Filmed last Wed., around 2pm. Shot with a waterproof Olympus Stylus 820 compact camera. Using a Fotopro handlebar mount from DealExtreme on a 2009 Fuji Newes...
Alex Mustard exploits the reliable conditions of Capernwray to light a Volkswagen from the inside
Underwater photography is frequently a race against the clock: bottom time and air are always counting down and subjects rarely hang around and pose. Inland wrecks offer the antithesis. They are 100 per cent guaranteed and easy to dive repeatedly; combine this with the benign, current-free conditions and it makes them ideal places to craft more complicated photographs. We should think of inland sites as our personal underwater studios.
The main downside is visibility, which is frequently far from optimal for photography, particularly by Sunday afternoon on a busy diving weekend. One place that certainly bucks this trend is Capernwray Diving Centre, just south of the Lake District, which has arguably the most reliable visibility in England. It has become a firm favourite with British snappers – the British Underwater Image Festival usually attracts so many entries from the lake in Lancashire that, as judges, we have joked that we need a separate Capernwray category. This made it a must-see for the PhotoPro column.
During my visit, I was keen to glean local knowledge from Adam Hanlon, dive school manager and accomplished underwater photographer. ‘The key to the good viz is that Capernwray is spring-fed,’ he tells me. ‘We don’t get any runoff from the surrounding hills because there is a lip around the outside. It’s an old quarry dating from 1770, and because they didn’t have earth-moving machinery in those days, they dumped the spoil around the edge. I also think that the filter-feeding zebra mussels that have colonised the lake in the last few years have also helped. Our visibility keeps getting better and better.’
Capernwray’s viz is reliable for most of the year, but winter months are traditionally when it gets really special. ‘On a good day, viz can be 25–30m, and it is almost always more than 15m between November and March. The water is really blue,’ Hanlon enthuses. My visit was a rainy summer’s day – typically, the water was decidedly green, but still perfectly acceptable for wide-angle photography.
There are plenty of subjects to work and Hanlon fills me in on the options. ‘The trout are popular. They are sluggish and more easily approached in the winter. When the sun is out and reflected by the light limestone, the place really comes alive photographically, but we can’t guarantee sun in the Lakes!
‘The Podsnap minesweeper wreck is the perfect size for photography with a fisheye lens, and we have a 50-seat airliner coming, which will be the UK’s biggest inland wreck. But I think what is best for photography is that we have a lot of subjects in shallow water – there is so much in less than 6m.’
As a car nut, I was unable to resist the battered old Volkswagen. My intention was to illuminate the Beetle from the inside, but not the outside, creating a ghostly atmosphere. Off-camera strobes are a simple recipe, in theory: place spare strobes inside the car on high power and set to slave (i.e. to fire when they see another strobe going off); set on-camera strobes to low power to act as a trigger; shoot.
In practice, the main challenge with off-camera strobes is getting the damn things to fire reliably. This simple image took me two visits to Capernwray and a test session beneath Swanage Pier because, despite working perfectly on land, my remote strobes would not trigger once underwater and inside the Beetle.
Many underwater strobes have built-in slave sensors and I have created many images exploiting this feature. But light from remote strobes looks most impressive when the viewer cannot see its source. This means hiding the strobes from view. However, this causes a big problem because built-in slave sensors can no longer see the trigger flash. The solution is a separate slave sensor that is connected to the strobe using a normal sync cable.
I used the Heinrichs remote slave unit (RSU), which I found to be very sensitive to ambient light – it was overwhelmed to the point it could not determine to camera’s flash. Even the light levels in the depths of Capernwray were too bright. A DIY shade for the RSU, in the form of an old wetsuit sleeve, got it working reliably.
Another potential pitfall with slaves are pre-flashes. Through-the-lens (TTL) systems on both single-lens reflex (SLR) and compact cameras use pre-flashes to determine exposure. Slaves will fire on the pre-flash and will not be recharged in time for the actual exposure, so pre-flashes should be turned off.
The only 100 per cent reliable way to fire remote strobes is to use a long strobe cable, but this can make positioning even harder, could tangle or damage marine life, and would be visible in a shot like this.
Determining exposure with off-camera strobes is relatively straightforward. Adjust the aperture to produce the correct exposure for the strobe light and then adjust the shutter speed to control the ambient light. Once the exposure was dialled in, I shot a variety of angles, both with and without Hanlon as a model, before we switched over and I posed for him – although I actually prefer the shots without the diver, in this case, I guess because the lack of a person enhances the ghostly ambience. If only I could get slaves in the headlights!
VW Beetle. Capernwray, Lancashire. Nikon D700 SLR. Subal housing. Sigma 15mm. 1/13th at f16. ISO 400. Twin Inon Z240 strobes on camera on low power. Inside car: two Subtronic Alpha strobes on slave and Sea & Sea YS30 attached to a Heinrichs RSU.