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Swanage Pier

by Kevin Cullimore

Reproduced from in focus 58 (September 1996)


There are not many dive sites in Britain that have lots of underwater life, convenient parking right on the site, a dive shop and numerous cafes plus pubs within easy reach. Add to that a beach and safe bathing area for children and we have the perfect location for some serious photography.

Underwater photography is difficult at the very best of times. I try to make things as easy as possible. The first consideration must be subjects to photograph. Well, Swanage pier meets all the requirements. I have seen most common forms of sea life under its rusty stanchions and also some rarer creatures.


The next consideration is visibility. This, of course, is of extreme importance and, generally, the viz is perfectly acceptable, being around 3 to 5m.

A phone call before a visit is always worthwhile and the staff at the dive shop are only too pleased to nip out and have a look over the handrails.

I always phone and check the local inshore forecast because any sort of easterly wind kills the viz. It can be ruined in a few hours by a wind from this direction.

Weekends are best avoided for photographic dives as this is one of the most popular dive sites in Dorset and, unless you get on the pier very early, parking is impossible.

I find concentration a real problem with hordes of divers thrashing about so a much more enjoyable dive can be had mid-week, where the pace is much slower and a leisurely atmosphere prevails and the underwater traffic is at a minimum.

I often spend most of the day actually underwater returning to the car only for more film, different lenses or more air.


The convenience of diving the same place over and over is the familiarity with scenery and also specific subjects.

It is also amazing how the scene can change at different times of the day. For instance, I particularly like the evening sun in summer around 5 p.m. It streams through under the south side of the pier in spectacular shafts of brilliant light. A full-frame fish-eye is the lens to use on such days. Leave the flash in the car. You won't need it. I like to work with available light at this time of day. I have spent many exciting hours at the far end of the pier and observed some truly magical moments.

Good pictures are not usually accidents. They are the results of hard work, planning and dedication. Very few of my pictures are unplanned. I usually know what I want and where I will find it. I have ideas all the time about photography and Swanage pier allows me to put those ideas into action.


I would say that dedication to the job is vital. I cannot give up. If I don't get the right results one week I know I can go back and try again the next week.

Wide-angle, panoramic type pictures require above average visibility of 5m plus and this can be seen only occasionally. But on such days I will exploit the situation to its full potential and shooting six to ten rolls in one day is not unusual.


I prefer 100 ISO film for most wide-angle work but this year I tried Kodak Elite 200 ISO and was very impressed with the fine grain of this film.

When viz is less than 5m, I concentrate on the smaller subjects. The best and most easily photographed is the now famous tompot blenny. Swanage must have the largest concentration of tompots per square metre anywhere in Dorset.

These comical fish make great subjects for macro and they can be easily approached very close. I cannot resist taking their picture. I have several hundred in stock but I always shoot more just in case I get something better.


Living in most crevices alongside the tompot can be found prawns, another great macro shot but more difficult to light. Their transparent bodies are a real problem. Back lighting is one way I've tried which works sometimes but their bodies seem to blend in so well that it's never easy to know if you have something worthwhile. I just end up shooting lots of pictures and moving the flash to different positions. Night dives are good for prawns. They can be found and approached on open sandy patches.

Wrasse are also very common but most make poor subjects because they are dull in colour. However, the corkwing wrasse is a jewel of a subject, especially good around June when it builds a nest and can be very easily photographed while engrossed in this ritual.

A rarer favourite of mine is the John Dory - a photographer's dream subject, it really gets the motordrive into action.

These peculiar fish can be found around September. Usually they are alone but I was fortunate once to have half a dozen to choose from on a single dive!

They are surely one of the strangest fish. I observed them for several hours one day last year. I remember it was a Monday and I was the only diver on the pier - just great.


They were all at the far end of the pier and most were feeding on sand eels. They ignored me completely as their vacuum-like mouths sucked in their prey. The mouth of these fish has to be seen to be believed, it extends by several inches when feeding.

These are just some of the subjects that draw me down to this popular place week after week. I have exposed lots of film around the rusty old stanchions and spent many hours underwater but good pictures don't just happen, they are directly proportional to the effort put in.

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