An In-Depth Guide to Wreck Photography – Exteriors
Heian Maru in Truk Lagoon: Use a fisheye lens and turn off your strobes to shoot full ship shots
By Andrew Marriott
Wrecks provide one of the most awesome experiences a diver can have. Many of them are like museums frozen in a critical moment in history, while others have been sunk to provide an artificial reef that teems with marine life. For a photographer, wrecks provide opportunities for memorable images unlike anywhere else in the ocean.
Translating what we see on our dives into a striking photograph is extremely challenging. Often what we remember in our minds looks nothing like the dark, green, and gloomy photos we bring home. This guide is designed to help you overcome this problem by helping you shoot stunning images that do justice to these legends beneath the waves.
In a perfect world, every wreck dive takes place in pristine blue water with visibility that stretches the length of the ship. This usually isn’t the case, but there are plenty of wrecks in places where the waters are clear, and the sun shines brightly. Places like the Red Sea and Truk Lagoon are magical places for wreck photography, but that doesn’t mean it is as easy as point and shoot. There are still challenges to translating your mental image into what you see on your screen after a dive.
Your first challenge is likely to be the sun. This seems unusual, but wrecks are generally dark shadows and the sun is the brightest possible background. You either need to shoot a nice wide-angle shot that shows off the wreck or turn on your strobes if you want to go for some close-focus wide-angle. Always keep the sun in mind and be aware of where it is above you. This is like land photography, and all the same sun positioning rules apply.
Lusong Gunboat in Coron: A great spot for shooting natural light shots
The surface makes a fantastic textured background for any external wreck shot. If possible, use it in your images for an eye-catching backdrop to the wreck. While you are at it, check out what’s on the surface and think of using that. Having your dive boat caught in a sunburst above a wreck is an awesome shot.
When framing your shots outside wrecks, remember to look up, too
If you have great viz, use it! Shoot big shots of as much of the wreck as possible. Nothing is cooler than seeing a huge, hulking ship lying on the bottom. These are rare opportunities, so take advantage of them. Get as far off the wreck as possible, turn up your ISO a touch, and get as much in the frame as you can. It’s even better if you can get a diver or some other object in there for scale. Too often a massive ship can be mistaken for a small trawler by viewers not familiar with ships.
The Unkai Maru in Truk Lagoon: If you have great viz, go big!
Unfortunately, bad visibility is often synonymous with wreck diving. A lot of the most popular wreck diving destinations are not known for gin-clear waters; they are known for the history and quality of the ships resting there. Places like Scapa Flow, Coron, and Scandinavia boast epic dives, but the water will be murky and dark. But even in these environments, you can get some stunning shots on the exterior of the wrecks.
When the visibility is less than 15 feet, getting close to your subject is not an option; it’s a necessity. Do yourself a favor: Don’t even try to get the big wide-angle shots. They will not turn out and end up just a murky mess. These are going to be close-focus wide-angle shots, and there are times when you will need to shoot in conditions where visibility is less than a few feet. Impossible? Nope, you need a lens with a very short focal distance. A fisheye lens is especially good for these types of shots as they are very fast and can get close. As you swim about the wreck, look for small things like boots, gas masks, lanterns, and so on. Nothing is stopping you from shooting incredible shots with dreadful viz.
Wreck of steamship Banaag in Subic Bay: The viz was less than three feet, so it was necessary to get very close
Use the Shadows
Wrecks are full of shadows and darkness, and poor visibility only accentuates this. Use this to your advantage. If you can’t get that big shot of the ship you wanted, you can still place the looming dark bulk of it in the background. For shots on deck, think about using the masts, kingposts, bridge, or any other structure in the background. You don’t need to see it clearly; you need the black shadow framed by the lighter water behind it. Shoot these types of shots into the sun, even if you can’t see it. Pay attention to the direction of the sun when you get in and try and put the glow it creates in the background of your close-focus wide-angle shots.
Use the sun to backlight a dark subject, even in poor visibility
Nothing sets off a dark atmospheric shot like a bright splash of color. Do a little research beforehand about what type of growth is on the outside of the wreck. On a dark wreck you won’t see the color; it will all be shades of blue and green. You need to know the shape of whatever it is you want to light up. Soft coral has a very distinct shape and it draws photographers like a magnet. Corals, fans, paint, and even rust can make for a great colorful subject. Get close, get color, put the looming shadow of a structure in the background, and put the sun behind it all to make the water glow a little. Those are the ingredients for a fantastic poor-viz shot.
