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Photo Lab with Zach Ransom
By DPG Editorial Staff, February 25, 2015 @ 05:00 AM (EST)

This week’s Photo Lab features a special expert voice from Erin Quigley, of Go Ask Erin fame. Along with DPG Editor Joe Tepper, they will aim to provide guidance to Zach Ransom to help him improve his images.

f/8, 1/320s, ISO 100, Canon Rebel T2i, lens focal length 10mm, natural light
 

Erin: I love it when you can see blue sky and clouds through the water. The sun ball here is exposed nicely, and its rays lend an ethereal feel to the image. It looks as though the jelly is flying, rather than swimming, through the water. Opening up the shadows on the bottom of the jellyfish will go a long way to reveal more detail and emphasize its translucency. You might also jiggle the color of the water using HSL (Hue Saturation Luminance) in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. Moving the Aqua slider to the right in the Hue panel does a lovely job of cleaning up green water. Lastly, cropping in a bit from the bottom will minimize the area of mucky seagrass visible in the shot.

Joe: There’s a great vision here to capture the sky and clouds through Snell’s window. This is an advanced technique and one that should always be in the back of the mind of any photographer when near the surface. You’ve also done an excellent job using a high shutter speed, combined with cutting the main portion of the sun just out of the frame, to create light rays. However, in such light saturated conditions, you’ll probably want to use strobes to bring back the color and texture on the underside of the jellyfish to make it really “pop.”
 

f/10, 1/200s, ISO 100, Canon Rebel T2i, lens focal length 13mm
 

Erin: This is a nice setup for a classic shark shot, but the image appears oversaturated, which makes the glowing orange sponge in the foreground distracting, and eliminates some needed separation between the intensely blue water and the top of the shark’s head. Too much saturation can quickly destroy texture and detail, especially on an already colorful surface. I know from painful personal experience how hard those orange sponges are to keep from blowing out, but I think the foreground needs to be toned down and/or the background brightened up to create a better tonal balance in the image. In this case, I’d try opening up the shadows and toning down the highlights to brighten the sky, un-crush the blacks, and perhaps restore a little texture to the surface of the sponge.

Joe: You’ve clearly got the right idea with this image, including the bright sponge as a secondary foreground to the circling sharks. Unfortunately, I think this image is plagued by lighting and compositional concerns. For me, there’s far too much strobe light directed at the sponge, and not enough at the shark subjects, leaving them looking blue and underlit. Perhaps try aligning one strobe towards the sponge and the other at the shark, as it seems both were aimed fairly low in the frame. Compositionally, I think you’d be better off taking a step back and switching to a landscape format. Right now, the frame feels very cramped—one of the sharks is even cut in half in the image.
 

f/8, 1/125s, ISO 200, Canon Rebel T2i, lens focal length 10mm
 

Erin: This is a tack-sharp shot of a beautiful animal, but the left side of the frame where the strobe missed is less visually compelling than the rest of the image. I’d consider cropping in from the top and bottom-left to eliminate that big dark area, which will also serve to move the subject out of the dead center and create a more dynamic composition. There's a significant amount of banding in the blue water background, which may be a function of how the image was compressed, but it’s also frequently a result of overprocessing. To avoid “crunchy” images, remember that local tools like the Adjustment Brush and Radial Filter in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw let you add pop to just the parts of the image that need it.

Joe: You might hear some complaints of uneven lighting in this image—but not from me! Whether intentional or not, the harsh side-lighting brings out a wonderful texture on the fish and adds a moody tone to the shot. Since the image was captured at the lens’ widest focal length, I’d like to see you get in a bit tighter and have the fish (the most interesting element of the image) fill more of the frame. Also, as with some of the other images in the series, I feel there’s just a tad too much saturation from post-processing.
 

f/11, 1/160s, ISO 100, Canon Rebel T2i, lens focal length 10mm
 

Erin: The first thing I notice about this shot is the square crop. Although there's nothing wrong with a non-traditional crop, make sure you have a good reason to use it. That said, I do like the placement of the shark to the side, being led diagonally by the small fish in the foreground. It looks like there are some blown-out highlights on both the fish and the lower jaw of the shark, which you might be able to recover using the Highlight slider in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. This image, like many shark shots, might also be a good candidate for a black-and-white conversion.

Joe: First off, I’m super-jealous that you had the opportunity to dive with great hammerheads at night! The trickiest part about photographing sharks, particularly at night, is illuminating the darker top half of the subject, without blowing out the white underbelly. You’ve actually done a great job of that here. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of non-traditional crops, like this square one above—unless it’s required for a print format, or the shot just screams for it. I’d prefer to see a traditional (like 3:2) crop ratio with the head of the shark at a classic rule of thirds point.
 

f/10, 1/200s, ISO 100, Canon Rebel T2i, lens focal length 13mm
 

Erin: Wow. There’s a lot going on here! The reef is so lush and full of life. In this shot, the colorful reef and graphic pattern on the lionfish is where my eye goes first, but because the fish is swimming head-down so close to the bottom edge of the frame, it seems to be trapped in the world of the picture instead of inhabiting it. My attention is pulled in too many directions at once, and I don’t really know what the intended subject is. A trick I use to see where the viewer's eye lands in a photo is to look at a small Navigator preview in Lightroom or thumbnail in Bridge and notice where your attention goes first. This photo also looks a little overprocessed to me. Bringing the highlights down, shadows up, and avoiding oversaturation will help maintain detail and balance without reducing dramatic impact.

Joe: This is my personal favorite shot of the series. There’s just so many great elements coming together: the reef, yellow wrasses, lionfish—oh yeah, and some circling sharks. I actually don’t mind having the shark as more of a tertiary element in the frame. It sort of sneaks up on the viewer: “Oh look, there’s a nice reef, a lionfish, and wow, there’s a shark!” I just wish the lionfish weren’t so tight to the bottom of the frame. I know timing an image like this takes patience, poise and possibly a prayer, but next time try to remember to position the main subject exactly where you want it before worrying about all the elements.

 

Final Comments

Erin: Zack is not a casual diver nor a newcomer to underwater photography. He clearly has a good handle on the basics, and a clear idea of what he likes. I think the post-processing is a bit heavy-handed in most of these shots, but it’s likely a case of needing to choose more specific local edits instead of broad overall adjustments. I’d also encourage Zack to focus his already considerable talents on creating more compelling compositions. By really working a subject or setup, he can shake things up a bit, experiment with new techniques both in shooting and post, and push himself out of his comfort zone and onto the next level.

Joe: My favorite thing about Zach’s photographic style is the clear fact that he ain’t afraid to challenge himself. Sure you could take a picture of a lionfish, but why do that when you could include a pretty reef, swarming fish and several sharks? I think that with time the ability to know your go-to settings and comfort with the situation will result in better-composed final images.
 



About Zach Ransom: Inspired at a young age by the adventures of renowned underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, Zach Ransom obtained his first scuba certification immediately upon turning age 12. His love of photography soon followed him into the water, and he has continued to study and practice the art of underwater photography for the last decade. His photographs have been used in public displays and exhibitions, and have been featured by National Geographic and Scuba Diving Magazine. Prints of his work reside in hundreds of private homes across the country. Zach continues to explore the potential of his photography, and attempts to capture the beauty of marine organisms in their natural state.

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