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Dive deep for great shipwreck shots

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Story and photos by Kevin Davidson

How many of you have gone wreck diving and tried to take a few pictures, only to be amazed at how much silt and sediment is in your photo?

While working on board the M/V Chuuk Aggressor for two and a half years as photo pro and captain, I have developed a few techniques that you can apply to shipwrecks anywhere. The nice thing about shipwrecks is that they offer several types of photography. Beautiful marine life grows in abundance on the exterior of the ship. The interiors, where marine life does not flourish as well because of the lack of sunlight and water movement, still prove to be great photo subjects. You still get the feeling of being on board a ship with its great superstructures still intact.

This photo of a staircase leading down to the pump room of a wrecked fuel transport ship was taken using natural light for a broad overall scene.

Wreck diving and penetration are indeed advanced diving skills. Going inside these hulls to take photos requires even more advanced diving techniques. The key word is buoyancy. Proper buoyancy and controlled breathing are vital in determining how clear your pictures will be. The interiors of wrecks, wooden walls and other building materials decay and settle to the bottom, mixing with sand to create a fine silt that takes a long time to settle once stirred up.

Unfortunately, the best way to get a good interior shot is to be first inside and we know that is not always possible. However, even with a moderate amount of silt in the water, proper strobe placement will still give you a very clear picture.

Photographers have a tendency to point strobes directly at the subject. This will cause more particulate matter to be lit in your pictures. Strobes put out an arc of light, not a shaft of light. By pointing your strobe outward or slightly away from the subject, your photo will be highlighted more by the edge of the strobes arc of light and will light up less reflective matter in front of the lens. 

Details are highlighted using a strobe light in this close-up photo of the pump at the bottom of the stairs seen in the overall photo.

When working with wreck interiors, there are three ways to enhance the eerie feeling of the inside of these great hulks beneath the ocean: strobe light, natural light or a combination of both. Make sure with a strobe lit shot that you are not trying to cover too much area with your strobe; don’t try to light up an entire room. Adding strobe light with natural light can also make a great shot. Using two strobes doesn’t necessarily constitute a better picture. If you know the limits of your own personal camera set up, it will keep you from taking pictures you know won’t come out clearly.

If the interior shot has any kind of ambient or natural light coming in through windows, portholes, skylights or just deteriorated openings in the ship, look around to see if light is being cast down upon the interior of the ship itself. If it looks good to the eye, then there is a chance that the picture will come out nice.

A favorite of the author’s, this photo shows the entire engine using overhead available light.

People seem to agree that a natural-light picture gives more of a feeling of being inside the wreck because more area can be seen with natural light. When your strobe is turned off, many cameras give more shutter speeds to work with. You can then concentrate on balancing the natural light of your picture. When using a strobe along with natural light in a picture, divers tend to come up with dark backgrounds and backscatter-lit foregrounds.

With your strobe turned off, point your camera out towards the subject – for example, pilot houses and structures on deck work very well with this since there are usually more openings allowing in more light. I am a fan of shooting in manual mode, it takes a little more work but the results are worth it. With the camera set on manual, check the viewfinder for a shutter speed value, if it shows that you need more light, open your f-stop to allow maximum light. Even with shutter speeds slower than a 30th of a second you can still hold your camera steady long enough to snap the shutter. Raising the ASA (or ISO) setting on your camera helps, but optimum quality of pictures is said to be between 200 and 400 ASA.

Something I have done numerous times is to brace the camera against something on the wreck itself to avoid shake. Using a tripod can also be very effective. If you can see the streams of light penetrating inside, you can usually capture them on the shutter plane with a little patience. Take a picture, observe the results – digital photography makes it easier – then make a change with shutter speed or with f-stop. Digital is more light sensitive; you will usually have the shutter open all the way and can drop the shutter speed until the image starts to appear on playback. Remember, the playback window is small and what looks clear in the camera may look fuzzy on the computer screen.

Many people use editing programs like Photoshop to make small corrections on pictures. Notice I say “small,” since I am a firm believer that you should still try to shoot a picture correctly before editing it.

Most wreck shots work best with a wide angle lens. Wide angle lenses allow you to shoot the scenic, overall picture of a wreck and at the same time get very close to single artifacts that might be lying about on the ship.

The last thing to keep in mind is that these magnificent wrecks are now home to a large host of marine life. Referring back to proper buoyancy will help you treat the wreck with respect. It is, in fact, a living reef now and we want to be able to return to these sites and continue to photograph all the beautiful marine life found here.

To sum up:

  • Practice your buoyancy before picking up a camera. When taking a camera down with you, it becomes part of your weighting, so adjust accordingly.
  • Point your strobes outward to avoid back scatter.
  • Decide ahead of time if the shot is going to be natural or strobe lit. Determine if there is enough ambient light or if the area is too large to cover with strobes. In the case of a strobe lit picture, know the limits of the lens and strobe of your own system. Other photography teachers can offer advice from their own experience, but now one knows your camera rig better than yourself.
  • The lens de jour is wide angle, it’s the best way to capture the scene of a wreck. Purchase what you can afford and learn the limits of that lens; don’t shoot more than the lens can see. Closer is always better with underwater photography, and when getting close to wrecks, wide angle is better.
  • Finally, treat the wrecks with respect, they are now home to new inhabitants. Many divers have a growing concern for reef ecology and we carry this over when wreck diving – these are living reefs too.

 Good diving, good pictures, good luck, and don’t forget to have fun.

Kevin Davidson is a photographer whose underwater images have been published in many books and publications. He has worked in the yachting industry for the past 12 years on yachts including M/Y Bluestar and M/Y Qing. Comments are welcome below. Davidson has also written photographic stories about the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea.

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