Sunday, June 5, 2011

Assignment 5: Submission


Nearly two years ago, when I first signed up for a course with the OCA, my primary photographic practice was Underwater Photography, an activity that I could indulge in twice annually on trips around the globe to go scuba diving.  Although this was an all-consuming passion and absorbed most of my disposable income, I found myself becoming stale.  I had become adept at macro images of the unusual and often tiny animals that inhabit the reef and moderately good at creating the wide angle vista style shot.  However, for a couple of years my style and the outcome had not greatly changed.  A key motivator for enrolling on AoP was to try and change this, learn more about photography in general and so inform my underwater imagery.

Well, this was the plan, the actual outcome was a transferal of my passion from underwater to general photography and the re-ignition of a desire to learn and grow through following an academic path.  I still love to shoot underwater; it is now simply one of many interests rather than the key one. 

Approaching the end of Digital Photographic Processing, I faced two choices of subject: 

1. To continue my exploration of architecture and space in preparation for the Landscape course, pretty much the path I have taken in the first 4 assignments
2.  or to head off on a tangent. 

I have selected the tangent and in effect returned to the roots of my interest in photography, the tropical ocean.  During May I had a trip planned to Borneo, spending a few days in the rainforest and then 12 days diving on the tropical island of Lankayan, close to the city of Sandakan sitting in the South China Sea.  This holiday was planned for the sole purpose of underwater photography, me with my SLR and my wife with an HD video system. During the 12 days I completed 42 dives and took around 3,000 frames whilst underwater.  As context, I have been diving for over 10 years, completed nearly 700 dives and shot a total of 35,000 frames underwater.

My goal was to produce enough images to publish a photo book via Blurb, but most importantly to gather material to make a compelling submission for this assignment.  Photographically I wanted to demonstrate that my OCA experience had improved my underwater image making, whilst producing a coherent set of images.  My initial thoughts were to produce a set of 12 images each illustrating different aspects of underwater photography and show how the skills learnt in DPP can be put to work.  After a few days shooting, I quickly realized that this would result in a very disjoint submission having little or no narrative content.  I swiftly abandoned it.  I had also considered a “Landscape” style study of the reef system; this was defeated by very poor visibility, meaning that images had a misty look to them, which was occasionally attractive, but not as a set of 10-12 images.  I have documented some of these considerations in my blog.

I was disheartened and after 4 days I began to wonder whether I could create a cohesive set of images for the assignment.  At this stage we did a lunchtime dive on the house reef, a dive accessible directly from the dive base platform, descending from 3m deep at the base to around 20m.  When we ascended we headed into the shallow water of the lagoon.  I was immediately struck by the play of light in the water and the surprisingly large number of animals living in the shallow water.  This was a world I had not explored; most of my diving was in deeper water on reefs surrounding the island. 

I decided to make a photographic study of this magical space, working in the shallow sunlit water rather than the deep reef systems, exploring the inner space of the reef hanging between surface and bottom.  Losing my scuba gear for the lighter approach of a snorkel and mask and turning to natural light rather than flash, offered a degree of freedom I had never enjoyed before in underwater photography.  Over a period of 8 days I systematically explored a small area of the lagoon situated between the dive base and shore, comprising a sandy bottom, shallow coral reef, areas of vegetation fallen into the water and man-made structures on stilts. 

For illustration (below) this area is from just in front of the building on slits up to the shore line occupied by the boats and then about 20-30m to the left, but out of shot.  A small but fascinating world:

The building in the background is the dive base from which I started each dive or snorkel to shoot images. The Turquoise water is the sandy bottom, the dark blocks are coral in the deeper lagoon, and the turquoise to blue transition is the reef drop off.  The bottom slopes very gently to around 3m deep prior to the drop off.