Olympia Maru in Coron explodes with color, if you take the time to look through the gloom
Something that usually comes along with bad viz is green water. From a photographic point of view, there is nothing wrong with green water, but it causes a major block for a lot of shooters. Luckily you can make that water blue very easily. Whether you really should is a totally other discussion…
Turn Your Green Water Blue
The solution to green water is one of three things. First, accept it and use it to add to the look of a shot. Darkness, shadows, rusty metal and green water can make for very powerful shots, so consider just leaving it alone. Second, add a magenta filter to the front of your port. If you are shooting a GoPro, you can use a flip filter system. They work well and can take the edge off that overpowering green. The last option is to fix it in post-production. This is probably the easiest fix and any color balancing tool can do it. Just add a little magenta or violet to your picture and goodbye green!
If you are a purest, you may opt for a filter on the camera, but it is probably better to do it in post. If you put a filter on, then you are stuck with that image (or video) that way. On the other hand, if you shoot it without one, you will have an original with the actual color. Then you can non-destructively adjust it in post. Don’t like the result? Reset the image and start over.
Oryuko Maru in Subic Bay: Three-foot viz and green water, but there are still nice shots to be had
Strobes are the most important part of any camera system—perhaps even more than the camera itself. Good lights are required for a good shot, even if the camera in the housing isn’t top of the line. But if you have the best camera in the world and very poor lights, the best you can hope for is poor images. Light is the choke point for producing quality underwater images, so do yourself a favor and make sure you devote plenty of resources to making your setup nice and bright. Aside from simply having them, there are a few things to know about how and when to properly use them when shooting on the outside of wrecks.
Turn Them Off
If you are shooting in good viz and doing big wide shots, then turn your strobes off. Too many shooters turn their strobes on at the start of a dive and then never think about them again. If you are blessed with nice water that allows you to go big on your shots, don’t ruin it by firing your strobes. Two things will happen, neither of them good. First, you’ll likely get distracting lightness on both sides of your image as the strobes fire. Second, you’ll introduce a bunch of backscatter to the shot. Even the clearest water has particles floating around in it, and by hitting it with light you reflect it right into your lens. If you are going to be shooting natural light shots, turn your strobes off. In this case, the sun is your strobe, so use it.
No reason to fire strobes in this shot of the propeller of Yubae Maru
Push Them Out Wide
Strobes pushed out away from the camera and angled outwards is the standard alignment for wide-angle photography. So if you need light in your shot, for example, to shoot big fish or light up a big bunch of colorful soft coral, this is probably how you want to set them up. Before hitting the trigger, ask yourself if you need light. If you do, you also want to be sure to bring them behind the plane created by the front of your lens.
For those shooting a super-wide fisheye lens, you will want to have your lights positioned behind the camera. This should create a nice, even light with minimal backscatter. Double-check your shots, though, as it is very common to end up with a big shadow right in the center of your image. Two easy solutions for this. One, change your strobe angle. Second, add a third slave strobe on a center mount. Most people position a focus light here, but why not add in a third center-fill strobe?
This shot of the San Quentin required three strobes to avoid having a center shadow
Bring Them in Tight
When the viz is bad, or you are shooting close-focus wide-angle, bring your strobes in close to your port. Make sure to power them down when you do, or you’re going to blow out your subject and make your photo look like it was shot in a blizzard of backscatter. Many shooters like to bring their strobes in near their hands, with a slight angle out. A good rule of thumb is that the closer in your strobes, the closer you need to be to your subject. The goal is to reduce the amount of water between your subject and lens, which reduces the amount of backscatter present. The exact settings for you will vary between dives, but give this a try and you’ll soon be able to guess your setup accurately. It is a lot easier than it sounds.
Viz was poor on the shallow wreck of PB34, so strobes were brought in tight and focused on coral
Some of the all-time great wreck shots were done using external lighting. By external lighting, we are talking about lights that are not attached to your camera rig. Using lights in this manner creates stunning visual effects both inside and outside wrecks. To get the best effect, you are better off in dark conditions. Bright sunlight makes off-camera lighting very difficult, and the effect is often just washed out. On dives where the conditions are gloomy, don’t despair. Instead, get some lights ready and plan a shot that will showcase some interesting feature of the wreck. You can’t just put these lights anywhere; it does take planning before the dive. If possible, work with another diver or your guide to create a plan. Setting up off-camera lights is time-consuming work that requires good planning, communication, and coordination, but the results can be mind-blowing.
