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Dive Photo Guide


The Best Underwater Photography in the Indo Pacific: Outer Kimbe Bay and Father's Reef
By Joseph Tepper, October 19, 2012 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of the series “The Best Underwater Photography in the Indo Pacific.” For more articles, please visit the series homepage.

By Joseph Tepper

Kimbe Bay is no mere pond.

At roughly twice the size of Delaware, Kimbe Bay seems more like a small ocean. After all, this “small” inlet is home to 75 percent of coral species found in the Pacific and over 600 species of fish.

And while much of the bay can be accessed from the day boats at Walindi, to explore the outer shoals and the famous Father’s Reef you’ll have to board FeBrina.

A diver explores "The Arches," one of the more remote and beautiful sites of Father's Reef

Underwater Photography in Kimbe Bay and Father’s Reef on the FeBrina

For more than 20 years, the FeBrina liveaboard has called Kimbe home.

The 73-foot boat features 7 private cabins with en-suite bathrooms—accommodating up to a maximum of 12 guests per trip assures the level of service and attentiveness the most demanding-photographer desires.

This was a boat built for cameras: Two rinse tanks, two multi-level camera tables, a dedicated charging station, and individual storage cubbies make changing setups a snap.

The FeBrina sails off into a Papua New Guinea sunset...

Captain Alan Raabe’s  22 years of experience navigating the bay is critical when trying to decide the best sites given the often-changing conditions.  He reads the currents and predicts the best sites like a fortuneteller: only his predictions of good visibility and limited current always seem to come true. The crew hustles about non-stop, readying meals and dive tanks  for the hefty 5-dive-a-day schedule, and keeping the boat afloat.


Father’s Reef: A Wide-Angle Wonder

Kimbe has  enormous coral growth, pelagics like sharks and dolphins, cuttlefish, and (if you’re especially lucky) Orca whales that pop into the bay for a rest from the open ocean.

While many of these amazing photographic opportunities can be found within a few minutes from the homebase at Walindi Resort, there’s much more to be discovered at Father’s Reef’s star sites like “Norman’s Knob” and “The Arches.”

The vibrant color of soft coral makes it a natural wide-angle subject. Add the silhouette
of a diver for a more compositionally interesting image.

Coral Photography
Seeing sponges as big as I am (and I am no Tiny Tom) and soft coral fans the size of a compact car, are not only shocking, but also a photographic challenge.. Even with a fisheye, soft coral fans reaching 20-feet-wide will force you to kick back 6-8 feet to fit the entire subject in the frame, creating a difficult lighting situation.

Just look at how enormous that sea fan is!

Because you will have to be so far from the huge subjects to fit it in the frame, your typical tropical wide-angle coral settings will not work. Instead, you will have to increase strobe power to nearly full power and open up your exposure to add enough natural and artificial light to properly expose these enormous subjects.

You are better off thinking of a 20-foot-tall seafan as a whale shark than a coral subject.

Adding a model is also critical when shooting these larger-than-life subjects to give a sense of scale. Adding model silhouettes in Kimbe Bay and Father’s Reef is essential to stress just how big the coral and sponges actually are.

There's not one spot on Kimbe's reefs without coral. Keep an eye out for elkhorn coral and the schools
of fish that swarm around them.

Sometimes I use the coral subject to partially block the sun, creating
a halo effect.

Here, I used the top of the frame to clip the sunburst, creating a more dramatic
image filled with sun rays.

In addition to silhouettes, inlcuding models in the foreground adds a 
human element to a wie-angle scene.

This is an example of the compositional technique known as framing, 
where the hole in the sea fan "frames" the diver.

You can backlight certain subjects like soft coral, where it looks
like the light is coming from within.

 “The Arches”
Perhaps the most photogenic site on the Febrina itinerary is known simply as “The Arches.” While the coral growth at the Arches is at the same high caliber as at many of the other sites in Kimbe, it is the topography of the site that makes it truly a photographic gem.

The site rises like an island from the abyss at around 110 feet. Several rocky arches conveniently frame large sea fans and soft coral, creating great negative space to the image. I communicated with my Divemaster and model before the dive to convey  exactly the shot’s I wanted: The coral in framed in the arch, and the silhouette of a diver in the blue space.

The Arches isn’t a dive a photographer should pass up. But, it is one that should be
carefully be prepared for before because of it’s depth. 

It is critical to communicate with your model before the dive and draw out the composition you have in mind. For me, it was framing both the diver’s silhouette and soft coral in the border of the cave.

Going Creative in Kimbe
What really makes Kimbe’s wide-angle wonders special for underwater photographers is not only what’s there, but also what’s missing—current. The bay is protected from much of the current, but still boasts a healthy array of coral and pelagics.

This rich, current-free environment is ideal for practicing creative techniques that you wouldn’t really want to try in a 3-knot funnel in Komodo or Raja Ampat. On FeBrina, I began to experiment with slow exposures.

Combining a slow shutter speed with strobes, I pulled the trigger as I panned out from
the eel to create the zoom effect.

Slow exposures underwater are even slower than on land: while you might slow your shutter to show off the blur of a runner to 1/20th of a second, to blur a slowly swimming turtle I turn it down to 1/5th of a second. Only slowing your exposure will result in a complete blur of the image—not particularly attractive.

Adding strobe to the image will freeze some of the moving subject, creating a blur effect while not completely loosing detail. I combined this technique with a panning motion. 

