Yoko with Stingrays near Bimini, Bahamas
You may find you don’t need a lot of fancy diving gear to create stunning underwater photos!
Story & Photos by TIM ROCK with Yoko Higashide and Elaine Kwok
Free diving and snorkeling are integral skills of underwater photography. In fact, you might be surprised just how many “underwater” photos are created without using scuba gear at all. My longtime photography model Yoko Higashide dives on scuba daily as part of her work as a dive guide and instructor in Palau, Micronesia, so she likes the freedom of free diving and snorkeling. So recently we planned some trips without the need for scuba dive gear. At the same time, my Guam-based friend Elaine Kwok and I also planned some water activities at home and in the Marianas along those same lines of using shallow water to our advantage.
Yoko with baby sea turtle, Dimakya Island, Philippines
Armed with a mask, long free-diving fins and snorkel and a few cameras, we went to Japan’s Ogasawara, Mikura and Okinawa for swimming with bottlenose dolphins. We also visited Bimini in the Bamahas for spotted dolphins and southern stingrays, Kona for spinner dolphins and mantas, Mozambique for whale sharks, Tonga for humpback whales and Yap & Guam (in our neighborhood) for corals and fish.
There is one thing to remember: If you want good results with big marine life interaction, you must go where the big fish and mammals are abundant and make sure it is legal to swim with these creatures as animals like whales are protected in many countries.
Yoko with humpback whale calf, Vava’u, Tonga
The results of these tankless trips pleasantly surprised me. I came back not only with some compelling images of big fish and marine mammals, but also an array of varied shots taken in the shallows with wrecks, starfish, rippled sand, reflections and other reefy random shots. It is a great challenge to test your skills and the results can be stunning. The good news is that you don’t have to be Jacques Mayol to achieve this. If you can dive to three or four meters (12-15 feet) for 20 to 30 seconds, you are on the right track. Here are some situations where snorkel and free dive photography is preferable.
“You might be surprised just how many “underwater” photos are created without using scuba gear at all.”
Ai Futaki with gray reef shark, Yap, Micronesia
Mr & Mrs Big
Using simple equipment with large marine creatures like whale sharks, whales, dolphins and surface-feeding mantas is not only the easy way to go, it is also the most effective and least intrusive. Some creatures just don’t like bubbles, especially marine mammals. So scuba is out. When whales or dolphins blow out a series of bubbles, it is usually because they are distressed or upset.
So divers blowing bubbles can unnerve some sea mammal species. Also, when you are trying to keep up with a whale shark or whale, scuba gear creates too much drag. You’ll end up burning more air with the gear and don’t get photos that are any better for the effort.
Yoko with whale shark, Mozambique, Africa
Even when a whale shark is hardly moving, that big paddle of a tail pushes it along at a knot or so. The same with whales. You have to swim, sometimes hard, to get the shots you may want. Fly-bys are also common with whales and dolphins, where the boat drops you in the path of the creature and you can shoot as it comes, swims at or by you and allows you to keep up for a few fin kicks before all you see is tail.
Mantas feed on surface plankton. So dipping down past the plankton layer just a bit and shooting them as they feed is best done on snorkel. When they feed, they don’t care about human presence so much. Mantas march on their stomachs. Do not hinder them but grab the shot as they swim by, mouths agape.
Model and Specialty Shots
There is a good reason to use free diving and snorkeling for aquatic model shots. For professional assignments, I try to find those who know the habits of many species of marine life and how to best approach them without spooking them. An excellent snorkeler and competent free diver, a model must also understand photography and lenses to be able to strike a pose in mid-kick. If you find a good person with most or all of these attributes, treat them well. These people are hard to find.
Models add an extra dimension to the image; another element of composition. It helps put the viewer in the model’s place. The person looking at your photo thinks “That could be me” and adds interest to the image. Also, the wonderful interaction between the marine subject and the model again creates viewer interest. It helps to personalize the image.
Yoko with shoal of juvenille rabbitfish, Guam, Western Pacific
However, if you don’t know any of these water people, just use a friend, spouse or sibling. Just tell them to keep their arms at their sides, relax and watch the subject. This will create a feeling of interaction and can even be done while floating on the surface with the photographer dipping down just a bit to snap the image.
Jellyfish Lake, Kakaban, Indoniesia
The Color Red
Photography in shallow waters prevent the loss of the color red, which is pretty much gone after three meters due to refraction. So skin tones remain true and the color of the marine creature, like a dolphin, is also easy to render in post image processing. A couple of wide-angle strobes mounted on a housing at the handles at very low power can help to provide just enough fill to bring out color in the model and/or the subject.
For the Bimini and Bahamas shoot, I mounted strobes on the camera housing handles splayed out at angles and left them at low power for the entire two weeks we were there. They added just enough color and light to make almost every shot I used acceptable without having to resort to Photoshop.
Most free-diving classes boast that they will be able to allow you to reach 18m within a couple of days of training. So this approach is readily available through training and brings another weapon to your underwater photography arsenal. It also helps keep you in shape and you do need to be fit to dive using free diving techniques.
