Underwater Photography with Cathy Church

Paul's Introductory Lesson in How to Properly Photograph Underwater

On Brenda's and my trip to Grand Cayman in March 2012 I took the opportunity to book a personal underwater photography lesson from Cathy Church. Cathy is a world renowned biologist and photographer. The lesson included classroom time as well as practical guided photography on the reefs just off Sunset House where she is based. Here is a picture of her and I after our shore dive (thanks to Ron Bogart for taking this).

I found Cathy both generous with her time (though she can talk fast) as well as a great guide in practicing what we learned in the classroom.  She also reviewed the pictures I took after and offered tips on processing them.  She had the one characteristic I've found with many photographers I admire in that she explained how she was still learning especially in the area of digital image processing. Cathy maintains a Facebook page where she invites 'friends' to submit pictures for both critique and adjustment. She'll download them and process them herself then repost the results.

I had already completed the land based only PADI Underwater Photographer course which had provided some background concepts which I found I did not really internalize until I was actually practicing with Cathy on the reef.  I really did not appreciate the loss of light and colour and need for artificial sources to not only take a picture but also actually see the colours underwater. Brenda and I are now planning to always dive with our lights in order to enhance what we see.

If you have snorkeled in the ocean you would have experience the loss of part of the spectrum when everything seems to have a greenish/blue shift. For example, you loose all reds at roughly 15 feet. This means as spectacular the sites may be while diving, we are loosing out on the visual experience. This means that to take proper pictures, you need to illuminate your subject yourself. As I joked with Cathy, it's really an example of the old joke "Did you enjoy your vacation? I don't know ; the pictures have not come back yet". Fortunately today with modern digital cameras, you can instantly review your pictures.

What I also appreciate now is that the strobe light on the camera I used cannot be viewed as a traditional flash on land. On land, the flash will add light to a scene but you also use the available light. Underwater, the available light will have a colour shift you may not want (See the Sergeant Major picture below).  You also don't have the ability to bounce a flash to affect the lighting. This is why you often seen underwater cameras with two or more strobe lights. Since you are illuminating the subject yourself, you also get into more positioning the strobe for the proper illumination.  It is also the reason that many good underwater pictures have the appearance of being taken at night. It's just that the background is not illuminated even though it's the middle of the day. The best term I found to describe this practice is 'How to Paint with Light'.

I normally focus on landscape photography on land and learned one common behavior with underwater photography is to take the time to position and get the best shot. This means, you cannot expect to get any great pictures while swimming along with your buddy (Brenda) and you really need to stop and spend time on the shot. Needless to say, Brenda gets upset at me with both the amount of time I 'pause' to get a shot plus that I tend to use up my air faster which cuts our dives short.

Getting the right shot can also mean changing positions ever so slightly. Not the easiest task in the water. It brings a whole new meaning to 'peak buoyancy' control. For those unfamiliar, there is a delicate balance in staying exactly where you want to be in the water column. It starts with being properly weighted then having just the right amount of air in your BC (buoyancy compensator) and your breathing. It is also even more of a challenge when you are in close to shore, as we were, and fighting the surge. Also challenging since we were working very close to the reef or bottom and the rule is you do not touch anything. More than once Cathy had to pull/hold/wrestle me into the position for more than one shot. (That is not me on the right)

Also, unlike landscape photography, you want to get in close for underwater pictures. This reduces the amount of water you are taking a picture through as well as the amount of water the strobe has to pass through.  Still internalizing other aspects such as shooting up to get the effect of the blue surface.

I own an Intova IC600 Camera with housing and a Pixtreme Slave Flash  I use for underwater photography but wanted to try a more advanced setup for the lesson. I rented an Olympus E-PL2 with housing and strobe (see picture right). Very nice setup.

Cathy teaches to shoot with manual aperture that is set based on the distance from the object and also determines the strobe setting. I forgot to note her calculations she posted on the strobe but found an article describing this well. 

The camera I had was equipped with a 14-43mm zoom lens (F3.5-5.6). This with the strobe was a much larger and flexible setup than I was use to. Determining and setting the strobe in the correct position (while staying where I wanted) was quite the challenge and another case where Cathy had to be physically holding me in place. I shot with an ISO of 200.

The 16mp Olympus camera was set to record both JPG and Olympus RAW (ORF) images. I processed the ORF files in JPG pictures using Photoshop Elements 10. I did very little processing. Mainly adjusting the white balance and levels. I didn't try and remove any clutter and was very pleased with the little back splatter and floating debris there was.

Unlike on land where I try to shoot so I don't have to crop the picture, I was happy if I just captured the subject properly illuminated in the frame. A number of the pictures below have been cropped.

One thing Cathy taught me was there are many more tiny sea creatures than large ones. I realized
that when I was diving I was treating the dive in the same way as walking through a zoo. I'd see larger fish, coral and sponges but did not stop to 'smell the flowers' so to speak to see the micro aspects of the undersea world. I did not see the Goby Cathy had me take a picture of until after I had the picture and she zoomed in the picture review to show. Likewise, she placed the tiny hermit crab for the picture. I never saw him before that.

I also learned from Cathy if you want to attract fish for a shot to dive with a tube of fish food paste you can place on the reef to create a good shot.

The following are some of the pictures I took with Cathy's Guidance (and physical placement and holding) that I hope you enjoy. Drill into them for a larger view.

Sergeant Major Fish
1/500 sec; f/8; 14mm
Notice the green colour on the right side of the coral not illuminated by the strobe

Christmas Tree Worm
1/500 sec; f/22; 42mm
This worm recoils back into it's hiding spot if approached at unbelievable speed. They are only about 2 inches tall.

Either a Goby or Bleeny Fish (I'm not sure)
1/500 sec; f/22; 42mm
This little guy was living in a shell attached to a large brain coral. I never saw him until Cathy pointed him out in the picture..
His head appeared to only the width of two pin heads.

Hermit Crab (not sure which variety)
1/500 sec; f/22; 34mm
Cathy found this guy (and returned him) somewhere on the sea floor.
As soon as you touched his shell, he retreated inside. but then cautiously came out.  Those are his eyes in between front claws.
Unfortunately, I had to be quick to snap the picture before be pulled it over on top of himself when he started to walk away.
Taking this picture is when I also learned you can yell through you air regular when I heard a muffled 'shoot' from Cathy.

Squirrel Fish
1/500 sec; f/5.6 ; 42mm
Only cooperative subject.

Spotted Trunk Fish
1/500 sec; f/5.6 ; 42mm
Cathy and I played hide and seek with this guy in a piece of coral. I took all sorts of pictures but this is the only one that captures most of him.

Peacock Flounder
1/800; f/8 21mm
This guy was about 15 feet from the dock in about 12 feet of water.
You can see the effect of the strobe that is catching only his front half.