I first became involved in photography in the early 1990s and at the time, I was certain of a few things: (1) I didn’t know what I was doing; (2) I couldn’t really afford it; and (3) I had absolutely no interest in shooting subjects above the water. I spent a lot of hours in beautiful underwater environments with a borrowed Sea & Sea camera in hand, snapping frame after frame of mediocre images. Frustrated with the discrepancy between how I remembered these colorful scenes and what my photos looked like, I decided to purchase my first underwater camera (a used Nikonos V) and get some training.
Those were the days when I threw around words like “Velvia slide film”, “cost of developing” and “GSPR” (an acronym I used for “good shots per roll” – a number that at the time tended to be pretty low if not zero). Although it’s probably uncommon for a photographer to get their start below the waterline, I’m happy that I did. You can learn a lot photographing a fish: You learn about patience, getting your equipment to unforgiving environments (and more importantly, getting it back safely – an endeavor that I failed at more than once with costly results), preparation, and how to get a shot that may present itself only once.
As time went on, I did two unthinkable things: I bought a 6-megapixel digital SLR (in spite of my certainty that digital cameras would never really catch on) and I started shooting images above the water. Initially, the latter may have had more to do with economics than interest. Getting my new digital camera underwater meant purchasing a new housing, lens port, and strobes. Consequently, there was a period of time (while I was saving money for all of this) that my camera had to stay topside.
Needless to say, I was wrong about digital cameras catching on. I have a stack of them (most of which have less resolution than my iPhone) and I’ve worked my way through a dozen versions of Photoshop. It’s an interesting time to be a photographer. Technology in the field (cameras, optics, and processing software) is bounding forward at an unbelievable rate, turning more control over to the individual. In spite of this, I’ve come to realize that if the fundamental principles of photography and processing have never been learned, achieving good imagery is difficult – no matter how expensive your camera is or how tech-savvy you are.
Twenty five years after I took those first awful underwater shots, I’ve learned more than I ever could have imagined. Although I owe some of this to formal training and some very patient photographers & magazine editors willing to help me along the way, the bulk of my education came from my mistakes – something there was never a shortage of. Every time I flooded a strobe, over-saturated an image, or shot a subject that wasn’t quite focused correctly, I learned. The result is an arsenal of techniques ranging from equipment selection, to shooting methods, to editing processes that allow me to create imagery that I once would have thought impossible. My eye for composition hasn't changed much over the years but my technical abilities certainly have and this has led to perhaps my greatest accomplishment as a photographer: The ability to look beyond a scene and see what's visually possible.
I am still learning, still asking questions, and above all, still shooting as often as I can. Whether it’s a time lapse sequence, an architecture project, or a shipwreck, I still get a twinge of excitement every time I sit down to look at the images I just shot. And if I were still using film today, I’m happy to say that my GSPR would be much higher.
Chances are, if you take a peek at the camera on your smartphone, you’ll notice a setting marked “HDR.” If you happen to use it, you’ll be treated to an image of vibrant, high-saturation colors and strong contrasts that almost mimics a painting. The truth is, this isn’t an HDR image at all (although they are fun to look at.) HDR is an acronym for High Dynamic Range. The method combines specialized multi-exposure shooting techniques with digital post-processing to produce contrast ratios that are generally un-achievable with a single exposure. It all sounds rather complicated doesn't it? The idea is actually fairly simple: If your camera can't get it all in one shot, shoot several and blend them together.
So what is dynamic range anyway? In real-world scenes, it's defined as the ratio between the lightest and darkest regions and can exceed 50,000:1. Unfortunately, digital camera sensors aren’t capable of capturing these ranges. In fact, traditional media has historically been limited to around a 300:1 ratio...that's a big gap. Ever shoot a picture inside your house on a sunny day? One of two things happens: (1) The interior is exposed and the exterior as seen through the window is blown out to white or; (2) the exterior is exposed perfectly but the interior is so dark you can barely make out any features. It’s not your fault. Cameras just aren’t capable of capturing such a broad range of light brightness…even with the groovy filter your iPhone applies.
To a large degree, this problem can be solved using High Dynamic Range shooting and processing techniques. With HDR photography, several exposures of the same image (1-4 underexposed images to catch the highlights that would otherwise be blown out, 1 properly exposed, and 1-4 overexposed to pick up the shadowed areas) are taken with a fixed camera (on a tripod) then digitally tone-mapped or blended together resulting in a much higher dynamic range. I find this method invaluable in a number of applications from architecture to (as seen below) scenes where the bright sun would make a single exposure nearly impossible.