(above: Yoko with spotted dolphins near Bimini, Bahamas)
Biologist Mark Marks with Great White Shark, Gaansbai, South Africa
Shallow water is great for arty images. Reflections and sun ripples add to the mood of shot. Using natural light, you can get patterns and shapes across the sea floor and on your subject. It is also great to catch the sun’s rays. Early morning and late evening make warm images with the sun streaking through. In fresh water and some of the clear caves, a light source becomes a beacon, bringing dancing light to the walls or floor of the cave for great stills and video.
Elaine deep in Senhanom Cave, Rota, Northern Marianas
Half-half shots can be made with a fisheye lens in a half-meter of water. A good wide-angle and balanced strobe lighting also allows for arty and compelling half shots. The use of snorkeling and free diving techniques opens a whole new world with a plethora of critters ranging from massive to tiny.
(Above: Half-Half shots: Left: Palau Rock Island, Right: Elaine at sandy beach at sunset, Rota, Northern Marianas)
It will put you in places that allow you to use natural elements like the sun, coral reef and clear water to make special images. As much as you may like scuba, don’t overlook this aspect of your photography. It is a great way to see the sea and bring it home.
What you need
Great white shark from surface cage, Gaansbai, South Africa
First, get a potato. Assuming you are using a housed DSLR, use a wide-angle lens of at least 20mm (or less). I personally like the Tokina 10-17mm zoom lens for photographing humpbacks, dolphins and mantas. The Nikon 14-24mm wide angle on a full-frame camera is also an excellent lens. Use a wide dome and keep it free from scratches.
What do you do with the potato? Just before heading out to sea, use the potato to rub the dome to keep water from beading and streaking. Do this for surface shots at water level and half-half images. Rain-Ex also does the trick.
Elaine at The Swimming Hole in Rota, Northen Marianas
In shallow depths, use a higher f-stop, but this also means scratches and dings on the dome will show. Go to your car repair shop; the same treatment for headlights will make your dome shiny and new. Shooting on or near the surface with wide-angle lenses also mean you’ll experience lens flare from the sun which another reason why you need to keep your dome clean and scratch-free.
For models and medium to small subjects, use a pair of wide-angle strobes mounted on the housing handles, pointed outward for a touch of light to add color and fill in the dark areas. For whales, don’t worry about flash and just let the sun do the work by keeping the sun at your back.
Bottlenose dolphins, Mikura, Japan
Shoot at a high shutter speed if you can. Around 250th or better. Your swimming creates a lot of motion and if you’re moving with a subject like a dolphin, you’ll need some stopping power. This may mean you’ll also want to up your ISO to 400 or 800.
For free-diving and snorkeling:
It may seem simple but there is an art to staying streamlined, properly weighted and equipped when trying to photograph marine life by snorkeling and free diving. Get a low volume mask and low profile snorkel. Both should be easy to clear of water. Most pro free divers don’t keep the snorkel in their mouths while underwater, as it tends to put air in the cheeks. It is just used to catch a breath at the surface. So for this kind of up and down photography, a simple snorkel is best.
Spotted dolphins, Bimini, Bahamas
But for swimming with dolphins or trying to keep up with a whale shark, you may want something with a purge and a bit of height that keeps the air hole above the waves. Use long free diving fins. They add more power to your kick and give you speed. You can also keep up with creatures easier. Wear as little as possible without freezing to death. Keep your rubber volume down. You will also want to weight yourself so you are a slightly negatively buoyant. This allows you to sink under the surface just by exhaling.
Juvenille humpback whale, Vava’u, Tonga
As large as they are, whales like humpbacks are extremely skittish. They don’t like humans diving down on them. But you can calmly slip under the surface so you are a meter or so down. This gives you better eye-to-eye shots. The weights also help if you have to go down quickly to keep up with dolphins. Place a safety sausage on your weight belt. Ocean currents can be tricky and you can find yourself pushed out to sea when chasing whales or looking for sailfish and bait balls. Don’t take a chance. It can help with floatation as well as alert the boat.
Elaine with needlefish, Guam, Western Pacific
Keep in shape and try to keep body fat down. This will also help you move, sink and keep up with your ridiculously fit model. If you don’t live near an ocean, keep the fin muscles in shape in a pool.
TIM ROCK specializes in the marine world and is an author, photographer and owner of a photo gallery on Guam in the western Pacific. He attended the journalism program at the University of Nebraska – Omaha and has been a professional broadcast and print photojournalist for 30 years. His news photography appeared on CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN. The majority of his career has been in the Western and Indo Pacific reporting on environmental and conservation issues. He has won the prestigious Excellence in the Use of Photography from the Society of Publishers in Asia. His TV show was an ACE award finalist. He also lists many other awards for documentaries, television shows, photography and writing. He works as a correspondent for numerous Pacific Rim magazines. He is the author and contributor to a dozen Lonely Planet/Pisces series guides. Rock’s photographic work is represented by Getty Images Lonely Planet Collection, SeaPics, Polaris Images, Waterframe, VWPics and his own Guam-based agency.
Tim Rock uses Aquatica underwater housings and Ikelite strobes with Nikon D7100 and D7200 cameras and Nikkor and Tokina wide angle lenses. He also uses Sola modeling lights.
All photos by Tim Rock/2015. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.
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