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by Linda Pitkin

Reproduced from in focus 25 (Dec. 1987)

A resumé of the Basic Course talk given at the October meeting

It is very satisfying to take photos that other people like, especially if you can produce photos that will earn money or win competitions, But ultimately a good photograph must be one that will please the photographer and if you are happy with your efforts then there is no need to be put off if others don't appreciate them, A fault is only a fault when it produces a result you don't like. The important thing is to get to know which situations will produce a particular result so that you can avoid them or use them as you please.

There are so many things that can go wrong in underwater photography that I cannot attempt to cover them all, but here is a small sample of the faults I have come up against and a few suggestions as to how to avoid them.

Technical Faults

Some faults are clearly technical and relatively straightforward to correct. Assembling your camera set-up carelessly can lead to some annoying faults, not to say floods. Vignetting sometimes occurs when wide-angle lenses are not seated fully, with the result that the corners of the photo are cut off. Supplementary close-up lenses and their framers can work loose, if not fitted properly, so that the area framed no longer corresponds with the area photographed. Worse still is if the lens and framer drop off altogether when you are not paying attention! Incidentally, close-up framers sometimes throw a distracting shadow onto the photo, particularly when the background is pale e.g. sand. This can be overcome by removing the framer or by taking the subject against a darker background.

It is always worth checking your camera settings at the start of a dive even if you have already checked them on land. Controls can so easily be knocked when you hit the water. A commonerror (of mine at any rate) is that the camera speed can be accidently moved from the flash synchronisation setting (1/60th of a second in likonos cameras). Nikonos cameras have a mechanical shutter and the flash is oparated by the shutter opening. At speeds greater than 1/60th of a second, e.g. 1/125th of a second, the shutter has not had time to open fully and only part of the frame is exposed to the flash. The faster the Shutter speed, the smaller the part of the frame exposed to the flash. This fault can also happen even when the camera speed setting is synchronised with the flash. For instance a flood - even a very slight one - can cause corrosion on the shutter mechanism, and grease on the shutter blades can also affect their movement, so look after your camera carefully and test the flash synchronisation from time to time. Otherwise you may be blissfully unaware that your balanced light shots will turn out to be plain silhouettes. A silhouette can of course be very effective in Its own right if the subject lends itself to that sort of treatment. If you have had a flood and are congratulating yourself on having got the camera going again, don't trust it until you have run a test film. A hint of condensation in a lens may escape your notice until you see the misty results on film!

Wide-angle 15 mm lenses are expensive, even second-hand, but much cheaper alternatives are available. These are supplementary lenses, which fit onto the standard 35m and include the Vizmaster. This is excellent in many respects but one thing you need to watch out for when you use it is flare, which can appear in the photo if you shoot towards a bright light source such as the sun (a problem that rarely arises in British waters). I am told that you can use this flare to artistic advantage but in my experience it always happens in the wrong place.

Lighting Faults

Lighting is a constant source of problems in underwater photography because conditions are so variable. Automatic flashguns can solve many of the problems, so too can operating at a fixed distance. This is what you do with macro and close-up photography with a Nikonos camera and it is a good way to start out because you can run a test film and then stick to one exposure and get reasonable results with most subjects. Adjustments must be made for particularly light or dark subjects though and don't forget to consider the background too.

When you are taking photos at varying distances, you can get used to judging more or less the right exposures with a bit of practice, even if you don't have an automatic flash or use a light meter. Looking towards the sun and very near the surface the amount of natural light can be surprising though. It is safer to bracket several shots, especially if you don't use a light meter. At dusk or at night, dark coloured subjects need to be well lit or they can easily result in underexposed pictures. Transparent subjects are always difficult to light so that they show up well; positioning the flash well to one ride or even slightly behind the subject is more effective than trying to light it from in front. It is worth bracketing the exposure when you are experimenting with the flash in different positions because it can be a bit hit-and-miss. It is easy to overexpose silvery fish because, unlike transparent creatures, they reflect back too much light, although you are unlikely to notice this until a light Is shone on them. Make allowances for this by reducing the exposure or try photographing silvery fish by natural light.

Backscatter is a constant bugbear in British waters but you can do something to reduce the problem. Mounting or holding the flash to one side of the camera, the further away the better, reduces the amount of sediment that is lit-up between the lens and the subject. A narrow bean of light is an advantage over a diffused light in poor-visibility conditions. Using natural light instead of flash can help to minimise backscatter in the photo. If you cannot get rid of backscatter it is comforting to consider that it can actually improve a picture (well occasionally anyway) by adding a bit of sparkle in the right place.

