Shooting The Deep By Klaus M. Stiefel
You probably have already done it several times this week, and without all that much effort: take a photograph. The advanced lenses, sensors and software of modern digital cameras make it easy to take pictures, and sometimes even good pictures. Cameras have come a long way since photography was initially invented in the late 1700s. Back then it was a cumbersome and slow business! Bulky photographic devices had to be set up for exposure times spanning hours, followed by tricky chemical procedures to develop the images. Today the near-magic advancements of optics and electronics have rendered the photographic process so simple that a whole class of consumer cameras is quite correctly called point-and-shoot.
But in some cases, taking pictures still involves extraordinary efforts, like those I made for my deep-diving underwater photography during the last few years. I brought my camera along dives on the spectacular drop-offs of tropical coral reefs in the 50 – 80 meter (165 – 260 feet) range, well below what recreational divers can reach. I experienced an amazing biodiversity, with a coral cover in pristine condition, majestic large barrel sponges multi-colored sea feathers and pulsating anemones everywhere. I saw rare and unusual animals, some of them possibly never before seen by human eyes, and I took photographs of many of these sea creatures. I took pictures of marine life separated from the regular realm of humans by a barrier of 80 vertical meters of salt water, exposed to a pressure of 9 bar, which is 9 times as much pressure as on the surface. In this hard to reach environment taking good pictures down there took even more of my efforts than merely going to these places. As a reward, I got shots of unreal beauty and scientific significance. In this article I want to share what it took to get these shots. First, I will briefly describe the diving techniques I employed; Then I will tell you about the photographic gear, techniques and mindset I had to have to resurface with beautiful images of deep reef marine life. I hope that this description will be interesting in itself; I also think that a lot of the photographic approaches I used constitute good lessons for any under-water or nature-photographer.
So, how do you get yourself down to 80 meters, and then safely back to the surface? I probably don’t even have to tell you to not try this at home, since you most likely don’t live right next to a deep reef wall. The late Hunter S. Thompson is quoted as saying that he can’t necessarily recommend alcohol, drugs and insanity, but they have always worked for him. I can equally recommend deep diving conditionally; If you are poorly trained or equipped, and if you are careless or diving with the wrong people, it can be a very dangerous activity. In fact, the very Hunter S. Thompson ended up in a hospital for several weeks after conducting a deep dive he was neither equipped nor trained for. But if you are an experienced and diligent diver there is nothing else like exploring the deeper regions of a coral reef.
Before I could start exploring, I had to become a technical diver. Technical diving is the art of diving below the recreational depth limit of about 45 meters, involving specialized gear, training and mindset. It took me a total of 5 weeks of intensive courses, on top of the highest certification level in conventional recreational diving, to acquire the necessary skills.
I had to learn how to conduct a slow, step-wise ascent from the advanced depths I was about to visit. Come up too fast, and you will end up with an unpleasant case of the “bends”. It’s the atmospheric nitrogen dissolved in the diver’s blood and tissues at high pressure which is the issue here. A rapid ascent, and the resulting rapid decrease in ambient pressure will cause the nitrogen to suddenly bubble out, like when opening a well shaken (not stirred) coke bottle. These bubbles clog up the arteries in the diver’s body, and problems anywhere from mild skin irritation to a deadly brain stroke can ensue. Only a number of lengthy stops at predetermined depths allow the dissolved nitrogen to leave the diver’s tissues slowly and without causing harm. A recreational diver avoids these issues by staying shallower and surfacing before any such decompression-stops becoming necessary; When diving deep, this is not an option anymore. I learned how to use specialized software to determine the levels and durations of these stops. This planning step is one of several ones necessary for a successful and safe technical dive, and thorough planning is one of the hallmarks of technical diving.
