Colin Doeg looks at Your Shot

Send in your slides or prints for an expert appraisal and learn how to get the best results. Essential tips for all underwater photographers

Despite using the same cameras, lenses and films from the same group of manufacturers, considerable originality is shown by many natural history and landscape photographers working on land.

They go out of their way to find unusual angles from which to take their pictures – even if it means crouching in a wire cage fixed to the front of a Land Rover or tractor so they can get nearer to a pride of lions or a bear. They seek out unusual qualities of light and, in doing so, transform what would otherwise be fairly traditional and conventional scenes.

By contrast, while a lot of underwater photographs are of extremely high quality, they are often very similar and lack originality. For me, many of them are clichéd.

Of course, it’s far from easy to experiment with new ideas and techniques underwater. Often, you have to travel thousands of miles to find unusual subjects. When you get to your chosen spot, you’re at the mercy of the sea and can only hope that you get sunburst, blue water and calm conditions.

Once out of the water, unless you’re able to process your films yourself, or have them processed quickly so you can monitor your results, you have to wait until you get back home before you know if your ideas have worked. And then it might be another year before you can afford to go back to the same spot to try again.

With all this in mind, it’s particularly exciting to discover someone who’s trying to do something a little different. Kathryn Westaway, a 21-year-old BSAC dive leader who’s taking a three-year degree course in photographic communications at Falmouth College of Art in Cornwall, had some novel ideas when she went on an expedition to Safaga, on the shores of the Egyptian Red Sea.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned, but then Kathryn had set herself a tall agenda. Having studied the images in a number of diving magazines, she wanted to come away from her trip with some very different pictures from the usual gorgonian-with-diver and wide-angle shots.

Her idea was to use a tripod so she could work with exposures as slow as half a second to obtain sharp images of coral surrounded by dashes of brilliant colour from the trails of fish.

Against the grain: Kathryn Westaway used Fuji Neopan 1600 film and natural light to obtain this image of a fan coral in the Red Sea

Using one of the college’s underwater outfits – a Canon camera with a 28–80mm zoom in an Ikelite housing – Kathryn fixed it to the tripod with bicycle clips and string. To keep it steady, she added a weight belt. So far so good.

Kathryn and her very tolerant buddy Paul then snorkelled around their chosen site with the tripod and camera, looking for a suitable patch of sand to set up the equipment without damaging any coral. Eventually, they settled down to take the first picture.

Kathryn recalls: ‘The shot I composed was pleasant: a spray of fire coral framed the image and several yellow goatfish were playing chase around a small rock in the foreground.’ Twenty-six frames later, she was feeling quite pleased with her work, until she looked through the viewfinder. The hand-held flashgun was in each picture.

Despite this setback, she persisted with her efforts to obtain some original colour and black-and-white prints. For some shots, she worked without her tripod, including the one above of a giant fan coral, which she took using natural light at a depth of nine metres. She used Fuji Neopan 1600 film exposed at 800 ASA and given normal processing. The resulting print, made on Multigrade paper, shows crisp, tight grain, so this approach is worth exploring further. I’d have used an 400 ASA film, such as Kodak Tri-X, rated normally and given at least ten per cent over-development, but I suspect the grain would have been more prominent.

Kathryn is now saving up to go back to the Red Sea to continue her experiments, but it looks like she won’t manage to return until next year. See what I mean about the logistics of underwater photography?

Velvia not up to Speed
Fuji films are greatly favoured by underwater photographers, especially Velvia. The latter is widely used for macro shots and even wide-angle work. But in his annual film tests for his Blue Water newsletter, Peter Chesthunt, of Dallas, Texas, found a variation in the speeds of two different batches.

Peter runs a colour laboratory and his customers had reported Velvia emulsions varying in speed from the stated 50 ASA to 40 ASA and 32 ASA. He’d even heard one professional photographer claiming the emulsion was as slow as 25 ASA. Peter’s advice: be careful when using this film. If in doubt, shoot it at 40 ASA. His current favourite is Kodak E100VS, but he won’t forsake Velvia for macro work.

For more details of his newsletter, email Peter at bluwater@mindspring.com.


 

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