Scuba Travel, Thistlegorm, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus,

Not every subject swims around. Wrecks are as popular with divers as reefs and marine creatures and each one has its own charm and unique angles. It’s time to treat these lumps of metal as we treat our fish friends, looking for the right angles. This blog aims to help you find some fresh perspective on one very, very famous wreck. The mighty Thistlegorm.

She is a very popular ship and in my workshops, I try to spend as long as I can. Sometimes even 2 full days. This so everyone can explore the wreck and come back with great shots.

Before we dive TheThistlegorm

Each wreck is different and before we dive it we should do some research. Don’t focus only on the history.  Consider also the practical side such as the position on the sea bed. Is it on a flat sandy bottom as the Thistlegorm or is it leaning on the reef wall as the Carnatic in Abu Nuhas?

Be careful about depth and time. Luckily the Thistlegorm sits on a flat seabed, just a smidge above 30m at the deepest point. This is a recreational dive, but spend too long on the stern or inside the wreck, and you can quickly run into deco.

A final word of warning: take precautions if you are doing a wreck penetration with a camera. Have a buddy, a clear exit and/or a line. Think about redundant air sources. Parts of the Thistlegorm are less stable than they used to be. Make sure you don’t get into trouble going after “that” shot.

Lens considerations

Wreck photography calls for the widest lens you can mount on your camera. I prefer to shoot with a fisheye so I can capture the whole wreck from a relatively short distance. Remember the closer you are from your subject the quality of the photos. If you don’t have a fisheye, use the widest lens you can and get close, close, close.

Keep in mind that fisheye lenses create barrel distortion. Any object on the corner of your picture will be stretched and curved.

Getting the classic shots

TheThistlegorm stern and its guns.

This is without a doubt one of the most iconic images of the Thistlegorm. Lying at about 45 degrees, the whole stern section was ripped apart by the huge explosion that sank the ship. This is a shot that most of us recognize.

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
The classic shot of the Thistlegorm stern taken using Ambient light

You can use strobes to highlight a specific detail but it is impossible to illuminate the whole ship. For this reason, ambient light is the most common technique to shoot wrecks.

I mentioned researching the position of the ship on the seabed. This is particularly important when shooting ambient light. Remember, the sun is your only source of light and you want it to shine on your subject, not behind it.

To get a good shot, timing is essential. In the afternoons the sun will light the decks offering the best opportunities to capture the guns. In the mornings, the light will fall on the hull making the rudder and propeller the best subject.

The currents also need to be considered. The best time to shoot the wreck is during the slack after it has been running from south to north. The water will be at its clearest. When the current comes from the north, it will bring murky water from the shallow and sandy Gulf of Suez.

Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm, propeller, Red Sea, Egypt
The propeller and rudder of the Thistlegorm are best shot in the afternoon

To get a more traditional shot try to stay relatively shallow, around 18 or 20 meters. If you get close to the bottom you can force the perspective and have a more dramatic result.

The Thistlegorm bow

Because the main part of the Thistlegorm lies upright, the time of the day is less important when shooting the bow. However, I always prefer to take these photographs late morning or early afternoon. The sun is high and there is plenty of light.

Position yourself in front of the wreck and you will have a great view, If you move towards your right (looking at the bow) you will get the port side anchor on your picture, move to the left and the starboard chain will be visible.

fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini, Napoleon Wrasse
The Thistlegorm’s bow shot from the port side with a touch of strobe lighting on the front

The bow offers also a very dramatic view when shot from the seabed, try to keep the sun behind to avoid over exposing the surface and if possible use a fellow diver in the shot to give a sense of scale. This particular shot works much better when taken from the starboard so you can have the anchor chain in the foreground.

Scuba Travel, Thistlegorm, bow, fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini,
Shooting the bow from the seabed shows how magnificent this wreck is, the monotone treatment ads an atmospheric touch.

Additional points of interest

There are other parts of the wreck that offer great photo opportunities, the tenders are encrusted with sponges and corals, shoot upwards and try to get the silhouette of the dive boat on the surface to come back with a beautiful photo.

fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini, Napoleon Wrasse
water tender shot upwards to get the dive boat on the surface. a Strobes were used to light the corals and sponges growing on the tender

There is always loads of colourful fish swimming around the bow. With some patience, you can frame one of them when it swims through the rope holes. Or why not use your buddy and a porthole?

fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm, Scuba Travel
a butterflyfish framed using a rope hole on the bow of the wreck

Usually the first dive on the wreck is on the stern, you can spend some time around the blast area where there is loads of scattered ammunition of all sizes and a few Bren Carriers to keep you amused for the whole dive.