Because of the length of the required decompression stops, a single tank of compressed air like it is carried by recreational divers is not enough anymore. For the deep dives I was about to undertake, I had to carry up to five aluminum cylinders worth of breathing gases. And these breathing gases were not only air, but helium air and oxygen-air mixes. The helium-containing breathing gases (“trimix”) helps avoid another danger besetting the deep-diver: nitrogen narcosis, the intoxicating effect at high pressures of the gas which constitutes the majority of our planet’s atmosphere. While not inherently dangerous and completely reversible, nitrogen narcosis interferes with the clear head needed for deep diving. Other breathing gases contain more oxygen than conventional air (“nitrox”). These gases allow for a faster removal of the nitrogen dissolved in my body during the piece-wise ascent.
I also trained to take care of emergencies under water; Every gear failure or diver malaise has to be solved without surfacing, precisely because of the aforementioned danger of the bends when coming to the surface too sudden. A big part of this emergency handling is gear redundancy; As a team of dive buddies, we always bring enough swag to replace lost or malfunctioning essential equipment. Together with the meticulous planning, the increased amount and complexity of the gear utilized is another hallmark of technical diving.
Another crucial skill I had to perfect for technical diving is precise underwater buoyancy. To carry out the aforementioned decompression-stops, I had to learn to hover precisely at a given depth, precisely at the same spot with all my scuba gear strapped to me. This skill is a necessity for a slow and safe ascent, but it is equally invaluable for underwater photography. When shooting a small, skittish fish, hiding in a crack of the reef, nothing helps like staying really still!
I hope I have given you an interesting glimpse of the challenges which deep diving involves. Now, once I hover in front of a reef wall in 80 meters, what do I have to do to take inspiring photographs of the marine life at these depths?
Deep Diving Photography – The Gear
Just as successfully and safely getting to the deep parts of the reef involves specialized gear and thorough planning, so does the photography during these deep dives.
First, I had to get myself some fairly specialized photo gear. To bring a camera underwater it needs to be, encased in a water-tight and pressure resistant under water housing. You can get these for a range of cameras from point-and-shoots to high-end SLRs, both from the camera’s manufacturers as well as from third-party housing-makers. Most of these housings are rated to a depth of 60 meters, which is not enough for the dives I am doing. The popular, and affordable translucent polyacrylic housings are not an option; I had to go with a machined aluminum housing, and I picked a model made in Belgium by Hugyfot. An inherent weak point of all of these housings is the seam where the two halves of the housing are connected after closing it with the camera inside. On this seam a rubber O-ring seals the housing’s interior from the ocean water. At least most of the time, it does. If not, you have a digital camera soaked in salt water, which is equivalent to a formerly functioning digital camera. The first time the Space Shuttle exploded, this also happened because of a defective O-ring. No doubt, O-rings are a major weak point in a number of modern technologies.
To overcome this weakness, my camera housing has an innovative system: After I am done assembling it with the camera inside, I pump the air out of the housing’s interior. Then, an electronic vacuum-detection system monitors the pressure in the inside of the housing, and signals with a green LED that all is well, and with a red LED that the air pressure inside is increasing and hence that there is a leak. In this way, I can tell if the o-ring is sealing without having to put the whole set-up under water. A quick dip in a bucket of freshwater while paying attention to eventual bubbles also does the job of checking for leaks – but in 2012, if you can use advanced electronics for a job, you should.
Inside the camera housing sits, nice and dry, my Canon EOS 5DII. Much has been, rightfully, raved how fantastic a camera this is, and one of its features, which make it an especially good camera for deep underwater photography is its great performance at low light levels. Light intensity decreases exponentially the deeper you go in below the surface of the ocean. In many cases, the light for an underwater photograph comes from the strobes attached to the camera, but this source of illumination is not always enough. Specifically, when shooting scenic reefscapes, with a wide-angle lens, no strobe will be powerful enough to illuminate the whole scene. Only the corals in the foreground are painted in bright colors by the strobes. Look at the “Reef Wall” photograph above – the shades of blue in the background are all coming from the sparse ambient light at a depth of 50 meters. And the Canon 5DII is a good camera to capture this little light!
