Wreck diving isn’t for the faint of heart, but once you’re hooked, you will definitely want to document your experiences. Welcome to the tricky business of wreck photography…
Underwater photography is a tremendously difficult art to master. It takes vast amounts of patience, photo skills, and expensive equipment. This says nothing about the dive skills needed to get into the position to take that perfect shot; you’ll need everything from flawless buoyancy to proper body and fin control. When wrecks are added into the mix, it makes things very challenging, and the dives are much more complicated.
Wrecks, by their nature, are dangerous places where stupid mistakes can be fatal. To make diving and shooting on wrecks more enjoyable, and safer, it helps to keep a few basic ideas and techniques in mind. Here then are 10 easy tips to help you get that fantastic shot.
Wreck diving will take you places that few can imagine, but it is very dangerous and requires top-notch dive skills and training
1. Don’t Try to Look Cool
Many photographers feel like they need to have the biggest and coolest looking camera gear to take good shots, or try to impress other divers. While this may work fine on easy reef dives or shooting macro subjects, big gear can get you in trouble very quickly on, or inside, a wreck. When swimming down a very narrow corridor filled with silt and metal objects, you don’t want to be dragging loads of excess equipment with you.
In the dark and confined places on wrecks, nobody is looking at your camera and thinking, “Wow that is a huge camera—they must be a real pro!” Instead, the veteran wreck divers you are with look at you and think, “Wow, this idiot is going to get us all in trouble and might end up dead!” Wreck diving is not the place to try and impress people with unnecessary gear that serves no purpose.
You don’t want to try and take a huge camera rig through tight spaces full of rusting metal, like here on the Okikawa Maru in Coron, Philippines
Before the dive, you need to get your rig as small and compact as you can get it. A camera, two strobes, and a focus light is an ideal setup. Leave all those diopters, colorful lights, lanyards, cute toys, and whatever else is unnecessary behind on the boat. You also want to streamline the sync cords to your strobes; it is very easy for them to get caught on a pipe, wire or other piece of metal. Get small, get streamlined, and take only what you need—that should be your mantra.
2. Shoot Wide
Shipwrecks tend to be the biggest things most photographers will shoot underwater. Even some of the smallest wrecks will be bigger than a blue whale. With subjects this big, there are always many different types of shots and interesting angles to shoot. There will be everything from giant shots of the entire ship, ghostly interior shots or amazing reef and fish pictures on the outside. No matter what type of shots you plan to shoot, one thing remains the same: You will want your widest angle lens possible. There may be a few times a midrange lens does the job better, but 95% of the time you are going to want a super wide-angle lens.
If you want to get the big atmospheric shots that wrecks provide, you are going to want as wide a lens as possible
My preferred lens is an 8mm fisheye with a 180-degree field of view. The fisheye is a challenging lens to learn and to shoot correctly, but once mastered, it can’t be beaten. (Every photo you see in this article was shot with an 8mm fisheye.) You can photograph anything on a wreck with the 8mm, with the possible exception of fish shots where the fish are very shy. A few things to keep in mind with a lens this wide:
- Pull your strobes back further than usual. They should be behind the plane of the rear of your camera. If they are too far forward, you will get them in the picture or have blown out bright areas on the sides.
- Make sure your stuff isn’t in the shot. I’ve had many awesome shots ruined by a fin or sync cord dangling in the picture. I loop my sync cords around my strobe arms to keep them from flying away, and I always make sure to keep my legs bent behind me.
- Keep your subject, and any straight objects, along the horizontal center line of your shot. Don’t get too cute with trying to put focal points in the lower third of an image—things will get badly distorted. When you learn where to put your subjects, it is possible to create shots that look like they were shot with a rectilinear lens.
3. Bring the Right Lights
Wrecks are bipolar subjects by nature. Dark and silty on the inside and often bright and colorful with difficult ambient light on the outside. For the best wreck shots, bring one video light to use as a focus light and mount it in the middle of the camera rig. This light can also double as your primary light for navigating the wreck, but always make sure to have a backup clipped off somewhere easy to get. There is nothing worse than being in a wreck and having the lights go out. Try and keep this light at low power settings, as you don’t want it to run out of battery!
When you are outside the wreck, turn up the power of this light when shooting and use it as a center fill light. It will reduce the shadows in the center of your image caused by strobe placement. Ideally, you would use a third strobe for this—but we are trying to streamline.
Shots like this one can be done with a single strobe and by making sure to correctly account for the ambient light
When the time comes for the actual shots, you are going to want at least one good strobe. Since the outside of wrecks tends to “eat” light, the strobe is essential to bring out detail and colors. Otherwise, all the shots are just going to be dark blue/green with little visual interest. If inside a wreck, it is best to keep the strobes folded up and as small as possible as it is all too common for them to bang into things or even for the sync cords to get cut. Just extend them for the shot and then put away again afterwards. You can get memorable, atmospheric interior shots with a single strobe.
