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.



Testing Mirrorless Cameras in Lembeh Strait (part 1)

Before our recent Underwater Tribe/NAD Lembeh Photo Workshop, I decided to head to NAD Lembeh Resort in order to try a few new things in my diving life.  After a few days spent learning the ins and outs of Closed Circuit Rebreathers with the Poseidon Mark VI CCR, which is taught exclusively in Lembeh Strait by Simon at NAD, it was time to take some photos.  I decided to take advantage of Simons rental camera selection to try a few “new to me” setups while I had a few days of free time.  In fact, I didn’t even bring one of my own SLR housings, as I wanted to put these systems through a proper test and not give up mid way through and go back to my own trusty gear.  The rental systems that NAD had available for me (and for anyone interested in renting a camera while there) are a couple of the latest and greatest mirrorless cameras:  the  36 mp full frame Sony A7R and the Olympus EM-1, both with Nauticam housings.  I also rented two Inon S-2000 strobes to complete the desired “small” system that I wanted to familiarize myself with.


15mm Nikonos on Nauticam Housing

First up was the Sony A7R, which we paired with the legendary Nikonos 15mm lens, this system garnered a lot of press when it was first launched as the Nikonos lens is still considered one of the best ever wide angle underwater lenses due to its small form factor and great optics.  As someone who used the Nikonos V and 15mm combination for many years and thousands of dives, I was very intrigued by this new digital 15mm hybrid as I loved the 15mm with film because it was such an effective lens.  My goals were simple really: 1 – to see how the CFWA capabilities of the 15mm would compare to a modern SLR with a fisheye and teleconverter combination.  2 – see if the system was effective by being able to set the focus of the camera to a preset distance and be able to quickly capture sharp images.

Upon first inspection, this combination was certainly larger than a Nikonos V but was also smaller than an SLR, a plus for close focus images.  One of the first benefits of this setup that I noticed right away was the fact I could compose through the lens of the 15mm, whereas this lens only had a parallax viewfinder for use with the film version.  Being able to actually see the frame of what you want to compose is obviously a huge benefit!  One of the issues of this combination that I was expecting is the fact that the 15mm is a manual focus lens, so, there is no real way to tell if it’s actually in focus.  There is a “work around” for it as the Sony has a system of “coloured highlights” that can be activated on the screen to theoretically show what is in focus, however, the effectiveness of this system is not all that accurate and I never did trust it.


Can’t get too close with CFWA

As I was in Lembeh, the close focus opportunities were abundant and varied with subjects such as octopus, common seahorses, snake eels, and other fist sized or larger animals easily found.  What intrigued me about the 15mm and mirrorless camera combination was the small size of the lens itself which would provide an easy way to aim the strobes without a bulky dome port getting in the way, common with an SLR housing.  This did prove to be true, as I was easily able to position my strobes without having any shadows intrude into the photos.  However, what was disappointing was the distance I had to remain from the subjects to get sharp focus.  With the Nikonos V and 15mm combination a working distance of 15cm was about the minimum focus distance, and this was also true of the Sony and 15mm combination so I shouldn’t have been surprised.  However, after working with a fisheye and TC for so many years, with a 2cm to 3cm minimum focus distance, the Sony combination was not satisfactory for smaller subjects such as seahorses. I kept catching myself trying to get closer which of course ended in out of focus results.


Classic Wide Angle shots were perfect

On the second day of using this system, we headed out to the northern end of Lembeh Island to dive at some of the “classic” wide angle dive sites that offer stunning soft corals and seafans.  These photo opportunities were more inline with what I used to shoot with the Nikonos and I hoped taking these types of photos would prove more satisfactory than the CFWA ones did.  The “sweet spot” of the 15mm lens for general wide angle work is to set the focal distance to midway between 2 and 3 feet and the fstop midway between f5.6 and f8, this allows the lens to focus from about 30cm to infinity and is the setting I used for the vast majority of photos of such things as seafans and people shots with a Nikonos, and so I set it the same for the Sony. The Sony offers a wider variety of shutter speeds to work with as the Nikonos only synched between 1/30 and 1/90 with strobes (it can be set at 1/125 or higher but it only fires at 1/90 regardless).  My hopes were higher for this style of wide angle photography with the Sony/Nikonos combination and my hopes proved to be correct, my percentage of keepers were quite high compared to the CFWA photos I was shooting the day before.


Corner sharpness was very good

Everything that I shot between 1 to 4 feet proved to have sharp focus and brilliant colours, I was also very happy with the corner sharpness in these photos.  Corner sharpness can often be terrible when using a DSLR, with both fisheye and rectilinear lenses, especially at fstops less than f11.  The ability of this camera setup to shoot “from the hip”, without waiting for the autofocus to catch or having to “dial in” manual focus, was a definite advantage, especially for larger subjects.  I can certainly see this as a great combination for larger, fast moving situations such as feeding mantas, great white cage diving, whale sharks, whales, or baitball action.


