Monsters of the Deep

Divers like to boast of shark encounters as if they were only millimetres away from the beasts. No one will know if they were lurking discreetly many metres away. But keeping your distance is not possible when you are taking photographs - photographers have to be there with the action, working as closely as possible to their subjects.

First, though, they have to find their subjects, especially if they are making only a few dives in a new area. Betsey Hansen, who lives in Freeport, New York, found a short-cut to success when she went on a business trip to Sydney. She read the article about diving in that part of Australia that appeared in the August 1996 issue of Dive International and then contacted the author, Mark Aldred. She persuaded him to take her diving and even to show her the lair of the extraordinary weedy sea dragon in Botany Bay, where explorer Captain Cook landed in 1770.

The result was some excellent pictures, including this one (above) taken with a 28mm lens plus close-up lens on a Nikonos V with SB103 strobe.

Photographers also have to be able to spot the unusual. Indeed, it is this fact which frequently leads most photographers to believe they see much more of the underwater world and its creatures than the majority of other divers who zoom about in carefully shepherded groups.

Malcolm Quickfall, of Maltby Le Marsh, Lincolnshire, UK, was diving on Fanus Reef, near Hurghada, in the Egyptian Red Sea, when he captured this shot of a stonefish devouring a surgeonfish. Not the nicest of sights, but an interesting illustration of the realities of life in the sea.

He writes: 'I have seen plenty of these monsters in the past but never one this size - it was as big as a football (even after making allowance for the fact that refraction makes objects seem larger than they really are). I was at 10m and swam straight past the stonefish, not even seeing it until I returned.' He thought it strange that there was no movement from the surgeonfish's tail until he saw the stonefish's eye move. Then he realised what was happening, took his picture, and left the stonefish to its lunch. Faced with such an unusual sight, I would have been greatly tempted to have taken more than one picture; but Malcolm was right to move away if he suspected that the fish was being stressed by his presence, or his flash-gun in particular, in any way.

One of the secrets of successful fish photography is to be able to sense whether the fish will allow you into its space. Some become agitated. That's when every photographer and diver should back away and let the fish get on with its life. On other occasions you can sense that you are not causing any distress, but you must still be prepared to bide your time, move slowly and breathe gently. For this shot, Malcolm, who wins a year's subscription to Dive International, used Kodak Gold ISO 100 print film in his Nikonos V with the 35mm lens set at f22 and a Sea & Sea YS50 flash-gun.

If the fish could have tolerated a greater intrusion during its lunch, it would have been interesting to have experimented with larger apertures of f16 and f11, while hand-holding the strobe further away from the subject to light the whole area better. Indeed, this is one occasion for which two strobes would have been an advantage, but this is an extremely costly option with the Nikonos. Nevertheless, twin flash-guns would have bathed the whole area with even light, avoided the shadows and brought out detail with greater clarity. The YS50 flashgun is popular because it is such good value for money.

The only small trade-off, compared with other more expensive strobes is that, because of the limited movement available from the flash arm, it is frequently desirable to hand-hold the strobe to better light the subjects. I suspect some of Malcolm's other pictures would also have been enhanced if he had raised his flash above the camera and slightly forward, rather than to one side (with the arm still attached to the tray?).

This technique should have lit the rear body and tail of the colourful jewelled grouper more effectively, but it does require greater buoyancy-control skills.

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