4. Increase ISO
The traditional rule in photography is to shoot as low an ISO as possible to maximize color and reduce noise. For wreck photography, it is often advisable to bend this rule a little, especially as most new cameras feature excellent noise reduction on higher ISO settings. Having too much light is usually not the problem on wrecks. Photographers often leave wrecks frustrated with having constantly underexposed pictures, but they are often sticking to the lowest ISO setting rule.
Before a wreck shoot, consider upping your ISO to the 800 range, or even 1,000 on some camera models. You should still get excellent color with an acceptable level of noise, plus you won’t have to fight as much to get enough light into your shots. When you are shooting outside the wreck, feel free to bring it back down again, but inside it is best to leave it a little higher than usual. Fiddling with your ISO inside a dark, cramped space is no fun.
Wrecks are dark places, and the ambient light is often poor. You should consider bumping your ISO up a little to help you out. The increased noise is worth the reduced fiddling with settings while in dark, confined places
5. Shoot Recognizable Objects
Diving on a wreck is often like a giant puzzle. It takes a lot of work and imagination to piece together what you are looking at and what things are. While this may be a lot of fun for the diver, it is not so fun when sharing your photos with others who don’t know the wreck.
To get non-wreck divers to appreciate your hard work, find objects that they will recognize. The propeller is a great example; everyone knows ships have propellers, so they will quickly identify it when shown. This allows your audience to appreciate the photo and the skill it took to shoot it. If they can’t make out what your subject is then chances are they won’t be looking at it very long.
Try and put something recognizable in the frame. Here, the dive boat and sun make a handy subject for showing off the rusty ribs of the Lusong Gunboat in Coron, Philippines
Finding these objects is not necessarily easy, but there are a couple of things you can do to help along the process. First, educate yourself about the wreck and its history. If you know it is a warship, you should be looking for guns or weapons. On the other hand, if it is a cargo ship, you should think about what it was carrying when it sank. Find books and online material to help. Second, listen to your guide and ask lots of questions. Too often, divers hear about everything they will see in the brief, and then promptly forget it all in the excitement of the moment. Third, talk to people who have already dived that wreck. They might better be able to communicate things that you find important. The more you study beforehand, the more successful you will be in finding interesting artifacts to shoot.
6. Find Color
Wrecks are amazing dives with many unique features to shoot, and often amazing artificial reefs. However, it is very easy to come away from a dive with only a bunch of very monochromatic shots to show for all your work. Monochromatic shots can make great images, but often they are just the result of bad lighting and poor shot selection.
When shooting in, or on, a wreck, it is critical to find something that draws the eye of the viewer. Color is the best and most natural choice. Find anything that stands out, from an old beer bottle to a fantastic piece of soft coral. Corals and sea fans make excellent targets on which to focus. If the wreck has stunning marine growth, shoot it! Just use caution to adjust your exposure settings to accommodate such subjects, as they often contrast sharply with the overall background.
Find colors that make your pictures pop. This red gorgonian was perfect for adding interest to an unotherwise flat, cyan photo of the deck of a ship
It will take some time to recognize what is colorful or not. Some of the most amazing soft coral looks brown in natural light. Hit it with a strobe and BOOM! Vivid bright reds and pinks! Finding color is where a focus light can come in handy. Play the light across everything and note the color. Do this enough, and soon you will be able to shoot the most amazing colorful images on wrecks that everyone else thought were plain and green. It also helps to pay attention to the shapes of objects, as this can help draw you to great color. Educate yourself beforehand, so you know what the gorgonians look like in the area, and what type of soft coral there is. Like everything else with wreck diving, preparation is vital.
7. Go Big
Wrecks are usually the most massive things you will ever shoot in the ocean, so step away and shoot big shots of it. Shooting big shots can be tough to do, as low light and poor visibility are ubiquitous on shipwrecks. But don’t be intimidated by this. Instead, increase your ISO to 1,000 and get your aperture as wide open as you can get (i.e., low f-number). Finally, get your shutter speed as slow as you can, while keeping the frame still. The ideal shutter on most cameras is usually 1/80s or 1/100s, but some new models have excellent stabilization, and you can shoot clearly with settings as low as 1/40s. Work on your hovering skills and shoot some big shots outside the wreck.
Wrecks are usually big, so try and get a lot in your frame. Here is an entire gun platform, visible despite the 13 feet visibility
For those big external shots, it is usually best to set your exposure to the background. If you have a subject in the foreground, you will use your strobes to light it correctly, but if you don’t expose to the background, it is going to be blown out in most big wreck shots. The subjects are always darker, and the background is often very bright in comparison.
