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Night and day

by Alan James

Reproduced from in focus 48 (June 1993)

Canary Islands (Spain)

All marine life has its photographic potential. it might be a chance encounter with a rare marine creature or a subject that diver's normally pass by without a second thought, but underwater photographers should take each subject on its own merit and explore all the possibilities open to them. Subject selection should be made a prime concern, taking into account the position of the subject for both camera and strobe angles, the quality of the specimen, the surroundings to be included or excluded from the visualised image. With practice, the art of seeing the visualised image helps to release the subject's potential to the viewer.


One rare opportunity came my way whilst diving with Calypso Diving in Lanzarote, a lovely dive destination where I have spent many happy hours under the water. Following the two organised dives of the day, I talked San, a Dutch instructor and resident of the island, into doing a private night dive and offered him the opportunity to use his recently purchased Nikonos V with some macro lenses.

We entered the water at around 7.00 p. m. at our usual dive location, the jetty in Puerto del Carmen. I was using my Nikonos V with the Nikonos close-up outfit, looking for small suitable subjects to complete the second exposure of a double exposure film started earlier that day, using a wide angle lens for a shot of a diver in a cave entrance.

The night dive went well in a known area with depths varying from 4 to 17 m. I completed my second exposure while San was busy with his macro lens. Time and air ticked away and we signalled agreement to head for home. My film was finished, but San had one or two frames left, to use up on the swim back. I was about 5 to 6m to the side of San when the subject he was framing caught my eye as his strobe fired - 'plumose anemone' I thought and carried on swimming. Then I stopped, there are no plumose anemones in Lanzarote. I swam back and there before me, just 12 m from the exit point in 4 m of water was a Daughter of the Wind (Alicia mirabilis), a rare nocturnal anemone which I recognised instantly from the two articles I had read in Sportdiver Magazine (Vol 1, No. 3, 1989 and Vol 2, No. 4, 1990). Talk about mixed emotions! I was filled with excitement at this rare discovery and horrified at the realisation that I was not in a position to photograph it. Neither was San, with my 1-2 macro lens and two frames left. 'Sod's Law had got me again.

Once clear of the water and back on the jetty, I explained to San that we had found a rare subject and that I was frustrated to miss this photographic opportunity. I then asked him to consider another dive, which was a bit ambitious, as it was now 8.30 p.m. and we had already logged a total of 3 hours 20 minutes on the three previous dives.

After some persuasion on my part, San reluctantly agreed, and set off to the diving centre for some more tanks. During the half hour that he was gone I pondered over the best photographic approach to this subject. I made the fairly radical decision to use my 15nmm Nikonos lens and a single strobe unit. Radical because working with a wide-angle lens at night and co-ordinating diver and subject in a scene is very difficult (see Martin Edge's article 'A shot in the dark' in Sportdiver Magazine). It normally demands plenty of light on the whole of the subject area. But I remembered that the Daughter of the Wind is photophobic and does not tolerate too much light, so the job had to be done in the dark.

Three points were in my favour (i) my subject was in only 4m of water (ii) it was a clear night with a fairly full moon (iii) the water was clear, even if a bit choppy, and I reckoned that my eyes could adapt to the available light after a while.

On San's return with full tanks and grumbles about working day and night, I briefed him on my plans and by 9.30 p.m. we were back in the water. Everything seemed to go well. After five minutes getting used to the low light levels, I worked with my 15 mm lens and strobe from all angles at distances from 3 feet down to 6 inches and apertures from f8 - f22. Thirty-six frames and 75 minutes later I emerged from the water a tired but happy man. Jan, in contrast, came out with a few well chosen adjectives about not diving with 'crazy English photographers'.


Obviously the above dive with a rare species of anemone was exciting and obtaining a few good shots of it gave me great pleasure. But photographically I have gained just as much pleasure from common UK subjects. One such experience came as a result of a failed photographic dive during which I led a small group of photographers from the Bristol Underwater Photography Group. We had the intention of taking natural light shots of a small shallow cave system out of Babbacombe, a site at which I had had some previous success.

After searching in what I considered to be the right area for 10 to 15 minutes without success, I popped my head above the surface to take some bearings and to my horror that the cave system was high and dry on a low spring tide! General comments from the group ranged from 'so this is what you call shore diving' to the unprintable. Plan B was to pop back down to deeper water in the hope of finding alternative photographic subjects.

As the dive progressed, I came across a small rocky reef island on a sandy bottom with a good selection of marine life. I took a few shots here and there without too much commitment until I noticed a clump of anemones at the high point of the reef that were completely separated from all other marine life.

The anemones were all in a tight formation at their bases, but fanned out like stretched fingers to allow space at the tips of their tenctacles. Perhaps the icing on the cake of this well formed clump of white anemones was the single but not fully open orange anemone occupying the centre position. The anemones had my undivided attention for the rest of the dive, and working various angles and bracketing with strobe and I made 28 exposures.

I emerged from this dive with a feeling of satisfaction, the image of those common plumose anemones still clear in my mind. I had completely forgotten leading the group to a dry cave system; and the subsequent ribbing that followed was like water off a duck's back.

So the moral of my story is 'take another good look at all those every-day subjects and try to create a visualised image.

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