How to shoot the Maldives

Because of the unique topography and the style of diving in the Maldives, then its definitely worth talking about how to shoot to allow you to get the best results regardless of the water conditions.
So I’m going to look at a couple of my recent Maldives trips to try and define when certain types of shots work best, and also when its worth,maybe re-planning your dive to give you some better picture taking opportunities.

Ok, what’s so different about shooting in the Maldives as opposed to say, the Red Sea?

Well, the pattern of the dives tends to be a bit different. The first dive of the day is often planned to give you the chance to see some pelagic creatures, at the entrance of one of the Kandu’s or channels, which are the points were the open ocean rushes in and out of the atolls. These can, by their very nature have strong currents. And its not unusual to have to attach yourself to the edge of the reef plate with a reef hook and line.
This can make photography quite tricky, especially as you need your wits about you when hooking in, so a large camera rig can get in the way unless you’re very comfortable handling and using one in these conditions. Easier is a more compact set up. Either a digi-compact camera or one of the new mirror-less cameras, that offer the best compromise between high quality and size and weight.
On my most recent trip people were starting to bring along two cameras, one super compact camera like a GoPro and using this for the first Kandu dive. With the reasoning being that, they wanted the freedom to dive relatively unencumbered, in those sort of currents. And only bringing the bigger more sophisticated camera out for the later more sedate dives.

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Sometimes if the circumstances are challenging a smaller camera may be the wisest choice. As Jean Ainsley’s picture of her husband David shows.

 

This won’t suit everyone though as a key reason to make these fast current dives is because of the high probability of seeing sharks, and if you can see them you want to photograph them.

So one strategy is to make sure that your camera is clipped off to your BCD in such a way that you can go hands free if the need arises, and that it is close enough into your body that it isn’t going to drag across the bottom or catch on things.. Then you make your way to a position that affords you a good view of the beasties, a good tip is to stay close to the guide, as lets face it they are doing these dives all the year round and have learnt the best spots. They may also bring plastic bottles that they scrunch up to pique the curiosity of the sharks, so another good reason to stick close to them for the best photo opportunities.
If you are experienced in strong current and know how to read and feel the water, then you can cleverly manoeuvre yourself away from the reef into the area where the sharks are actually swimming, but beware this takes practice and a lot of diving under your belt before attempting this sort of thing. So above all be safe.

Getting a safe vantage point means making sure you and you're kit are safely clipped in.

Getting a safe vantage point means making sure you and you’re kit are safely clipped in.

This first dive of the day will be a fairly short one, often only 30minutes or so, as you will more than likely have been deeper than normal for longer than normal. So when you get back into the Dhoni or tender, get your camera prepped to shoot again. Why? you might ask we’ve finished the dive.
Well after the exhilaration and exertion of the first dive, you would be wrong to automatically assume that you are going back to the mothership for a well earned breakfast. After doing a few trips like this now, I always make sure my camera is ready, as we have often encountered dolphins and mantas on the return back, and snorkelled with them which I don’t need to tell you is an awesome photo opportunity! So be prepared.

Unless its a full blown Shark encounter style trip then the second and third dives are usually more sedate affairs, and its now you can ask the dive guides the question with the almost impossible answer, which is, “is this a macro or wide-angle dive?”
This isn’t a problem if you are shooting with a compact or some of the mirror less cameras that allow you to change your choice of lens underwater, but is of vital importance if shooting with a high end mirror-less or DSLR. You need to know when to arm yourself for Nudibranchs and shrimps, happy in the knowledge that you aren’t going to bump into a Whaleshark or Manta!

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You can never know exactly what you may see on a Maldives trip.

So listen to the briefing, it might seem obvious but lots of folk only pay cursory attention to the dive brief.

And apart from being a bit rude, you may well miss valuable information about the dive which can make the difference between you getting good shots or not.

You could always opt for the best of both worlds and shoot with a high end mirror-less that does have the ability to use wet lenses. Here is a link to another blogpost I did about just such a thing.
https://www.scubatravel.com/blog/photography-2/olympus-em5-nauticam-housing-wet/

Another thing about shooting in the Maldives is that the visibility can be hampered by the sheer volume of food in the water. Plankton, which forms the solid base of the oceanic food triangle, clearly loves the Maldivian Atolls, and is the main reason why we are lucky enough to get the larger marine life which feasts on this all you can eat buffet which Whale Sharks and Giant Manta Rays devour with gusto.
Therein lies the problem though, the plankton itself can often reduce the visibility down to under 10m.
To work around this we need to shoot with super wide and fisheye lenses. These allow us to get very close to large marine life, and still get them all in shot. It makes sense if the visibility is bad to get as little water as possible between you and your subjects. So if you don’t already use a wide angle lens then this is the place to get the most from one.
Your pictures of big things be they animal, mineral or vegetable will benefit in the better colour and contrast that a wide lens will give.

