Story Behind the Shot – Coconut Octopus

I am a big fan of octopus, I would willingly spend an hour with a curious octopus watching it go about its daily life, combing its environment looking for food and avoiding predators. The species of octopus doesn’t matter; they all seem to have an innate curiosity of their surroundings and will often interact with a diver who moves slowly and carefully.

Coconut or Veined Octopus and Lid

One of my favourite octopus encounters was with this coconut octopus during a dive at Puri Jati (PJs) in north Bali, Indonesia. Coconut or veined octopuses, Amphioctopus marginatus, have recently been designated as the first invertebrate able to use tools, elevating their status as an intelligent animal. On this dive, I encountered this guy in less than 5 metres of water and was able to spend a long time watching and photographing his/her daily life. The first thing that stands out in the photograph is that the octopus is obviously using the coconut shell as a home (hence the name) but that the “roof” of the house is a bright pink plastic cap! This photograph pretty much sums up the intelligence of these animals and lends credence to the idea that they can use tools. Not finding a suitable shell to use a “roof” to close up the shell when threatened, this octopus was able to substitute the next best thing it could find. Thinking I would help out this little guy and find it a clam shell to use instead of a piece of bright pink plastic, I found a big clam shell and brought it over, but when I set it beside the octopus it showed no interest whatsoever!  He/she was more than happy with its bright pink roof and just picked up its shell and trundled away!

Story Behind the Shot – Shark Parting the Red Sea

Story Behind the Shot – Shark Parting the Red Sea

As Discovery Channel is continuing to run “Shark Week” this week, I will continue my shark theme here as well!

Grey Reef Shark and Bigeyes

Most photos that you see of sharks don’t hold a lot of colour but instead feature a greyish/blue shark against an otherwise empty blue or green water background.   Not that there is anything wrong with that, in shark photography less is often more and it’s the shark itself that truly captures the eye when looking at a shark photo. However, for myself I always took it as a challenge to capture a photo of a shark that was a little bit different. This photo is one of my personal favourite shark images, as the bright red school of “bigeyes” really makes the image pop, its not just another photo of a grey reef shark. This shot was taken in the Tuamotu Island chain of French Polynesia on a spectacular “pass dive” on the island of Toau. On this site, the dive plan was to jump in the water in the open blue and then drift toward the mouth of the pass until reaching the reef, where an incredibly diverse population of sharks rides the incoming current. The list of sharks that I have encountered in this area reads like a divers top ten list, including silver tips, grey reefs, black tips, white tips, nurse, lemon, and the occasional silky or hammerhead. After watching the sharks at the mouth of the pass, we would then drift with the current down the channel until coming upon a large cut running perpendicular to the pass, lovingly called the “Wrasse Hole”. A resident school of big eyes was always present in this cut as they were able to shelter away from the strong current. Displaying the brains of the smart predators that they are, a second set of resident sharks also lived in and around this cut, patrolling the area ready to pounce upon any sick or injured fish. On this particular photo, I was able to duck down into the school of fish and “hide” myself from the skittish sharks by breathing slowly and staying still. After patiently waiting for a shark to come toward me, I then “popped” out of the schooling fish and captured this shot, “Parting the Red Sea”

Tuamotu Islands, French Polynesia, 2003, Nikonos V, 15mm lens, 2 x Sea and Sea YS 120 strobes, Fuji Provia 100 film

Story Behind the Shot – The Grey Reef Shark

As part of a continuing series of posts, the “Story Behind the Shot” are short discussions about photographs from my library highlighting interesting photos or events from 15 years working full time in the diving industry.

Story Behind the Shot – The Grey Reef Shark

mvpasr00009

Now this shot might not look like the most dramatic photo of all time, and I am not posting it here as an example of such, but rather I am posting it as an example of the changing times in underwater photography.  This was taken at either Blue Corner or New Drop Off in Palau circa 2000-2002 and was shot with a Nikonos V and 20mm lens.  Those two dive sites were incredible places to dive when I worked in Palau from 99-2002 and from all accounts that I hear these days, still are great sites with loads of fish action.  There really is no feeling to compare to hovering over the edge of the drop off with 15 or 20 sharks parading past you while huge schools of fish fight for position in the current.

