One thing I have always liked doing is getting close up fish faces and the eyes of the larger fish. You can have a lot of fun with this and if you are patient and approach the fish in a slow non-threatening way you will get good results. Clearly the fish that are camouflage wait and strike types are easier to approach. Others are just plain skittish and you will have little luck but most all can be approached to a certain degree. By learning a bit about the behavior of the local fish where you will be diving you too can get good results.
I am often asked what camera and other equipment I use when people see my photos. Although equipment is very important, one of my standard answers to that question is the best way to improve your photos is make sure your buoyancy is rock solid and you can remain nearly motionless in the water while holding your camera as well as being able to shift your position by using very small movements of your body and fins. Having a neutrally balanced camera rig will go a long way towards helping that buoyancy which is one of the reasons I am so pleased with my Beneath The Surface tray/frame set up. It was light weight from the beginning and the bar along the top allows for attaching trim foam to get it to that neutral buoyant state. I have mine now balanced to the point where I can shoot one handed underwater even with the heavy glass of either a 10X diopter or a large wide angle wet lens. Shooting one handed is a huge asset when trying to get in real close to a fish because the camera can be maneuvered without your entire body having to also be close.
Most fish I have found the best way to approach a fish is from slightly below and at an angle slightly to the right or left of the headon angle. I think the fish feel safe if they can “keep an eye” on you and that side angle allows them a quick escape vs. directly headon where they have to turn to run. This works for the smaller fish too, but many of the wall dwellers and hole dwellers like gobies and fringeheads, you basically have to just plant yourself and wait for them to come back out of the hole. Know that if you come up from behind or above they will almost always bolt.
I am shooting with continuous lighting. If you shoot video you would also be using this same approach. What I do is turn on the light before I aim the camera at the fish so that the act of turning on the light itself does not scare the fish away. I then slowly raise the camera up and aim at my subject. Next step is to start moving in very slowly with as little movement as possible and while not holding my breath, I try to exhale as few bubbles as possible until I get off a few shots. After I get my shots I then back away just as slowly trying not to disturb my subject any more than I have already by shining bright lights in its face.
Meet some of the Southern California locals, face to face, and eye to eye!
Here in Southern California we consider coastal near shore conditions with 20’ of visibility a good vis day. Anything more than that is a treat indeed and a day to break out the wide angle lens. We have plenty of 10’ vis or less days too so as a photographer who takes her camera on every dive, I have learned to be creative and try to make a great shot happen despite looking in every direction and feeling surrounded by a conspiracy of floating particles just waiting to make that brilliant shot turn into a blinding snow storm of backscatter.
There is always safety in close ups, abstracts and macro, and it does not have to be tiny macro just a small object that mostly fills the frame so you can hide from the ruination of so many great underwater shots, backscatter. You may have to think outside the box like I did with the abstract of the sunflower sea star. I recall the day I shot that as being particularly dark and dirty water and yet I still end up with a shot that has some merit and might be best described as rivers of lava running down a mountain through snow covered trees at dusk. Shooting with continuous lighting lends itself perfectly to the close up environment as I can keep moving my lights until I see the backscatter “disappear” in my display.
Getting close to small objects in tight spots is another place where the compact Beneath The Surface tray and arm system excels. So many of the smaller critters, like the shrimp, are going to be hiding in some tight place where you are just not going to be able to get with a large camera system. I have been able to squeeze my camera into some fairly tight spots to get up close.
Another subject that I seem to rarely pass by without grabbing a few photos of are the tube anemones. No two photos come out the same as they move in the “breeze” of the surge or a current. You can come in close and get just the center or move out a bit. Here they also seem to come in a wide variety of colors from the one pictured that is multi colored, to dark purple and bright peach. They make interesting photo subjects because you can shoot them from many different angles and come up with entirely different effects.
And lastly don’t forget to look in the sand! You may think it is just sand but it is teeming with critters if you just stop and look, including large ones that burry themselves such as this banded guitar fish whose eyes only were the only thing exposed.
So “bad vis” does not have to be a bad photo day!
Summer with its long daylight hours means more time to dive with the sun and for us here in Southern California it also means our water warms up into to the high 60’s. Don’t laugh, that’s downright tropical to us year round regular divers! At least in the top 25 feet or so becomes a warmer zone, below that you will be thinking drysuit is a good idea. Also means blue water close to shore more often than not and some good chances for getting some great natural light photos even when the visibility is short of 20’.
I will remind you again that I am not shooting with strobes, but with “continuous” lighting via two Sola lights, a 2000 and a 1200 and I am using a Sony RX100 point and shoot camera. Large objects that are not close, I just can’t light properly so I go to natural light. I have gotten fairly good results in the “warm zone”, that upper 30’.
