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Surface Shooting at Wakatobi: Getting the Most from Your Snorkel Images
By Joseph Tepper, October 10, 2015 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

What’s the most common question you get as an underwater photographer? My bet: “How deep do you go?!” Yet we all know that deeper depths don’t provide any better photo opportunities. In fact, the vast majority of all things beautiful to photograph lie in water shallower than 100 feet (stay with me tech divers). Still, seasoned dive photographers will often scoff at the even shallower depths that draw a unique species: snorkelers.

Snorkel photography is often viewed as something reserved for tourists armed only with a disposable, waterproof camera. The reality is that snorkel photography is far from an activity confined to itinerant backpackers. In subject-rich destinations like Wakatobi, Indonesia, shooting from the surface is an excellent option either to squeeze in extra shooting time in between dives or as an alternative to enduring the limited bottom time provided by scuba.

In fine conditions like those offered in Wakatobi, there’s plenty on which to feast your eyes—and your lens

“With miles of pristine reefs and tens of thousands of unique subjects awaiting, it’s no wonder underwater photography is a favorite activity at the resort,” explains Karen Stearns, who handles Wakatobi Dive Resort’s marketing and media relations. “[But] the camera work need not be confined to dive time: The shallow reef tops and grass beds that enthrall snorkelers also provide ample opportunities to create equally stunning images without the need for scuba.”

While scuba diving provides access to a different environment, many of the same critters found at depth lurk just feet below the surface. And, because of the shallow, sun-drenched conditions, colorful and bold images can be produced even with a simple point-and shoot camera. The key to choosing gear for your next snorkel shoot is to make it as streamlined as possible—leave those long, lanky strobe arms behind. It’s also a good idea to have your rig neutrally, or negatively buoyant, making it easier to duck down for a shot.

Snorkeling allows you to interact closely with marine creatures such as this juvenile turtle

“If your goal is to capture reefscapes, portraits of fellow snorkelers, and images of mid-sized fish, you can keep things simple and streamlined by choosing a wide-angle lens and leaving the strobes behind,” Karen advises, having watched countless photographers fin-kick out to Wakatobi’s pristine snorkel sites.

And while split shots and reef scenes are frequently captured by snorkeling photographers, macro imaging is also on the menu at many snorkel sites. Unlike with wide-angle snorkel photography, shooting macro requires at least one strobe for best results. With small creatures you’ll want to shoot at higher aperture values to increase depth of field, which limits the amount of light that hits your camera’s sensor. Using a strobe or continuous video light brings back color and contrast.  

Above all, snorkel photography provides the freedom for both new and experienced image-makers to fine-tune their skills. That mantis shrimp you found at 75 feet and photographed for 10 minutes before needing to resurface can be seen while snorkeling—and there’s no time limit.

A midnight snapper gets a service at a cleaning station

A peacock mantis shrimp patrols the reef


Snorkel Photography: Taking the Plunge

The wife of a marine conservation photographer, Pam Osborn was destined to try her hand at underwater imagery—it was only a matter of time. That chance finally came when she visited Wakatobi, and accompanied by a Canon EOS 5D Mark II in a hand-me-down DSLR, began snorkeling the world-famous house reef as her husband, Wayne, spent the day diving. Pam loved it so much, she has been back with Wayne for three years running.

“I spend at least six hours in the water each day, sometimes seven or eight hours,” recalls Pam, who continues the regimen for the entirety of their three-week visits.

Pam is just one of many underwater photographers who have used the diversity of tropic shallows like those at Wakatobi to improve their photography in a short period of time. Author Malcom Gladwell estimates that it takes 10,000 hours to truly master a skill—in this case, a feat much more accomplishable when you can spend eight hours in the water, rather than one or two.

Blending in: A crocodilefish keeps a low profile

The very territorial titan triggerfish

And while Pam might not be a master underwater photographer yet, it’s hard to deny the impact snorkel photography has had on building an impressive portfolio and budding career as a conservation photojournalist—take a look at the photos for yourself. Alternatively, read the description on her husband’s website: Wayne was elected a Fellow International of the New York based Explorers Club in 2004 and was the ANZANG Nature Photographer of the year in 2012. Pam is a much better photographer.

“There is always something new to find either in the shallows on top of the reef or a few feet over the drop-off,” explains Pam Osborn, whose images demonstrate the value snorkel photography holds for an aspiring shutterbug. “I feel that by taking photos [snorkeling], it has helped me to be more observant of what is around me.”

An inquisitive barracuda comes in close to inspect the lens

Three peppered moray eels make an entrance

Three Tips for Better Snorkel Images

To separate your snorkel images from the crowd, you’ll need to take the same purposeful approach to photography as you would on a dive. Here are some key tips for shooting from the surface in different conditions:

1. When shooting with natural light, keep your shutter speeds above 1/125s of a second to produce crisp images. It’s usually safer to boost your ISO than slow the shutter speed.

2. Don't be afraid to shoot down: Shooting down from the surface gives the perspective of the snorkeler, one most viewers are familiar with.

3. If you do want to dive down to come level with a subject, make sure your camera and strobe settings are all ready, as you don’t want to be fiddling with all of that while holding your breath.


To find out more about Wakatobi Dive Resort, visit www.wakatobi.com or email office@wakatobi.com.


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