Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Assignment 5


Approaching this, my final assignment in the Art of Photography course, one thing was clear, the subject.  Usually I agonize over my selection of subject matter, this time the challenge was to select 13 images from the 5,000 plus that I took during a 3 week trip to Indonesia.  This was our third trip to dive the northern tip of the island of Sulawesi; an area that forms the southern point of the Celebes Sea, the northern part of which is formed by the shoreline of Borneo.  The Celebes Sea is one of the world’s greatest areas of marine biodiversity and is a magnet for underwater photographers, although not for the inexperienced.  North Sulawesi offers  a tremendous range of diving opportunities, in the West Bunaken National Marine Park offers hard coral, whilst Gangga in the North has Soft Coral, however, the real draw is in the East with the Macro marine life of the Lembeh Strait.  This short strip of water, 13km long by 1km wide is home to some of the most bizarre and beautiful creatures yet discovered.

With this submission I want to share the experience of diving in North Sulawesi and illustrate some of the marine life that can be seen there.  My intent was to produce the kind of photo essay that might be found in a diving magazine.  I have printed the photographs in A4 landscape on Photo paper incorporating the accompanying captions, landscape is commonly used in diving/photography periodicals, such as Wet Pixel Quarterly and X-Ray Magazine.  I have loosely bound the document to preserve the page layout and the flow of the document. If you would prefer the more normal submission of mounted prints I can provide this, just ask.

The treatment is more illustrative than narrative, however, I have tried to maintain a degree of narrative flow – I will indicate in my notes what category I think the images fall into. I will detail what element of composition I was hoping to achieve in the image.  One outcome of my study during the past year has been to move from being an underwater twitcher constantly searching for new and bizarre creatures to photograph, to thinking more about the structure of the photograph and the colour combinations it contains – I hope to convey this in the photographs.

On this trip I took two Canon EOS 40D’s, one for above water the other used solely underwater.  The above water camera is essentially a backup in case I flood the other camera, although I have to admit that if that happened I might not be so keen to risk the second camera.  Above water I carried two lenses, a 15-85mm image stabilized zoom and a 70-200mm f/4 zoom telephoto, plus a 1.4x extender.  This is a compromise forced by the weight of the scuba and underwater photography equipment, although I must say I was very happy with both lenses. 

My underwater kit centers around an Ikelite polycarbonate housing, a relatively inexpensive housing offering full camera control, but heavy.  Different lenses are accommodated by changing the front port of the housing.  As this was a predominantly macro trip I mostly used a Canon 60mm macro behind a flat port.  I did do some Wide Angle and in that case used a 10-22mm zoom behind a dome port.  Flat ports effectively magnify the image due to diffraction at the water glass boundary, which is good for small objects, but not for wide angle.  A dome port acts to preserve the angle of view. For wide angle I also added a +2 diopter as this somewhat improves edge sharpness and enables closer focus.

The main challenge in underwater photography is the same as with any other form, light.However, depth brings different challenges.  The biggest issue is that water absorbs light very selectively; most red is lost within 10m and is the reason why underwater images frequently have a strong blue cast.  This can be corrected with red filters, but only to around 10-15m deep and at the expense of 2-3 stops.  The only option is to take your own light, in my case I use a pair of Ikelite DS125 strobes.  These are moderately powerful, putting out 125J each, but even so can only effectively illuminate a subject within 1m of the camera.  This can make underwater photography of large subjects quite challenging and is one reason for the popularity of fish-eye or extreme wide angle lenses.  The other problem is getting to within 1m of a skittish animal; sharks are the worst and need much patience. A key benefit of these strobes is the fact that they can be operated either manually or with full TTL.

To place this in context, here is a photo of me underwater with this rig set up for Wide angle:


The images have all been processed in Adobe Lightroom, with a little adjustment in Photoshop, prior to being imported into Adobe In Design for the page layout.  I do not normally do a great deal of manipulation in post processing, however, with underwater images more work is needed.  First of all white balance is very hit or miss underwater, cameras simply cannot cope with the lighting – thus RAW is a given and finding a good white balance after the fact can be tricky.  The other big issue is back scatter; even the cleanest water is full of small particles, plankton, plant debris, sand, mud, and many other irritating small floating things.  These reflect strobe light very well and cause an effect called snow.  This can be minimized by careful strobe positioning, so that the light only falls on the subject and does not illuminate the water between it and the camera, very much easier said than done.  The other mitigating factor is having excellent buoyancy underwater and not kicking up the sand, sadly inexperienced divers can inadvertently ruin a good shot.  I try to stay as far away from other divers as I can.  No matter how careful, the spot removal tool inevitably gets good use in cleaning up underwater images.

Cover– Nudibranch (Illustration)
60mm, f/11, 1/125s, ISO 100

These creatures make excellent subjects as they move very slowly and are extreme in their colour variations; this one is actually quite a muted choice.  The black background has been created by choosing a narrow aperture to minimize any ambient light in the shot and ensuring that the only light registered by the camera is from the strobes.  This boosts the colour contrast and provides some nice negative space to use for the titling of my short photo essay.  I find the colour constrast between the gills (rear) and sensory organs called rhinopores (front) very striking and this contrast accentuated by the background is the dominating compositional element of the image.

Page 2 – Heidi Taking Video (Narrative)
10mm, f/8, 1/40s, ISO 100

This is the only wide angle underwater image in the sequence, and whilst not the strongest image, works very well as a narrative element.  It shows my wife taking video of a pair of Lion Fish (the image of me above was taken at this time in the same place by Heidi) and neatly illustrates the action of underwater photography.  The problem with the image is the turquoise blue of the sand in the background – caused by the slightly yellow sand and the blue light.  Any WB solution that corrected this would send the foreground bright red.  Typically wide angle imagery uses the sea as the background which we all naturally accept is blue (in reality it has no colour at all).

