A typical soft coral reefscape in Fiji. Due to a gear problem, this image was actually taken with just one strobe positioned over the top of the dome port
In a tumultuous world troubled by a once-in-a-hundred-year plague, photography remains our virtual passport to idyllic and inspiring underwater locations. Traveling from our own homes is difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, most of the top dive destinations have severely restricted or closed their own borders, and are thus inaccessible. Many of us feel a real void in our lives without having the ability to dive and travel. While we hope—and wait—for countries and dive operations to reopen, we will have to rely on pictures, videos, and stories to remind ourselves of the blessings and adventures of the ocean and connect with these slivers of paradise and the amazing creatures who inhabit them.
At the top of my list for when tourism reopens lie Raja Ampat, Flores, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and Apo Island in the Philippines. This is not an exhaustive list but rather a personal selection from my own travels. As an underwater photographer, I enjoy dive locales with stunning, soft corals, and for me, these locations are the cream of the crop for healthy, vibrant reefs. With beautiful corals as a backdrop, the photographic possibilities and challenges are endless.
Unfortunately, all of these amazing destinations are currently closed to international visitors. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy them! In this article, I will summarize my experiences as a wide-angle underwater photographer in each of these spots, hopefully inspiring people to visit these amazing destinations when they reopen to tourism.
The reefs around Misool in Raja Ampat burst with color and life
Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia
In October 2018, I had the unique privilege of visiting Raja Ampat as part of the Ocean Geographic Elysium Coral Triangle Expedition. For 11 nights, I sailed through Raja Ampat on the Damai II, a beautifully constructed boat with an extremely knowledgeable and friendly crew. Highlights of my voyage included diving and photographing the areas around Misool, especially Jellyfish Lake.
For soft corals, you can’t beat Misool. My trip was also timed correctly to experience the massive shoals of silversides. Photographing the countless sardines amongst the soft corals is a photographer’s dream. I felt that a fisheye lens was very helpful for these dives as it allowed me to get very close to the subject matter, fitting as many fish and corals as possible into my frame. Getting really close also decreased the amount of water between my lens and subject, which was advantageous when the water was not crystal clear. Challenges included decreased visibility at some sites and overexposure of the silversides, which are very reflective! It helped to underexpose my images somewhat by narrowing my aperture and lowering the power on my strobes, relying on post-production to brighten dark areas.
A shoal of silversides swarm around a large soft coral head in Misool, Raja Ampat
Because I enjoy taking split shots, Jellyfish Lake was the site I was primarily looking forward to. Unfortunately, the weather was mostly cloudy the day we visited, but it was still an amazing experience to swim amongst numerous “stingless” jellyfish. Even though I didn’t capture any great over-unders, I did manage to get some nice shots with Snell’s window using a 15mm fisheye lens. It was challenging to expose the underwater portion correctly without overexposing the sky in Snell’s window since it was cloudy, creating a really bright area. I set my strobes at about half power to brighten the underwater subject matter without overexposing the jellyfish and then decreased the exposure of the sky in post-production.
A stingless jellyfish in Snell’s window at Raja Ampat’s Jellyfish Lake
Flores, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia
In 2017, I won a trip for two on the Seven Seas liveaboard and was fortunate enough to join the “East of Flores” itinerary. Expecting more of a macro focus, I was pleasantly surprised by the world-class wide-angle sites we visited, most notably the site Watu Balu. This wide-angle wonderland is a real treat for an underwater photographer. In the shallows, there is a short wall adorned with sponges and perfectly stacked table corals teeming with clouds of anthias. Deeper, there are larger coral formations with wall-to-wall fish between the corals.
To incorporate as much of this seascape as possible, I chose a fisheye lens. Currents can be strong here so it was sometimes challenging to steady and position myself for shots. I found it helpful to locate large coral heads that were accessible with the current. In terms of settings, since I was using a small dome port on this particular dive, I chose a smaller aperture of f/11–f/13 versus f/8 so that the anthias towards the edge of my frame would be sharper. Along with bumping up my ISO, I had to turn my strobes up to full power to adequately light the entire coral head. The downside of this method was that I often only got one shot because of the current and the recycle time of my strobes.
Anthias swirl around a lively coral head at Watu Balu, a wide-angle photographer’s paradise
Another impressive and unique site for photographers is Alcatraz, off Pantar Island. This site features giant pink trees of soft coral that reach approximately three feet in height spread over a bed of white sand. To add scale, I incorporated our divemaster as a dive model into my shots. The main challenge here was positioning my strobes appropriately so that the light penetrated beyond the frontal plane. I found it helpful to place my strobes very high above the top of my port, a position known as “rabbit ears,” which I picked up from Alex Mustard’s book, Underwater Photography Masterclass.
