An In-Depth Guide to Wreck Photography – Interiors
Wreck interiors provide the opportunity for unique, dramatic shots
By Andrew Marriott
Wrecks offer photographic opportunities like no other in the ocean. The combination of dark and dramatic with bright and colorful is unique under the seas. Capturing images of wrecks presents a serious challenge, however: Often our images after the dive look nothing like what we remember. If you show your photos of a shark to a non-diver, they know it is a shark, but if you show photos of a rusting engine surrounded by twisted metal, you could easily end up needing to explain your shot.
Not needing to explain your shot is the goal of wreck photography—especially when it comes to interior shots. Everyone can appreciate a stunning soft coral shot from the outside of a wreck, even without knowing quite what it is. The goal of this guide is to help you get your photos of the inside of ships and planes to get the exact same reaction.
Wrecks Are Deadly
Let’s start with a simple fact: Disrespect a wreck and take the dive lightly and it can kill you. With exterior shots, your danger is limited to the usual dangers of diving, but wreck penetration adds a whole new level of risk. If you are going to shoot a wreck interior, you need to be a very experienced wreck diver, and it is also recommended that you do your planned dive at least once beforehand without a camera. The interiors of these rusting metal hulks are full of sharp edges, collapsing bulkheads, unexploded ordinance, and silt—a lot of silt. Here is another simple fact: If you start doing interior wreck shots, you will silt out at some point. So plan for this and accept it as a part of your dive and you’ll be okay. On the other hand, if you are not ready to lose all visibility, then you have no business being in the deep areas of a wreck.
Now, with those unpleasant truths out of the way, let’s talk a little more generally about interior wreck photography. By interior, we mean anywhere inside the ship that does not have a direct line to the surface. There is a big difference between being deep in the engineering spaces several decks below the engine room and being in the cargo hold, yet for this guide we treat both as interior spaces. The best, easiest, and safest place to begin interior wreck photography is in areas where there is ample room to swim and there is exterior ambient light present. These are the “open” interior spaces, and this is where we’ll begin.
Entering Olympia Maru through the propeller shaft: Wrecks are full of tight spaces
Rust, edges, silt, and collapsing bulkheads are all hazards of wreck penetration
Start your interior wreck photography here. Open areas will have plenty of room to swim around, lower levels of silt, no tight passageways, ambient natural light, and you will usually be able to visually see a clear path to somewhere that has a clear line of sight with the surface. By clear path we don’t mean that you can see the surface directly. For example, you may be in a wide-open cargo hold, but the ship is laying on its side. Thus, you will have natural light and easily be able to see out, but the direct line to the surface is blocked by the hull. To get out of the wreck, you will have to swim parallel to the bottom to get out of the hold and then ascend. These locations still require you to be a competent, experienced, and properly certified diver, so don’t take them lightly.
Bridges are easy to find, usually open, and they can have cool artifacts
With this definition of open area, what exactly are we talking about? Cargo holds, bridges, poop decks, and forecastles are the most likely destinations for you to go shoot. All of these places offer amble photographic opportunities, and on some wrecks you could add superstructures and engine rooms to the list. Not only are these the easiest interior spaces to shoot, they are often the best!
Cargo holds are packed with interesting cargo, especially in areas like Truk Lagoon where they protected. Bridges sometimes have interesting artifacts, but they almost always have great ambient light and shadow effects. Most superstructures are just skeletons around the bridge, as the wooden decks are long-since rotted away. This will leave you with beams of light pouring into a dark and moody interior. Poop decks and forecastles will require you to swim through a hatch, but they are still open and are easy to find your way out of. Inside them you’ll often find cool artifacts like winches, cables, steering controls, and lifting mechanisms for the anchors. There are some open engine rooms, but we will leave those for the section on enclosed interiors.