With this set of images I want to provide a pictorial representation of a special and very precious world, exploring the layers of the lagoon, the way that light plays in the water, and the animals and structures that occupy the intervening space.  Each image is selected to show one element of the lagoon and the set of images should be seen as a whole, not only as individual shots.  I am presenting 10 underwater photographs, plus one which is both in and out of the water, and finally a shot of the reef from above at low tide with the coral just breaking the surface of the water.  With this I want to illustrate all of the layers that comprise the lagoon:

The sea bottom
The sea surface from below and above
The space that occupies zone between bottom and surface
The island and sky that sit above the lagoon

This assignment called for a personal project, this is as personal as I can be at present.  A part of me will always be tied to the beauty of the coral reef and the lagoon.  This is a world that will most likely be destroyed in the next 50 years by global warming; the damage is already visible on the reef.  I feel a need to present these images as a record of a precious and fragile world.  Done properly diving is a calm peaceful introspective activity driven by a desire to see, not the challenging adventure sport it is often portrayed as. Floating 6 feet below the surface and a few feet above the sand is a place of profound calm and serenity, I sincerely hope this set of images can share that sense of peace.


To be successful as an underwater photography requires the development of a number of skills.  First of all perfect buoyancy underwater is needed, a careless kick of a fin can create a cloud of sand in the water that will take minutes to dissipate or damage a fragile piece of coral.  The ability to position yourself simply by breathing and small gestures is essential.  Secondly it is key to completely understand the functioning of your camera, managing the balance between artificial light and ambient light, intuitively knowing combinations of shutter speed, aperture and flash compensation.  Finally you must understand the behaviour of underwater animals, some of which are dangerous (generally poisonous, sharks are not considered dangerous in this context) and how to get close enough to create a meaningful shot. Furthermore, all the time that you are concerned with spotting, approaching and shooting a subject, care must be taken to manage air and depth to avoid injury.

As with all photography, light is the key technical concern.  Water absorbs light in different ways to air, red light in particular cannot penetrate more than 10m of water; the other colours have different absorption rates.  As most diving take place between 10 and 30m, this is why many underwater photos are predominantly blue in tone.  We do two things to mitigate this effect, first of all we use artificial lighting to add colour back into the image, secondly we shoot very close to the subject, light from a flash gun has to travel twice the distance from the camera lens to the subject.  Subsequently almost all underwater photography is made less than 3 feet from the subject, either using a macro lens or conversely a very wide angle lens to enable a close approach to a small or large subject, respectively.  Another issue involved in using underwater flash guns is that water is never 100% clear; there are always small particles in it which strongly reflect flash light and create a snowy look to the image. This can be avoided by careful angling of lights on external arms.

Even with taking care to use external lighting and get close, a modern digital camera will rarely get the white balance right and there will always be some back scatter in an image.  Thus I am obliged to do a lot of post processing in my photographs, correcting for white balance, colour castes, and using the clone tool to remove the more intrusive back scatter.  This makes underwater photography an excellent subject for DPP as it really pushes the skills learned.  I can confidently say that DPP has made a significant difference to my ability to “develop” underwater RAW images.

The camera I have used for this assignment is a 10MP Canon 40D SLR in an Ikelite  housing paired with two 125J strobes coupled directly to the camera.  I typically use a 60mm macro lens for smaller animals or a 10-22mm wide angle zoom for landscape/larger animals.  A simple challenge in diving is that lens choice can only be made once, no chance to rethink once underwater.  This is actually a good thing as it drives a focus on type of subject.
For the photographs I am presenting here, I have used a 10-22mm EF-S lens on the 40D, offering a FF equivalent of 16-35mm.  I have placed the lens behind a dome port to preserve angle of view.  One issue this creates is that the corners of all of the images are very soft and distorted.  It is possible to reduce this by using very much larger glass dome ports, but these are prohibitively expensive and very fragile.  I have tried to frame my images to reduce the impact of this effect, but it is present to a great or lesser degree in all of the images. Shooting in the shallow water has enabled me to lose the flash guns for most of the shots, although I did retain them for a couple of the images.

