by Hergen Spalink & Kerri Bingham
What do you do between dives? Unfortunately in todays digital world many of us underwater photographers can be seen in between dives glued to our laptops reviewing and editing our days catch. Huddled in the liveaboard’s salon, bathed in a pale LCD glow, we are missing unique and fun photographic opportunities.
On two recent trips to Raja Ampat we decided to take advantage of that down time to get wet and get a different kind of shot.
Luckily, the boats we were on both had kayaks. The combination of kayaks, stunning shallow reefs, and great light led to some fantastic split shot moments. The split-shot, or over-under, is a dynamic photographic technique that can yield dramatic results and imbue the viewer with a true sense of the scene captured.
There are several key elements to a successful split shots that involves models. The first element is a good wide angle lens, preferably a fisheye to provide adequate coverage to capture both the underwater and topside scene.
The dome port is critical to the shot. The bigger the better to allow for good edge sharpness and a wider horizon at the split point. Glass is preferable to acrylic due to the beading properties of the water on its surface. In either case, the dome must be polished before the shoot. We use a solution of either baby shampoo or dish detrergent with hot water to remove any traces of grease or salt residue that could provide anchor points for water running off the dome.
Strobes are recommended but not always necessary based on lighting conditions. In most cases, depending on the time of day and the subject, the strobes can either be placed only underwater or even used to light a topside subject – just be aware that the strobe relies on the water to dissipate heat and it may damage the strobe to use it out of the water.
In general fins are not necessary except in the initial survey of the site. Normally, once we find a site we generally toss the fins into the tender boat and just rely on our booties and a weight belt to keep us where we want to be. Sometimes I prefer a tank, but normally a good snorkel is just fine and gives you the freedom to try various compostions or quick subject changes.
Willing, enthusiastic, and cooperative models can make or break a shot. Enlisting their help before being ready can lead to frustrated, bored, and unwilling models instead. Once you’ve found your spot, test your settings before bringing in the model. We generally set our exposure based on the topside conditions, metering for the sky but trying to keep a low enough shutter speed to allow some ambient exposure of our underwater subject. Strobe placement can be difficult and care must be taken to avoid unnatural lighting and excessive backscatter.
Once you’ve got your setup, the light is right, and you’ve double checked your exposure it is time to discuss the setup with your models and what you would like from them.
Having done many split shot sessions with snorkelers, I thought adding kayaks would not be that different… I was wrong. The kayak adds a whole other element to the complexity. Unlike a snorkeler, keeping a kayaker in a consistent, repeatable setup is difficult thanks to currents, wind, and the abilities of the kayaker.
As most people don’t speak snorkel and all those underwater hand signals you’ve developed over the years to communicate with your model don’t work anymore, you need to come up with some new ways to get your point across to the model.
In our case, we would just discuss a basic concept, then trust the model to make a few passes with small variations then regroup and discuss any changes (definitely something you couldn’t do with your underwater model during the shoot!).
In the end, when it all comes together, the results can carry a great deal of emotion that invites you into the scene.
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