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Paul Duxfield rounds off his digi-compact masterclass by telling the stories behind some of his favourite underwater photographs.
buoyancy combined to make this photograph a success
into shot greatly improved composition
some colour in it
compensate for the fading light
This opportunity arose while I was testing a new camera on a gentle dive among the seagrass beds in Na’ama Bay. It was getting quite late in the day: the light was fading and the camera was showing this with an on-screen warning. I didn’t have any extra lighting in the form of a torch or strobe, so I upped the ISO setting a couple of notches to 400. The trade-off would be slightly more grain in the image, but I would still be able to take pictures at a time of the day when lionfish are actively hunting.
One of them saw its reflection in the dome of my fisheye lens and started to spread its pectoral fins in a display posture, confronting its mirror image nose to nose. The presence of such a willing subject should never be taken for granted, so I began to experiment, framing the scene vertically and waiting for the fish to strike its display pose again.
It’s always worth spending a bit of time with lionfish before you begin your photography in earnest, as they become less guarded and you have the opportunity to familiarise yourself with their behaviour.
The scale of a scene can be dramatically enhanced with the judicious positioning of a diver in shot. My girlfriend Shelly and I were diving Shark Reef at Ras Mohammed where, during the summer months, big schools of fish gather. These batfish were tricky because, as you get close, they all tend to turn away from you. Shelly was filming them at about 90 degrees to me, and I knew her presence would cause the school to change position. I waited patiently and, as they turned away from her and towards me, composed the frame so that she would appear in the bottom corner of the shot, and simply snapped away.
I had to think carefully about the light and used the exposure compensation controls of the camera to make sure the highlights of the picture didn’t get blown out. In scenarios such as this, it’s always worth getting some shots of the fish without the diver-model, and that’s exactly what I did on this occasion. However, this shot emerged as a clear favourite, as you need something other than the fish to lend the image a sense of scale.
I took this shot of a crocodilefish when I first had an outing using a wide-angle or fisheye attached to the housing of my compact camera. I had used similar lenses with a digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera, but the advantage of using one with my digi-compact was that it was an attachment to the front of the dome, which I can use or remove, depending on the situation.
When using wide lenses, try to feature a prominent subject in the foreground to lead your eye into the picture and to give a sense of three-dimensional space.
I was down at below 20m and used manual white balance to ensure the scene had a little colour in it. I could have used a strobe to light up the foreground, but as I like to dive relatively unencumbered I didn’t have one with me, and personally prefer the more natural look where possible.
I signalled to my girlfriend to stay in position, then took a series of shots, all the while approaching the fish very slowly so as not to spook it. Ambush predators such as the crocodilefish don’t like moving, so if you approach them slowly there’s a good chance they will stay put, giving you the opportunity to experiment with your composition.
Crown of thorns abstract
I also call this shot ‘Make do and mend’, as my strobe stopped working during the dive and I had no other light source other than the torch I use as a focus light. This little torch was chronically underpowered for photography; I realised the only way I was going to get any pictures at all was to use the camera’s macro facility and get really close with torch and camera, while composing in a more abstract way.
As I was using an LED torch – which has a pronounced bluish output – I took a white-balance reading to get the colour more to my liking. For shots that require precise focusing, it is crucial to master the camera’s focus lock control, as well as your own buoyancy control to keep you in position. In this sense, underwater photography becomes a test of not just your camera skill, but your overall ability as a diver.
Fans of Paul Duxfield can find him at Cameras Underwater’s London branch inside the Ocean Leisure store near Embankment tube station. Next month, we unveil DIVE’s new photography columnist…