Focusing Faults

Once you are satisfied with the exposure, there are still things that can go wrong with focusing. If you and your subject are both being washed about in a swell focusing or judging distance can be difficult. It helps if you try to catch a moment when things are relatively stationary and persevere with repeated attempts. You cannot always wait for a fast-moving fish to stop swimming though. If it is lit solely by flash the outline should be fairly sharp since the flash is of short enough duration to freeze most of the movement, but the outline will be blurred If photographed with natural light. A balanced-light photo will result in an image with a double outline part produced by flash and part by natural light. Panning (following the movement with the camera) will correct this to give a sharp image of the subject, though in doing this you sacrifice sharpness of the background, since moving the camera will blur this.

Composition Faults

With housed SLR cameras there is no excuse for mistakes in framing the subject, but with a Nikonos framing is not so easy. For close-up and macro work there are frames but with wide-angle lenses you are likely to be using a viewfinder that does not correspond exactly with the photo. The difference between the two viewpoints is parallax and this can make all the difference to the composition. It isn't much of a problem with distant views but the closer you get, the bigger the discrepancy. Some viewfinders can be set to correct for parallax at varying distances, with others you have to learn to judge the correction you need to make.

When you have overcome the more obvious technical problems of underwater photography there still remains the problem of how to take a good photograph as opposed to one that is merely in focus and correctly exposed. Bad composition is perhaps the worst of all faults. Mia Buehr's talk at the October meeting gave an excellent insight into this subject, which is too vast a field to go into in detail here.

It is all too easy to blame the subject when the photo looks a mess, whether it is a fish which insisted on turning Its back or a model diver who perversely swam the wrong way. One approach to overcoming this problem is to plan the shot in advance, which can work well if you are using your own props or models or if you are tackling scenic photos of a site you are familiar with. It is not always possible to plan with less predictable underwater life. Taking photos of fish and other creatures can be difficult but you can improve the chances in your favour by Setting to know your subject's behaviour. Most animals are upset by contact and are reluctant to be your underwater model, understandably if it means being chased out of their comfortable resting-place to be dazzled by flashes and jabbed at with close-up frames.

The rates of pay are not usually too good either although I know of one large Napoleon Wrasse in the Red Sea who will agree to pose only on payment of one hard-boiled egg per photo. Generally, though, the best way to overcome the problem of unco-operative subjects is to show them a little sympathy, patience and understanding. This can make all the difference between an unappealing photo and a successful one, Firstly, try not too disturb the creature too much as you approach it but if it still curls up and sulks give it a few minutes to recover its poise and it will pose in a much more relaxed and confident manner. This applies not just to fish that can swim away but to animals like corals too. It only takes a light brush against a coral to cause the flower-like polyps to retract leaving the branches looking bare and dead. Groups of animals such as shoals of fish look untidy if you blunder into them and make then disperse in all directions. Wait for them to swim in formation. Animals that are active at night are easily upset not Just by contact but by bright lights so It is a mistake to shine a powerful torch on them. Be ready to catch the subject at that split-second when it is looking its best. Sometimes only a slight difference in position can make a vast difference to the end result. Taking a series of photos is always advisable as you can usually improve an the first attempt,

It is all too easy to ignore what is going on in the background when you are concentrating on a subject but it is important to pay attention to everything that will be In the frame. It is fine for your subject to merge in with the background if you want to show how well-camouflaged it is but in general it is effective to make the subject stand out. One way of achieving this is to take a low-profile view which will isolate the subject from the background. Using a small will produce a dramatic black backdrop to details of structure in close-up photography, but if you prefer your photos to have an obvious underwater look you might consider this a fault. An alternative, if you can get an uninterrupted view of water behind the subject, is to use a larger to give a balanced light effect,

A common mistake is for the subject to be too small in the frame and to look lost. Use the right lens for the subject or pick a suitable sized subject for the lens, Getting in close to the subject gives dramatic impact not just because of the size but also because it enhances the colour and crispness of the Image because there is less water between lens and subject to absorb colour and obscure detail. Colour density can be increased by slightly underexposing the shot (by not more than 1/3 stop).

When you have lined up your shot don't hesitate too long before pressing the shutter; unwelcome intruders such as fish have an unfortunate tendency to stray into the frame at the last minute and you my be too busy looking at the main subject to even notice. It is a good idea to keep an eye on fellow divers as well if only to make sure that they don't pop up unexpectedly in the middle of your composition. Divers are notoriously difficult to photograph well. If you haven't trained them to pose successfully they usually look awkward and it is sometimes best to catch them unawares when they are behaving naturally,

Even when you have got everything right and taken your prizewinning photo you are not home and dry. Things can still go wrong at the processing stage. I lost ny enthusiasm for home processing after someone took the wrong lid off the container in the middle of the operation. Kodak have a better record but even they have been known to produce an occasional processing fault such as a thin blue line running through the frames

Having taken taken your photographs, with or without faults, don't Just stick them in the back of a cupboard but keep looking at them. Don't despair - you can learn a lot from the bad ones as well as the good ones. And, of course, you can always use them to give a talk on 'Faults'!

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