Looking over some older photos in the last few weeks has opened my eyes to what I shot then compared to what I can shoot now.  This was most likely shot with Fuji Provia 100 film, but I am not sure as I don’t have the slides with me, and I couldn’t say what the settings were, maybe f5.6 and 1/90?  Tough to tell when there is no metadata attached!  For digital photographers out there, could you imagine not being able to change the ISO during a photo shoot?  When loading a roll of 36 into the camera in the morning, I was stuck with that ISO film until I finished the roll, so, if all of a sudden I was down deep and the conditions changed to green and overcast, I was still stuck with that roll of film; nowadays, if the conditions get too dark I can just change my ISO on the fly, simple.  Also, although many images looked great on film, scanning them into digital never worked smoothly and took a LOT of extra time to get rid of any dust or scratches.  I don’t miss that at all!  Another thing I don’t miss?  Going down with a roll of film that had only 10 or 12 shots left on it and having an epic dive and running out of film in the first 15 minutes, that doesn’t happen in digital.

What I want now is the chance to spend another 5 years in Palau and French Polynesia reshooting everything I shot back then but with digital!

Jumping Off The Jetty

My latest article with Dive Advisor on their Sub2o blog is now out!  In the article I discuss how jetties and piers are very under rated for both divers and underwater photographers.

Here is an excerpt:  Piers and jetties often get a bad rap when it comes to divers, since many don’t show much interest in exploring docks at all. The most common excuses tend to be entanglement hazards from fishing lines, the potential for trash in the water, or the dreadful feeling of claustrophobia from being underneath a large object.

Follow the link to read the full article and photos

Jumping Off the Jetty – Sub2o Blog

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia, Pacific Ocean

Story Behind The Shot – The Manta Train

Story Behind the Shot – The Manta Train

 Manta Train

Due to its popularity on social media the last few days, I have decided to tell the story behind the “Manta Train” photo.  This photo was taken in Yap, Micronesia on a dive site called “Valley of the Rays”, in Goofnuw Channel, a passage that connects the lagoon to the open ocean on the North East side of the island group.  From the months of May/June through to Oct/Nov, mantas are often found in this channel hovering above one of several cleaning stations while being swept clean of parasites by a variety of wrasse and butterfly fish.  During certain times of the month, around full and new moon, there can be a lot of plankton in the water (possibly fish eggs from a mass mating event or coral spawning) and large groups of mantas congregate in the channel in order to scoop up this food source.

On this particular occasion, I had arrived on a boat with Yap Divers (Manta Ray Bay Hotel), early in the morning and the conditions were perfect; sun, flat calm sea, and the beginning of the rising tide.  We jumped in the water at the edge of the pass and began to slowly drift into the channel with a mild current.  Not long after, we began to encounter small groups of mantas swimming back and forth along the water column, their mouths agape, scooping up nutrients from the water.  As we drifted further into the channel, the groups of mantas became ever more numerous and the encounters continued non-stop; both near the surface as well as up to 10-15 metres deep. An interesting behaviour of feeding mantas is that they often “draft” one another in long lines with the one behind slightly higher in the water column than the one in front, similar to how a cyclist stays close to the rider in front to improve aerodynamics.  This behaviour allows the manta situated behind to scoop up plankton that has been pushed over the top of the manta in front, allowing for a more efficient feeding action.  For this photo, I was hovering not too far from the surface when a large group of mantas in feeding formation turned and came racing toward me with mouths wide open.  As I saw them turn I immediately swam downward and was able to situate myself just above the “Manta Train” and fire off a series of shots.   This shot is my favourite and I believe it’s the one that captures the mantas behaviour best; a close inspection reveals 8 mantas in this photo.