Naturally, I would also want to use a quality wide angle lens for shooting such reefscapes. The Canon 17-40 mm f4 L lens has always served me very well. At the long end of its range, it has proven to be a great lens for photographing large animals like manta rays and thresher sharks. Close to the 17 mm end, I have used this lens for many nice shots of coral reef walls. It is very important to get close to your photo subject when taking pictures underwater! Not only does water absorb light at a much higher rate than air, it also changes light’s color temperature. Too much distance between my strobe and the coral bouquet on the reef wall will not only leave you with less light on your sensor, but will also selectively eat away on the reds and oranges in your image. And another reason why you want to close in on your subject are the suspended particles in sea water. They are what causes the ugly “snow” in poor underwater shots. The less seawater there is between your lens and the corals, the less of these evil little particles you will get into your shot. Hence, when photographing a large bundle of pretty corals, I need a wide angle lens to get close to them and still keep them in frame. A focal length of 17 mm, with a full frame sensor, works just about well.
When shooting macro, I love the Canon 100 mm f2.8 USM lens. Over the years, this lens has gifted me with a plethora of needle-sharp photographs of small marine animals. Look at the cowry in the shot below! This animal is only about 4 centimeters long, and my 100 mm lens resolved the gorgeous pattern on its back in great detail. This lens does an outstanding job at focusing in the low light conditions so frequently encountered at greater depths. Only very occasionally does it “travel” – overshoot the correct focal plane.
When going for the really tiny creatures, I like to use a 1.25x extension tube. This hollow tube goes between the camera body and the macro lens, and converts my 100 mm lens into a 125 mm lens. The downsides of such an extension tube are that your lens loses the capability to focus at longer distances (irrelevant for macro photography) and that you lose some depth of field (which can be an issue). But, you add another stage of magnification and I have gotten great shots of minute marine life with it, like the Tiny Monsters shown below. An alternative to such an extension tube is an external diopter, a magnification glass which is attached externally on the front of the housing’s lens port. While their optical quality is inferior to that of an extension tube, the advantage of these diopters is that it’s possible to remove and re-attach them during a dive.
And, as already mentioned several times, high-powered strobes, ideally a pair of them, are indispensable for good underwater photography. I use two Inon Z-240 strobes, with a cycle time of under a second, and capable of over 100 flash emissions on a set of fully charged AA batteries. As an added bonus, these strobes come with a built-in focus light, which shines a small cone of light in the direction the strobe will go off. This helps the autofocus of the lens to find its target quicker, and such a focus light is absolutely necessary below a certain depth, and when shooting creatures hiding in the cracks of the reef. In order to avoid an unsightly overexposed blob in the center of the shots, the focus light turns off for a second at the moment the strobe fires. And all of that circuitry is contained in a housing able to resist the water pressure at 80 or more meters.
Absolutely crucial when shooting underwater, and quite different from topside photography, is the placement of the strobes. When shooting wide-angle, I have the strobes on long arms, and I keep them in a plane behind the lens, facing slightly outwards. This arrangement leads to an even illumination of the scene, and a reduced illumination of the particles suspended in the seawater in front of my lens.
When shooting macro, I bring my strobes into a wholly different position; In this case, I try to mimic the popular ring strobe. I place my two under-water strobes close to the cylindrical macro-lens port, one on each side, and aim them straight ahead or slightly inwards. This maximizes the amount of light I will get onto my photo subject, and it will eliminate unsightly shadows.
I use yet another approach when photographing animals which are either black, like some sea slugs, or reflective silvery-scaly, like barracudas. In this case, I want to avoid completely dark, or totally blown-out photographs, respectively. These two extremes of light absorption and reflection necessitate more creative strobe positions; I always try to hit such photo subjects at odd, indirect angles, and, if possible, vary these angles in successive shots of these subjects. Lastly, translucent animals like jellyfish I like to hit with back- or side-light, since they are best imaged with refracted, not reflected light.
