Nature and Wildlife Photography Tips 15 - Under Water Without Getting Wet

Being under water can be a good thing. Maybe not financially, but in the wildlife imaging forum, it can provide a host of opportunities. Just think. You are out in the wilds and the mud and slop is oozing from the recesses of your boots, camera gear is covered in plastic and you have been swatting the various invertebrates who have joined you in your outdoor foray by having breakfast at your expense. I positively love that kind of stuff, minus the invertebrate part, but there are other ops equally rewarding and not so stressful.

The following text is provided for those of you who would like to capture some images of aquatic organisms/specimens/subjects, but maybe in the confines of the home studio. Well, here are some of the considerations that should help you on your way.

The primary piece of equipment for capturing decent aquatic specimens is not the brand of camera, nor even a specific lens. It is having the proper container that will enable the camera and lens of your choice to capture acceptable images. The most useful item for shooting aquatic specimens, is having the best possible container for shooting. This can be realized by planning and purchasing proper gear, or even making your own items and saving money in the process.

Let us consider what you will be doing. You have a specimen under the water, and you want to appear to be under the water as well. This is where you need to be able to see under the water as well as your subject. The surface you shoot through should be smooth, free from scratches (minor or soft abrasions), fingerprints, and preferably made of a thin glass. Why do I say glass?

If you read the previous sentence you will notice I mentioned the fact that the surface should be free of even light abrasions. If you purchase an acrylic tank, it doesn’t take a very long time before you begin to observe scratches from the mud, cleaning cloths, or even the texture of your hands rubbing on the plastic. When your camera lighting setup strikes the surface of the tank containing anything that can refract the light, you will be dealing with it in Post Processing (PP) – sometimes losing a possible image in the process.

A small 2 gallon tank can be had for cheap from one of the local pet shops. Take the time to inspect the surfaces before purchasing it. Hold it up to the lights and see if you can spot any scratches. Make sure the surfaces are flat. Curved surfaces of fish bowls introduce all kinds of issues with distortion.

Now, once you have made the purchase, you will want to run home and begin tossing everything in the pond into the tank for shooting, but you are not there yet. As in terrestrial photography (things of the land), we will try to get close to the subject as possible to fill the sensor with as much information as possible. But this is not the only reason. The farther away you get from the subject (those of you with long lenses will be familiar with this), the more distortions from heat, particulate matter, and haze from moisture, will be in the air. It is no different when shooting through water, only I think it is way more of an issue. So you need to consider having the specimen as close to the front glass as much as possible. Hence, the “isolation chamber”. I will refer to it in this article by that name and you are free to label it as you will; separator, partition, or just plain “glass thingy”. But whatever you decide to call it, it will be your friend. The extra hours of having to chase or wait for the fish, invertebrate, or other critter to be in the correct position for the shot is greatly increased by this simple contraption. You can see it is basically a four-side glass box, that can be lowered into the tank and used to keep the subject in the front of the tank for shooting. But not only that, it also aides in keeping the turbidity (stuff floating in the water), from cluttering up the area between you and the subject.

Begin by placing the isolation chamber into the tank before you add water from the pond. Remember, the isolation chamber keeps the subject from mixing with the background, conversely, it prevents a lot of the stuff from the freshly churned up pond water from coming into the chamber with the specimen. You should always, if possible, have the water sit overnight before shooting. Most of the heavier particles will haves settled over night.

Well, if you have gotten this far with me, it is worth pushing on. The prepping is very essential when it comes to shooting through the water. Now you can gather organisms from the pond, etc. A small net is useful. If you are after smaller organisms, capturing a few will provide you with multiple targets and increase your chances of a good capture pose. Now a couple of things to consider when doing this is that your subjects do not eat each other, and there will be enough space that they will have adequate oxygen in the confines of their photo booth. KNOW your subject.

Let’s get on to the lighting. I use modeling lights to focus and electronic flash for illuminating the exposure. Why do I do it this way you ask? The simple reasoning is that focusing with bright constant light is the best. I use a bank of LED's. These are invaluable as they provide bright illumination without me soft-boiling the photographic candidate I have chosen before the shoot concludes. This is a good thing.

The flashes I use are set on manual, and they are slaved off of one another. Yes, there are no wires dangling anywhere. They are set at about 45 degrees to each side of the camera, and sometimes I will have one in the top and just behind the subject.

The camera I use is either the Nikon D610 or D810, and I try to use the lowest ISO (100 and 64 respectively), at an aperture of 8 to 11, and on occasions 16. If I can, slower subjects permitting, I stack the images for greater depth and detail.

So there you have it. Most chances dictate you will be shooting subjects from shallow areas that you will capture. Be aware of water temperature changes - both cold to warm, and warm to cold. Many organisms are specialized for the temperature of water you captured them in. Raising and lowering the temperature (especially in a short amount of time), can work as an aid with some subjects, but it also directly affects the amount of oxygen that can be dissolved in the water, killing others. Again. KNOW your subject.

Now is the time where you say, “I am off to the pet store for my container”. A local glass company can provide you with pieces to silicon together to construct an isolation chamber, “thingy”, LOL.

So now when you contemplate someone mucking around in the swamps and tide pools attempting to capture images of aquatic critters, you can do so while sipping on your favorite beverage and waiting for the decisive moment in the home studio.

Happy shooting.

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