Underwater Landscape Photography
Text & Photography Gary Bell
When I made my first underwater picture on the Mornington Peninsula in 1974, I had no idea where this would lead. My understanding of photography back then was very limited, but I knew I wanted to be an underwater photographer and I am happy to say I have been recording life in the sea ever since. The sea has many weird and wonderful creatures – some very bizarre – it is the natural beauty and diversity of life in the sea that captures my attention. I love the challenge of recording a special moment underwater, something that tells a story and that captures the imagination, but this doesn’t come easy when faced with the many hurdles associated with diving.
Image above: Scuba Diver exploring reef decorated in Whip Corals and Crinoid Feather Stars, Indo-Pacific
Diver exploring an underwater sea mount covered in Acropora Corals. Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea.
Scuba Diver exploring Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) forest. Also known as Strap Kelp. Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania, Australia,
Under-over-water picture of a diver with tropical fish. Lord Howe Island, South Pacific, Australia
Diver exploring a deep-water temperate reef covered in Whip Corals, Sponges, Zoanthids and Anemones. Bicheno, Tasmania, Australia
Diver observing schooling Purple Fairy Basslets, Pseudanthias tuka, amongst Dendronephthya Soft Corals. Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Diver exploring a deep-water sea mount covered in Whip Corals, and schooling Fusiliers. Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea
Schooling Black-spot Goatfish, Parupeneus signatus, and Tarwhine, Rhabdosargus sarba. Solitary Islands Marine Sanctuary, Coffs Harbour, NSW, Australia
Diver exploring a tropical reef decorated in Dendronephthya Soft Corals with schooling Orange Fairy Basslets. Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Under-over-water picture of Black tip Reef Sharks, Carcharhinus melanopterus, patrolling a sand lagoon. Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Western Australia
TOP TEN PHOTO TIPS UNDERWATER LANDSCAPES
1. Safety comes first; always plan your dive before entering the water and never push the limits. It is important you are tuned in with the sea conditions; tidal movement, current and wave action on the surface. Always have a good exit plan in place. Often picking the right tide can make all the difference. The in-coming tide usually offers the best visibility, especially in coastal waters where rivers flow into the sea. If visibility isn’t ideal, try shooting natural light pictures, using the sun as the light source. If using a strobe in particle rich water, try pointing it more afield so that the water in front of the lens doesn’t get illuminated. This will eliminate backscatter in your picture.
2. Choosing the right dive buddy is essential, preferably another photographer who understands what is required to capture a moment in the sea. Photographers and non-photographers are generally not a good match to buddy up. Be familiar with your equipment. Know every control on your camera rig, where the controls are situated and what they do so you can quickly change camera settings. The last thing you want to do is waste air underwater trying to work out how to change a camera setting.
3. To shoot underwater landscapes, you will need a very wide-angle lens, such as a 20mm lens or even wider like a 16mm fisheye lens. A large dome port fixed to your underwater camera housing in conjunction with the lens is required to get an edge to edge sharp image.
4. Make sure your camera rig is not overweighted in the water. Otherwise, you will get wrist pain when taking pictures. Ideally, your rig should be slightly negative in buoyancy.
5. Try to control your breathing underwater; bubbles make noise and scare marine life. Always move very slow when approaching any marine animal and concentrate on your finning technique so you don’t kick up any sediment.
6. Take your time underwater and get connected with the environment. Pause to study the behaviour of life on the reef before you start shooting pictures. Let the fish know you are not a threat, and they will accept your presence.
7. Try balancing the artificial strobe light with the natural sunlight to get a more natural and pleasing result. To do this, adjust the power setting on your strobes so that the artificial light lighting the foreground reef is a similar exposure to the ambient lit mid-water.
8. The best time to shoot reef scenes with schooling fish is in a running current. This is when schooling fish swim in the same direction, which always looks more pleasing in pictures.
9. When shooting under over pictures, you will need to use a small aperture such as f16 or f22. This will ensure both the underwater world and the above-water world are in focus. A bright sunny day is ideal, especially midday, but late afternoon or early morning will give you dramatic lighting opportunities. Don’t hesitate to boost up the ISO if required.
10. Constantly changing lighting circumstances and the often rapid movement of marine life are significant challenges when photographing underwater. In these days of digital photography, one can make multiple images in quick succession, which enables a broader choice than was possible in the days of film.
Steve Parish – Introducing Gary Bell
I first met Gary decades ago and have worked with him consistently through the 90s and into the 2000s as a publisher. While this website primary features my own work, I wanted to create a feature post that celebrated one of the little covered and most challenging forms of nature photography, photographing underwater landscapes. This is a field that Gary has mastered.
Gary Bell is the founder of Oceanwide Images Stock Photo Library and a renowned nature and wildlife photographer in Australia. See link below. Globally he is at the top of his field as an underwater photographer. His dedication and passion for capturing moments in nature have won him a string of international awards. His work has featured many international nature magazines, such as National Geographic, Australian Geographic, numerous books, advertising campaigns and many other publications, including many of my own.
Where did it all begin?
Gary first started taking underwater photographs in 1974. His first pictures were taken beneath Portsea pier on the Mornington Peninsula, Australia. As time passed, Gary felt compelled to share these underwater discoveries with his family and friends, who were fascinated with his photography. He was soon getting requests for the purchase of prints.
Since then, Gary has travelled the world working with world-acclaimed underwater photographer David Doubilet, assisting Doubilet on more than twenty National Geographic magazine field assignments. The assignments took him over the worlds oceans to the Cayman Islands, New Zealand, Aldabra Atoll, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, and Australias tropical and temperate seas. Gary was also individually commissioned by the National Geographic Society (magazine and TV division) to photograph the Great White Sharks in South Australia and South Africa and life on the Great Barrier Reef. He has worked with the CSIRO Division of Fisheries to record newly developed prawn netting techniques in the Gulf of Carpentaria and the marine pest species of southern Australia.
Garys awards include the Australasia Underwater Photographer of the Year, which he received in 1990, 1991, and 1992 (He is the only person to have won this award for three consecutive years)