Close up of the bottom left corner of the previous shot, very sharp

Overall, I found the Sony and Nikonos 15mm combination to be an interesting wide angle option but it wasn’t something I was “itching” to try again and again.  Although the sharp corners and quick shooting capabilities were a definite plus, the lack of being able to see exact focus and the 15cm minimum focus distance were negatives that put me off the system.  I would certainly consider it as a great option for fast moving subjects and in situations where smaller cameras are a plus, but the considerable cost of the camera itself means that it would be a very expensive “second camera” for most people.

FAQ About the Underwater Tribe Photo Workshop May 2014

Each year I conduct a couple of major underwater photography workshops in some of the best diving locales on the planet.  Typically I conduct them either on a liveaboard or at a resort that offers stunning photography opportunities, great photo facilities, and a great team of guides.  Every year these are becoming increasingly popular as more and more folks want to learn the art of underwater photography.  When conducting group workshops I often team teach with another photographer, this year is no different as my business partner Luca Vaime will be co-hosting this years Underwater Tribe Photo Extravaganza in North Sulawesi.  Many folks ask us what to expect from our photo workshops so we have written this brief FAQ in order to address some of the more popular questions.  Please read on to learn more about our workshops and what they offer to potential guests.

LEMB2013041906181. Who are the workshops aimed at?

All of our workshops are great learning experiences for both new photographers as well as those who don’t get the chance to shoot very often who are looking to brush up on their skills.  They are also very informative for photographers who have more experience as we often discuss many “advanced techniques” during the course of our workshops.

2.  I am a brand new photographer, are the lessons too advanced for me?

No!  In fact, our workshops always start from the basics and then proceed onto more advanced techniques throughout the week.  If anyone is having trouble with certain ideas we are always willing to sit down one on one to ensure everyone understands the theory involved.

3.  I understand the basics but I would like to know more advanced techniques, what can I learn from the workshop?

Everyone can benefit from an overview of basics about f-stops and shutter speeds from time to time as well as expand their knowledge about composition techniques.  For more advanced shooters, the greatest benefits include one on one time underwater with the instructors, one on one image review, and the chance to discuss images with a group of like minded photographers.  Also, in our “Taking it to the Next Level” workshops we discuss a lot of different techniques such as snooting, blue and black backgrounds, effective modeling, WB and filter photography, Playing with Light, split photos, and a host of other interesting techniques that go beyond the basics.  Having the instructors with you underwater is a huge benefit when it comes to helping learn to aim snoots or taking split photos.

LEMB2013041805904.  I like wide-angle photography more than macro, should I attend the Lembeh workshop?

Yes!  Lembeh has some very under rated wide angle dives such as California Dreaming and Angels Window, also, the close focus wide angle opportunities in the Strait are outstanding with creatures such as frogfish, stargazers, mimic octopus, coconut octopus, and many others almost tailor made for a wider lens.  Also, we will start the workshop discussing f-stops and shutter speeds, which will certainly help learning to light wide-angle photos properly.

5.  I am a bigger fan of macro photography rather than wide angle, should I attend the Bunaken workshop?

Most definitely!  The Bunaken National Park is a very under rated macro photography destination with a wide variety of great critters found on the walls of the islands.  In the afternoons we will be diving a lot of the reefs on the mainland, which feature great macro critters as well as healthy reefs.  Nudibranchs, frogfish, pygmy seahorses of all varieties such as bargibanti, denise, and pontohi are more common here than they are in Lembeh!

BaliMV13-4906.  Will the Bunaken Workshop theory only discuss Wide Angle techniques?

Certainly not, our Bunaken workshop is not a “wide angle” workshop but rather a “Taking it to the Next Level” workshop instead.  We will start with discussion about f-stops, shutter speeds, and strobe positioning for wide angle photography and then continue with discussions about different lighting techniques, working with models, manual white balance and filter photography, and the art of the background.  A lot of these discussions are relevant for both wide angle and macro photography.  Also, the instructors provide one on one time underwater as well as in the classroom so it’s up to each student what they would like to discuss and learn during their personal instruction time.

7.  What is the role of the instructor during the dives?  Will I have any one on one time with the instructors underwater?

Most definitely!  We pride ourselves on spending time with our participants both above and below the surface.  Everyone will have the chance to spend a full dive with each instructor throughout the course of the workshop.   Our instructors carry slates underwater, not cameras.  This way they can communicate effectively with you underwater in order to help with camera settings, strobe positioning, and any other issues that may happen during the dives.