Nikon D70, Aquatica Housing, Nikkor 12-24mm lens at 12mm, f8, 1/100, ISO 200, no strobes

Story Behind the Shot – Live Over Misool

Aerial Photo over Misool

Aerial Photo over Misool

This was one of my favourite recent photo shoots, shot on 31 Dec 2013 in the Misool area of Raja Ampat.  I was lucky enough to accompany a large private yacht on two expeditions in Indonesia this past year through Komodo and Raja Ampat.  One of the best things about this particular vessel, other than the 7 storeys of incredible luxury and a fantastic crew of 40, was the fact it has a helicopter on board!  Not only did the boat have a helicopter but, the owner is an extremely down to earth and friendly person who was always asking different members of the crew if anyone wanted to accompany him and the pilot on one of their flights.  On the last day of our time in the Misool area, he asked me if I would like to accompany and take some photos as well, I certainly didn’t hesitate to say yes!  This photo was one of the ones that I was able to take during a moment when we “stopped” the heli and I could open the door to take some shots.  All in all, an absolutely incredible hour was spent flying along the archipelago of islands that juts out from Misool near the Tomolol cave system and continues to the Daram island group.

 

 

Story Behind the Shot, “The Bomb”

Unexploded Reef Bomb

Unexploded Reef Bomb

This is one of the harder photos I have ever taken!  Back in 2012 we (the Dive Damai) were exploring the Indonesian island chain of Halmahera, an area that is not well known to divers as it’s off the beaten path, lying between Raja Ampat and North Sulawesi.  We were transiting between Raja and Halmahera and stopped at the small island group popularly known as “Pulau Pisang” or “Banana Island” to dive on the pretty reefs that are located in the area.  I had already visited this area several times over the previous few years and looked forward to diving on a site that boasted a large population of fusiliers, surgeonfish, and red tooth triggers that would school in the currents just off the reef.  On this particular trip, we dropped onto the site and enjoyed the schooling fish and bright soft corals that populate the current side of a pair of small islets.  However, as we followed the reef around to the lee side we came upon the site of some freshly destroyed coral heads that could only be the work of illegal dynamite fishermen.  Obviously this upset me quite a bit, so I went about the process of taking photos of the destroyed coral heads while swearing profusely into my regulator.  While I was doing this, one of my fellow divers called me over and pointed out an object that immediately had me exclaiming even louder, an unexploded fish bomb lying on the bottom!  I immediately started to tell the group to surface, as I had no idea if this explosive could still be set off.  Of course I wanted to take photos of this “bomb” but I admit to feeling a rather deep sense of foreboding in doing it and had trouble convincing myself to get close.  I ended up turning off my strobes (didn’t want the electrical circuit to set anything off) and zoomed as far as I could before snapping off a couple of quick shots all the while anticipating the bomb going off with each camera click!

Although the shot is certainly nothing spectacular, it does show how simple these home made “reef bombs” are: a couple of bottles filled with fertilizer and diesel or kerosene plus a wick.  What is scary is that these items are made from pretty easy to get ingredients but pose a huge threat to reefs.

Aquatica D90, f8, 1/30, 10-17mm lens, iso 400

Story Behind the Shot, A New Image Series

I am happy to announce a new series of blog posts that I call “Behind the Shot”, basically one photo (or a series of photos) where I will explain what particular technique or idea that I used to get the photo.  Some of the posts will be technical but most will just discuss an interesting photo and what my thoughts were when I was trying to capture it.  These photos will consist of both underwater and land based photographs and will encompass images from my library dating back to the 90s.  Hopefully I will post one or two of these a week and I will also cross post them on the Underwater Tribe Blog as well.