In the accompanying photos, the diver in the kelp was shot about a half mile off shore in 30’ or so of water on a day where the visibility was probably 25’. The other three photos were taken at a near shore location in 10-20’ of water on a 10-15’ visibility day. The shark was probably the deepest, and in kelp as well so less light was coming through, whereas the schooling fish were closer to 10’ deep. You should be aware of where the sun is in relation to you and your subject. The effect you get is entirely different so think about what you are trying to achieve as you compose your shot.
Excellent example of this are the photos of the schools of Sargo (the larger fish) and Salema . Taken probably 20’ from each other within 5 minutes of each other, the results are completely different. I was moving along slowly with the Salema who kept flowing around me as I kept shooting at different angles trying to capture the sunbeams. I was basically shooting directly into the sun. After a few minutes I paused and turned to see if my dive buddy was still behind me and instead found the Sargo not 10’ away. They seemed to be following me as I was following the Salema! Turning my camera on them (sun now at my back), they allowed me to approach quite close while swimming along with them. I was glad to have the small lightweight set up of the BTS tray and arms. Not only is it easier to push through the water one handed while following a school of fish closely, probably was less intimidating to the fish as I shoved it at them! Even though I was close enough to use my lights on the sargo in this case, I would not have been able to evenly light all the fish in this photo so for me natural light was still the best choice.
Camera settings: For these natural light only shots I set the IOS at 400. The huge sensor in my camera gives an advantage of being able to shoot at 400 with barely any noise apparent. I keep the white balance on “Auto”, set the camera on shutter priority mode and put the shutter speed at 250. To freeze sunbeams you need to have a fast shutter speed. These settings work for my particular camera and situation, you may need something different with your camera.
We literally rolled off the boat into a winter wonderland of white…..squid eggs that is on our dives last weekend. We are taking acres of white egg capsules of Loligo opalescens otherwise known as the California Market squid or to some of you, only known as calamari on your plate. The fantastic 40’-80’ visibility we were treated to, a rare occurrence in this area, allowed us to see the large extent of these beds located off the Point Loma peninsula in the San Diego California area.
Our first clue as to what we were going to encounter were the multiple rafts of cormorants lazily bobbing on the surface and the multiple groups of round floating objects, otherwise known as California sea lions, flippers up, soaking up the warmth of the morning sun on the surface. We were barely acknowledged as intruders in their space as we anchored the boat. The reason for all this lounging and sunning was surely the squid feast they all had the night before.
Squid mating runs are not uncommon in the San Diego area year round, but they are by far the most intense every year in late November through January where literally millions of squid mate and lay eggs night after night triggered by some combination of tides, length of daylight hours and water temperature. When morning dawns the results of the night of frantic interludes come into view as carpets of white egg tubes swaying in the surge along with dead and dying squid which litter the sea floor and reef everywhere. The cast of below the surface locals looking for an easy meal of dead squid from nudibranchs to angel sharks are also to be found.
My first “getting reacquainted with cold water diving” 6 years ago after a 15 year absence was a squid run dive on a cold rainy January night. Thoughts of I must be out of my mind as I submerged into the inky black water, just as the drizzle turned into real rain, quickly evaporated 10 minutes into the dive when we became engulfed in squid. It is difficult to describe what it is like to be surrounded by a swirling masse of frenzied mating squid so thick you can barely see the light of your buddy who may only be a few feet from you. One description might be “it felt like I was floating in a sea of squid” and that is literally what it nearly is as squid seem to replace every inch of the water that once surrounded you.
We are fortunate that our most popular shore diving area known as La Jolla Shores, lies right at the edge of a deep water canyon the squid surge up from at night during these runs. We are thus able to witness this phenomenon at beginner diving depths that allow for plenty of bottom time to capture the action with your camera. Your dive lights and your camera lights attract the squid and you will find the biggest problem is literally squid sticking on or blocking your lens, focus light and video lights as you are trying to get shots of mating pairs. Having a light weight camera together with a light weight frame and arms like those produced by Beneath The Surface helps you keep moving just enough to keep the squid off your rig and get your shots.
Video link of a squid run
Make every effort you can to get out and experience this bucket list dive!
For more information about Market Squid
This is an update to my original story written in December so you may want to read that story first. We made multiple trips back to the large beds of California Market squid (Loligo opalescens) egg capsules which was located off the Point Loma peninsula in the San Diego California area.
They ended up hatching within 30 days probably because the water has been warmer than normal, mid 50’s instead of the usual for this time of year of the low 50’s and even into the 40’s. The BTS flex arms and light weight travel tray made coordinating the camera and the back lighted egg capsules that were swaying in the surge, a fairly straight forward process. The fun was seeing what I came up with after the 3rd try. Squidlets! As you can see in these photos I probably only missed the actual hatching by a day or even hours.
