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Dive Photo Guide


Boats in the Background
By Joseph Tepper, April 8, 2020 @ 12:00 PM (EST)

Boats: not our first choice to include in images of beautiful, pristine underwater environments. Sometimes, adding the silhouette of your dive boat can take your photo to the next level. Here’s how.

Substitute for Dive Models

Framing a dive model in the background of a close-focus wide-angle scene is a great way to elevate your photography. While this produces a well-balanced image, we aren’t all blessed with full-time models. Sure, you can work around this by photographing divers unawares or self-modeling. But you can also use boats as a compositional substitute.

Dive boats on the surface replicate many of the functions provided by a dive model silhouetted in the distance. Boats add depth and a sense of scale: The viewers of your image will now be better oriented at the depth of the scene and the direction of the image. What’s more, the boat silhouette is something that anyone will recognize—an important factor in acclimating your viewer to the often unfamiliar underwater world. 

It might not be as desirable as a dive model, but the boat in the image above adds a secondary compositional element to the image


Suitable Subjects

There are two subjects to consider when composting these shots: the boat and whatever you can find in the foreground. Let’s start with the boat. In order for this strategy to really work, you need a boat that is moored in place. This applies to many, many dive sites around the world. But if you’re on a free floating liveaboard or a drift dive where the dive boat isn’t tied off, then you’re probably better off trying to include your dive buddy in the photos instead.

As far as foreground subjects, you’ll want to find something in close proximity to the where the boat is anchored. The distance depends on the visibility and surface conditions. The brighter the conditions, the further away from the anchor line you can search for subjects. As well, the subject should be stationary or slow moving. It will be very difficult to track a fast-paced animal and a boat on the surface at the same time—even if the boat is barely moving. Reef scenes are a great start. 

An anemone sticking out of the reef is ideal for lining up a boat at the surface and a dive model

Look for elements of the reef sticking out: Large sponges, sea fans, bunches of soft coral are all ideal subjects as they pop out from the reef. This technique works especially well on wall dives. 

But this tactic can be used with select, slow-moving animals like turtles chowing down on the reef, large eels with their heads poking out, and frogfish perched on the edge of a reef. Look for ledges along the wall where you’re likely to find a potential close-focus wide-angle subject. Anytime you are photographing a close-focus wide-angle subject on a wall or ledge, keep an eye up to try to include the boat as a secondary element. 

Even relatively calm subjects, such as this friendly turtle, can serve as a foreground subjects for boat backgrounds


Framing the Boat in the Background

Like every primary or secondary subject, the goal is to frame the boat at an intersection marked by the rule of thirds. This might seem like an easy task, especially if the foreground subject is stationary. But what you might take for granted is that boats move, even when tied off or at anchor. 

Factors such as wind, current, and waves cause boats to swing slightly or even mildly while you’re diving. You can see this demonstrated during a safety stop: Even if there’s no current, the boat is likely to be at different distances in that three-minute span. There’s an old divemaster pro tip in these situations: Don’t swim to the boat; let it come to you. 

The goal is to have compositional elements (the sponge, the dive model, and the boat) incorporated with the rule of thirds

The same goes for positioning the boat in your image. It’s better to be patient and wait for the boat to swing back into place than constantly chase it around the subject. With fisheye lenses and wide-angle wet lenses, it’s highly likely that the boat will at some point be in the background through Snell’s window if you’re framing the subject against the surface. 

Be patient. Wait for the boat to swing into the frame and make minor adjustments to shooting angle if needed. When the boat is out of frame, use the time to fine-tune your foreground lighting.

Try to use the boat to partially or completely block the sun for a heavenly image


Final Thoughts 

Boat silhouettes might not be the sexiest secondary subject in an image. But they are readily available on most dives and provide compositional balance to wide-angle images. Instead of praying that your buddy will model for you, try looking up to the surface for your answer.

Strong wide-angle images require combining a medley of subjects: orange sponges, a reflective snapper, underwater photographer and a boat at the surface to add depth  


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