TheThistlegorm blast area

If you position yourself mid water with your back towards the stern you can shoot the Bren Carrier with the propeller shaft and the rest of the ship in the background, this is a different take on this subject that is worth trying

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
One of the few bren carriers on the blast area, the picture was frame to include the stern section in the background

The same can be said of some of the packs of shells which have been clean to show the manufacturing date on the percussion cap. Shoot them upwards with the wreck in the background.

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
A pack of 4 artillery shells. The manufacturing date can be seen on the bottom right one.

At the beginning of the dive is worth swimming away of the wreck on the port side by the blast area to pay a visit to the remains of one of the two locomotives originally stowed on the deck by Cargo hold 4, it lies on the seabed at 30 mt so you won’t have much time but the images you can get there can be impressive.

When it comes to editing your pictures always have a look at how your pictures of the exterior of the wreck would look in black and white or monotone, in my opinion using this technique will give a beautiful atmosphere to your shots.

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
Black and white picture of the stern and guns of the Thistlegorm

Inside the Thistlegorm

One of the reasons the Thistlegorm is considered one of the best wrecks in the world is her cargo. Swim through the holds and you can see trucks, motorbikes, guns, boots and much more. If you are not familiar with the wreck, it is recommended to follow your dive guide, he or she can point you the most interesting cargo and keep you away from the off-limits areas.

You can spend hours photographing the cargo but I will focus on 3 specific shots.

In the lower level

First is a truck you will see when you come into the lower level on cargo hold 3. This level has a much better sealing clearance and is usually full of big eye squirrelfish.

A fisheye lens would be ideal for these pictures, I normally pre-lock the focusing at around 1 meter and use a smallish aperture to ensure good depth of field.

Strobe position

Position your strobes above the housing in what is called bunny ears so there is a pool of light over the subjects. If you position your flashguns on the normal 10-2 the light will fall mainly on the foreground and very little will reach the subjects further away.

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
This diagram shows the strobe position known as “Bunny ears”

When looking for a good position aim to get some clear blue water in the background, this will add to the feeling of depth. To get a nice blue background you will need to slow your shooter speed down, 1/15th of a second is not unusual. But worry not because your foreground will be exposed by your strobes eliminating the risk of camera shake. You may also need to push your ISO.

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
Big eye squirrelfish swim around the truck and bikes on the lower level of cargo hold 3
In the upper level

From here move to the upper level but on your way, have a look at the packs of rifles, they can also be cool subjects.

On the port side of cargo hold number 2, you can see two generators. Right in front of them, you will find one of the most recognizable bikes on the wreck. There is plenty of space to move around positioning yourself against the hold wall will give you a great angle of the bike and a clear view of the hold opening.

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
Motorbike ion the cargo hold 2

This bike is a great place to practice off-camera strobe lighting. By placing a strobe behind the bike’s wheel you can get some nice light beams while your main flashguns will light the front.

Position a diver with a torch swimming towards the bike and you will have all the ingredients for a fantastic shot.

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
A diver swims towards the bikes
The last steering wheel

Staying on the port side swim towards the back of the ship, space will be limited so be careful with your strobes. The last truck you will see, right next to the opening of cargo hold 3 has the last remaining steering wheel on the wreck, here you have a few options to get interesting pics, you can go for a traditional take from the back of the truck cabin showing the remains of the seat and the wheel. Stay close to the wall to get the hold clearing.

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
One of the remaining steering wheels

If you have the option to use an off-camera strobe, aim it to the steering wheel and shoot from outside the side window using your flashgun only to trigger the off-camera one and to slightly paint the outside of the truck. The difference in the light will give a great sense of depth to your shot.

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
Steering wheel shot from outside the truck’s window using an off-camera strobe

Fish life

I love wrecks but my heart is always with the marine life and the beauty of many wrecks is the life they attract. The Thistlegorm is not an exception and on a single dive, you can encounter from camouflaged fish such as scorpions or flounders to schools of batfish, sardines the resident turtle.

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
a Pink lip scorpionfish taken during a night dive

While swimming around the decks keeps an eye underneath the mast or other big metal parts, it is very common to see cleaning stations where batfish can be easily photographed. Approaching these stations should be done very slowly and trying to stay as low as possible to the deck so you do not scare the batfish, do it carefully and you will be able to get very close.

Make sure the power of your strobes is not too high otherwise the light will reflect on the scales of the fish blowing the highlights and ruining your shot. You can use the side of the beams by angling your strobe slightly outwards but this way you will light the background, otherwise, you can use cross lighting by pulling your strobes back, aligned with your head and aiming them to the fish. This will focus the light on the fish and not the surrounding area.

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
A friendly batfish swim in font my dome at a cleaning station underneath the mast

Join Mario on one of the  “Winter Warmers “ photo trips to have the chance to spend some time diving the mighty Thistlegorm.