You can match up the original photo with the zoomed in one by using the numbers in the file name.
Macro Backlighting Tip of the Day: Use BtS 21″Flex arms!
I prefer extra long 21″ flex arms so that I can position one of my Sea and Sea YS-D1 strobes all the way behind my subject. Its light creates a sharp defined outline. This is called backlighting, or rim lighting. On the front side, my other YS-D1 strobe creates light for color, contrast and detail.
For most of my macro work I also prefer to use “snoots” to concentrate the light on my subject. Accurate aiming is essential with “snoots” as well as the ability to quickly move the arms to make minute changes so that the strobes are on target. Again, for this I use BTS 21″ flex arms. Another benefit of flex arms for macro is that they are faster to position than ball-jointed arms since you do not have to loosen any clamps to move them.
Ultimately my BtS 21″ flex arms allow me to make quick and subtle changes to my strobe positioning, giving me the widest set of options for lighting small macro subjects.
Macro Backgrounds: Black or Blue?
To show the same macro subject with either a natural blue background or a blacked out background you need to use a number of techniques. The first is to use a high shutter speed like 1/250th sec. for black out, or a low shutter speed (like 1/30 – 1/60th sec.) for a more natural blue background.
That alone is usually not enough though. Most macro images are produced at the f16 to f22 range. While those f-stops work great for added depth of field and to darken a background, a wider aperture is needed for a natural blue background. Somewhere around f8 to f11 works very well, provided there is ample sunlight.
Finally, and this could be the most important concept, that is the strobe lighting. In order to get a properly lit subject with a defined outline, you need a good flexible arm set.
BtS flex arms allow the myraid of strobe positions needed to correctly light the subject. For these two images I used a set of BtS FA-21″-BMA flex arms. The 21″ arms allow me the reach that I needed to create a 90 degree sidelight with one strobe, that reduces backscatter and gives a sharply defined outline, and a 45 degree angled light from the other strobe, that fills the shadows caused by the sidelight and also provides ample front light for detail, color and contrast.
BtS Flex arms allow me to make quick and subtle changes to my macro lighting without the need to loosen or tighten a bunch of clamps. The Ball Mount Adapter (BMA) on the end of the BtS flex arms allows me to use the same 1″ Base Mount Ball Adapter (BMBA) that my ball-jointed rigid arms that I use for wide angle require.
BtS offers 70 different flex arm combinations, in 10 different lengths, from 1/2″ to 3/4″ and can accommodate every strobe and LED video light on the market. You can’t beat BtS arms for their strength, versatility and reliability.
Sony RX100 (Nauticam housing) and Sony A6000 (Sea and Sea housing) in BTS Travel Tray/Foam floats
Using the BTS floats to achieve a neutrally buoyant camera rig
By Gayle Van Leer
Photos for this story here:
I have used both the Sony RX100 and the Sony A6000 in the BTS light weight travel. One of my goals is to keep my camera rigs as small and light as possible and the BTS products make that possible. Also with small hands and carpel tunnel syndrome I don’t want to have to be straining to reach the controls or deal with a heavy camera in the water.
I have had my RX100 (Nauticam housing) for nearly 3 years and recently upgraded to the Sony A6000 (Sea and Sea housing). Upon setting up the RX100 and housing I positioned it all the way over to the right so it was easy to reach the shutter button. I have done the same thing with the Sea and Sea housing for the A6000 however it is a tighter fit in my original frame but that works out perfectly because not only is the shutter button perfectly positioned for me, the zoom knob is easily reached with my left hand.
There is no need to get my hands fully around the handles because with the way I have my rig nearly neutrally buoyant using the BTS foam, a light touch with a couple of fingers is all I need underwater. Having the camera neutrally buoyant or just slightly negative is important for me so I don’t have hand and wrist strain. The new BTS foam makes that easy to do because the foam can be quickly snapped on or removed giving you on the fly options vs permanently attached floats. When I swap out the dome port for the flat port with the A6000, I just snap on 4 more pieces of foam to have perfect buoyancy with the flat port. Shooting with one hand is strain free and easy when your rig is neutrally buoyant!
I shoot my stills with continuous lighting using a combination of Sola and Aqualite lights. See the photos to see how I have my camera rigged up. To tweak the buoyancy of your rig the easiest and fastest way to do this is from a boat. Securely attach your camera rig to a line where it can drop at least 15 foot underwater. The buoyancy is correct when the camera VERY slowly sinks under the surface. If you are a fresh water diver you can use a swimming pool to do your adjusting.