Page 3 – Local Fisherman (Narrative)
200mm, f/4, 1/400s, ISO 100

This image was included in part as a juxtaposition with the diving image on its left and the ability to tell a story about how important these fishermen are to the local environment; together with the fact that properly managed dive tourism really benefits the underwater environment by making it worth saving.  The distant haze caused by the high humidity blends the colour of the hills into the ocean.  This makes the colour contrast of the pink canoe far more striking.

Page 4 – Mantis Shrimp (Illustration)
60mm, f/11, 1/125s, ISO 100

These are always somewhat scary animals to photograph, as they are extremely aggressive and quite capable of inflicting serious injury or damage to the camera.  This individual was probably no more than 4 inches long, but still needed care, the giant 12 inch long specimens are best photographed outside their strike range. However, getting in close rewards the photographer with their astonishing colours and strange body structure.  This is a simple image, a portrait of a very exotic creature.
I am frequently shocked by how little some divers I meet know about the environment they are entering, few read anything and understand the aggressive and often poisonous nature of the animals living in the Lembeh Strait.

Page 5 – Octopus (Narrative)
60mm, f/8, 1/125s, ISO 100

As Sulawesi is renowned for its variety of Octopus species I wanted to include one in my narrative.  This is not the most rare or exotic (I have good photographs of Blue Rings and Mimics), but gave me chance to experiment with composition. Rather than bullseye the animal in the frame, I have placed it in a corner and deliberately used a shallow DOF (most underwater macro starts at f/22) to try and convey the sense of vulnerability that a small animal has on the open sand.  This is a case of using a single point in the composition.

Page 6 – Fire Urchin (Illustration)
60mm, f/8, 1/125s, ISO 100

This was very much an experiment in creating an abstract composition of a natural object with vivid colours.  The blue points add direction to the photo and lead to what is actually the animals anus.  The DOF might have been higher to resolve some more detail in the spines, I am specifically trying to work with lower f-stops at present.

Page 7 – Pin Cushion Star (Narrative)
60mm, f/2.8, 1/125s, ISO 100

This is another slightly abstract image, although the Pericelemenes shrimp is considered a worthy goal for a photographer as they are less than 10mm long and move constantly at high speed.  Photographing one requires patience. Although I have a number of similar images of the underside of this sea star at higher f-stops, I have presented this one as it is an experiment in using very shallow DOF to soften the images.  As mentioned before, most underwater macro photographers are obsessed with detail and the rarity of the subject, I am now trying to get away from this and explore different styles of capture and presentation.

Page 8 – Nudibranch (Narrative)
60mm, f/16, 1/125s, ISO 100

A major goal in any nature photography should be the capture of animal behaviour and reproduction is certainly one of the most interesting.  Nudibranchs, like most marine animals lay thousands of eggs that hatch to join the Plankton, this one is no different.  The composition is suggestive of the circle of life.  I have cropped to a more or less square format, the broader image has a second similar Nudibranch in the background, but I felt this to be distracting and the square crop emphasizes the circular shape. These are my favourite underwater subjects and I spend most diving trips hunting for these tiny creatures in the coral debris. 

Page 9 – Soft Coral Crab (Illustrative)
60mm, f/10, 1/125s, ISO 100

Occasionally luck just comes along and provides a great photo opportunity.  I consider this to be the best underwater image I have ever taken.  I was able to choose an f-stop that avoided over darkening the background and thus retained the almost translucent quality of the coral and crab, but still retain some of the fine detail.  The crab is no more than 1cm long and extraordinarily hard to find.  The colour harmony and repetitive elements of the coral polyps provide compositional support to the crab.

Page 10 – Cat Fish (Narrative)
60mm, f/11, 1/125s, ISO 100

This image uses the repetition of the form and colour of the catfish as its strength.  It also provides a good talking point around the behaviour of these schooling fish.

Page 11 – Skunk Clown Fish (Illustrative)
60mm, f/8, 1/125s, ISO 100

Somewhat of a clich√© especially after Finding Nemo, however, clown fish make wonderful subjects and are sufficiently difficult to photograph that getting a good close up portrait such as this is very satisfying.  They move about so much that the only effective way to get a portrait is to observe them for a short while and figure out where they like to be within their host anemone, position the camera and wait for them to enter the frame.  The shot must be taken quickly and needs instant autofocus coupled with extremely fast camera response, the reason why SLR’s are still preferred for underwater work.  In reality no one in ten shots is likely to be in focus.

Page 12 – Gangga Island (Narrative)
15mm, f/8, 1/500s, ISO 200

No diving article is ever complete without a couple of images showing what else there is to do on location.  This shows the main jetty at Gangga Island resort where we stayed for a week.  The colours of the ocean harmonize with the sky, the flags add some colour contrast. Typical of  most eco resorts in this area little can be seen of the hotel from the shoreline and all of the building is natural wood and so blends into the trees.  This leaves the jetty as the dominant man made structure in the picture, placed to comply with rule of thirds and provide a lead in to the image.  The message should be “welcome to paradise island”.

Page 13 – Sunset (Illustrative)
200mm, f/4, 1/400s, ISO 100

Not always a common site on a diving holiday as we are often underwater when the sun goes down, this shot tries to capture the drama of the tropical sky, but include the narrative element of the local fishermen heading home to their village. The overall compositional goal is to create a sense of warmth and harmony between the ocean and sky.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating write-up and some gorgeous images too