Close Focus Wide Angle
Close Focus Wide Angle (CFWA) is a very popular technique in underwater photography. It is a sub-division of wide angle, as the name suggests, comprising of images taken at camera to subject distances of less than about two feet (60cm). This close working distance creates unique challenges in lighting and framing photographs, but by forcing perspective it creates images with high impact. CFWA can be challenging initially, but once the basics are mastered it is actually one of the easiest techniques in underwater photography.
We all know the mantra “Get close. Get CLOSER!” is essential advice. Many photographers have it written on the back of their housings. Getting close helps us produce pictures that have more color, contrast and detail in the murky underwater world. But when we get close with a wide-angle lens we reap another benefit. Short camera to subject distances force the perspective of the picture, so that the subject appears larger than it is in reality, and it seems to pop out of the background creating an almost 3D image. The resulting photos have high impact, especially when the foreground subject is colourful or a charismatic creature.
Kit list: Camera. Housing. Fisheye lens. Fisheye compatible dome (SLR). 1 or 2 strobes (2 not essential).
Despite the large scene recorded, I was less than 1 foot (30 cm) away from the sea fan, but was able to fit it into the frame because of the ultra-wide coverage of my fisheye lens. Ulysses wreck, Red Sea. Nikon D2x + Nikon 10.5mm FE lens. Subal housing, 2x Subtronic strobes. F8 @ 1/40th. ISO 100.
CFWA is best shot with fisheye lenses on both SLR and compact cameras. Fisheye lenses focus close and their unmatched, ultra-wide coverage allows us to create the most dramatic images. Rectilinear (non-fisheye) wide angle lenses (e.g. 16-35mm, 14-24mm) can be used for CFWA, but cannot force perspective as much as fisheyes. The best lenses are 180 degree full frame (as opposed to circular) fisheyes (e.g. Canon 15mm, Nikon 10.5mm, 16mm, Tokina 10-17mm depending on your camera). Occasionally, we may want to use a slightly tighter view, which is easily achieved if you have a Tokina 10-17mm. Prime fisheye lenses can be fitted onto 1.4x and 1.5x teleconverters to reduce their coverage for certain subjects.
A 180-degree fisheye can be a bit wide to fill the frame with small subjects. If you have a Tokina 10-17mm or a compact camera you can zoom in. Alternatively you can fit a teleconverter to your fisheye lens to reduce its angle of coverage. Anemonefish, Red Sea. Nikon D700 + Nikon 16mm FE lens + 1.5x teleconverter. Subal housing, 1x Subtronic strobes. F10 @ 1/125th. ISO 200.
Contrary to popular belief, CFWA does not need powerful strobes because of the short camera to subject distances. For me, the best CFWA lighting is soft and non-directional (always use diffusers). I fit 8 inch (20 cm) diameter soft boxes to my Inon strobes when using them for CFWA in clear blue water. CFWA photography is all about creating attention grabbing, high impact shots that will benefit from the strong color and detail revealed by the even illumination of the subject. Sometimes we may choose to use more directional foreground lighting for a creative effect or to highlight textures in the subject.
From an exposure point of view we should think of CFWA images in two layers: a flash-lit foreground (controlled by aperture and strobe power) and a background illuminated by ambient light (controlled by aperture and shutter speed). Since aperture affects both it is simplest to adjust this as little as possible. For CFWA we will get adequate depth of field with an aperture of F5.6-F8 on a compact, F8-F11 on a DX/APS-C SLR and F13-F16 on a full frame SLR. This way we can set the aperture and then adjust flash power to alter foreground exposure and shutter speed to alter background exposure independently.
We should not be afraid of using long exposures if necessary in deep or darker water, and it is easy to shoot sharp images down to at least 1/10th, as the foreground will remain sharp because of the flash. When using long exposures it is beneficial to use rear-curtain flash synch (if available) to render any moving subjects (e.g. swimming fish) pleasingly.
The main problem is from photographers using strobe arms that are too long. There is a widely held misconception that wide angle lenses always require long strobe arms. They do not. If our subject is more distant, say 3 feet (1 metre), then we do need long strobe arms. If it closer than 2 feet (60 cm), we need our strobes close in to the port to achieve high quality lighting.
By pulling my strobes in tight to the port I am able to get an even illumination of this soft coral. Despite the turbid conditions of the mangroves this does not produce unacceptable backscatter because of the very short camera to subject distance. Soft coral in mangroves, Raja Ampat. Nikon D700 + Sigma 15mm FE lens. Subal housing, 2x Inon strobes. F14 @ 1/250th. ISO 200.
If we shoot CFWA with our strobes on long arms we will light (and often burn out) the sides of our subject and leave the centre of the subject in shade. This is a common problem in CFWA photos and is simply caused by strobes being too far apart. Short arms and strobes positioned within 8 inches (20cm) of the edge of the dome will light the subject and not the sides of the subject. Of course, if we do not get close enough, such strobe positioning will produce backscatter.
Generally, I place my two strobes on either side of the port, pulled back so that the front of the strobes is behind the back of the port to avoid flare. I generally point them straight ahead for CFWA, and slightly inwards when very close (less than 1 foot or 30 cm).
When shooting horizontals, for most subjects my strobes are at the same height as the lens (3 & 9 o’clock). But when the main subject is on a flat seabed, I lift them up slightly above the housing (2 & 10 o’clock) to avoid overexposing the foreground seabed, but still point them forward.
This is a photo of me, which shows how I position my strobes when shooting CFWA, even in low visibility. Note that the strobes are at 3 & 9 o’clock, pulled back behind the rear of the dome port and only about 8 inches (20 cm) away from the port. Actually, in this photo I am actually pulling the strobe in tighter as I move close to the seal. Photo by JP Trenque.