All photographs were shot RAW and then imported into Lightroom for the bulk of processing.  I then output to 16 bit TIFF for final work in Photoshop, mostly to finally adjust levels, crop for printing and for the more substantial cloning needed on one image.  I am not including specific processing notes for this set as the processing workflow was very similar for each image and can be summarized as:

  1. Set white balance for the image on the sand in the foreground, several areas might need to be sampled to get the right look
  2. Crop to ensure that the “horizon” created by the vanishing point is level
  3. Adjust levels and contrast for the right degree of light/dark
  4.  Increase saturation a little as needed
  5. Sharpen those images that have line detail (fish, etc.) using masking to avoid sharpening the negative space
  6. Adjust the Aqua and Blue channels to produce blue water.  This generally required adjusting hue towards blue, slightly increasing the blue saturation and then reducing the blue luminance. Some shots had a little purple or magenta in that also needed to be pulled down

To a degree this is quite subjective and in each case a decision needed to be made about how I wanted the image to look and what a viewer might expect to see from an underwater image. To provide a sense of the amount of processing needed, here is a before and after for one of the images:

Finally, just for fun, here is the problem I face every time I travel, this is my underwater outfit (plus a few accessories and above water lenses) arranged prior to packing:

Constant reduction in weight limits being imposed by airlines will eventually kill my hobby, or make it accessible only to the very well off.

Lagoon-1 “Inner Space”

 10mm, 1/180s, f/11, ISO 100

This is the photograph that determined my choice of this subject; I spent half an hour simply floating in the shallow water looking at how the sun rippled across the sand.  This is a deliberately simple composition conveying the tranquillity of the shallow lagoon with the centre ground merging into a blue infinity.

Lagoon-2 “Safety in Numbers”

 10mm, 1/250s, f/11, ISO 100

A vast school of small fish found shelter in the lagoon, creating a silver layer between the bottom and the surface.  Independent of depth these fish filled the intervening space. For this and many of the other images in this study I had to position the sun behind my back to ensure that the fish in the mid-ground reflected the light and did not appear as silhouettes.

Lagoon-3 “Reflections”

18mm, 1/125s, f/11, ISO 200 

Another school of fish, sheltered in the shallower water closer to shore.  On this occasion there was almost no wind and the surface had become glassy offering a mirror like reflection. This photograph captures the tranquillity of the lagoon.  By snorkelling rather than diving, I lost the noise of the scuba gear, allowing a very much closer approach to the fish, I could almost reach out and touch them.

Lagoon-4 “Menace”

 22mm,1/250s, f/11, ISO 100

As beautiful as it is, the lagoon is a ruthless food chain in which every animal is preying on something smaller.  Juvenile black tip reef sharks, no more than 2 feet long, patrol the shallow water avoiding larger sharks that might eat them and feeding on the smaller fish. These sharks were reluctant to come close and moved very quickly, so this is about as good as I could get, however, I like the ripple of light on his back.  I could possibly crop this to move the shark to the left, not quite so bulls eye, however, this is a very symmetry driven set of images, so I choose to retain this framing.

Lagoon-5 “Coral”

10mm, 1/125s, f/11, ISO 100

As the water gets deeper, the sand gives way to a shallow coral reef.  With this photo I wanted to retain the simple linear layered symmetry, but introduce the colour and texture of the reef, once gain taking advantage of the reflection in the surface of the water.  The coral cannot grow in the shallower water, due partly to the warmth from the sun, but also it cannot take much exposure to air at low tide, so is limited in its extent.

Lagoon-6 “Sanctuary”

 10mm, 1/60s, f/11, ISO 100

Another lagoon habitat is created by trees that have tumbled into the water.  The island of Lankayan is enduring significant erosion as recent storms have stripped away sand from the beaches.  Trees have lost the stability of their root system and fallen into the water.  This, however, creates a safe haven for the lagoon fish, hiding in the branches they have some protection from the sharks and barracuda that cruise the shallows.  The influence of man starts to become apparent in this image as pieces of rubbish have been captured within the branches. 

