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Nature Photography Tips 51 - Underwater Subjects without getting Wet

I was wading in my front yard pond the other day hunting blue dasher dragonflies. As I approached a beautiful female dragonfly, I was momentarily distracted by the ripples on the surface of the pond. A quick inspection revealed a gambusia (a small fish) feeding along the surface. (photo above)

I switched my focus, no pun intended, to the fish for a while. After processing the images, I was quite satisfied with the results, but I wanted to present the organisms in a more life-like scenario. That, in turn, lead me to the decision to compile this article about capturing aquatic organisms without having to get wet.

A few decades ago, I was requested to capture aquatic invertebrates in various habitats for a presentation on pond life. Back in those days there were no internet or blog articles that could assist me in techniques and methods for this kind of photography. After considerable time and effort designing and testing various plans, I was able to consistently achieve the images I wanted in a repeated setup. This saved much time for me and reduced the amount of new underwater equipment necessary to capture plants and animals under the surface. I no longer needed to have an underwater camera.

The foremost preliminary work had to do with subject identification. And by this, I don’t mean being able to identify the species of organism, but to calculate the size range and movement patterns of the subjects I would be working with. This is much like working with any other wildlife. You need to know how much room for foreground and background you have to work with if you will be working from a static set.

I decided to work mainly with organisms that were smaller that 3 inches in length. This meant I would have to construct a vessel for the water to accommodate these subjects. In choosing the container (an aquarium), in this case, it had to have a front glass approximately 8" high by 12" wide. The other thing to consider was that the container had to be glass. Glass is much harder than the typical acrylic aquarium construction, and is definitely more abrasion resistant – very important as the reflection and refraction from, and through, the photographing surface will degrade your image. If you are someone who might not be as gentle with the aquarium in the field, you can purchase an acrylic tank and cut a front window out on one side and secure a piece of plate glass(preferably 1/8 inch thick) to the front with silicon rubber cement. The thinner the glass, the sharper your images will be. This will enable you to sustain moderate bumps and scratches to the outside of the container when transporting it into the field, yet not damaging the front window you will be shooting through.

The other component you must construct is a narrow chamber to place the subject into while while being photographed.(see illutration 2) This provides you with the ability to isolate the subject with a shallow depth of field, but not have to attempt focusing on a swimming target in a deep three dimensional field. Th closer the organism is to the front window th better quality the final product will be. It is also easier to track and focus on subjects that are quick and tend to be random in their movements. Attempting to track them in a tank full of water is very difficult.

In the drawing below, you can see how the internal chamber is all made of glass. It has a back, a bottom and two sides, but does not have a front. This will ensure you only have to shoot through one layer of glass(the front of the tank or aquarium) and not have to sacrifice much in optical quality. This makes it possible to keep the targeted subject closer to the front glass, leaving less chances for turbidity(stuff floating in the water), to degrade your photo or possibly obscure parts of the animal or plant you wish to capture. It doesn not, however, have a front or top. The front glass of the aquarium will provide the closure for the container, while the the top is open to assist you with working the subject.

So now you have a container that will hold approximately two gallons of water, you have to have the correct photographic equipment. The capture process involves two electronic flash units that are not fixed to the camera body. I use three to even the light out more than what 2 will provide, but you might want to begin with two lights. The flash units do not have to be expensive, as long as they can be linked to the camera via a cable, wireless control, and/or slaved to the camera body.

The setup as illustrated below shows how each electronic flash should be set in front of the glass. Each flash will provide incoming light from a 30 to 40 degree angle. This is done for two reasons. When the flash units discharge, some of the light will be reflected off of the front surface at the same degree, but opposite angle as the flash itself. They will bounce the glare to the opposite side, and not back into the camera. The closer the flash is to the camera body when it goes off the more likely the camera will see the flash.

The next thing to be watchful for, is turbidity. What is turbidity you ask? Turbidity is quite simply, particles of “stuff”, floating in the water. It can be impurities in the water, bits and pieces of plants that you have placed in the container, disturbed soil from the bottom of the pond or stream you are collecting from. Special note – collect the water from the pond before gathering photographic specimens if the water is clear. If not, bring your own clean water. Clean water and clean glass surfaces will ensure the best optical performance from your camera gear. If the front glass has dust, dirt, or scratches, the flashes will enhance their appearance during exposure. The same goes for the water. You want the clearest water as well.

As for camera and lens is concerned. I usually utilize a 105mm or 200mm macro lens. Many companies manufacture lenses for this purpose in similar focal lengths. So the specific brand is not so critical. The 100mm leaves enough distance between you and the subject for the flashes to provide light without you being in the way.

I try to use ISO 100 for my captures, and f11 to f16 for the aperture to have plenty of depth of field.

When setting up the enclosure(tank), fill the clear water in first and place the inner enclosure into the water up against the front of the glass of the tank. Now as you collect plants to create your underwater diorama, place them without churning up the water in the tank as best as possible. You may want to rinse the stones, bottom leaf litter, etc., before placing them in. The smaller enclosure will prevent many of the small particles of debris you place in the tank from being in the chamber with your subject.

You can now place your subject in the smaller chamber to photograph. Be careful to have all the background filled so you can’t see beyond the back of the tank. You don’t want any distractions in the final image.

Another helpful piece of equipment is a piece of black card or thin plywood. 2’x2’ is usually adequate. Cut a hole in the center for your lens and place your lens through the opening with the black side facing the front of the aquarium. This should help to reduce many of the reflections from you, the camera, and all objects in and around you that will be reflected from the front of the aquarium back into the camera lens. When shooting in my own yard, I will bring the specimens into the house and darken the room in which I am shooting. This also aids in reducing reflections.

When collecting organisms for the enclosure, be sure you have secured any permission, licenses, etc., from Fish and Game or whomever is in charge of your wildlife in your state. Some species are protected and you are not even allowed to have them in your possession, even though you will be releasing them right after to photograph them. This includes the invertebrates as well as fish and some species of plants. You should also be aware of the location you choose to set up. I bring a shade cloth or umbrella when shooting because many aquatic species are very sensitive of temperature changes in their environment. A small tank of water can change temperature very quickly in the sun. WILDLIFE SAFETY TAKES PRECEDENSE OVER IMAGE CAPTURES EVERY TIME. If the wildlife appears to be too stressed, I will release it and find another, or look for a different subject. Many of the organisms will quickly adapt to your new mini-habitat, and you can take your time as they move around, knowing that they will only have a small area that they can attempt to hide from you. Once finished, you return the organism back to the spot from which it was secured.

I hope this technique can bring you as much fun as it has to me. Your photos will be different than most other wildlife photographers. Go out and find yourself a nice pond to work with, and as always, Happy Shooting.

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