Of all the techniques I use, this has to be one of the most fun....and if you happen to have kids along on your shoot, it's a great way for them to get involved. Light painting is just what it sounds like: Painting a subject with light. This technique comes in handy for a number of different scenes but my favorite application is shooting a subject at night while trying to capture the starry sky in the background. Stars don't give off a lot of light so shooting them typically means setting your camera to a high ISO (making it more sensitive to light) and shooting with a long exposure on a tripod. Nonetheless, even with the camera set up this way, subjects in the foreground are often left underexposed. To solve this, I use a flashlight to periodically "paint" the subject with light during the course of the long exposure. It takes a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it, the results can be stunning.
Filter use combined with long exposures has become one of my favorite shooting techniques, especially for a scene that has water. Securing your camera to a tripod and opening up the shutter for an extended period has a softening effect on images that I find magical. I use long exposures for night scenes pretty regularly and this can be done without the use of a filter. Opening your camera's shutter for ten minutes during the day however will result in an image that is catastrophically over-exposed, so you need to darken things up a bit. This is where filters come in. By mounting a dark filter (or even a series of them) to the lens, long exposures can be achieved, even when the sun is out. The stationary objects in the image will be essentially unaffected but the moving elements such as water surfaces, clouds, etc. take on a much softer look that can change the entire feel of a scene.
Underwater photography is less of a technique and more of an endeavor. Because I choose to use the same quality SLR cameras I shoot with on land, I need a way to get them underwater. I do this by using camera-specific, watertight (most of the time anyway) housings that allow me access to all of my controls through a series of plungers. Large, waterproof domes cover the lenses and these, like the housings themselves, are specific to what kind of lens I choose on any given dive. Finally, and most importantly to image quality, are the strobes. Water diffuses light with depth, right down the color spectrum. Remember "ROYGBIV" from high school physics? It was an acronym used to help us remember the spectrum colors, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. These colors fade, starting with red as soon as you descend. Taking a picture 50 feet underwater without adding your own light will result in a colorless, washed out image. To combat this, I use powerful, dual strobes that can be operated manually. The list of techniques needed to shoot underwater successfully is a long one but a more colorful environment is hard to find.
There's an adage that shooting time lapse is easy but shooting good time lapse is terribly difficult. On its face, putting a time lapse piece together is pretty simple: Take a sequence of pictures, string them together and play them back as video...the longer between pictures, the "faster" time goes. Nonetheless, time lapse can be terribly complicated and riddled with difficulties. Even if the light remains consistent, challenges such as avoiding Staccato (the distracting "flickering" that rears its ugly head so often in these pieces) are always there. If you plan on shooting a sequence in which the light changes, such as a sunrise or sunset, the camera settings need to be continually monitored and manually changed to compensate for the addition or subtraction of ambient light, then "key-framed" during processing to make smooth transitions. Finally, if you want camera movement in your sequence, a programmable, timed, motorized panning device or slider is required that will move your camera in tiny increments between each shot. The challenges seemed endless when I began doing this a few years ago and the process was incredibly frustrating. Imagine shooting a six hour time lapse sequence of the Milky Way for example. You spend half the night awake then drive home with 500 or so images to process only to learn that 30 minutes into the shoot, condensation fogged your lens and the entire sequence is ruined...or you forgot to detach your lens (a little trick to avoid flicker)...or you just calculated something wrong during a sunset. The list goes on and if there was a mistake to be made doing time lapse work, I have made it. The frustration was compounded by the fact that time lapse takes...well...time. Screwing up a still image may cost you an hour. Blowing a time lapse sequence could cost you the better part of a night. The thing is, once you do finally create your first clean sequence, you absolutely cannot wait to shoot another. Watching two hours compressed into 20 seconds or so can be quite amazing: Clouds build and disappear, stars move across the sky, the sun falls or rises and changes colors right before your eyes, cities dim then come to life with light...You'll have to put some time in but in the end it's well worth it.
I wanted a time lapse that showed the illumination of the Wisconsin State Capitol Building in Madison. The sequence is made up of over 600 individual images and because the light changed with the dropping sun, I needed to monitor my exposure and periodically change it to compensate. Each one of these exposure changes was "key-framed" during processing so the change in light was gradual rather than a series of jumps.
When I began to experiment with macro photography (shooting extremely small subjects) I found myself suddenly treated to a world that I'd simply overlooked in the past. Underwater, the coral heads I'd passed by en route to to larger subjects suddenly became bustling cities populated by tiny fish, cleaner shrimp, and feather dusters. Even in my own yard, plants and flowers became treasure troves of photographic opportunities. Nothing environmentally had changed of course, but my perspective certainly had. Some of my most rewarding photography has been of subjects that measured only a couple of centimeters. Macro photography requires a lens with a magnification factor of 1:1 at its closest focus setting. This basically means that the subject (even a tiny insect) will fill the frame completely. Although not always necessary, a light source of some type is helpful as well. The detail, from the pollen dust on a honey bee to the segmented legs of a minute crab can be seen at a scale that will leave you shaking your head in amazement.