Superstructures are often open due to the decks decomposing and burning in fires
Interesting subjects are where interior wreck photography really shines. There are great things to find on the outside of wrecks, but they are often so heavily encrusted with marine life that they are hard to identify easily. Inside, things are usually clean, so clean in fact that you can even sometimes find books and newspapers where you can clearly read the print! (Please don’t touch those though as they will disintegrate.) The best way to come up with good subjects is to do some research beforehand, look at other photos of the dive, and ask your guide detailed questions.
If you have the pleasure of diving a ship that has never been salvaged then the cargo hold is often a treasure chest of goodies to find. For example, the Sao Paulo, a German cargo ship sunk by mines off Norway in 1940, is packed full of canteens, Sd.kfz. 251 half-tracks, staff cars, trucks, rifles, helmets, canteens, 88mm and 105mm artillery pieces—and that is just for starters! If you have a choice of destinations, and you want easy subjects, go find somewhere where the wrecks have not been picked clean.
The superstructure usually doesn’t have the artifacts that the holds do, but if your wreck never burned, you might get lucky. Look for the helm, engine telegraphs, and other assorted gear on the bridge. In the poop and forecastle you’ll find tools, personal items, ammunition for deck guns, backup steering gear, a lot of cable and rope, and sometimes intact boards used for damage control.
These subjects are so important as you will make them the focus of your shot. They will give your viewer a clearly identifiable item to lock their eyes on, and it will also tell a powerful and immediate story without extensive explanation. Once you know what you want to focus on, don’t just snap away; now you need to focus on what to put behind it.
Cargo holds often have interesting things to shoot, like this bulldozer buried in cement bags
Bottles can be found on almost every wreck—sailors like to drink!
Use the skeletal structure as a subject to create moody shots, like the bridge of the Heian Maru
Equally as important as the subject is the background, and many photographers totally neglect this, their images suffering because of it. When shooting inside wrecks, the background is going to tend to be either a rusting bulkhead, or blackness. Either of those can be effective, but make sure you intend to do it that way. Black backgrounds are easy: You can either shoot macro style (f/22, 1/300s, max strobes) or just have a dark passageway in the background. Rusty bulkheads can add ambience, but they can camouflage your subject if it is also a rusty piece of metal.
Once you find your subject, pause for a moment and set up the entire shot. Maybe you can change your angle and have a shaft of light coming in through a hole, or a diver holding a torch. Cargo holds provide plenty of different backgrounds, as do bridge areas. You are going to be a little more limited in the other spaces, so you will need to get a little more creative. In the end, the only thing that matters about backgrounds is that they complement your subject, and that you put as much care into shooting them as you do your subject.
This shot is made by the background, being able to see the surface adds a lot of interest
A bent ladder in the forecastle: Usually not very interesting, but having a good background makes the shot
Natural light is what sets open interior shots apart from closed interior shots, and the simple rule here is to use that light for everything it is worth! Even with bad visibility outside, you will get rays of light penetrating into wrecks, which make stunning backdrops—or even subjects. One of the challenges of photography is when you have an amazing scene in front of you, but the picture just totally fails to capture what you see. This is true in wrecks, too. Many people just fire away on “panorama” style shots—and they don’t impress.
Natural light gives an amazing background, or it creates a very strong subject in wide-angle shots. Try and find creative ways to maximize it. In cargo holds, you can create a nice blue glow behind your subject—even green water can make for dramatic and attractive natural light. The main trick here is that if you have a lot of ambient light, you are going to need to provide your own lighting on the subject, and that leads us into the subject of lighting.
Firing a strobe in this shot would ruin it. You'll need longer exposures, so bump up your ISO
Tangled wreckage in the engine room, but the real subject is that shaft of light
Consider using a tripod if you are doing natural light shots—the exposures can be very long
Due to ambient light in the open places of wreck interiors, strobes will probably be your best bet for lighting your subject. If the wreck is deep, or the water clarity is poor, you may want to skip the strobes and continue to the next section. Assuming you have nice ambient light, or some great light shafts, you need to make your first decision: Do I even want to fire my strobes?
