Seven steps to success
There really is no great mystique about taking photographs such as the one on the left, if you follow the seven steps that are outlined. Wide-angle close-focus pictures have great potential, and once you have mastered how to do them, you can apply them to all sorts of underwater subjects, and increase the impact of your photographs by leaps and bounds.

Once you start thinking 'wide-angle, close-focus', you will find yourself beginning to analyse your pictures more; breaking them down into a series of components, then manipulating those components, and finally, reassembling them to obtain the picture that you want, rather than the one which circumstances may dictate; becoming pro-active rather than re-active.

Just to give you a little background information, I took this picture last October in the Northern Red Sea using a Nikon F801s camera in a Subal housing, an SB25 electronic flash, also in a housing, and a Nikkor 20mm wide-angle lens. Shutter speed was 1/60th, film stock was Fuji Velvia 50 ASA, and we';ll deal with the aperture and manual mode later. You don't have to use a housed single lens reflex (SLR) camera to take pictures like this, as a system such as the Nikonos V will do just as well. But some of the technical aspects vary a little, and after describing the method for an SLR user, I'll mention any differences that apply to amphibious cameras.

STEP 1 GET THE RIGHT SUBJECT

This sounds obvious but is crucial. On the day I took the picture above, there were lots of areas of red soft coral around on the reef. Why did I choose this one? The first thing I look for when choosing a subject is angle-of-dangle versus the sun! Can I get myself and the camera equipment into a suitable position behind the coral to be able to get the sun into the picture and put it where I think it's going to look best? And at the same time not damage the reef. Can I get close enough to the soft coral? Is there going to be enough light in the background? Is the soft coral a good, vibrant red colour, and not one of those wishy-washy specimens that can be such an insipid disappointment when the films are developed.

Finally, am I at a depth that is safe for taking photographs? I like to choose subjects in shallow water - this one was in about 6m - as you get enough light to give you a good choice of f-stops, and also because I can concentrate on the job in hand without having to worry about bottom time too much. I do, however, always check my computer and air before I start to get too carried away. I also chose this subject with a view to what was around it, as I wanted some whitish, hard coral in the picture. What you put into a picture is important - but so is what you leave out, and I'll consider this in more detail when discussing composition.

STEP 2 THE BACKGROUND

After having chosen the subject, what to do with the background is the next most important part of the process. The pivotal decision is what colour intensity you want it to be, and this is easily resolved by metering the ambient light (without any flash), and choosing the aperture to suit. I always shoot on manual mode, nearly always on 1/60th, and the reason that I use this rather outmoded method is quite simply because the LED display in my viewfinder gives me a wonderful exposure value scale that goes from +2 though 0 to -2. All I have to do is point the camera in the direction of my background, in this case with the sun, and, starting at f22, open up the aperture until my LED scale indicates zero.

This gives the correct aperture that the camera, with its very sophisticated matrix metering system, thinks that I should be using for this picture - to shoot it without any flash at all. I have learned to argue with the camera at my peril - it always wins! Now in this case the LED scale was at 0 at f1. Let's look at the result of shooting the background at this what I call 'baseline aperture' of f11, just as the camera wanted us to do as shown left. I have learned in the past, during my long quest for impact, that I prefer pictures that are under-exposed, and so I decided to go for f16 instead, to get one stop of under-exposure. This is where taking control by manipulating the components of the shot comes in. This is my first manipulation, making the background darker than it really was. For those of you using Nikonos Vs on setting A, start at f22, and open the aperture until the 60 glows in your viewfinder LED - this will give you that baseline aperture to work with.

 

STEP 3 SIZE AND APPEARANCE OF THE SUN

Let's next take a look at what happens to the sun at two different f-stops at the opposite ends of the range.
The image on the left was taken at f22, and while the sun is sharp and punchy, it is a bit small in comparison with the red soft coral, and will result in an unbalanced picture.

The picture on the right is an f5.6 sun, and is rather blowsy and has lost definition and impact. I decided that the setting of f16 that I had chosen for my background light would produce a slightly larger sun than f22, and certainly a smaller and more attractive sun than larger apertures; so f16 was my final choice for the picture.

However, for safety I would alw ays recommend bracketing: shooting a number of shots using not only using your chosen f-stop, but also using those n either side of it, in this case f11 and f22. This gives a greater margin of error - and you may even like one of the also-rans better in the end! Before we leave suns and move to the next step, it's worth noting that working in relatively shallow water enables you to use those small apertures that result in sharp, dramatic suns. The deeper you go, the more you have to open up the aperture, and the less well-defined the sun will become as a result. If all this sounds a bit of a long-winded pain, don't despair, because essentially, the remaining technical aspects of this photo are now in the bag. The rest of the things you need to do to take this picture simply follow on from your f-stop choice. Now, let's add flash to bring that red soft coral alive!

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