So, that’s a lot of nice gear! Let’s put a few layers of bubble-wrap around it, stack it in a box, and head to the airport. But where should I head to for my deep diving photography?
Deep Diving Photography – The Location
With all the training done and my gear assembled, I next needed to find myself a good deep reef wall to dive on. Fortunately, my friends at Evolution Diving, Matt Reed and David Joyce, had shown some good foresight when establishing their dive shop on Malapascua island. Malapascua (“Bad Easter”, after the stormy Easter Sunday it was first sighted on by European explorers) is a small island, part of the Cebu province in the Visayan islands in the Philippines. Close to Malapascua is Monad shoal, a sunken island, which rises from the ocean floor at about 95 meters but does not quite break the water surface at its tip, but rather forms an underwater plateau of several square kilometers at 20 meters. Monad is famous for the almost daily sightings of the otherwise rare and elusive thresher sharks, but the reef wall spanning from 20 to 95 meters is an equally impressive attraction for the underwater naturalist. Too deep to be affected by rising sea surface temperature and the resultant coral bleaching, and out of the reach of clumsy diving tourists who kick the fragile coral branches, this wall is a smorgasbord of coral health and marine biodiversity. Why are there so many different marine organisms on Monad?
The Philippines are a part of a larger region encompassing eastern Indonesia and Papua New Guinea called the “Coral Triangle”. This is the part of the world’s oceans with the highest biodiversity: most species of corals, fishes, sea slugs, crabs and shrimps. The reasons for this diversity are found both in the geography of the region, and in its evolutionary history. The ocean in this part of the world is broken up into many seas and straights by a multitude of small and mid-sized islands. Take such a complex environment, and combine it with near-perfect conditions for coral growth (warm, clear waters and ample tropical sunlight) and you have the ideal evolutionary breeding ground for coral reef species.
This is a fascinating region to dive in. Not by accident are many of the world’s most famous dive sites in that area, from the Lembeh Strait in Sulawesi to Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea, Raj Ampat in West Papua and the Tubataha Reef in the Philippines. And Malapascua and Monad shoal are in the middle of the Coral Triangle as well. Anyone visiting the shallower parts of the Coral Triangle’s reefs should be excited about the species richness they can see there; But on my deep dives, I will see and photograph an even more unspoiled version of these reefs and a marine fauna rarely perceived by human eyes!
Deep Diving Photography – Techniques and Mindset
So! Almost there! I have learned to dive deep in a way that maximizes my chances of coming back up alive. I have forked over some Yen and Aussie Dollars earned in my cosmopolitan scientific career for high quality camera gear. And I have found myself an incredibly bio diversity studded reef wall to dive on at Monad shoal. Now I’m standing on the beach of Malapascua and am staring at the ocean in the soft late-afternoon light, which is such a gift for landscape photography. It’s hard not to be taken aback by the beauty of the orange lit clouds above the edgy mountainscape of Leyte in the distance, but I am concentrating on my mental checklist.
I need to be prepared! Depending on the exact dive schedule, I will only have between 15 and 25 minutes at depth before the lengthy ascent starts. I need to have a fairly good idea how I can use this relatively short time, what animals I expect to shoot, and which lens to use for that purpose, and how to set my camera! Once the camera & lens are in the housing, there is no way of changing them during the dive. I am still able to alter the settings, but I would rather have them set close to the correct values once I am in the water. When I am encountering the animals I intend to shoot, I want to concentrate on them, and spend as little time as necessary with my camera’s menu buttons.
It is also imperative to talk to my buddy! A well-thought out plan for our technical dive has to be supplemented by a photographic plan. Case in point: the photograph of the skeleton shrimps, titled “Tiny Monsters”, shown below. On a previous dive, David Joyce and I found these unique crustaceans on a finely branched soft coral 50 meters deep on the wall of Monad shoal. That particular soft coral was buzzing with several hundred skeleton shrimps.