Nice natural light shots don’t require strobes and firing them may just add a lot of unnecessary backscatter to your shot. If your focus is a shaft of light then turn off your strobes. If you have a subject that requires light, it is almost guaranteed that your subject will be as dark, or darker, than your background. If you want to use natural light in the background, set your strobe power lower, as you will need a longer exposure to capture the ambient light. If your background is black, you should set your strobes to a minimal power setting and add a little more power to each subsequent shot until you get your desired result.
You will want to set your strobes so that the light cones strike only your subject if possible. Try and avoid lighting up the entire scene—although, this may be your goal in some shots, in which case go for it! However, most of the time, by lighting up the entire frame, you are just distracting the viewer and creating confusion as to what they should be looking at. Think of the interior wreck space as your own private studio and treat your lighting the same way.
Don’t always fire both strobes: This is a single strobe shot—the right side was very silty
If you want a black background, shoot macro style: f/22, fast shutter, and high strobe power
Wrecks can be confusing places—this shot is actually pointing up
Your most powerful tools to create stunning interior wreck shots are off-camera lights. Strobes are good for front fill lighting, but nothing beats well placed off-camera lights or even light painting. Let’s start with light painting, which is simply shooting a very long exposure and using a torch to “paint” light onto the exposure. For open interior spaces, this will only work if it is pretty dark, as the long shutter speeds required will quickly blow out with ambient light. Since we are talking a lot about ambient light in this section, we will leave a more detailed description of the light painting technique until later in this guide.
For cargo hold, bridge, and superstructure type shots, your best bet is to either put some video lights on gorilla grips, have a second diver hold the light, or do both! Your first assignment is to find your subject, then choose your background as previously discussed. Once that is set, think of ways you can dramatically light it. Don’t limit your planning to only the subject: There may be something in the background that you want to add a little light on. The key is to light your subject more than any background lights.
In these spaces, you will often have some ambient light, so keep that in mind while planning. Even a little ambient light will completely wash out most lights, so if you want to make something stand out, you need to bring lights that pack some serious lumens. Off-camera lighting while using ambient light is one of the most challenging types of photography that you can do, especially underwater. Don’t expect it to turn out perfect on the first go, but keep at it. The results for these types of shots are stunning.
Using a diver to hold a torch and spotlight a subject is an easy and effective technique
A single torch here provides color and reveals some nice texture
Top-down single torch shots are easy—you can even hold the torch in your off-hand
These are the dark and rusty deep interior spaces of wrecks. It bears repeating: This is a place only experienced and properly trained wreck divers should find themselves. There are plenty of other amazing places for divers of every level to explore, so never go beyond your limits. That being said, the dark enclosed interior spaces are where you are going to find some of the most dramatic scenes where history has been frozen in the moment of sinking. Personal objects, smashed machinery from torpedo explosions, intact wooden objects, human remains—it’s all here.
Wreck interiors are dark, silty and full of twisted metal, but they are also awesome places
Silt and Silt Outs
If you go deep into a wreck, you will eventually silt out—just a fact of wreck diving. The silt is not the grainy sand you experience on the outside; this is decayed organic matter that accumulates in deep piles of fine powder. One wayward fin kick and you can’t see anything. Due to this fact, it is recommended that you penetrate wrecks with as small a group as possible if you are shooting. The fewer divers, the less silt, and the better your shots will be.
There are some practical shooting considerations with silt, too. Planning is essential as your time will be limited. The time limit is not merely due to air and bottom time, but if you are diving on open circuit gear, your bubbles will begin to dislodge particles above you. Think of a rusty snowstorm and you have a good idea of what to expect. Prepare your shot beforehand, set up your camera in an open area, get your lights set and make sure your buddy is ready. Then move in, move with purpose, and know that you will probably only get one chance of a clean shot before the rusty snow falls and the silt begins to bloom off the deck.
