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Dive Photo Guide


Photographing Pelican Over-Unders
By Joseph Tepper, January 11, 2016 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

After a week of testing out underwater photo gear in the Grand Cayman, it was time to spend a day off-gassing before hopping on a plane back to DPG headquarters in NYC. Rather than pack all of my camera gear away in my Pelican case, I threw it into the back of my less-than-spacious Suzuki swift rental car.

With the bulk of the trip in the books, I decided to put the tourist-crowded area of Seven Mile Beach in the rear view mirror as well—taking off to the less-frequented north side of the island. Here, multistory condos are replaced by pastel shanties, as the sand on the side of the road narrows until land disappears entirely into the blue horizon.

When you can go no further without getting wet, that’s Rum Point. Truth be told, I had tackled the one-hour drive in higher hopes of slipping into a tropical beverage with the beach’s namesake ingredient than into the ocean with my camera. But as fate would have it, it was not an umbrella garnished glass that first caught my eye—it was a playful pelican dipping in and out of the shallows in a hunt for baitfish.

Cayman’s Rum Point may be known for its adult beverages, but there’s lots to discover snorkeling around, like pelicans, stingrays, and baitfish

My first reaction: “How is no one freaking out about this?” Oh yeah, because not everyone is an underwater photographer. I raced back to the car to grab my camera, swiftly popping off my strobes and SeaLife Flex-Connect arms in favor of a more streamlined setup. 

When I returned, I found the large pelican taking a break from the hunt, sitting still on the exposed rock of a small tide pool. Having never been in the water with a pelican before, I didn’t know how skittish it would be. With this in mind I wasted no time: I didn’t bother even taking off my T-shirt or donning a dive mask. I entered the tide pool and just sat still for a couple minutes so that the bird might accept my presence.

Getting in the perfect position for the shot

Slowly, I inched forward on my behind, adjusting settings along the way. I wanted to capture a split shot of the pelican resting on the rock, with the tide pool on the lower half. For this, I made my settings priority to have a higher f-stop value: A more closed aperture increases depth of field, which is especially important when dealing with subjects both below and above the waterline.

Fortunately, the sun was off to the side, so the shadows weren’t too harsh. To compensate for the closed aperture (f/16), I slowed my shutter speed down to 1/100s and increased ISO to 400.

Using a higher f-stop value brought more depth of field into the image, helping to make sure as much of the frame above and below the surface is in focus

Since I left the mask in the car, I was left to framing my images by shooting from the hip. Actually, it was more like shooting from the ear, as by this point I had sprawled out over the rocks, within arm’s reach of the bird. The camera was kitted up with a smaller dome port—just eight inches—which is not ideal for over-under images.

Fortunately, the water in the tide-pool was virtually still and it wasn’t terribly difficult to frame the image the way I wanted: The waterline at roughly one-third above the bottom of the frame, the pelican at the next rule-of-thirds intersection, and clouds at the top of the image. Shooting the images in portrait orientation, rather than landscape, made it more plausible to include all of these images in the frame.

The pelican was quite cooperative for a while, letting me get up close and personal with my bulky DSLR camera setup

After 15 minutes, it seemed the pelican was comfortable enough with my awkward presence that I could sneak around the outside of the tide pool for a more face-on image. I made my way to the outside of the rocks, where it became clear why the bird was staying put in spite of my intrusive presence: Hundreds of baitfish and the odd needlefish swarmed through the shallows.

The conditions outside of the tide pool proved slightly less serene: Upside jellyfish hiding in seagrass continued to buzz me as I captured headshots of the seemingly statuesque pelican. Its calmness seemed too good to be true. And it was, as the hungry bird launched off of his pad in chase of a gulp of baitfish. I decided to take a page from the pelican by leaving the water and putting the “rum” back into Rum Point.

Enough is enough: The pelican takes off over my head in search of some baitfish


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