Photography Techniques | Composition Corner - Abstracts
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Keep checking our technique pages, as I post the simple skills that
will get you taking great shots in no time at all.
I have condensed these tips and tricks down from years of coaching beginners
to shoot underwater with the minimum of fuss or flannel.

Dealing with difficult backgrounds in your Underwater Macro pictures.

Dealing with difficult backgrounds in your Underwater Macro pictures. You are in Lembeh Indonesia, you have scattered all around you a host of colourful subjects, and I mean really colourful subjects. Nudibranchs, Cephalopods and Crustaceans straight out of a Tim Burton animated fantasy. In reds, greens, yellows and sky blue pinks but shooting them creatively you are presented with a major problem. They all tend to live in environments that are less than perfect as suitable backdrops to show off their kaleidoscopic hues. The problem is that the environment so beloved by these creatures is what we call "muck" hence the name muck diving for the pursuit of hunting out these tiny coloured beasts.And dark black volcanic sand or often discarded rubbish, wouldn't be the creative photographers first choice of background.
Get Close So
how do we get round this state of affairs? And try to get great shots that don't look like we've shot them at the town dump? First and foremost the well worn underwater photography adage of “get close” really applies. Yes, I know the nature of the subject matter, and the fact that we are usually shooting in this environment using our macro lenses will mean that we are already pretty close, with distance to subject measured in centimetres, but I mean that you should get even closer and crop out as much of the background as possible. This way you will really focus your attention on the creature. There is a tendency to go for fish id type pictures showing the whole creature, and there is nothing wrong with that but if you want to reduce the background clutter then it's best to crop in really close. You may well need to use an additional close up diopter wet lens to extend your macro lenses capabilities, just shooting the head of whatever you are trying to capture.

shrimp underwater photo
This shrimp was framed really tighty and to get this close I had to use an additional wet lens diopter on my lens. Shot with an Olympus EM5 and 60mm Zuiko Macro lens, with a Subsee +10 diopter.

Shoot with your fastest possible shutter speeds
Now let me qualify this with a bit more info, I am assuming you are shooting with strobes and using a moderately small aperture i.e. f8 and smaller. The reason for this is that you can reduce the impact of your backgrounds by rendering them underexposed.Check out my previous post about flash exposure (Click here). This is only possible though if your flash synch speed and aperture combined would give an underexposed picture without your flash being used. So if there is huge amounts of available light, or your camera doesn't synchronise with flash above 1/160 second then you will have to bring the overall exposure down by reducing or making the aperture smaller. If you are lucky enough to have a camera that will synch with flash at a 1/250 or 1/320 sec then this shouldn't be too much of a problem, and you shouldn't have too much difficulty making the backgrounds go inky black. If you have a compact camera like one of the Canon S95 or similar cameras or a Sony RX100 then you are lucky enough to be able to synchronise your flash at all shutter speeds.

nudibranch underwater photo
Shooting with a fast synch speed, and careful framing against the dark blue water, as the nudi crossed from one patch of coral to another, has allowed the background to go totally black, if it doesn't go quite as black as you'd like then reduce the blacks with your editing program of choice.

Beautiful Buttery Blurry Bokeh
A common and very on trend technique to make the background recede a bit, is to blur it out by the use of a very wide aperture, I did a previous blog post covering this in greater detail (see here) but used correctly this technique gives you another great option to de-clutter your pictures of messy backdrops. Beware though this will mean that you will be shooting at very wide apertures, so the previous technique of also making the background darker may not always be possible particularly if there is a lot of available light. Not a problem on a night dive though. You will also find that your focussing is very restricted and narrow as your depth of field, or the amount in focus will be much smaller. So getting the all important eye focus will be quite a bit more challenging. So as always practice.

nudibranch orange horns underwater photo
Here I am shooting at maximum aperture of f2.8 to make everything but the horns of our nudi in focus, taking our attention from the messy background.

Another great way to make an organic subject stand out is to light it differently. Now "snoots" are very popular at the moment for directing the light at a small portion of your picture highlighting it as if in a spotlight. However, and I'm going to go out on a precarious limb here and say that I'm not a big fan of snoots. Not for the marvellous effects they can produce if used correctly, as I think some of the snooted shots out there look great. No, my issue is the way that some photographers, confounded by the deficit in their buoyancy skills, struggle with the aiming of their snoots, and so to make things easier they simply plonk themselves down any old where, regardless of the welfare of the environment, thus make the aiming of their snoots easier. Worse are some of them that use their snooted strobes off camera, and place the tripod mounted lights wherever they please. Granted not everyone does this and I know it's unfair to tar everyone with the same brush, but unless you have stellar buoyancy control and precise movement in the water, it's probably better to think of alternative techniques to achieve similar results. A really easy way is to snoot digitally by using careful masking in Lightroom or Photoshop, this way there is minimal to zero environmental impact. I can hear the voices now though, saying "but digital editing, that's not allowed for entry into lot's of competitions" Ok, granted that is often the case, and if your dive skills are up to it then snoot away to your hearts content, but if not then do some specialised courses or gain some more experience in the skills needed to precisely hover and move around in the water. I am currently helping to write a special advanced buoyancy skills course for underwater photographers at the moment in conjunction with a veritable dive training Ninja and Mario from FishinFocus so email us for booking dates. Anyway that's my rant over with for this post, so as another alternative to snooting I would like to share with you an alternative way to light your subject to make it stand out against a mucky background. That way is "backlighting" and previously I covered this in greater detail in a specific blogpost last year (click here) but with a bit of care and attention and by backlighting you can make your subject stand out and glow against a drab background. Subtlety is the key and boring though it may sound repetitive practice will give you the skills to implement this technique with finesse.

nudibranch orange horns underwater photo
A chromodoris appearing to glow from within, it's translucent body standing out from the background by virtue of the light coming from behind and above.

Combine your skills
None of these techniques are mutually exclusive and once you get them learnt individually then the next step is to combine the skills, and apply them depending on the subject matter. So go out give it a go and have some fun.

Orang Utang crab underwater photo
This hairy orange beast, an Orang Utang crab was lit slightly from behind and underexposed to make his orange hairs stand out. I then darkened the outer area of the shot in the edit to concentrate attention on the little feller and make his eyes glow a bit, not quite the same as using a snoot but a lot more controllable and minimally invasive on the environment.


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