Move slowly and carefully: There is almost two meters of silt burying the bottom of this ladder
Move deliberately and with a purpose: This scene silted out only seconds after this shot
There are so many possible things to find deep in wrecks and if the ship has not been salvaged, what is left often creates a very personal connection to the crew who once lived and worked there. In many cases, they also died in those spaces and it is not uncommon to find skulls and other bones poking out of the silt. Be respectful in these places and don’t use the remains as cheap props for a pic. Photographing remains is up to the shooter; my rule is not to touch or manipulate. Aside from that, I will shoot if it is a meaningful shot I need for books that I write on the histories of the wrecks. You can also find boots and buttons in the cabins, along with china, silverware, and bottles. Sailors love to drink and almost every wreck has a plentiful supply of bottles somewhere!
The one thing you are guaranteed to find on every wreck is machinery, pipes, valves, light fixtures, cat walks, ladders, and all the other innards of a ship that are not worth salvaging. Engines rooms are the best: Even if they have been salvaged, you will have plenty of opportunities for dark, moody shots. The other nice thing about engine rooms is that they tend to be pretty open and silt is less than elsewhere. This will allow you to do some awesome light painting, off-camera lighting, or any other creative idea you come up with. Many great wreck photographers will spend an entire dive just getting a single shot in the engine room.
If you want something darker and smaller, with less chance of having been salvaged, try and find the engineering spaces below or adjacent to the engines. These are dark, cramped areas where men worked in hot, stuffy conditions. These places have incredible artifacts that aren’t worth anything to salvagers. Look for everything from water purifiers, to welders, to tool benches. All of these things just cry out for a great off-camera lighting setup. Usually though, you will have to shoot them with low strobe power, as you won’t have time to light them up properly. If at all possible, try and arrange a dive with just you and your guide and one area of the ship to yourself. I often dive with big groups, but we will ask the main guide where they are going and make sure we go somewhere else where we will not be disturbed.
Huge piles of bottles make the hold of Rio de Janeiro Maru famous
Sometimes you’ll even find airplanes, like this Japanese Zero, buried deep in wrecks
Something as simple as a teapot makes a great subject when creatively lit
In many situations, it may be best to do your deep interior shots with only strobes. Keeping things very simple and diving with less gear is always highly advisable when doing serious wreck penetrations. If you are with a group, don’t even bother with off-camera lighting—stay with your group, expect some silt, and keep your shots simple. How then can you get good shots with your strobes?
First, turn your power way down. You are going to be in almost complete darkness and your subjects are not going to be moving. Set a slower shutter speed, but still at least 1/60s, and shoot an ISO around 400. Even with these settings, you should get plenty of light on your subject and onto your camera’s sensor.
Second, bring your strobes in close to your housing. The reason for this is not photographic; it’s to protect your gear. Don’t swim into tight spaces with your strobes sticking way out full extended; they could snag on something in the tangled metal lurking in the darkness. When you get your shot set, only then should you manipulate your strobe arms into the correct position.
What is the correct position? You are going to want them to be no further forward than your housing; usually it is best to have them a little behind. This will prevent light from making the edges of your shot glow. Also angle them slightly out and try to get the light cones to intersect only when they are on your subject. This will keep backscatter to a minimum—after all, there will be a lot of particles floating around in the water.
Strobes can also be used to dramatic effect—just constantly move them around and experiment
Sometimes just a simple strobe shot is what a scene calls for
Angle your strobes so the beams intersect at your subject; this was a very silty location
These are probably your best bet for great results, but they require setup—unless they are being held by another diver. The fastest, safest, and surest way to get a killer shot is to have another diver hold your off-camera lights. This allows you to keep moving and set up much faster, which you need to be mindful of before silt becomes an issue. I will often send my partner or guide in before I’m ready, and they will get set with the light while I fiddle with my camera.
Using another diver does not mean you have to have them in your picture. Thankfully, wrecks provide plentiful places for divers to hide while they are holding your lights. So whether you want a model or not, there will be options. The key thing is for your buddy to know where to point the light. This will require some planning and well-rehearsed hand signaling. It helps to have the same buddy on many dives, as you will begin to anticipate each other.
