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To get the right shot of the right subject, you've got to have the right optic right now. What's a shooter to do?
Text and Photography by Stephen Frink
I was recently diving a pinnacle I had not been on for more than a decade. My memory served images of a lavishly adorned seamount decorated with all manner of soft corals and sea whips, punctuated by brilliant orange anthias. For sure, the dive reflected in my mind's eye was a wide-angle wonderland. Unfortunately, the new reality was a relatively barren rocky spire. A combination of recent cyclones, 10 years' worth of careless divers coming in contact with the fragile reef, and the harder-to-control cumulative effect of billions of air bubbles percolating upward had taken a toll on this particular site.
Based on previous experience, I jumped in with a fisheye lens and a model to provide human interest and perspective. We spent a frustrating hour trying to find foregrounds colorful and rich enough to justify our compositions. With careful perspective distortion of what were fairly small clumps of colorful sponge and soft coral, I did manage to come home with a few keepers from this dive. Fortunately, we were on a live-aboard and I had my whole photographic kit available to me for the next dive. A chat with the divemasters revealed that some very interesting macro subjects were available, including a resident weedy scorpionfish, a species I had never photographed before. Armed with my 100mm macro lens, the second dive on this same pinnacle became one of my most productive of the trip--proving once again that you've got to have the right lens for the job. So, how to make sure you have the right lens for the job at hand?
Do Your Research
Know in advance the kinds of things that are likely to be found where you'll be diving. If you're diving in Indonesia's Lembeh Strait, for instance, you can expect to find plenty of bizarre macro creatures. But, you would be unlikely to spend a lot of time with a 10.5mm fisheye affixed to your D2X there. Conversely, if you went to Mexico's Socorro Islands to photograph manta rays, your 105mm macro might not get much of a workout. That's not to say there aren't great wide-angle and macro opportunities available at both places, but clearly the photo ops are skewed one way or another, and the percentage of your in-water time will likewise be weighted to the best optic for the task. Other places, say Fiji or Cayman, have a wider range of photographic subjects and you can probably find something to shoot with most any lens you take down. But a clear expectation of what the destination can deliver will help you refine your vision on location.
Listen to the Dive Briefing
Actually, in the example above I did listen to the dive briefing, but what I was hearing was colored by my perceptions of 10 years before. When they said there were macro subjects to shoot, I did not realize they were saying macro was far better than wide-angle. I could have asked the right questions and likely figured it out. While the divemaster may not have the same photographic experience that you do, what he says are the highlights of the dive are likely to be colored by the responses of photographers who have come before. When divemasters see photographers get excited because of a pygmy seahorse encounter, they will show the pygmy seahorse to the next group of photographers. They are in the business of delivering fun, and they dive the same sites week after week, often with divers who are looking for great photo subjects. The dive briefing is critical for getting back to the boat safely, in terms of currents and potential hazards, but the best briefings also include diagrams of the site and the probable locations of subjects of photographic interest.
Use Critter Spotters
Many of the better live-aboards and more progressive land-based resorts now send divemasters on dives specifically to spot creatures. Typically, they dive with a small pointer or dive light so they can direct a shooter's attention to a potentially interesting subject. I believe most of the frogfish, stonefish and seahorse pictures published should carry a "collaboration credit" for the divemaster who pointed it out to the photographer. Photographing these static subjects is not very challenging, but finding them certainly can be.
Take it all with a grain of salt, though. I've known these guys to drag me 100 yards and excitedly point me in the direction of a clownfish. Dude, I've seen a clownfish. What I need is a clownfish eating a mandarinfish. Actually, some of the best help I have had with critter finding is from other photographers. On photo tours, I find there's always a great sense of camaraderie and shared sense of discovery. Most photographers know that if they share a photo op with others, it will come back to them in terms of good karma. In the old days, that meant a lot of wild gestures and pantomime as we tried to describe which cryptic fish was just around the bommie, but these days a simple click of the review button on our digital camera will show another shooter what the specific photo op might be.
We have to realize that our coral reefs are in flux. Regrettably, there is sometimes degradation due to overfishing or water-quality issues. Other factors such as storms, crown of thorns infestation and coral bleaching can all influence the quality of diving and the subjects you may choose to photograph.
On the other hand, sometimes the underwater experience improves with time. For example, I did a charter on the Nai'a in Fiji last fall and found the reefs to be in far better shape than they were a decade before. Part of the reason was that the boat's crew had been very discriminating about refining their itinerary and had truly discovered better sites. The other perhaps more significant reason was that there had been a coral bleaching episode in the past, and now the reefs had recovered. The same thing has happened with the reefs where I live, in Key Largo. Since the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has instituted Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs) with no hook-and-line angling allowed, marine life populations now flourish. For photographers, the reefs of Key Largo are ideal for getting fish ID shots. Knowing this may influence your choice of lens.
The same thing happens with shark encounters. Every time I photograph the Caribbean reef sharks with Stuart Cove off New Providence it seems there are more sharks and they are more accustomed to the presence of photographers. With such changes, the tempo and imaging potential of the shoot changes. It doesn't change it from wide-angle to macro, like reef degradation might. But when the sharks approach so much more closely, there are subtle changes in shooting style that might apply. When sharks are timid, a moderate wide-angle might be the tool of choice to fill the frame with a shark. With a mature shark feed like theirs, perspective distortion that comes from the fisheye lens can be used to exaggerate the size and perceived menace of the shark.
Choose the Right Lens
With careful consideration of the points made above, it is possible to make the best decision on choice of lens. This is really the point here, knowing which lens you should take on any given dive. Given that while you are under water you can't interchange lenses directly mounted on the camera, you still have some options:
Use a versatile zoom lens. This was not an option in the Nikonos era. You would have a fixed lens, 15mm or 20mm for wide-angle dives, or a 35mm or 28mm if you wanted to shoot fish. Extension tubes that had to remain affixed for the entire dive further limited macro shooters. If you wanted versatility, or greater capacity than 36 shots, you had to carry multiple cameras.
Now even point-and-shoot cameras have built-in zoom lenses, so setups from macro to fish can be captured on a single dive. Those housings that accept an external wide-angle supplementary lens are even better, because with the native lens and just one accessory optic, virtually the entire underwater range can be covered. For digital SLRs, the ideal zoom range will cover wide-angle (equivalent to Nikonos 15mm) to fish portraiture (equivalent to Nikonos 35mm) with the significant advantages of closer focusing and through-the-lens viewing.
Use specialty lenses as necessary. For my work, a 180-degree fisheye lens is very important for over/unders or shipwrecks, but it is not my go-to lens for every wide-angle dive. There has to be some special reason for taking this one under water. At the other end of the scale, I find the 50mm macro lens far more suitable than the 100mm macro for most of the creatures on the reef. With the 50mm, I have continuous focusing from infinity to 1:1 and can capture full fish the size of a barracuda down to a fairy basslet. With the 100mm, I can get the same fish, but given the close distances we have to work with under water, the barracuda will be just a head shot, while the skittish fairy basslet will be much easier to fill the frame, given the more forgiving distance inherent in the short telephoto lens.
Whatever lens is used, the shooter will need to restrict his vision to a particular range of subjects. Even though that range may be more broad than previously, for a hard-core shooter anything that can't fit in the frame from a distance of four feet or less is merely a distraction.
2013 Stephen Frink Photographic, site by bits
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