In the case of round subjects like anemones or table corals, I rotated the camera around an invisible pivot point in the center of the subject to give the image a psychedelic feel.


Turtles, Cuttlefish and So Much More
People always ask me: “Aren’t you afraid to dive with sharks.” I think my unequivocal “no” response is universal amongst all underwater photogs. But if you were to ask the same question about the turtles on Father’s Reef and Kimbe, I just might have to say “Yes.”

The turtles at Father’s Reef and surrounding area are so friendly, that you actually have to push them away at times.While this might be a slight nuisance at times, it is fantastic for photography!

With such a cooperative subject, there is no question of lens choice—it’s all about the fisheye. And why not, when you have a turtle who will literally put his nose on your dome port as if to ask for food. The tricky part about a subject who actually comes to the port is lighting without shadows.

Having friendly subjects like this turtle made it easy to compose a shot with the
FeBrina in the background.

With a subject that is touching your dome port, I find it’s best to treat the image less like traditional wide-angle and more like close-focus wide-angle. This means moving the strobes right beside the sides of the port and feathering the light outward to avoid harsh shadows. There’s no reason to worry about excess backscatter because with these friendly turtles or cuttlefish, there’s virtually no water column between the camera and the subject.

Cuttlefish abound on Father's Reef sites. They make for great close-focus 
wide-angle subjects. 

Shooting straight up from underneath the cuttlefish gives a unique angle,
and introduces "Snell's Window."

Barracudas swarm around Kimbe's dive sites. Keep your eye pealed into the blue for
a slivering silver school.

The key to photographing schools of barracudas is anticipating their path
and letting them come to you.

Kimbe Critters on the FeBrina

With all the sharks, turtles, coral, sea fans, barracudas, cuttlefish and more, it can be all too easy to forget about Kimbe’s critters.

One subject that had long been at the top of my critter wish list was the longnose hawkfish. Its brilliant red hue and seafan of a matching color makes for an interesting main subject and captivating negative space. For hawkfish, I adopted one of my favorite macro techniques called “bokeh,” where extremely shallow apertures are used to create an artistic blur in the photo.

The bokeh blurs out the intricate seafan background to draw the focus to the hawkfish, which seems to melt right into the red negative space. I set my aperture to a super wide 3.5 and set my strobes on the absolute minimum to just add a touch of color and depth to the photo.

The trickiest part of extreme bokeh is nailing the focus point – in this case the eyes of
the subject – which took about 50 attempts.

Crustacean’s also dominate the macro world of Kimbe and Father’s Reef. There are squat lobsters, soft coral crabs, rare hermit crabs, and many more species that appear as “unidentified” in identification books.

Sometimes a simple composition can be powerful.

Make sure to bring your macro diopters to photograph the infinitesimal wonders of Kimbe.

Seeing double? Sometimes a little luck and patience pays off, like when waiting for
two whip coral crabs to line up.

Shooting with extremely shallow apertures to achieve bokeh can be tricky,
but results in a nice artistic image.

Kimbe is home to rarer critters like this decorator crab.

Squal lobsters are one of my favorite subjects--they make for great "leading lines" composition

Even hermit crabs can be interesting subject with their beautiful colors and the help of a snoot.


Photographing Sharks in Kimbe Bay and Father's Reef

Kimbe Bay is home to a wide variety of sharks: grey reefs, whitetips, silvertips, and even the occasional hammerhead. The crew of FeBrina know where and when to find the sharks; and how to use a little fishy “incentive” when necessary.

While there are always sharks out and about in Kimbe, to get them in close – for me that’s less than arm’s reach – you need to use some sort of bait. The fact is that most sharks are too skittish to come close without getting something out of it: in FeBrina, that’s some tuna or a fish head.

Creating eye contact is critical with shark photography.

Personally, I don’t like to include elements of “baiting” in the image—so when in chummy waters with a bucket of tuna and dozens of sharks, this can be a little tricky.

The solution provided by the FeBrina crew was ingenious: place the chum behind a rock and position the photographer in front, as close as possible. On the shark dives out at Father’s Reef, we found a large anemone that worked perfectly to hide the bait.

Where's the bait? Hint: it's behind something purple.

Using a fisheye lens allows the photographer to photograph impactful images of sharks
within an arm's reach.

The trick with shark shooting is the lighting—too much strobe light and you will blow out the white underbelly, to little and the dark topside will be all shadow. I find the best technique is to place one strobe aimed at the top of the shark and one on the underside—this allows you to control strobe outputs separately.

I used average exposure settings of 1/100th of a second at F8. I set my strobe on top to one half power and the underside strobe closer to one-eight, to just take out a little shadow on the underside of the shark.

All that’s left is to sit back and shoot…

Someone wants a bite to eat...

Unintended subject: whitetip reef sharks can actually become somewhat annoying when
they get in your way.

Sunballs add a nice additional element to shark images.

On the Road Again

Papua New Guinea is a place like nowhere else I have ever been—both above and below the waves. There’s just something about being on a dive with dozens of curious silvertip sharks, crazy critters, immense coral, and then surfacing to the sight of a steaming volcano pushing its way above a thick rainforest.

After nearly three weeks in PNG, the memories of the people, diving and culture left a permanent mark in my memory, like the blood red stain of beetle nut on the teeth of the locals. But it was time to move on to Indonesia and discover more of the best underwater photography in the Indo Pacific.

I know I will be back to dive Papua New Guinea again one day—there are more bubbles to blow and more snapshots to be taken.






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