What do you point the off-camera lights at? Look for things that have visual interest and texture. A valve, metal grate, tools, or anything that grabs the eye will work. You also want to think how the light will play in the silty water. Point your light through objects that have openings or holes to create stunning backlit light beams that shoot through the darkness. Bottles or glass are also excellent things to place an off-camera light behind, as the light will take on color. If you are just doing a little backlighting, consider using lights that have red or blue colors to create visual interest. A deep blue UV light makes for a wonderful, subtle backdrop.
There are five lights in this shot—can you find them all?
Bottles are great to slightly backlight—it brings out color in the shots
Off-camera lights allow you to get very creative with light shaping
You are not limited to either strobes or off-camera lights: Sometimes, the best solution is a combination of both. Normally strobes are so powerful they just wash out any continuous light sources, but in the pitch black of interior wreck spaces, you can use both to stunning effect. It helps to think of your strobes as fill lights and not your primary light source. Turn the power way down to match the intensity of your torches.
Set up your continuous lights in the background. Think about what direction you point them. Side-lighting will provide deep shadows and nice contrasts. Backlighting can bring out fun patterns and create rays of light in the silt. Get creative, but keep in mind having them pointed directly away from the camera at something will create completely flat light that will wash out most details. Try and always have your lights offset at an angle.
Your strobes are your fill and they will be generally shooting straight out. The light may be flat, but up close details don’t get lost as easily. Keep in mind that strobes don’t have to always be attached to your rig! If you have the time and opportunity, try detaching them and placing them in more interesting places. There are some incredibly long sync cords out there, so if you have them, use them. I wouldn’t recommend trying to use remote triggers in tight interior environments; they often get blocked by something.
Three divers, two strong video lights, and a touch of strobes for front fill
Using low-powered strobes adds a little light right on the subject, though only one strobe was used
Aside from your assorted camera gear, there is some other gear to consider when you are packing your kit. On your camera you are going to want a small focus light—nothing fancy, so save your best torches for off-camera work. A focus light is extremely important in the dark places inside wrecks, as you’ll often be shooting in absolute darkness; it will also double as your torch for navigation. By having your main light source mounted on your camera, you will keep your off-hand free to keep track of the line or to move yourself around amidst the metal.
Take your best torches and put them on a ball mount with a screw hole in the bottom. This will let you screw your torches onto gorilla grips or even to a standard tripod. While you are at it, get some carabiners and attach them to your lights, too. Then get a rope and make a sling to go over your shoulder. Attach all your lights to your sling: In the end, you should look like a serious rock climber!
A tripod also could come in handy if you are doing long-exposure shots required for light painting. I keep mine clipped off on my sling until I’m ready to shoot. Make sure to weight down your tripod or it might float away if it is one of the cheap aluminum ones. I prefer these cheap tripods, as I don’t mind if they get lost or trashed. (As a side note, I’ve had the same cheap little tripod for well over 100 dives and it’s still going strong. I consider that $10 well spent!)
It takes a lot of gear to get some shots: Try using a sling and put your lights on carabiners
Gorilla grips make lighting much easier, especially in places like the engine room
Some exposures are so long that you need a tripod to shoot them—this scene was too silty to light up
Even more so than shooting the exteriors of wrecks, you’ll need to muster every creative fiber of your being to produce successful shots of wreck interiors. Diligent planning is a necessity, as is careful coordination with your buddies, but above all, in these dark interior spaces, you’ll need to experiment with every lighting trick under the sun. With a little luck and a lot of trial and error, however, you’ll come home with what you set out to achieve: images that enthrall, rather than mystify, your viewers.
With wreck interiors, don’t be afraid to experiment!
Read Part I of Andrew Marriott’s two-part article: “An In-Depth Guide to Wreck Photography – Exteriors”
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