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Dive Photo Guide


Photo Lab with Nan Smith
By Matt Weiss and Lia Barrett, August 22, 2014 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

DPG editors Matt Weiss and Lia Barrett take a detailed look at five of reader Nan Smith’s images, giving him pointers and feedback on how he might improve their success. 

Wire coral goby, Solomon Islands (f/11, 1/125s, ISO 400, using one strobe)

Lia: Gobies are a fantastic subject to practice your macro techniques on. They require patience, steady hands, controlled breathing, and precise focusing, all of which are useful skills throughout the discipline. And while you have a lot of elements working here—focus, compositional lines, and exposure—I think there are some things you can do to make the overall image more interesting. Perhaps consider the frame: if you’d shifted over to the right and up a little, you would have included the entire animal, and there wouldn’t be this slice of awkward space in the left of the frame. Alternatively, you could shift your gaze so that the goby is straight on, playing with techniques of bokeh (selective focus).

Matt: I agree with Lia here. I enjoy the lines of the coral in the composition, and the pure background provides nice contrast. The main criticism I have with the photo is that even a small portion of the subject being cut off can create issues for the viewer. When part of an animal is removed from the composition, viewers are distracted by what’s missing rather than the rest of the image. Of course, these are wild animals and not studio situations, so it’s easier said than done!

Emperor angelfish, Solomon Islands (f/11, 1/125s, ISO 200, using one strobe)

Lia: Angelfish are beautiful, but I have to say, it can be very tricky when it comes to shooting them with a close-up lens. Unless you were to go for patterns behind their gills or other texture shots, I would advise stepping outwards and trying to capture them wide angle as an accessory to the reef. This is typically my advice with most moving fish. Unless you are on rebreather or freediving, it is difficult to get them to sit still, as your bubbles scare them off. But perhaps that’s me just giving up too quickly. However, it does say something about what subject matter you choose to spend your time on. After all, your time underwater is limited, so why not focus on something that is a bit more amenable to the camera?

Matt: Obviously, as Lia mentions, the entire animal would be ideal, but I still think this beautiful emperor angel is a worthy photo subject even when shooting close up. My main issue with the image is that the eye is so dark it blends in with the background, which takes away from some of the effect that eye contact creates for the viewer. Perhaps if the fish were facing towards the camera slightly, instead of parallel with the plane of the lens, there would be more contrast on that crucial element.

Yaeyama blenny, Solomon Islands, (f/6.3, 1/80s, ISO 200, using one strobe)

Lia: Oh, the blenny! Another lovable little guy that is very much in a similar vein as the goby—willing to sit still until they’ve had enough of you and either disappear or turn away. But again, great for practicing macro. My advice in this image could go many ways, but I will stick to one that I think uses what you’ve got going on already. In an instance like the above, I would encourage you to move down a bit in angle. You have the opportunity to shoot the fish against a black or deep blue background, and this shot represents one of those times when it would likely make the image stronger. You would eliminate some of the more distracting details of the habitat in the background (which you’ve already explained in the foreground), and the viewer would be able to focus on the animal because it would “pop.” Also, I would scooch around a little to the left so we can see a tiny bit more of the goby’s face. Fish that are slightly looking away from you disengage the audience, for you can tell they were either about to flee, or you didn’t quite nail the encounter.

Matt: I like the whole moonscape you’ve got going on here, and you captured the blenny’s playful manner. I would like to see a version of this image where the coral fills the frame so no blue peaks in. If you removed the context of the coral by leaving out any signs of the ocean, it would add to the feeling of a fish in an abstract, bizarre world.

Anemonefish, Solomon Islands (f/6.3, 1/160s, ISO 200, using one strobe)

Lia: Clownfish are yet another great example of ideal animals to practice on. When you’ve popped your strobe and gotten their colors to burst forth in the frame, it’s an exciting breakthrough moment in underwater photography. For this image, I would say what is lacking is lighting. I am guessing your one strobe is angled from the left? If you’re going to use a single strobe, perhaps move the arm over towards the middle of the fish a little more. I know this can be tricky with the backscatter factor, so play around with it. In an ideal world, you would use two strobes to fill in the shadows, or wait until the fish comes out of the anemone a bit more.

Matt: Anyone who has ever photographed a clownfish has encountered the endearing moment when the fish takes refuge in its anemone host. This image really takes me back to these memorable experiences with this fun subject! I would have liked to see this shot taken with a higher aperture to increase the depth of field. The anemone’s tentacles surrounding the clownfish are critical to the composition, but the out-of-focus areas in the front-right corner are distracting.

Eel, Hawaii (f/11, 1/125s, ISO 400, using one strobe)

Lia: Shots of eels coming out of their crevices are more difficult than they seem, mainly because visually their habitats are often fighting with their beautiful skin patterns. Two ways of overcoming this battle are lighting and angle. (Indeed, altering lighting and angle will fix many image issues!) You’ve got the eye in focus, which is important, and you’ve lit the body, so we can make out the details. But what would happen if you moved your body so that you were looking straight at it (carefully—don’t want to spook it)? It depends on your strobe arms, but if they’re long enough, you could stretch them to the sides or over the top of the subject, and then bend them back towards your lens a bit, so that it doesn’t light the wall and hole, but just catches the protruding subject. If you’re using just one strobe, and you place it over the top of the eel, you might get a bit of that Grace Kelly “elegant” shadow lighting, which could make the image more interesting. This is a great opportunity for experimentation. But if you want to go from taking ID shots to getting more creative, I would start with angle and lighting.

Matt: This is an amazing eel and you’ve captured it well. It’s exposed well and the eye is in focus. To take the image to the next level, you should think about what can be done to make the eel and its complex patterns even more visually interesting. In this case, as Lia mentions, the most obvious way would be to remove the distracting background. We want to see those spots in all of their glory, and the complicated colors and textures of the rock behind the eel diminish the brilliance of the pattern.


Final Comments

Lia: It’s clear that Nan has an understanding of the subjects he is shooting. It is also apparent that he’s done done some homework and has either absorbed or learned a few great starting-off techniques. My biggest piece of advice to Nan is that, while “getting closer” is definitely a fine piece of advice, use that intimacy as a starting point, but then think about your angles and ultimately, your lighting. If you engage your subjects, then your audience will be enticed, and if you “flatter” them with proper lighting, then you will be on the path to having very successful images. Think about a person in a dark room. Turning on an overhead fluorescent light shows you what’s in the room. But switch to accent lighting, and perhaps a few strategically placed lamps, and you instantly change the entire look of your subject. They appear warmer, more intriguing, and often more attractive. Maybe it’s a strange analogy, but sea creatures, especially in the macro realm, are very similar!

Matt: What strikes me most about Nan’s entire portfolio is the use of patterns in every single image. I think the images together are a really interesting look at the shapes, colors and lines that are commonly found in the ocean. Having a common thread, like patterns, among photos in a portfolio is often overlooked when people are displaying sets of pictures. Yet it provides not just a point of view but also a reason for looking at those images. I bet when Nan gets the 100mm, we’ll see lots of great abstracts!

About Nan Smith: Nan has been diving since 1982, but didn’t pick up a camera until 2006. He found his interest in taking shots underwater through a love of doing fish identification. With a keen interest and a lot of scuba-diving experience under his belt, Nan is eager to learn more of the technical aspects of underwater photography, and to get his hands on a 100mm macro lens to see where his newfound way of seeing sea creatures will take him. Nan currently uses a Canon 400D with a 60mm macro lens, and one Ikelite DS-125 strobe.


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