A cautionary tale of how one drop ruined dozens of images
Underwater photographers all make mistakes. In the best of all possible worlds, when we err, the offence impacts only a single photo or a single subject. But the underwater world—while beautiful—is less than forgiving. And while on assignment for DPG on the luxurious Arenui liveaboard in Indonesia, I had a photo fail so epic that it almost ruined an entire day’s worth of dives.
Being on photography assignment is far from a vacation. You are up before the guests at the crack of dawn to set up camera gear, and often you’re up way after lights out to edit photos and prepare for the next day. Over the course of a multi-week itinerary, the demanding schedule can take a toll even on the seasoned photojournalist.
Waking just before sunrise, I surveyed the surface waters above the dive site “Batu Montjo,” which lies just northwest of Komodo Island. The pristine hard coral reef of the site was just a few feet from the surface—the morning’s low, low tide and golden hour light promised fantastic wide-angle photo opportunities. There was just one problem: My DSLR was still set up for super-macro from the critter-filled dive the night prior…
With such amazing wide-angle conditions, the photographer made a quick switch from macro—and forgot to take a pre-dive test image
I quickly sprang into action to switch my setup from macro to wide-angle in anticipation of the morning’s prime conditions. With DSLR and mirrorless cameras, this involves changing the lens as well as the port. I had already dipped the system into the spacious rinse tank to double check for any bubbles that might indicate a leak. Still slightly wet, I removed the macro port and switched in my fisheye wide-angle lens along with corresponding mini-dome port.
Always cautious, I water-tested the housing once again before handing it off to one of the attentive crewmembers to load in the dingy for the dive. My prediction of a wonderous wide-angle dive proved true: The colorful coral reflected in the calm surface as sharp rays of sunlight pierced the shallows. At one point, a juvenile manta ray even swooped into the scene. Other photography opportunities included a cooperative lionfish and a leaffish perched in the midst of schooling glassfish.
With all of the action, I had failed to look closely at my shots until about halfway through the dive—only checking the histogram for exposure. To my horror, every single image was marred by a large blemish.
While such a spot might be hardly noticeable when reviewing images underwater, it’s extremely obvious when viewed on a larger screen
There's no fixing an intra-housing issue once you’re underwater
Rushing to get ready for a dive—especially with photo gear—is never ideal. However, changing conditions and sudden opportunities often produce such situations. In my haste to switch over to a wide-angle setup, I had failed to notice a droplet of water had fallen smack dab onto the inside of my dome port. It’s not something you’d even notice before hopping in the water or by checking the housing’s integrity via rinse tank or vacuum seal. One little water drop might not hurt your camera, but it can spoil your images from an entire dive (or day) if not fixed.
There’s really one solution for this problem and so many others like it: Take a series of test shots prior to getting in the water. Don’t skip any step you wouldn’t take underwater. That means using strobes, desired exposure mode, autofocus, and various focal lengths (if applicable). But don’t just take the shot: Review the image carefully. This extra step can reveal problems large and small—from the classic “lens cap still on” conundrum to misfiring strobes—and even a small-but-very-annoying water drop.
In the end, I was able to work around the droplet by composing shots so that this ultra-distracting element was out of frame. And for keeper images where the drop remained, I used Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill tool to try and fix the issue. Some images were salvageable, while others were not. While it wasn’t the largest problem to face with an underwater camera system, this droplet could have been easily prevented by sticking to my usual pre-dive test shot ritual.
After seeing the drop underwater, the photographer was able to find a workaround by composing images with the spot at the edge of the frame
Alternatively, in some cases, Adobe’s Content Aware Fill tool can be used to remove the unwanted spot
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