Photography of tropical coral reefs in the Maldives and the Philippines
In my summer online photography talk, given live on 22nd June, I showcased the techniques of underwater photography. Though a relatively small part of my photographic work, it is one that I hugely enjoy. So I thought I would introduce some of the work I’ve done photographing the marine wildlife of coral reefs in the Philippines and the Maldives.
A recording of the talk can now be watched any time. Just click on the image below.
The challenges and techniques of underwater photography
The most obvious initial challenge to underwater photography is of course the very fact that it is under water! Inevitably, a first prerequisite is to be able to scuba dive, or at least snorkel, before any photography is possible. Once that is sorted, then you can start to face the challenges of underwater photography, which include:
Light levels rapidly fall away as you go deeper, even in the most sunlit conditions;
The colour balance of the light rapidly changes, with red light being absorbed in the first few metres, leaving only blue light by the time you reach a depth of about 10 metres;
This loss of white light makes it important to use flash lighting to provide white light, and hence to show up the true colours of any subject;
No seawater is completely clear: there are always at least some suspended particles able to block and reflect flash lighting back to the camera;
It is usually necessary to come as close as possible to the subject, often using a very wide-angle lens, to minimise the camera-to-subject distance and hence the amount of suspended matter between the two;
Two flashguns (or strobes as they’re called for underwater photography) are commonly used, each mounted some distance on either side of the camera, increasing the angle of the flash, and helping to reduce the amount of light bounced back to the camera from suspended particles;
High pressures encountered while diving mean that all equipment – especially the camera’s housing – must be highly water- and pressure-resistant, making them rather cumbersome and heavy (at least when on land), especially when coupled with two widely-mounted flashguns;
Despite measures to reduce problems caused by suspended particles, most underwater images require considerable amounts of post-photography cleaning up in order to remove specks and make the images appear at their best.
These are just the main photography-specific challenges to the techniques of underwater photography, and are quite apart from the general challenges of scuba diving. The latter include limited dive time due to a restricted air supply, safety limits on the maximum depth of any dive, as well as the speed at which one can ascend or descend, and restrictions on the frequency with which you’re allowed to dive.
Photography of corals
Corals are among the most beautiful living structures on Earth, consisting of colonies of thousands of coral polyps that together build complex forms. These can vary from huge 2-metre fans (such as in the image above) or rounded boulder-like solid structures, down to tiny tree-like organisms.
Many are the most important building blocks of the coral reef environment, and to me are a joy to photograph. And yet, they are often overlooked by photographers in search of the more high profile charismatic and mobile animals, such as turtles and sharks.
Corals deserve far more photographic attention. Being immobile, they aren’t going to swim away just when you’re trying to line up a shot. But corals can be fragile and require significant care when being photographed: one badly timed kick of a fin can destroy several years of coral growth. So it is critical for a photographer to have close and exact control of their movements when under water, something that is not always easy.
Photography of mobile reef animals
The techniques of underwater photography of course encompass both those of immobile corals and of the more mobile animals, such as turtles and fish, to name just the most obvious.
This of course includes the hundreds of commonly seen reef fish, many of which are extremely colourful and beautiful, but also rather small and shy. The latter points can make them rather tricky to photograph as they will almost always swim off and/or hide in a reef crevass the moment you approach. My usual technique is to zoom in a little with a short telephoto lens. Although this then suffers from the problem of increased amounts of suspended particles between me and the subject, it is a worthwhile compromise that helps me get the shot.
Other animals are rather less of a problem, either being much larger than most reef fish, or not at all bothered by the human presence, or both. When I first started diving in the Philippines 20-plus years ago, turtles were very shy and hard to photograph, but today they’re largely at ease with the diver’s presence. This makes it possible to swim alongside them for some distance, shooting more or less at ease, with or without a flashgun.
Sharks too are generally undisturbed by the presence of divers, and can readily be photographed. Obviously, they do have a fearsome reputation, something enhanced by their aggressive appearance, but the great majority of species are quite safe to be around.
Scuba diving versus snorkelling
Scuba diving requires some rigorous training and then certification before you can even consider starting underwater photography via this route. So there is some temptation to give it a try while simply snorkelling, since this is unregulated and equipment-free.
While some forms of underwater photography can be done while snorkelling (such as swimming with whale sharks, as in the image above), it is not at all easy, requiring some tricky control of your buoyancy in order to be able to dive, even for a few seconds, below the surface.
Furthermore, many of the most varied, interesting and photogenic forms of coral and fish can’t be found close to the surface, and so can only be photographed while scuba diving.
So, although photography while snorkelling does have its uses, it is rather limited in what can be achieved. Scuba diving, though presenting more of a challenge initially, does offer a much more versatile and effective way of carrying out the techniques of underwater photography.
My September 2021 online photography talk was held recently, the subject this time Storytelling Through Photography. This is the art of creating a set of images that tell a story about an event, a place or a person, something that is very different from simply shooting high quality stand-alone images. When telling a story, the images must work together as a team, with no single image dominating the others and distracting attention away from the aim of the story.
