. Underwater, a photographer has to contend with not only the movement of the subject, but also his or her own movement. The best way to minimize these added difficulties is to develop and master your buoyancy skills. Here, we have compiled our best tips on buoyancy as it related to underwater photography!
When preparing for a dive, the first thing to consider to ensure proper buoyancy is the amount of weight you will be needing. For the best estimate, always consider the following factors:
Next, it is important to consider how to distribute the weights you have selected around your body while diving. Most BCDs come with integrated weight pockets on the front in addition to extra pouches near the tank strap (keep in mind this weight cannot be “dumped” in the event of an emergency). Weight belts are also always a reliable option. In general, weight near the tank strap will orient you more vertically, while weights in the integrated pockets will cause you to lie more horizontally.
When deciding how to distribute your weights, take into account the type of dive you will be doing. If your plan is to pass over top of a flat, blanketing reef, a more horizontal position may benefit your photography efforts. On the contrary, a vertical position may be more advantageous on a wall dive. Also consider the type of viewfinder on your camera equipment. Personally, I recommend a 45 degree viewfinder, as it offers the most flexibility.
And of course, when practicing your buoyancy to improve your underwater photography skills, dive WITH your camera. Particularly if you have a large DSLR setup, the camera itself can have a large impact on your buoyancy as a diver. This should certainly be considered when deciding how to best distribute weights. As for the camera itself, aim for neutral buoyancy and trim that fits your profile. If you plan to take sun balls for your entire dive, trimming your camera to point the lens up may not be such a bad idea. This can be achieved through the coordinated use of float arms and weights attached to the camera tray.
Now that you’re ready for your dive, hop in, do your usual buoyancy check, and descend. As you approach the bottom, adjust your BCD for neutral buoyancy, and shift your focus to your breathing. (remember, never hold your breath!) Barring any substantial depth changes, breathing should be all you need to ascend to snap the perfect picture of the shark passing overhead or descend to capture a piece of ocean art for display in your own home.
In addition to the standard fin pivot and hover drills, try a few other methods of practicing:
The first time you set your camera to manual mode can be overwhelming. Immediately, you go from only having to consider one setting (ISO, aperture, or shutter speed) to all three at once. Not to mention you are still responsible for focusing, strobe placement/function, composition, and all the responsibilities of a safe diver. That's why it is vital to slowly adjust to this mode. Unfortunately, this often leads to unsatisfying results that leave you feeling like you missed out or wasted a dive. And as we all know, diving, especially with a nice camera, is not cheap. So who would want to do that? Fortunately, there are ways to adjust to this new photographic technique largely without sacrificing results, and I will share with you my favorite method.
First, you must select appropriate "jump settings" as you prepare for a dive based on the environmental conditions. (more on "jump settings" in our next blog post)
As you approach your planned depth, use these jump settings (with strobes off) to snap pictures of the empty water column. It is important that you are at or near your desired depth when doing so, as the light quantity and quality differs greatly at different depths, particularly in low visibility. After snapping a few pictures, review the shots for a water color on the LCD that closely resembles the color seen by your eyes. If it is too dark, either lower your shutter speed slightly, or decrease your aperture. If the water appears brighter than its natural tone, increase the shutter speed or aperture to adjust the exposure to its natural state. Now, you have established the "baseline settings" which you will refer to for the remainder of the dive.
Now, it is time to turn on your strobes. At this point, I would highly recommend leaving them on TTL or any automatic option they include. This frees up your mind to focus more on the mastery of manual settings. Place the strobes in the position you desire based on what you plan to shoot on the dive. Try to focus only on subjects that require the same strobe positioning while working on manual skills. With your strobes all set, it's time to experiment.
As you dive, stray slightly from the "baseline settings" to adapt to each subjects needs. For faster subjects such as small fish or eels, this may mean increasing the shutter speed. For larger creatures like sharks and whales, this may mean increasing the aperture to ensure the entire image appears sharp and in focus. When you make such adjustments, you still want to remain at or near the exposure you established with your baseline settings. This means that an increase in shutter speed should be met with a decrease in aperture. Likewise, increased aperture often calls for a wider (decreased) aperture. I highly recommend that you set your camera to full stop adjustments on the first few dives, as this will greatly simplify the process. Setting the aperture one stop higher will fully counteract the one stop lower shutter speed to leave you with the same pleasing background exposure achieved in your test shots. With experience, you can reduce adjustments to 1/3 stops (depending on your camera) for more fine adjustments.
As long as you stay near your "baseline settings," you can be confident that you will achieve worthwhile images as the background exposure will remain intact while the stones fill in the subject with the proper exposure. If using TTL, I highly recommend center-weighted or spot metering, as this will allow the strobes to base their exposure on only the subject. This is the desired effect, as you have already found the settings for a proper exposure in the background.
Overall, this technique is fantastic for those making the switch from shutter or aperture priority into the more advanced level of manual mode. And it is not just for beginners. I find myself using this technique whenever dive conditions require more attention to be paid to the dive itself, or when a rare but fast moving subject makes an appearance that doesn't allow me to miss a moment to play with settings!
Stay tuned for our next post on "jump settings."
Thanks for reading!
Sandy Bay Photography