Opening shots

As soon as he qualified as an open water diver, 30-year-old Darren Stone knew he wanted to take up underwater photography. He realised it wasn't as easy as he had first thought, but with luck and guidance he made the right first steps. He received a MotorMarine 11 as a present and was quickly down at the local swimming pool practising.

Next he bought a Sea & Sea YS50 flashgun, before going on one of Martin Edge's popular weekend photographic courses. As a result he added a 16mm wide-angle lens and a 1:3 close-up lens to his basic kit. Then he was off to Sharm El Sheikh for a PADI underwater photography course at the Red Sea Diving College, with Mohsen Refsaat. 'I had done the theory with Martin and now I was actually in the sea taking pictures,' says Darren, from Ealing, West London. 'Mohsen was really helpful and dived with me on several occasions, helping me with some of the subjects. The course lasted two days and during that time I shot six rolls of colour print film. I'm quite happy with the results, but realise I need to take a lot more pictures - and those I've taken could be better.'

He asked Photo Clinic to look at his pick of those first six rolls, to tell him where he went wrong and suggest how he might improve his photographs in the future. Colin Doeg casts a critical (and hopefully) a helpful eye.

Sun Rising

Technically, pictures of objects silhouetted against the sun are difficult, because neither slide nor print film can tolerate the great difference in the amount of light falling on the object and the sunburst for both to be exposed correctly. Most slide films can only tolerate a variation of one or two stops of light across the subject area; colour print film can handle up to about four stops, and black and white film much more.

The starting point in learning how to improve ideas such as this is to get an effective sunburst. The easiest way to do so is to shoot a roll of film, going through every combination of aperture and shutter setting that your camera has to offer. Usually, if the main subject is under-exposed by two stops or more compared with the background, you will get a silhouette.

Most of the time, in tropical waters, a small aperture like f22 or f16 will produce a good sunburst but, if there are a lot of light rays fanning down into the water, a shutter speed of 1/250th or faster is usually necessary to catch them. If you want detail in the main object, such as a diver, it is necessary to increase the amount of light falling on it with the use of flash. This technique is called 'balanced flash' if you want the light to be roughly equal, or 'fill-in flash' if you want the effect to be less obvious. Again, you need to experiment to see which effect you prefer. Set your flashgun on TTL, point it at your subject and hold it about three feet away. Then take a shot at each aperture in turn - the shutter speed will usually be set automatically to about 1/60th. It is only on the more sophisticated cameras that you can use a fast shutter speed like 1/250th.

From the point of view of composition, this is also a difficult picture to take because the positions of the main elements - diver, rope, sun and boat - are determined by circumstances over which the photographer usually has little or no control, such as wind, tide and general sea condition. Nevertheless, such a silhouette can produce an eye-catching picture and if you are diving from a shot-line or anchor rope, it is always worth saving a few frames to see if the opportunity presents itself. The most popular versions of this type of picture usually involve stronger diagonals than in this print. Sometimes it is possible to place the sunburst in the top left-hand corner, with the rope coming diagonally to the bottom right, and the diver placed so that some of the rays are interrupted by his or her head.

Look and learn

Close-up photography is a great way to learn more about the world beneath the waves. Instead of being a 'tourist' diver trailing along with the mob, the purchase of close-up equipment encourages you to look much more carefully and learn far more about life in the sea. Wherever you dive, there are subjects galore for your extension tubes, close-up outfits or macro lenses in housings.

While other divers moan about boring dives, you will have enjoyed a fascinating hour focusing on a variety of interesting subjects. Indeed, many believe the best way to begin in underwater photography is to spend a year using nothing but one set of extension tubes and one small flashgun, especially if you are starting in UK waters - you will be forced to search for suitable subjects. Because your subjects will always be a fixed distance from the lens, a few test exposures will rapidly determine the correct aperture/flash setting. With the confidence that you can get every shot technically correct, you can then experiment with different lighting angles and subsequently interpret them for use with larger subjects.

With fish portraits it is essential that the eye is sharp, and it is usually better to be looking up towards the subject rather than down on it. It is also usually worth trying to isolate the fish from the background, unless it is important to show its natural habitat, such as a clownfish amid anemone tentacles. To show the features of an exotic fish such as a lionfish, it is best to isolate it against a background of blue water or photograph it at night so you get a black background. Almost without exception, fish need to be facing the camera or side-on to it, and never photographed from above or tail-on. Most lionfish are wary of divers and prefer to keep their distance.

Darren has done well to get so close to this particular specimen but he should practice camera angles on a colourful wooden fish in a swimming pool and try to emulate successful pictures in Dive International and the many high-quality photographic books now available.

Model image

Why do underwater photographers hate to dive with other divers? Look at all the bubbles in this picture and you'll understand why! Why are photographers so fussy about their models? Look at this diver with protruding fin straps, dangling gauges and other bits and pieces.

They all distract and make for a messy picture. But ignore those points and look at the photograph - it is a perfect example of balanced flash. The foreground is so evenly lit it looks natural; there are no tell-tale shadows to indicate that flash has been used.

Nevertheless, this picture is confusing. While the brightly coloured soft coral catches the eye, you don't know what you are meant to look at. Is it the coral? Is it the diver? Or is it both? Cropping out the diver produces a picture; so does cutting out the coral. Cropping it severely on the right and to some extent on the left results in a photograph that is stronger as a vertical.

No doubt the untidy diver came past by chance - or was it the instructor or dive master? If he or she had been swimming either upwards or downwards towards the soft coral, and if it had been taken as a vertical, the elements of the photograph would have come together better.


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