We set out to return specifically to that soft coral, and to dedicate the majority of the dive to shooting the skeleton shrimps. We knew exactly where to go, and what we were looking for. I had brought my 100 mm lens plus the aforementioned 1.25x extension tube, while David was using his macro lens with an external diopter. Our cameras were set to low ISOs, and high fstops, and to the use of the center autofocus point only. Our strobes were aimed with a sideward angle at the near translucent shrimps. We jumped in the water, descended to 50 meters, and then swam a few meters to our target location. We then spent a good 15 minutes precisely hovering in front of the skeleton shrimp-afflicted soft coral, and shot these animals while they were munching away at the coral’s polyps. We got a good number of shots of both large and small skeleton shrimps, from many different angles, in many different poses.
On the half hour of decompression stops on our way up we knew that we had nailed something difficult to find, really tiny underwater photo subjects, while ourselves strapped to four scuba tanks, with limited time to shoot. Just as we had planned. A job well done and a warm photographic feeling!
Deep Diving Photography – Lessons for every Nature Photographer
I hope you have enjoyed my description of my efforts at nature photography during technical dives at depths below 50 meters. Even if you are not planning to dive that deep, or not dive at all, I believe that some of the tips & tricks I shared can help you with your nature photography.
For those of you planning to shoot underwater, work on your buoyancy! Only if you are still in the water will you avoid scaring off the ocean’s animals. And, of course, get close to the fishes or sea stars or corals you want to photograph. The seawater between the sea life and your lens is your enemy! Equally, I hope that my tips on strobe placement are useful to you.
And, no matter if you’ll take your camera underwater or not, do as I did and go find something unusual! You don’t necessarily have to spend thousands of dollars on dive gear and weeks of training of your diving skills to get there. Maybe there is a cave with some unusual millipedes in your vicinity? Or is there a national park close to where you live, where you can photograph rare waterfowl? Even if it takes a multi-day hike, I say go for it, and bring back some special shots.
Finally, plan and be prepared! Anticipate what animals you are likely to encounter, and what light conditions you will find them in. Based on these considerations, bring the right gear. For the millipedes in the cave you will likely need a strobe, and for the waterfowl a telephoto lens. Make sure all the settings of your gear are right. You do not want to waste time in your camera’s menus when the animals are in sight. And then shoot.
And, most of all, enjoy yourself while shooting! To me, nature photography is a unique way of connecting with nature in a very deep and enjoyable way. In order to take home an appealing image of an interesting animal in its natural surroundings, I need to immerse myself in its environment and to put myself into the animal’s mindset. For me, this connection is something very valuable in our increasingly denatured world.
For a thorough introduction to underwater photography, I recommend Martin Edge’s “The Underwater Photographer”, currently in its 4th edition.
To learn more about coral reefs and their threatened future, I can recommend J.E.N. Veron’s “A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End.”.
If you have enjoyed my writing and my photography, check out my new book “Sex, Drugs and Scuba Diving”, telling it all about marine biology, underwater photography and the history of the Pacific Ocean. Available via Amazon.com.
About the Author
Dr. Klaus M. Stiefel is a neurobiologist, underwater photographer and author based in Sydney, Australia. He has dived in Corsica, Mauritius, the Egyptian Red Sea, an Austrian alpine lake, Southern California, The Pacific coast of Mexico, Cuba, Hawaii, Okinawa, Yonaguni and the Izu peninsula in Japan, Yap, Palau, the Great Barrier Reef, Coral Sea and the Sydney area in Australia and many places in the Philippines. Klaus has published his underwater photography in the Mabuhay in flight magazine of Philippine Airlines, Under Water Photography Magazine, Skin Diver Magazine (as the winner of the beginner macro category of the 2007 Kona Classic photography competition), and in a variety of on-line marine-life, conservation and biology blogs. Klaus also organizes the annual Evolution Photoganza underwater photo-workshop in Malapascua, Philippines. Dr. Stiefel is the author of a book which can be purchased here. You can see more of Dr. Stiefels work here.