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Underwater photography in Cayman Brac

by Brian R. Pitkin

Reproducd from in focus 36 (FebMar. 1990)

'Underwater photography may possibly be the most difficult branch in all photography. It puts extraordinary demands on the photographer and it happens in an environment which is completely alien to our everyday lives'. David Doubilet.

Looking through my slides taken in Cayman Brac and little Cayman in the Caribbean I realised that I had used four different underwater camera systems almost to the exclusion of any other:-

1) Nikonos camera plus 35 mm lens plus an extension tubes (2:1) and framer for macro photography

2) Nikonos camera plus 28 mm lens plus a supplementary close-up lens and framer for close-up photography

3) Nikonos camera plus 15 mm lens for wide-angle photography

4) Pentax LX camera with 55mm macro lens in a Hugyphot housing.

I would like to very briefly discuss each of these techniques and suggest a few ways which might help to overcome some of the difficulties to which David Doubilet referred.


Macro and close-up photography underwater involves the use of either an extension tube or a supplementary close-up lens on an amphibious camera or a macro lens on a housed land camera. In some respects it is easier to take macro and close-up photographs using an extension tube or supplementary close-up lens respectively than with a macro lens on an amphibious camera, as the camera to subject distance is fixed and exposure at that distance can be predetermined by shooting a test film.

It may be necessary to bracket your exposure, particularly if the subject is very dark or very light. Since using Kodachrome 25 for the first time underwater for macro and close-up photography, Istrongly recommend that you try it. The resolution is first class.

Close-up photography using a Nikonos 35 mm lens with an extension tube or a 28 mm lens and a supplementary close-up lens is equally useful by day or night. Textures and patterns as well as whole animals can be photographed. Corals make excellent subjects, whether they are large and flattish or branching forms.

At night, when it can be difficult to focus a housed camera, using an extension tube or a close-up lens is probably the only safe option if you do not want to waste film. It is at night that many of the corals blossom, exposing their soft feeding tentacles. Since many are individually very small, getting in very close can provide a range of very interesting forms and textures.

Avoid using a very powerful light source to locate your subject, as many corals will withdraw their tentacles and the whole object of taking photographs at night will be lost.

You will only get photographs of basket stars at night when they appear from nowhere to extend their tentacles into the current. They are extremely light-sensitive and will retract at the hint of floodlighting.

Of course you needn't limit yourself to corals and sponges. Many marine creatures besides corals are only active at night. Agile subjects such as red banded shrimps may be difficult to frame. Small static subjects like Brittle Stars, however, are a pushover. It isn't necessary to frame the whole subject to acheive a pleasing image. And you should try a variety of angles for the same subject.

A chance encounter at night with a balloon fish enabled me to get the framer lined up for an amusing portrait. Other creatures, like fireworms, molluscs, shrimps and prawns can be photographed using close-up, but I would recommend you use an 8Omm lens and close-up or 3:1 extension tube if your subject is very small i.e. fireworms, nudibrachs and Flamingo Tongues.

During the day an extension tube or close-up lens can be used to capture the range of shapes and forms of the numerous sponges encountered. On Kodachrome 64 with an exposure of about f16-22 using a Sunpak Marine 32 with a diffuser on half power, the background to many shots appears quite dark.


Most of my better fish shots were taken using a Pentax LX with a 55mm macro lens in a Hugyphot housing. Nassau Groupers are fairly tame in Cayman Brac: and Little Cayman and will pose for 36 shots if you have the patience. This gives you plenty of time to focus and set the aperture before you shoot. So much so that you can get really close, reducing the camera to subject distance to a few inches and consequently increasing resolution.

Not all fish are as co-operartive, and you may need to stalk one to capture it on film. French Angels generally cruise around in a a pairs. If you approach slowly and carefully they will allow you to get close enough for a portrait. No such problem exists however with the tame Coney.

Fast moving fish represent a challenge. You need to preset focus and before you press the shutter at just the right moment. Trigger fish are particularly nervous and moved faster than I could swim, so it was a question of anticipating their movements and cutting them off at the pass. Sand tile fish are equally nervous, disappearing into their burrow at the first sign of danger.