The talk is now available on You Tube, and so can be watched here. Just click on the image below to launch the video.
The essentials of building a photographic story
The talk runs through a series of tips about how to go about storytelling through photography. These can be summarised as follows:
The aim is to create a set of photos that work together as a ‘team’, building the story and without any single photo dominating the collection;
Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Without these, it is just a collection of uncoordinated images;
The beginning should consist of a couple of images that set the scene – the type of environment or general location for instance;
The end should again consist of a couple of images that round off the story, giving a summary of what transpired or the end-result of whatever process is described in the story;
The middle is the main meat of the story and is the longest section, consisting of a string of images that describe the heart of the story, such as what is happening, arranged in a sequence that a viewer can follow;
Production of technical perfection and spectacular stand-out images is secondary: telling the story is paramount. Things often happen so quickly and unexpectedly in a story-telling situation that perfection has to take a back seat. However, if there is time to craft perfect images then so much the better;
Report and record what you see impartially – leave any preconceptions or prejudices behind and photograph what you actually see, not what you think you ought to see or what you would like to see. If you want to put a particular slant on a story, do this at the post-photography image editing phase, not during the actual photography.
Examples of storytelling through photography
To illustrate the process of storytelling through photography, the talk uses images from two of Nigel’s own stories: conservation work with the Philippine Crocodile and reindeer herding in Lapland, in the far north of Sweden. These can be summarised as follows:
1. Conservation work with the Philippine Crocodile:This is the world’s most endangererd crocodile, and the photography in this story illustrated the work of the Mabuwaya Foundation in rearing infant crocodiles in captivity and then releasing them back into the wild once they were large enough to fend off predators.
The photography started with a couple of images that set the scene, one showing the forest and lake habitat, another the team of workers involved. The main part of the story then illustrated the work in catching captively reared crocodiles, taking their vital statistics, transporting them into a nearby national park, and then releasing them into a lake. The final images rounded off the story by showing a crocodile being released and then swimming as a free, wild crocodile in the lake.
2. Reindeer herding in Lapland: Every autumn the Sami people in the far north of Sweden round up their reindeer from the mountains, bring them down to lower winter pastures, and temporarily corral them in order to mark out ownership of newborn deer and to kill some of the older males for winter meat.
The photography in this story illustrated the corralling process and the capturing of both young deer and mature males. The story begins with a couple of images that introduce the environment, showing the wild mountains where the reindeer spend the summer, photographed from a helicopter just as the first winter snows arrived. The images of the main story showed thousands of corralled reindeer, with the Sami people picking out and lassooing newborn animals and mature males. The story rounds off with a summary of the family nature of this process, with a picnic once the work is done, including the presence of the family’s pet albino reindeer.
The importance of storytelling through photography
Most photographic tuition available in one form or another concentrates on teaching people how to create fantastic single standalone images, but don’t look at the storytelling process at all. This is a shame, since throughout its history telling stories has been one of the most important roles of photography. It is a skill worth cultivating. Hopefully, the tips in this talk will help give you some ideas about how to go about storytelling through photography.
The next talk
The next online photography talk will be about macro photography, and will be held on Wednesday 20th October at 8pm (BST). It’s free to join, just click on the link below to fill in and submit the form. This will enable me to send you the link.
My March online photography talk, Wildlife Photography: Mammals and Birds, went ahead on the 24th, and you can now watch a recording of the entire talk here.
To watch the talk just click on the screen below:
Preparing to succeed
In talking about Wildlife Photography: Mammals and Birds I first set out the fact that most of what goes into successfully capturing wildlife images has little to do with the equipment you use. Much of the success lies in the preparation, which includes such some of the following points:
Understand the behaviour of the animals you intend to photograph;
Know what are the best locations/habitats, times of day and times of year in which to find your subjects;
Learn how to stalk carefully, or how to use a hide;
Decide whether to work wholly with wild wildlife or accept the inclusion of captive animals;
When photographing wild wildlife, research locations where your subject wildlife has become used to the human presence, and so is more approachable than might usually be the case;
Have huge amounts of patience and persistence, coupled with an ability to act quickly but calmly and smoothly when things suddenly start to happen;
Have a willingness to get out of bed very early and/or stay out quite late, since most wildlife activity usually happens around dawn/sunrise and dusk/sunset.
Deciding what to photograph
Why take wildlife photos? There are of course many reasons, including such ideas as:
Simply ticking species lists;
Capturing artistically and/or technically perfect images that individually showcase the beauty of the wildlife around us;
Putting together a set of images that collectively tell a story about some wildlife or perhaps a conservation programme.
Whatever the photographic motivation, I would always urge photographers not to blindly follow wildlife fads and fashions (of which there are many). You should always think laterally and shoot a wide range of species, not just the cute, cuddly and famous, but also the ignored, forgotten and ugly. They all deserve and often need to be photographed (for the conservation publicity), and not just because a magazine or TV documentary has popularised it.
Psychology and choice
In subconsciously empathising with wildlife, we are programmed to be more attracted to those animals that in some way look at least a little like us: in other words the higher mammals with flattish faces and forward-facing eyes (abbreviated to 4FE).