 

Shark Parade

Grey Reef Sharks

This image is one of my favourites from my time working in French Polynesia back in the early 2000s (I am dying to head back there!)  The lagoon entrance channel where this photo was taken is the epitome of “Pass Flying” dive sites, a narrow channel with a very strong tidal flow that enters the lagoon on a rising tide.  About 3/4s of the way through this channel a large school of grey reefs were resident at around 70ft of depth and would lazily circle the bottom of the channel while us divers “clung” to the sides mesmerized by the constant stream of sharks parading past.  To get this shot I waited until I was low on air and then shot out into the middle of the pass and allowed the current to push me toward the wary pack of sharks while taking a steady stream of photos.  Although many folks falsely believe sharks to be confident and predatory at all times, sharks are actually quite shy and don’t typically allow divers to get too close (unless there is feeding occurring).  Therefore, getting close to this school of sharks was no easy task!  As this shot was taken in the late afternoon, I needed to use a very slow shutter speed in order to separate the sharks from the background which ended up giving a “blurred” sense of motion to the image that I think works quite well in Black and White

Photo taken with Nikonos V and 15mm lens, Provia 100 ISO film, 1/30, f 5.6 depth of around 60ft (18 Metres), French Polynesia circa 2003

Testing Mirrorless Cameras in Lembeh Strait (Part 2)

This is the second part of a two part post, part 1 can be found here: Testing Mirrorless Cameras in Lembeh Strait Part 1

LembehMV14-40The second camera I used for the mirrorless camera tests at NAD Lembeh Resort was the Olympus EM-1 in a Nauticam housing, which I coupled with two different lenses:  the 8mm fisheye wide angle and the 12-50 zoom lens along with the Nauticam SMC-1 diopter.  The first thing that I noticed about the Olympus system, compared to the Sony/Nikonos system, was that it was much smaller and lighter; it had more of the feel of a compact camera than the Sony system, which was a plus in my books.  Once again I used two Inon S-2000 strobes for the set up and I spent one day shooting wide angle with the 8mm Panasonic lens and two days with the 12-50 mm lens.

On the first day, I used the 8mm lens with the first dive at a true muck dive, Jahir, a black sand slope with good critter potential for shooting CFWA.  The first thing I did was take a few test shots of some still subjects in order to see how wide the fisheye was and how I would need to position my strobes to avoid backscatter.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that this lens is just as wide as the 10.5mm on a Nikon and that scatter and flash flare were going to be an issue just as they are with a 10.5mm.  (I note here that I was not a big fan of these small strobes for wide angle use, as a wider angle strobe like my usual Sea and Seas YS 120s would have been preferable, however, for the 12-50mm lens these strobes were great, lots of power in a small size)  The very small size of the camera and mini dome port allowed me to get as close as I wanted to my subjects (much closer than the 15mm) which gave me better creative control over composition for CFWA.  It was easy to get in close and position the strobes correctly as well, however, I would have preferred wider strobes as mentioned earlier.   Looking at the photos on my computer screen afterwards did reveal that there is certainly some corner distortion with the CFWA shots on a wider aperature such as f6.3 (look at the white eyed moray shot to see this).  It wasn’t as obvious on higher apertures and to be honest, didn’t really bug me too much on the shots that I did take, however, I would need to shoot more to see where I really stand on this.  (This is common with SLR and fisheye as well)

On the next dive I found a massive coral head that was covered in baitfish that were being preyed upon by several large lionfish, the perfect opportunity for a more classic wide angle photo.  I was much happier with these shots, taken from further away, but still shot between f5.6 – f8, as the distortion was not nearly as obvious in the corners.  This is not to say that this camera creates more or less distortion than my D7000 and 10.5mm, both have corner problems at less than f11 for close up work, but I would say the D7000 is marginally better in that aspect than the Olympus, but, not by much!  Overall, I was happy with the wide angle from this combination and would most definitely use it again, although with wider angled strobes.

Next up was the 12-50mm lens and flat port for some “normal” shots of Lembeh critter diving.  I coupled this flat port with the Nauticam flip arm for the SMC-1 diopter in order to have an added punch of macro goodness for the small subjects that I was hoping to find.  What was really interesting about this lens and port combination was the ability to “turn on” macro mode with a simple twist of a dial.  The 12-50mm lens has a “macro” mode that allows the lens to focus very closely with it set at 43mm and the port has been designed to be able to access this function quickly and seamlessly by twisting a dial on the left side without having to manually tune the lens to that length or having to push a button to turn on the “macro” mode.  I found this to be a very cool feature of both the camera and housing, if I then wanted even more macro, I just had to swing the SMC-1 into place and I was good to go; this was a very simple and effective solution.