One of the most entertaining experiences I had was photographing my good friend and fellow underwater photographer Erica Watson at Batu Tara volcano, which forms Komba Island. Here, I wanted to produce some nice over-unders with the impressive volcano as my background. Unfortunately, there is no surrounding reef to speak of in front of the volcano—just clear, cobalt blue water. The pictures thus needed an underwater subject, as split shots really need both a topside and below-the-waterline focus to be successful. I quickly figured out that I needed to convince Erica to be my model. Not only did she oblige, she did an excellent job!
These otherwordly soft coral trees at Pantar Island’s Alcatraz dive site make a unique picture with the dive model giving them some scale
Renee’s dive buddy enjoys being “split” at Komba
Papua New Guinea
In November 2017, I visited Papua New Guinea via Lissenung Island Resort and Walindi Plantation Resort, which were both generous prizes from photo contests. I combined them into one shorter trip to save on airfare and time, but I would not choose to do that again. Next time, I’ll be spending more time at each location, as both hold innumerable treasures for underwater photographers.
Walindi Plantation Resort was my first stop. Inspired by David Doubilet’s famous half-and-half reefscape from these waters, it was a goal of mine to capture a nice over-under that would portray the beauty of this area. Unfortunately, during our stay, we experienced a bout of bad weather with lots of rain, so my split shots were less than stellar.
A lively reef scene in Kimbe Bay while visiting Walindi Plantation Resort in Papua New Guinea
On one of the days, we went out on the dive boat and visited a famous dive site known as Emma’s Reef. This particular site features some of the most beautiful hard corals I’ve seen, just half a dozen feet under the surface, which is relatively unique for a dive site that’s out in open ocean. Because it was windy, wavy and mostly cloudy, it was not exactly an ideal situation to take any over-unders. However, I had that split image in my head and I was determined to shoot it, even if it didn’t turn out. Ignoring any common sense, I decided to set my camera to continuous firing and my strobes to low power, relying on the old “spray and pray” method. It didn’t work very well. Looking back, I probably should have just focused on taking images of the beautiful shallow corals at depth.
Another highlight of my trip to Walindi Plantation Resort was of course spending time with the owner, Max Benjamin, who recently passed away. Sitting with him at dinnertime every night, I got to hear many interesting stories about his life and diving around Papua New Guinea. I feel so very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit Walindi while he was there, and I hope to return there again someday in the future.
The large, colorful soft corals of Albatross Passage are plentiful and in full bloom when the current is running
After leaving Walindi, I traveled north to Lissenung Island Resort. The weather was starting to improve so here I had more opportunities in the water. My two favorite sites by far were Albatross Passage and the nearby mangroves. Albatross Passage is best done on an incoming tide and is characterized by strong currents. It is these currents that produce the “fish soup” and bring out the beautiful overgrown soft corals and sea fans.
Shooting here, however, was quite challenging with a large camera, as it’s hard to “stop” and take pictures! I found it helpful to identify my desired shots on the first dive and then repeat the same dive over the next few days. By doing so, I could better coordinate with the dive model and knew when those shots were coming. Taking a break from the currents, the shallow mangroves on snorkel provided a welcome relief. I actually chose to sit out some dives to wander around the mangroves, focusing on over-unders and shallow water shots. I was just amazed by the amount of life found within the mangroves.
The shallow mangroves around Lissenung are a relaxing way to spend your surface intervals
The Solomon Islands
In 2018, I visited Uepi Island Resort in the Solomon Islands. Since my husband joined me on this trip but required Internet for work while traveling, we opted for a land-based resort over a liveaboard. It seems the rainy weather I experienced in Papua New Guinea followed me to the Solomons, as five out of the six days we were here, it rained most of the time. Because of the weather, we were unable to travel by boat to any of the outer sites. However, the house reef was off the charts in terms of marine life, and at the sites immediately surrounding our resort, I was blown away by the density of the coral life covering every inch of the ocean floor and the island walls that disappeared below us into the deep blue sea.
The sheer size of some of the corals surrounding our resort was also astonishing. To give these massive corals a sense of scale, I incorporated my husband as a dive model. Even with a model, it was challenging to produce images that truly captured the gigantic size of these corals, the biggest I have seen anywhere in the world. Shooting the model from the front or side simply didn’t do the corals justice. Because there was no current, we could try different shots, and eventually I found that shooting these corals top-down with a fisheye lens was the most effective at showing off their colossal dimensions. The downside was that this perspective didn’t really show off the model. In fact, some people didn’t even notice there was a diver in the pictures!
In any event, I really enjoyed Uepi Island Resort, but due to the bad luck we had with the weather, next time I would opt for a liveaboard, which can at least move around and find the best conditions.