These encompass most especially the big cats and apes, but also monkeys, horses and dogs, plus a few others. Think meerkats, orangutans and lions as examples. On top of this, babies of almost any species trump just about everything – cute, cuddly and vulnerable, pleading eyes crying out for protection and care will sway human emotions every time.
Of course, birds rarely if ever fit the 4FE idea, but the cute baby consideration still applies, and the adults of a few species do just happen to have cute, appealing faces – think puffins for example.
So these subconscious considerations can have a major impact on what we choose to photograph. While it is inevitable that you will be drawn to photograph these much of the time, I would always advocate that lateral thinking mentioned above. With this, you can ensure you also include those animals that don’t fit those empathetic or cute criteria, but which nevertheless deserve to be photographed.
The equipment and how to use it
Once you’ve done all your preparation, you finally get to use the camera equipment. Camera equipment designed for wildlife photography can be hugely expensive, so don’t be too mesmerised by the glossy adverts for all the kit you ‘need’. Instead, follow these the important points:
The camera must be able to work well in poor light conditions typical at dusk and dawn. This essentially means being able to produce good images even when shooting with a high ISO (over 400);
Focussing (a combination of the lens and camera working together) needs to be fast, crisp and accurate, and be able to continue working well in low light conditions, when contrast between your subject and the background might well be quite low;
A telephoto lens will inevitably be needed, but not necessarily a massively powerful one. The bigger lenses can be very awkward to handle in the field, and it can be annoyingly difficult to find your subject in the camera’s viewfinder, let alone getting it to focus. A smaller lens may restrict certain types of photography, but it can make much of your life easier without cramping your photography overall;
Whatever type of lens you have, it must have good optics. Without this, even well-focussed images can come out not as sharp as you would like. This may not be as important if you’re photographing purely for your own enjoyment, but it is critical if you’re intending to get your work published;
Although a lot of wildlife photography is carried out with the camera hand-held, you still need to have a good, sturdy tripod, especially for when working in a hide;
A flashgun may not get used all that often, but it’s useful to have one to hand, for those occasions when you’re shooting in really poor light and your subject is within the firing range of the flash.
The shoot itself
So, finally you get to take some photos, something that can be both exciting and frustrating. The latter results from the many photos you’ll inevitably get of disappearing backsides, tree branches where a fraction of a second before a bird had been sitting, or pictures that seem to be well composed but which are blurred due to a failure of focus. But the excitement and buzz that comes when everything works makes it all worthwhile!
Little tips to bear in mind include:
Do not disturb or frighten your subjects. Not only is the stress bad for the animals, but it will result in failure for your photography;
When photographing a portrait, try to shoot while the animal is looking at you, giving the sense of interaction;
Always focus on an animal’s eyes: we are programmed to look at these, so if they are even slightly blurred the image will not work;
Make sure the animal’s eyes are open in the final picture(s). Closed eyes (even if just in a blink) usually ruin a shot, so don’t be shy to take a series of shots in quick succession if necessary;
Ensure that your backgrounds are blurred so the animal will stand out clearly from that background – especially important when an animal is a similar colour to the background. This is usually easily achieved when shooting with a telephoto lens;
If photographing two or more animals interacting, carefully judge the moment(s) to shoot in order to make the most of the inter-animal interaction. Don’t be afraid to take a series of shots in quick succession;
When photographing movement/action make sure your lens is set to track the animal(s), continually adjusting focus. This is one area where lens quality is critical. You’ll often need to shoot with bursts of rapid continuous shooting.
Yet another list, but hopefully these pointers will set you on the road towards successful wildlife photography!
A wildlife photography course
I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog, and watching the recording of my talk, Wildlife Photography: Mammals and Birds. To learn more about how to actually do wildlife photography in a real life situation, you could join one of my wildlife photography courses. The next one is scheduled for 24th April 2021, and will take place on Exmoor, southwest England. Click on the link to find out more and to sign up.
The first talk in Nigel’s new series of online photography talks
I held the first of my new online photography talks on 23rd September, the inauguration of a planned ongoing series of free talks that anyone can attend. This first talk, entitled Goals in Photography, saw me explore some of the photography I’ve done during my lengthy career as a professional photographer. Images shown included some of my personal favourites, as well as images that have marked important points in my career, and/or illustrated and explained some of the goals that I constantly strive to achieve with my photography.
Watch a video of the talk now
The talk was recorded and can now be watched on both You Tube and right here, lasting about 34 minutes.
To watch the talk just click on the link below:
Naturally, I really hope you will enjoy the talk. Feel free to leave any comments or queries in the comments section of this blog. I’ll do my best to answer anything you’d like to ask.
Programme of upcoming talks
This Goals in Photography talk was hugely successful, with about 40 people taking part. There will now be three more talks before Christmas, which will be:
14th October – Composition
11th November – Light
9th December – Landscape photography
All the talks will be free to attend. All I ask is that you register in advance so that I know to send you the link to enable you to join.
To find out more and to register for any or all of the talks click on the button below.