Most shipwrecks are just that – they are wrecks. Once magnificent greyhounds of the oceans that have ingloriously run up on reefs, been ground down by waves and turned into undersea scrap yards. Or perhaps they were blown up by mines, torpedoed or dive bombed to the bottom. To make matters worse some wrecks continue to be pummeled, rolled, moved and demolished by waves driven deep by hurricanes. Ship wrecks are in essence wrecks first, ships second and the job of an underwater photographer is to make a “ship” picture out of a wreck. The philosophy is simple but the execution is extremely difficult.
In good visibility the best plan is in wreck photography is to find a section of the ship that actually looks like a ship or a signature feature of that particular wreck. If the current will allow, back away from the wreck to get a larger perspective. Swim above it and around to find a provocative angle.
Once you have found your shot lets talk about scale and the tiny diver. Yes, a diver adds a sense of scale to the image and there seems to be some law of underwater photography that says you will fold your arms, carry a light and hover like a disinterested mannequin over the wreck. The little diver with a light is a cliché and I am among the guilty, but I still try and stretch my mind for another way of creating scale.
Do you homework on the wreck before you dive. In poor visibility or deep water you are limited and want to know where you are going. Signature features of a wreck may include a canon, deck guns, funnels, propellers, the wheel house…something that says something about that particular ship.
If you remember anything, remember this: A GOOD GUIDE IS PRICELESS, even in great visibility, and an absolute no brainer if you plan on any interior work. I use the wreck of the USS Coolidge in Vanuatu as an example. This ship is a luxury liner turned troop carrier sunk by a mine. A world class shipwreck that YES, you should get to if you are a wreck hound. The Coolidge may be a shore dive but she is a very seductive deep wreck with lots of incredible rooms filled with incredible things to photograph and she swallows bottom time you would not believe. Diving the Coolidge has the addictive qualities of crack, and a good dive guide will get you where you want to go fast and get you out, with pictures, alive.