Using spotlights refers to continuous light highlighting a specific item or place. This technique requires the least amount of planning amongst off-camera lighting techniques, yet it still delivers powerful results. At its most simple, you can take your focus light off your rig, turn it on, place it inside a lantern or behind an object, and you’ve instantly created a memorable picture. It is better if you bring multiple video lights with you and have each of these mounted to a gorilla grip style mini-tripod. The tripods will allow much greater control and you can place them in much more interesting areas. When you are working outside the wreck, keep in mind the power of the sun. On bright wrecks, don’t waste your time with big shots; only use this technique on close-focus wide-angle shots. If it is gloomy or dark, your options expand greatly, and you can create some cool pictures as you do not have to battle overpowering ambient light.
Off-camera lights in the torpedo tubes of the submarine I-169
It is possible to light up brighter wrecks, or bigger areas, using off-camera lights. To do this, you need a much more powerful light source, and we all have several of these with us when we shoot. What are they? Your strobes! Take them off and rig them up to fire off a remote trigger. This is a very specialized type of shot, and there are specific gear requirements you need to use the trigger. We are not going to tackle this subject in detail here, as it would require a lengthy discussion. Triggering strobes remotely is not very common, but it can be done. Look into the various methods and study it in-depth if this is something that appeals to you.
This technique has rapidly grown in popularity amongst wreck photographers. Light painting is shooting very long exposures and using off-camera lights to illuminate various objects and locations of interest. Due to the long exposure, this is much easier inside a wreck, where things are dark. However, it can be done on the outside, too, with even more dramatic results. The problem is that external environments tend to be much brighter than those inside. To overcome this, you will need to shoot shorter exposures of smaller areas, which allows you to avoid blowing out the shot. In post-production, you will stack all these images together to create a single composite scene. You are going to need to shoot off a tripod to light paint.
Creating a nautilus shell with off-camera lights inside Betty bomber in Truk Lagoon
When setting up for a shot, take a moment and ask yourself, “What exactly is my subject?” There is a lot of temptation to blast away with your camera indiscriminately, but barring some stroke of luck, the pictures will not be appealing. You need to find something that immediately draws the viewer's eye and frame it in such a way that it is attractive. The outsides of wrecks offer a wonderful array of potential subjects, much more so than the interiors. With so much to shoot, it is easy to try and get it all, but resist that temptation and find an actual subject, and your pictures will be much better for it.
When you have great viz, you can use the entire wreck as a subject. These conditions are rare, so grab the opportunity if you get it. Typically, even in good viz destinations, the wrecks are just too big to fit in a frame. Think about this: If you have 165-foot visibility, you still would not be able to view most shipwrecks in their entirety. So, don’t try to get them all in. Find a recognizable part and area of the ship and use that as your subject. Things like the bow, bridge, stern and propellers are very popular and make great subjects. Even a viewer who is not familiar with wreck diving will immediately be able to tell that you took that shot on a wreck.
Gosei Maru: If you can use some of the wreck in the shot, then go for it!
There is a big difference between diving an artificially sunk wreck, and one that went down due to some calamity. The history and drama of these wrecks is incredible, and nothing encapsulates the story of the ships and crew like the artifacts they left behind. These items range from bombs to bones to boots to newspapers, and the best wrecks are packed with them. For wreck photographers, these mundane items are like gold. There is no better subject, and they scream out to be dramatically lit. Combine artifacts with off-camera lighting for some awe-inspiring photos. However, please don’t touch them! Historic wrecks are like museums—and they are often graves as well—so they should be preserved and respected. Needless to say, don’t even think of taking anything with you as a souvenir.
A lantern on the deck of Kiyosumi Maru makes for an identifiable subject
If you are stumped as to what to use as a subject, use your guide! Divers make nice subjects, and if you are shooting professionally, they are often in demand by publications. It is best to pose divers in some way and have them remain in position as you set up your shot. Make sure you get the whole diver in the scene, or at least the full face if it’s a closeup. Try and avoid shooting them from behind, unless that is the intent of the shot. Do a little planning beforehand and have a few simple hand signals ready. You can also give your diver a torch to shine on an object for some nice off-camera lighting. Another good use for divers is to use them for scale. If you have great viz and have a big shot, then put a diver in there to give your viewer a sense of the size of the wreck.