You are not limited to wrecks that have excellent visibility to shoot big shots. Even on poor visibility wrecks, it is possible to get very close to an interesting object or colorful marine life, use this as your subject, and then let the poor viz wreck act as a looming shadow or outline in the background.
8. Light Positioning
Too many divers position their strobes at the beginning of a dive and never move them again. Placing your strobes once works for beginners, but for experienced photographers, this is a crime against humanity! There is a reason that your strobe arms are moveable—so do it. You can write a book about light positioning, but let’s take a look at a couple of easy things to do while shooting wrecks.
Get very comfortable with moving your lights and manually adjusting them. Shots like this are almost impossible if you can’t master your strobes
How you position your strobes will have a lot to do with where you are on the wreck. When you are inside a ship, you can bring the strobes in close to the camera to avoid bumping things in the darkness. If you are shooting in a large flat area, like a cargo hold, make sure to position the strobes above the camera. Make your setup look like rabbit ears sticking up; this will avoiding blowing out whatever you are shooting on the deck. If you are working around the outside of the hull or superstructure, try positioning your strobes in an “L” configuration, where the long side of the “L” is parallel to the hull or whatever vertical surface you are shooting.
In situations where you are shooting something specific, make sure you tinker with your positioning—there is no blanket solution. Try to minimize distracting shadows, and ensure that you don’t have a shadow in the middle of your shot caused by having your strobes spaced too far apart. The best advice is to experiment. You need to be in the habit of always moving and adjusting the power of your strobes if you want to maximize your photography.
9. Air Management
Air management is not a photographic technique; it is a survival technique. It is very common to see divers head back down at the end of a dive to get one more cool shot of some animal they see. Usually, they end up buddy breathing with their guide, and that is considered normal. Other times, you will see someone shooting a macro subject while breathing off their guide’s tank. This type of behavior shows a lack of planning and discipline, and it cannot happen while wreck diving.
You need a plan, and you need to stick to it no matter what. You want to shoot the deck gun on the bow, but get low on air in the superstructure? Tough, you end your dive as planned and hit the gun on the next dive. Sticking to the plan is essential when shooting inside a wreck. If you do not have the self-discipline to stick to a plan no matter what, then you probably shouldn’t be penetrating a shipwreck. Wreck diving is not for everyone, and that is fine. Ask yourself if you have what it takes, and give yourself an honest answer before heading into a ship.
Plan your dives properly so that you finish on shallow areas where you can complete your decompression stops. Many wrecks have spots where you can shoot some amazing images in places that are not very deep. Save these for the end, and always follow your dive plan
10. Go Slow and Mind Your Kicks
Shipwrecks are notoriously silty on the inside, and a single ill-timed kick can silt out a room or passageway; this is known as a “silt out”—and you need to do everything you can to avoid it. When shooting outside wrecks, it is okay to contort yourself and do all kinds of crazy things (without harming the environment of course). Gyrating all over the place is not something you can do on penetration dives into the dark bowels of a ship, however. Even a single thrashing kick and all of a sudden your visibility will drop to zero. Silt outs are a significant safety risk, and many wreck divers have panicked—and died—over the years due to silt out. Stay calm, go slow and keep your cool at all times.
Silt and backscatter are a constant challenge when shooting wrecks. Keep your fins under control if you don’t want your picture to look like it was shot in blizzard
Aside from survival issues, silt outs will end your shots in a big hurry. When you are inside a wreck, it will be very silty, even in the best wreck dives in pristine waters. The silt is often from the breakdown of organic material, so though the water may be crystal clear outside, the inside of a ship will be full of sediment. The sediment is from the decomposition of wooden decks, furniture, clothes, food, etc.
If you are in a group of divers, move slowly and be especially careful when swimming away from a cool artifact. Many times I’ve seen divers do a great job going slow and shooting their subject; then they swim away like they are in a big hurry, which blows out what they were photographing and ruins it for everyone else. Always go slow and don’t hurry on to the next item of interest, your fellow divers will have a much higher opinion of you if you do.
Casual divers are often amazed at the reefs, life, and color that abound on shipwrecks. There is so much more to these legends beneath the waves, and it is up to photographers to show their true beauty
Shipwrecks provide some of the most fantastic dive experiences you’ll ever encounter, but all too often the photos of them are lacking. Making a wreck look interesting, dramatic and beautiful is a challenge, but if you accept this and work hard at it, you will be rewarded with photos that nobody else has. A manta photo is excellent, but not uncommon. A skull in a dark engine room with rusty machinery all around, now that is a photo that will make people stop and take notice!
About the Author: DPG Editor Andrew Marriott is the author of several books on shipwrecks published by Fata Morgana Media. His latest book, co-authored with his business partner Ram Yoro, is on the wrecks of the Philippines. The pictures shown here are from that book.
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