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DIY accessories and a familiar dive site can make your images stand out from the crowd. Alex Mustard explains why
It is natural to be envious of the opportunities of others, especially when our next dive will be at our local site, where we know we’re unlikely to see anything we haven’t seen a hundred times before. But I would argue that we are the lucky ones. One of the greatest assets an underwater photographer can have is a regular dive spot. It may sound boring, but it often proves the perfect recipe for excellent images.
Our home dive might be an inland training site, or a shore dive an hour or two away. It might even be on the other side of the world, a resort that we visit with the family or the club each year. The key is that we know the diving intimately, and more crucially, it is a site where we have already photographed the subjects extensively. Having bagged everything the standard way, we should be motivated to get experimental and give our photography a dose of creativity.
Despite being on the other side of the Atlantic, the Cayman Islands are my home site. I have clicked the shutter more times in their clear, blue waters than in any other location. I always go armed with a list of new ideas, techniques and kit to try. And this year I thought I would try out some homemade photo accessories.
Perhaps the simplest accessory for DIY is the snoot, which is a funnel used to restrict the coverage of strobe light, focusing it into a narrow spotlight beam. I make mine out of a plastic funnels (three for £1), cutting off the end so that the aperture is about 2–3cm in diameter and painting them black. I then fix them to the strobes with a section of old wetsuit arm. The cost is just a few pounds, and anyone with an external strobe can try it.
Snoots have always fascinated underwater photographers. Perhaps it is just because it is such a nice word to say. Snoot! Snoot! Snoot! Mention them to a group of scuba snappers and most will tell you they have always wanted to try one, but few will have used them successfully. The problem is that shooting them is not as easy as you think.
Effective snoot shots are all about lighting exactly what we want in the frame, but precisely aiming the narrow beam of light can be very difficult. It can help if our strobes have a central aiming light, but there is still a lot of trial and error involved. It is best to set up our strobe positioning on a cooperative, non-moving subject and then try to shoot most subjects from the same distance away. It is a challenge, so I always take a lot of frames – but when it comes together, the images look so fresh, even with subjects I have photographed before. Snoots reduce the light output from our strobes considerably, so start by shooting at or close to full power.
Although they cost next to nothing, snoots can be used to create a variety of underwater images, both in wide-angle and macro images. With wide-angle shots, I like to use them to spotlight the subject, making it pop out of a dark and dramatic background, as with the yellow tube sponge on the dark reef (left). Generally, I use just one strobe, but we can use a second one to subtly light the scene, using the snoot to make the main subject really glow.
For macro shots, I tend to use snoots to create directional lighting to highlight textures. I prefer this to the spotlight effect because aiming a narrow beam is very challenging with macro. The example photograph (right) shows how the directional light picks out the details of the brain coral and blenny with dramatic effect.
Directional light can also work well for fish portraits, lighting the face strongly from one side. I call this ‘Hard Day’s Night’ lighting as it reminds me of the mugshots of the band on the Beatles’ album cover. I prefer to shoot these images with a single strobe, using a small aperture and fast shutter speed, so that the only light in the image is from the strobe.
A final use for snoots is on a pair of strobes to restrict backscatter in macro photography in low viz. The snoots act to narrow the beams of light coming from each strobe and reduce the amount of particles in the water that are illuminated. This is not a creative use, but it is another reason why spending 30 minutes and a few pounds to make yourself a pair of snoots is a great investment.
Next time you see a photograph of an amazing creature that fills you with envy, visualise the image with a more mundane subject in its place. Is it still a good photograph, or simply a ‘wow’ subject? More often, it’s the photo we’ve taken on our home patch that – through the vision and creativity of the snapper – results in a truly memorable image of an every-dive subject
Secretary blenny in brain coral [opposite page], Cayman Islands. Nikon D700 SLR; Subal housing; Sigma 15mm fisheye; 1/100th at f13; ISO 200; one Subtronic Alpha strobe with homemade snoot.
Yellow tube sponges and diver [above], Cayman Islands. Nikon D700 SLR; Subal housing; Nikon 60mm AFS; 1/200th at f14; ISO 200; one Subtronic Alpha strobe with homemade snoot.