The diver gives a sense of the size of this massive mast on the Hoki Maru
Wrecks are often smothered in marine life as they are fantastic reefs. There are entire ecosystems to be found on the outside of wrecks and you’ll find plenty of interesting and colorful subjects. If you have schools of fish and big animals then this is an easy task: Point and shoot with a fast exposure. Use the wreck as a background and put the action front and center. If there are no easy targets, you can use plants and animals that grow on the wreck. Soft corals and sea fans are ideal, and their vibrant colors always get a great response from viewers. There are even small animals that you can get close to and shoot close-focus wide-angle with a fisheye lens. You can shoot nudibranchs with that lens if you want, but you might need to crop a little in post. It is a rare wreck that does not have a ton of life on it, so the chances are very good that you will find a lot of great marine life subjects.
This batfish was hanging around so it got used as a ready-made subject
Wreck diving is deadly serious so always stay within your limits. The good news is that wreck exteriors are generally open dives with a clear path to the surface, so they are suitable for a greater range of divers. Preparing to shoot a wreck is not like preparing to go on a fun dive; there is a greater degree of planning involved. The more planning and preparation you put into a wreck shoot, the better your results will be.
Diving the outside of a wreck doesn’t require any special gear, but shooting it sure does. If you want to try off-camera lights or light painting, you will be adding to your kit. First, you will need a tripod. There are dedicated underwater tripods, which are very nice and expensive. Another option is to buy a cheap tripod at your local market, which saves some money—and no worries if you happen to lose it. If you are shooting off a tripod, make sure to check its buoyancy beforehand; you will find it is often necessary to attach a small dive weight to each leg.
For wreck shooting, you should also check the end of the legs: Some tripods have a metal spike at the end. This is useful for land shooting, but on a slanting metal deck it will just slide right to the bottom. Look for rubber end caps on the legs, or tightly wrap a rag around them. Off-camera lights will require their own gorilla grips if you want to get maximum use out of them. You may also want to consider putting a small carabiner on your lights and then rig up a sling for them. This will allow you to bring down a bunch of lights without filling up all the D-rings on your BCD.
Rigging up these internal lights on the Betty bomber required extra gear and patience
Regardless of whether you are using your guide as a model, you will need to agree on some basic hand signals beforehand. Let your guide know you will be shooting and carefully explain what you want to do. Be sure to tell them how wide your field of view is on your lens; most guides are not expecting 180 degrees for example. For these situations it’s useful to have signals for move back, stop, etc. You also need to be very clear about what you want to shoot and how you want the guide to be part of it. If they are a model, you will need signals for holding still, look at the lens, stay there while I move, perfect, and things like that. After a dive or two this will all be second nature, so don’t worry.
Long exposures, off-camera lighting, and other complex shots will need a lot more planning. You need to be crystal clear with your guide about what to do, so if something goes wrong, don’t blame them. Blame yourself for not being clear enough in the planning process. Complex shots take guides way out of their usual routines, so don’t expect them to be psychic.
Make sure to have good communication with your guide
Shooting the exteriors of wrecks, especially big ones, can present a serious challenge to the photographer, who needs to have a range of techniques and equipment up their sleeves in order to create an impactful series of images. If you want your shots of wreck exteriors to stand out, you’ll need to think creatively, experiment, and learn from your inevitable mistakes. With a bit of luck, using some of the tricks and tips here will quickly get you some decent results, which you can then gradually refine with practice.
Using color, marine life and dark shadows to create a good shot in bad viz
If the viz is bad, try and shoot shallow wrecks. This shot looks deep, but it’s actually only at 15 feet
Colors, life, surface background, diver: All the elements of a nice wreck shot
Propellers make it easy to find subjects that anyone can identify
Never forget to look up: You might find a fun image while doing deco stops
Focus on finding color. This sea fan appeared dull brown in the natural light
A tricky shot in poor viz. Strobes and natural light were used
Divers give a sense of the size of the Rio de Janeiro Maru in Truk Lagoon
Everybody loves Nemo, and in tropical seas, the outside of wrecks usually have plenty of them
Colorful Truk Lagoon: Wrecks aren't just about darkness and rust
Keep a video light handy for fun shots like this lantern sitting on a deck gun
Read Part II of Andrew Marriott’s two-part article: “An In-Depth Guide to Wreck Photography – Interiors”
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