A diver is dwarfed by a colossal coral head in the waters of the Solomon Islands
For soft corals, Fiji should be at the top of everyone’s list. I have visited Fiji several times, and my two favorite spots are the Bligh Waters between Vitu Levu and Vanua Levu and the Rainbow Reef off Taveuni. Both of these areas offer current-swept, thrilling diving with soft corals blooming into rainbow-hued formations and myriad multicolored fish. At the right times, it is also these currents that bring clear water into the lagoons and flush out the cloudy water, making crystal clear visibility a hallmark feature of Fiji diving.
Named after the famous Captain Bligh of The Bounty, the Bligh Waters include the Vatu-I-Ra Passage, which is a marine protected area known for its diversity of marine life. Here, divers will be surrounded by vibrant corals as well as a plethora of fish. The passage contains some of the best and most famous dive sites in all of Fiji and is thus where liveaboards spend most of their time.
A diver inspects the multihued reefs of the Bligh Waters in Fiji
Although I was impressed by the corals at many different sites, I thought Mellow Yellow was simply world-class and perhaps, the best site. However, it is certainly not “mellow” when the current is running! Like many dive sites in the country, Mellow Yellow needs to be visited at the correct time with the right amount of current to experience the reef in full bloom. Named for the massive yellow soft corals that adorn the current-facing side of the reef, Mellow Yellow also has plentiful pink corals and swarms of fish so thick you cannot always see through them!
The biggest challenge I had here was not actually shooting in current but an equipment failure with one of my strobes. I found it helpful to place the one working strobe above the center of my dome port and angle it a bit upward. My images had a falling-off of light at the edges, but I could crop and brighten the darker areas in post-production. I now always carry a backup strobe with me, even if it’s just a day boat trip.
A diver explores a pink soft coral hideaway at Fiji’s amazing Mellow Yellow dive site
The Rainbow Reef lies in the Somosomo Strait and the tidal currents in this area are extremely nutrient rich, creating ideal conditions for the large and multicolored soft corals found in this “rainbow” wonderland. Owning the reputation as one of the most famous dive areas in the South Pacific, the Rainbow Reef also has over 30 dive sites to choose from, so there is no shortage of options here. My favorite sites for photography include Fish Factory, Cabbage Patch, and of course, the world famous Great White Wall. It is important to note that the Great White Wall is tide dependent so it can only be dived on certain days at certain times.
Jerry’s Jelly is also an excellent site, and in my opinion it has two of the most colorful and impressive bommies in all of Fiji. This site is best visited with limited people as the bommies are quite small, and like most sites in Fiji, it needs to be visited at the right time to see it in all its glory. It is also a great place to incorporate a sunburst above the colorful corals, as it’s not very deep. To do so, I used a fast shutter speed and a small aperture, and I set my strobes to full power.
The soft corals of Jerry’s Jelly are nicely framed by adding a sunburst
Apo Island, Negros Oriental, Philippines
Because I love both beautiful corals and sea turtles, I am putting Apo Island among my top locations even though it is much smaller than the others. The island lies off the coast near Dumaguete and is easily accessed by boat as a day trip from one of the land-based resorts in the area. Both divers and snorkelers can experience this turtle-coral paradise, as the reef lies in shallow water.
I really enjoyed photographing the turtles amongst the beautiful soft corals. Because the turtles are protected here, they are large and found in abundance, with beautiful shells. On any one dive you may see dozens of them. They can often be found resting in the corals or swimming towards the surface to catch a breath. As an underwater photographer, it was hard for me to decide what techniques I wanted to employ here since the possibilities seemed endless. Having the opportunity to perform numerous dives over several days, I was able to use a variety of photographic methods, including basic wide angle, over-unders, motion blur, and even macro. It was challenging to succeed at the turtle rear curtain shots as the turtles didn’t move very fast, but it was fun trying. My favorite shots from here depict the turtles resting within the corals, which really showcase the healthy marine environment.
A green sea turtle makes itself comfortable in a soft coral “bed” at Apo Island
In sum, although I cannot visit any of these places at the moment, I feel very fortunate to have done so in the past. I am really looking forward to when I can return to all of these destinations at some point in the future. As an underwater photographer, I appreciate the beauty of the ocean, and like most shooters, I truly enjoy sharing pictures from these places with others. It is my sincere hope that they will be inspired to visit—and contribute to protecting them for future generations.
The sun sets over a shallow, hard coral reef in Raja Ampat, Indonesia
About the Author: California native Renee Capozzola is an award-winning underwater photographer who specializes in wide-angle and over-under images. In just the past five years, her images have been awarded over 40 prestigious international accolades and her work has appeared throughout the world in numerous print and online dive publications. Her passion for underwater photography and appreciation of marine animals complements her love of travel and adventure. When she is not in the water with her camera, Renee teaches biology and educates her students about the challenges facing our oceans and the importance of conserving marine ecosystems. See more of Renee’s work on her Instagram page.
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