Typically, I am not a big fan of composing through the screen on the back of a camera, especially for macro, as I find it very hard to see if what I want in focus is actually in focus; this is much easier with the viewfinder on an SLR where you are looking at the actual animal through the lens, as opposed to a screen.  On the Olympus, I was expecting to hate the focusing for macro due to this issue, however, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting.  The camera was able to lock focus very quickly and for the most part I was able to tell if the areas I wanted in focus were the ones that ended up in focus.

As an SLR user, I have always been a bit jealous of compact camera users who were able to zoom in and out at will as well as attach close up diopters or wide angle adaptors during a dive.  Using the EM-1 and 12-50mm with it’s native macro capability was a real eye opener for me, I found it to be a very versatile setup with the ability to shoot the eyeball of a wonderpus and then shoot a wide angle shot of it with the mere twist of a dial.  By adding on the SMC-1 with the handy flip port, this set up quickly became my favourite choice of the lenses I had tried and I didn’t even bother with different lenses after that.  For Lembeh, the 12-50mm was the perfect choice as there are so many different subjects to shoot from big to small!  With an SLR I always concentrated on one lens, but with this set up I could take great photos of every subject that I came upon.  In short, I really liked it!

Overall, I had a better experience with the Olympus setup than I did with the Sony, however, I am really comparing apples to oranges here as I didn’t actually try any other lenses with the Sony other than the Nikonos 15mm.  I am quite sure if I spent more time with the Sony and used comparable lenses I would have had similar results.  However, of the two cameras I was more favourable to the Olympus and I am quite inclined to buy one for myself in the not too distant future.  Looking at the images on a 27 inch screen shows that they are just as sharp and clear as an SLR and I could sell images from both the Sony and Olympus with no problem as the quality is very good.  The only downside I see of the Olympus is the strange (to me) ratio of the resulting images as I find the 4/3rds size to be squarish looking when compared to the ratio of an SLR camera and it leaves me with the sense that the photos have been cropped without locking in the ratios, but, that could just be me!

Testing Mirrorless Cameras in Lembeh Strait (Part 2)

LembehMV14-40

Can see some issues in the corners

This is the second part of a two part post, part 1 can be found here: Testing Mirrorless Cameras in Lembeh Strait Part 1

The second camera I used was the Olympus EM-1 in a Nauticam housing, which I coupled with two different lenses:  the 8mm fisheye wide angle and the 12-50 zoom lens along with the Nauticam SMC-1 diopter.  The first thing that I noticed about the Olympus system, compared to the Sony/Nikonos system, was that it was much smaller and lighter; it had more of the feel of a compact camera than the Sony system, which was a plus in my books.  Once again I used two Inon S-2000 strobes for the set up and I spent one day shooting wide angle with the 8mm Panasonic lens and two days with the 12-50 mm lens.

LembehMV14-1

8mm, very wide!

On the first day, I used the 8mm lens with the first dive at a true muck dive, Jahir, a black sand slope with good critter potential for shooting CFWA.  The first thing I did was take a few test shots of some still subjects in order to see how wide the fisheye was and how I would need to position my strobes to avoid backscatter.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that this lens is just as wide as the 10.5mm on a Nikon and that scatter and flash flare were going to be an issue just as they are with a 10.5mm.  (I note here that I was not a big fan of these small strobes for wide angle use, as a wider angle strobe like my usual Sea and Seas YS 120s would have been preferable, however, for the 12-50mm lens these strobes were great, lots of power in a small size)  The very small size of the camera and mini dome port allowed me to get as close as I wanted to my subjects (much closer than the 15mm) which gave me better creative control over composition for CFWA.  It was easy to get in close and position the strobes correctly as well, however, I would have preferred wider strobes as mentioned earlier.   Looking at the photos on my computer screen afterwards did reveal that there is certainly some corner distortion with the CFWA shots on a wider aperature such as f6.3 (look at the white eyed moray shot to see this).  It wasn’t as obvious on higher apertures and to be honest, didn’t really bug me too much on the shots that I did take, however, I would need to shoot more to see where I really stand on this.  (This is common with SLR and fisheye as well)