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The visibility here was down to only 10m so to get any sort of colour and clarity meant I had to be very close, here I am less than a foot from the feather stars.

If you are getting close with your wide angle lens and it pays to, then take heed of the conditions. With a gentle but relentless current, you might find yourself being pushed into the subject, slowly but annoyingly. Practice more advanced finning techniques, like scooping backwards frog style, this is a good skill to learn anyways, but when shooting and framing some beautiful soft corals waving gently in the current, it becomes vital to keep from crashing into things.
If you find this too difficult then frame your shot from the exact opposite direction so that you are facing into the current, its lots easier to keep your place with some gentle finning into the waterflow.

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Its far better to fin gently into a current to get your shot than have the current push you onto your subject matter.

The Maldives is so abundant with food that it attracts all sorts of marine life, and there are some cracking photo opportunities to be had of schools of fish, like Blue Line Snapper or Priacanthus.

These blue line Snapper typical of the Maldives, are being lit with a combination of twin strobes and early morning sunlight.

These blue line Snapper typical of the Maldives, are being lit with a combination of twin strobes and early morning sunlight.

At depth and even in the brighter shallows, to get the vibrant colours so typical of a coral reef you may need to use strobes, now whilst I am a big fan of the more naturalistic look of available light I concede that sometimes there just isn’t enough of it, even right here on the equator.
So strobes it is, and shooting with a pair of them usually to give you the coverage needed for use with your wide angles.

Priacanthus Schooling at 30m with predatory sharks in the distance, only strobes can easily light such a scene.

Priacanthus Schooling at 30m with predatory sharks in the distance, only strobes can easily light such a scene.

Of course nothing is ever straightforward and most underwater photographers will be aware of the perils of “backscatter”. Backscatter is the particulate in the water, in this case planktonic life, being illuminated by the light from your strobes. Sometimes it is very hard to avoid, but more careful positioning of your strobes can reduce its picture spoiling effects to a minimum.
So what is the answer? Well, the time tested way is to make sure that rather than directly pointing your strobe heads towards the subject, you actually point them away often as much as 45degrees. See this picture here to see what I mean about how far your strobes may need to point out.
The reasoning behind this is that if your strobes have a coverage of 100degrees or so then if your subject is central then the crossed beams of the twin strobes should still be adequate to light it.
And if the light that is passing through the plankton filled water is more oblique then if you’ve got it right you should reduce the chances of lighting up the tiny creatures.
It’s a science based art though and you have to practice a bit to get it right. The distance from your subject will also define how far apart your strobe heads need to be. The farther away the subject the farther apart the strobes. Sometimes if you are shooting close focus wide angle then you need to be very close with the strobe heads, and if you are shooting larger subjects the strobes may have to be on long arms. Having an articulate and flexible arm system is a must in these situations.
Another consideration is that the strobe heads need to also be quite far back from the dome port, to prevent the light being picked up at the edges of the frame, or reflecting off the surface of the dome itself. This is something you need to be particularly aware of, as the shot you see on your cameras LCD screen may not show this happening as it can be subtle and it won’t be obvious until you check it out on your computer screen.

At the end of your morning dive the light is often very attractive in the shallows and if you use the lighting techniques outlined above to shoot something of foreground interest then position yourself so that the early morning rays can illuminate the background, if you are lucky and find something like a turtle it can pay off.

Early morning turtle lit with strobe and daylight, catching some rays.

Early morning turtle lit with strobe and daylight, catching some rays.

 

Of course with all the wonderful wideangle opportunities that a Maldives trip throws up its easy to forget that there are macro shots aplenty, so don’t neglect this interesting area of underwater photo opportunities.

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If you are lucky then a Maldive’s excursion will deliver up a lot of different picture opportunities, from macro to wide and everything in-between, so as for most things in life the major issue is being prepared to cover all the bases. As Scuba Travel’s Photo Pro a big part of my role is to help people with their photographic questions and puzzles, so if you are going to the Maldives on any trip then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at duxy@scubatravel.com

Duxy