Occasional individuals of the Scrawled File Fish would linger long enough in one spot to catch them before they cruised off to safer pastures. Stalking Banded Butterfly Fish is made more difficult by their hiding in delicate coral branches.

Tiger Groupers in contrast station themselves in a convenient position to observe the reef inhabitants, selecting a tasty passing fish for their mid-day snack. Provided you don't go too close they are quite happy to continue their watch, one eye on you the other on the reef.

Rarely do I snorkel to photograph a specific subject, but seeing juvenile French Angels in the lagoon beneath the boat jetty, I did just that. In fact visibility was so poor beneath the jetty that I explored the lagoon further afield where visibility was better. I found further juveniles and duck-dived for a series of shots, taking two on each breath. This became quite exhausting as the flash-gun took longer and longer to recycle and the Angel Fish darted to and fro defending its territory.

I am sure, however, that there is no way I could snorkel down to 15m and stay long enough to capture squirrelfish. They tend to turn there heads towards the reef as soon as you start to to focus on them.


The majority of my shots in Cayman Brac have been taken with a Nikonos camera with a 15 mm wide-angle lens. The system is ideal for large shoals of fish, providing you can get close enough. I tend to expose for the available light (about f8-11 with 64 ASA film) and use my flashgun on half power. I normally set the lens so that infinity is just within the upper limit of the indicated depth of field, This gives me a minimum working distance of about 1 to 2 feet.

Grunts, which are supposed to make a noise underwater, are found on most of the dive sites of Cayman Brac. They hang in tidy shoals, tidy that is until you approach them. As there are few currents, they tend to disperse in a multitude of directions as soon as you have lined up your shot. There are several species and since I couldn't distinguish them, I took lots of pictures. I like to get the surface and sunlight streaming through it into the background of my pictures whenever possible. Some are more successful than others, but most show sufficient detail for an expert to identify the subjects

Not all shoals of fish are as numerous as tangs or grunts. Jacks often occur singly or in small groups. There silvery sides can cause problems of overexposure, so bracketing by moving your flashgun back a foot or so can help, Except when 1 am taking macro or close-up photographs, I always hand hold my flashgun well forward and to one side. This means that my pictures rarely suffer from backscatter, although I must say the clear water helps enormously.

Tame Great Barracudas hang lazily beneath anchored boats, awaiting food. Normally you can leave these until the end of your dive before bothering to photograph them. For shots of fish at more than a few feet away you really need to include either the sun, the dive boat or some coral as the 15 mm lens is not really suitable for fish portraits, no matter how close you can get.

The 15 mm lens comes into its own when shooting scenery. Again balancing the available and artificial light I have taken lots of pictures of Purple Seafans. No two are identical. And there are many angles to explore. The sun seems to trickle through their delicate lace-like branches as they sway gently in the current.

For sheer variety the gorgonians must win hands down. Like sea fans they are relatively easy to photograph. Balance the light and compose the shot. Always shoot up towards the surface. Otherwise the subject is lost in the background. Notice how light quality varies. This is due partly to the exposure but mainly to the time of day. Later in the day the sun is at a lower angle in the sky and its rays are more clearly discernable undrwater.

Every brochure I have seen for Caribbean diving holidays seems to include yellow tube sponges. This is probably because, apart from the pink vase sponges and red finger sponges they are probably the only abundant, colourful static subject.

I don't take many people shots. Divers tend to look untidy underwater. Although occasionally you may catch one who is not. It is probaly better to shoot divers doing something underwater. Whether that is shooting video. Or lining up a shot of a southern stingray.

Most shots I take which include people are either silhouette type shots, where the people are small or completely unaware that they are being photographed. I prefer my divers to be tiny figures in the background, when you can't see just how clumsy they look. If you can squeeze an attractive coral into the foreground so much the better. Or leave them out entirely. Or go for broke and get the lot in one frame.

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