LembehMV14-148

Corners were better at distance with 8mm

On the next dive I found a massive coral head that was covered in baitfish that were being preyed upon by several large lionfish, the perfect opportunity for a more classic wide angle photo.  I was much happier with these shots, taken from further away, but still shot between f5.6 – f8, as the distortion was not nearly as obvious in the corners.  This is not to say that this camera creates more or less distortion than my D7000 and 10.5mm, both have corner problems at less than f11 for close up work, but I would say the D7000 is marginally better in that aspect than the Olympus, but, not by much!  Overall, I was happy with the wide angle from this combination and would most definitely use it again, although with wider angled strobes.

LembehMV14-307

Focus was quick and accurate with 12-50mm

Next up was the 12-50mm lens and flat port for some “normal” shots of Lembeh critter diving.  I coupled this flat port with the Nauticam flip arm for the SMC-1 diopter in order to have an added punch of macro goodness for the small subjects that I was hoping to find.  What was really interesting about this lens and port combination was the ability to “turn on” macro mode with a simple twist of a dial.  The 12-50mm lens has a “macro” mode that allows the lens to focus very closely with it set at 43mm and the port has been designed to be able to access this function quickly and seamlessly by twisting a dial on the left side without having to manually tune the lens to that length or having to push a button to turn on the “macro” mode.  I found this to be a very cool feature of both the camera and housing, if I then wanted even more macro, I just had to swing the SMC-1 into place and I was good to go; this was a very simple and effective solution. Typically, I am not a big fan of composing through the screen on the back of a camera, especially for macro, as I find it very hard to see if what I want in focus is actually in focus; this is much easier with the viewfinder on an SLR where you are looking at the actual animal through the lens, as opposed to a screen.  On the Olympus, I was expecting to hate the focusing for macro due to this issue, however, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting.  The camera was able to lock focus very quickly and for the most part I was able to tell if the areas I wanted in focus were the ones that ended up in focus.

Macro mode worked well

Macro mode worked well

As an SLR user, I have always been a bit jealous of compact camera users who were able to zoom in and out at will as well as attach close up diopters or wide angle adaptors during a dive.  Using the EM-1 and 12-50mm with it’s native macro capability was a real eye opener for me, I found it to be a very versatile setup with the ability to shoot the eyeball of a wonderpus and then shoot a wide angle shot of it with the mere twist of a dial.  By adding on the SMC-1 with the handy flip port, this set up quickly became my favourite choice of the lenses I had tried and I didn’t even bother with different lenses after that.  For Lembeh, the 12-50mm was the perfect choice as there are so many different subjects to shoot from big to small!  With an SLR I always concentrated on one lens, but with this set up I could take great photos of every subject that I came upon.  In short, I really liked it!

SMC-1 was easy to use with swing arm

SMC-1 was easy to use with swing arm

Overall, I had a better experience with the Olympus setup than I did with the Sony, however, I am really comparing apples to oranges here as I didn’t actually try any other lenses with the Sony other than the Nikonos 15mm.  I am quite sure if I spent more time with the Sony and used comparable lenses I would have had similar results.  However, of the two cameras I was more favourable to the Olympus and I am quite inclined to buy one for myself in the not too distant future.  Looking at the images on a 27 inch screen shows that they are just as sharp and clear as an SLR and I could sell images from both the Sony and Olympus with no problem as the quality is very good.  The only downside I see of the Olympus is the strange (to me) ratio of the resulting images as I find the 4/3rds size to be squarish looking when compared to the ratio of an SLR camera and it leaves me with the sense that the photos have been cropped without locking in the ratios, but, that could just be me!