CFWA compositions are probably even better suited to the vertical format. When the subject is in open water or sticking out from a wall we can leave the strobes in the same position as in horizontals. Now that the camera is rotated, they will be above and below the port (12 & 6 o’clock). However, the second common problem in CFWA photos is too much uplight in verticals, which on most subjects looks unnatural (as ambient light comes from above).
In vertical compositions we get this uneven illumination because the lower strobe is closer to the subject than the upper strobe, so if they are on the same power the bottom of the frame will be much brighter. As a guide, we must reduce the power of the lower strobe by at least two stops compared with the upper strobe (that is 4 clicks on an Inon!). When shooting a subject on the seabed, I swing the strobe round until it is on the side of the port (12 & 9 o’clock), which also allows me to get the camera lower. In vertical CFWA, the upper strobe is doing almost all the work and you can try turning off the second strobe and see how little difference it makes.
This photo was taken with both strobes, positioned at 12 & 6 o’clock, set on the same power. Because the lower strobe is much closer to the subject than the upper strobe, much more light is reaching the bottom of the frame, creating an unnatural looking uplighting effect. For a more pleasing exposure the upper strobe should be two stops more powerful than the lower strobe for this type of image. Soft coral and diver, Red Sea. Nikon D2x + Tokina 10-17mm FE lens. Subal housing, 2x Inon strobes. F8 @ 1/125th. ISO 100.
Techniques & Tips
CFWA requires the photographer to maneuver very close to the subject, and before going in to take any CFWA image we must be certain that we can do so without damaging the environment. Some subjects will always remain inaccessible and the best images come from subjects that give us space to work, so we can find the perfect angle for the composition. Small changes in the position of the camera will make big changes in the relative positions of the foreground and background in the frame.
When building a CFWA photograph we must find both an interesting subject and also an attractive background. The challenge is finding these in the same place! I often search for an interesting background first and then look for a suitable foreground, the right distance away and on the right angle to work with the background.
Backgrounds often make the difference between average and strong CFWA shots and I often search for a background before looking for subjects. I felt that the silhouetted kelp forest would make an excellent background, and spent my dive beneath it searching for foregrounds. Although a starfish is not the most exciting subject, the background makes the shot interesting. Starfish under bull kelp, Canada. Nikon D3 + Sigma 15mm FE lens. Subal housing, 2x Inon strobes. F13 @ 1/50th. ISO 800.
The background of a CFWA image is important as it gives the image depth leading the eye through the frame. Solid blue water backgrounds are the dullest CFWA backgrounds and add little to the photo. We can improve on them by incorporating some surface texture and/or sun beams and most importantly by finding a silhouetted background subject. As the background subject will only be illuminated by ambient light (diffuse light), the best choices are simple shapes that have strong contrast and that make sense to the viewer in silhouette. For example, a reef wall against the surface, divers, the legs of a jetty, a cave or archway, silhouetted kelp, sea fans etc. These subjects will boost the impact of the shot.
To demonstrate the importance of backgrounds in CFWA, I have painted out the background of the (upper) original lionfish shot to represent the image if I have taken it against open water (lower image). Backgrounds give the image depth and also contribute to the 3D perspective, giving the photo much more impact. Lionfish, Red Sea. Nikon D2x + Nikon 10.5mm FE lens. Subal housing, 2x Subtronic strobes. F13 @ 1/125th. ISO 100.
The final element to consider is the portable CFWA background: a model. Using a human silhouette in the background of CFWA images creates additional interest and also gives the photograph a visual depth. With a bit of practice we can even get them in the right place in the frame to balance the composition.
Diver silhouettes are excellent additions to the backgrounds of CFWA photographs. Perhaps they are most valuable for giving an image depth when a great subject is not near a suitable background. Divers are moveable, after all. Generally they are a positive addition to any CFWA shot. Seafan in cave, Raja Ampat. Nikon D700 + Sigma 15mm FE lens. Subal housing, 2x Inon strobes. F13 @ 1/15th. ISO 200.
It is worth noting that empty blue backgrounds can be desirable when images are needed for editorial or advertising use, with text overlaid on them (e.g. magazine cover).
Foreground subjects are relatively easily selected. Colorful, interesting or charismatic subjects that can be easily approached all work well. When we are diving in clear blue water we should look for warm color subjects (red, orange, yellow) because these are complementary colours to the water, giving the most color contrast and creating the most impact. Large creatures do not always suit CFWA. Sharks, for example, become distorted or tadpoled (big head, tiny body) when photographed close to fisheye lenses.
Macro-Wide Angle is an extreme form of CFWA, which requires the subject to be very close: less than 2-3 inches (5-8 cm) in front of the port. This is not easily achieved with most free-swimming species and this technique is only suitable with approachable slow or non-moving subjects. The essential piece of equipment is a small dome, ideally 4-5 inches (10-12.5 cm) in diameter. Getting a high quality of light onto small subjects at such close distances is difficult with a standard sized dome. Even with a small dome the strobes need to be pushed up right next to it to achieve good lighting. Generally this technique works best with a fisheye lens mounted on a teleconverter, to reduce the coverage of the lens, so we can fill the frame with a small subject and to aid close focus.
I have only discussed the basics of CFWA. There is so much more to say and there are exceptions to just about every bit of advice I have given. But I hope that this article helps you get more from your CFWA photography.
Alex Mustard teaches underwater photography workshops in the Red Sea and Cayman Islands, each year. www.amustard.com