I could have cloned this out, but it is part of the environment and shows the litter that we dump into the ocean.

Lagoon-7 “Flow”

 10mm, 1/90s, f/11, ISO 200

Garbage is one of the many negative impacts of mankind on the ocean, however, the building of piers and wooden platforms creates habitat and encourages fish life in the lagoon.  In this image the linear symmetry Is broken by the pier construction and the flow of fish under the pier, creating a more dynamic composition.

Lagoon-8 “Cathedral”

 10mm, 1/45ss, f/8, ISO 100

Deeper out in the lagoon is the dive base where we spent much of our time, gearing up or cleaning equipment.  Underneath is a gloomy world of wooden pillars and supports underpinning the building above.  This has contributed to an almost cathedral like sense of space.  Standing on the bottom, holding my breath and composing these images was a strange out of world experience. 

Whilst snorkelling I used a weight belt to enable me to descend more easily and achieve stability to take photos.   Obtaining a satisfactory colour balance was difficult in this image.  I had to reduce the brightness of the surround and add quite a bit of blue to counter the very green colour my camera captured.

Lagoon-9 “Floating”

 10mm, 1/180s, f/8, ISO 100

The largest visitor to the lagoon was mankind, in this case my wife Heidi demonstrating how to dive in shallow water, avoiding the sand but also keeping deep enough to be safe from boats passing overhead – divers generally do not fear the oceans inhabitants, boats are our greatest risk.  I particularly like the quality of light in this deeper image with the circular patch of blue sky showing through the surface.  This is the only image in which I used artificial light to bring out the colour and form of Heidi and her diving equipment.

Lagoon-10 “Shroud”

 10mm, 1/250s, f/8, ISO 100

Just before the drop off, this discarded shirt was lying on the lagoon bottom, almost as if the person inside had simply ceased to be.  I think it was dropped overboard by one of the small coasters bringing food to the island, lying on the bottom before currents would sweep it away.  It speaks to me of the temporary nature of man’s existence in relation to the infinity of the ocean

Lagoon-11 “Between”

 10mm, 1/205s, f/11, ISO 100

This “over-under” shot lifts my vision from the underwater world into the air and land, capturing the interface between the natural world of the lagoon and the structures and boats of the island resort.  Here are many layers and interfaces.

This is the most technically challenging shot of the submission, both from a capture and processing perspective.  Such a photo can only be taken when the sea is almost perfectly flat and in water shallow enough that I can stand on the bottom.  I would compose the shot by angling the camera downwards into the water, but keeping half of the dome port out of the water.  I would then shoot several frames as the water constantly moves.  Exposure was not too difficult, I set the camera to -1 eV to avoid blowing out the clouds.  I shot this at f/11 which was a mistake, on reviewing the image the island is not as sharp as I would want.  At f/16 I could have set the focus to hyper-focal distance and ensured all part of the image were in focus.  Sadly this was the last day in which conditions allowed such a shot, however, I am still happy with the outcome (we can always improve).

Processing was another challenge, there is no white balance or brightness setting that will satisfactorily bring out both the under and over water parts.  I thus created two virtual copies of the image and processed each separately.  Combining them as layers in Photoshop and deleting the upper part of the underwater image enabled me to recombine the shots and create a fairly realistic look to what is in any case a rather unusual shot.  The other challenge was removal of large water droplets on the upper surface of the dome, one is still visible in the upper left, it was beyond my PS skills to realistically remove it.

Lagoon-12 "Moon"

85mm, 1/60s, f/5.6, ISO 200

With the final shot in this submission I bring my camera fully out of the water and capture the surface of the reef and the space between it and the sky.  Low tide coincided with the rising from the east, so strongly reflecting the setting sun and creating this very soft pastel colouring. 

I questioned adding the final two shots to this set as they are clearly different in tone and structure to the others, however, they close out the narrative of the lagoon and present a view of the lagoon most often seen by visitors reluctant to get their feet wet.

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