LEMB2013041906028.  I enjoy having my photos critiqued after a day of shooting, will this be available?

Yes, each day of the workshop the instructors make themselves available for one on one critiquing and questions before dinner.

9.  Will there be anything other than classroom talk throughout the week?

Of course, we like to provide a lighthearted yet educational vibe throughout the week.  We will show entertaining slideshows and videos in the evenings as well, and set aside enough time for everyone to work on their cameras and photos as well as have some down time.

10.  I don’t have a dive buddy who can accompany me; can I join on my own?

Of course, we will be diving with very small groups and plenty of dive guides so the ratio of people to instructors and guides is very favourable.

BaliMV13-34311.  Do I need a laptop?

A laptop is preferred for each participant; also, a copy of Adobe Lightroom is a very good tool to have during workshops as we discuss this program for editing.

12.  I only have a compact camera, can I still participate? What is the minimum camera equipment needed in order to gain the most from the workshop?

Of course!  We welcome everyone with a camera who is willing to learn more about photography.  Many compact cameras have manual controls such as the Canon G and S series and they work exactly like SLR cameras so the theory we teach works with all cameras.  However, we would suggest that a macro diopter and one strobe are a very good investment to look into before joining a workshop.  A second strobe and a wide-angle adaptor are also great investments but one strobe and the macro diopter are the perfect way to start.

13.  What does the typical day of the workshop entail?

The workshops start with a nice breakfast and two morning dives with snacks and drinks served on the boat.  After the second dive we return to the resort for lunch followed by a theory lesson presented by one of the instructors.  We will then head out on the third dive of the day and when we return the instructors host “open sessions” which is the best time for students to have their images reviewed and ask questions directly of the instructors.  After dinner the instructor will present either an entertaining slide show or else continue with more theory presentations.

14.  Will I receive any course materials?

Yes, everyone who participates will receive a full set of the presentations to keep; PDF is the format for these.

LEMB20130418058715.  Is the photo workshop suitable for open water divers?

Yes, our courses are suitable for all levels of divers.  However, we ask that anyone who is starting on the path of underwater photography to have good buoyancy skills before starting photography.  Carrying a camera underwater and trying to get close to subjects close to fragile corals is not an easy task and good buoyancy skills are a must before using a camera underwater.

16.  Will I have internet access?  I have to follow up with my job back home and stay in touch with family.

Yes, both NAD and Thalassa have internet access.  However, due to their remote locations it’s not as fast as internet in first world nations, therefore, uploading large files and downloading videos and YouTube is not possible.  However, emails, web browsing, and Facebook are all readily available.

17.  How far is Bunaken from Lembeh?

The transfer between NAD and Thalassa will take around 1.5 – 2 hours depending on traffic conditions.







May 1 Update

I have been back in Indonesia now for 2 months since a prolonged 4 months in Canada (over winter even!) and wow, what a two months it has been!


Luca and Niko looking for Pygmy Seahorses

In March, I taught two private photo classes in Bali as well as a fun road trip around the island with the Underwater Tribe.  In April the fun really began!  After another trip around Bali with Simon and Sofie Pridmore for a magazine article, I made my way to the old haunts at NAD Lembeh Resort.  Along with Matt Oldfield, we conducted a photo workshop for 12 students and had an amazing but busy week.  I believe that everyone learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed their time with us, we will be conducting another workshop in Tulamben, Bali in late October.  Of course we spent a few days of diving for ourselves before and after the class in order to get some photos to fill out our portfolios.  I decided to dive only with the 10.5mm + 2X TC combination as it’s a great set up for octopus, my main target for the week, and it did prove challenging.  I had to pass up a lot of great subjects that others with more “macro” setups got to shoot but that’s ok, I got the octopus photos I wanted in the end (no sneak peaks yet)!  I am very much looking forward to heading up to NAD Lembeh again soon for more photo opps in Lembeh.  It really is a great resort and is proving to be the resort of choice for serious photographers in Lembeh Strait.  I was blown away by all of the changes in the last 3 years.


Shrimp on a Snake Eel


Photo Workshop Participants

Matt and I also spent a day at the Tasik Oki animal rehabilitation centre just outside of Bitung.  The folks at Tasik Oki work with local officials and the police to rescue illegally held animals that are kept as pets throughout the North Sulawesi area, animals such as cassowary birds, orangutans, macaques, and gibbons just to name a few.  Of course don’t forget the Sun Bears who are kept for their gall bladder production, what a horrible thing that is!  The centre has two sun bears on location, adorable little bears who are now enjoying a much better life than previously but unfortunately won’t be able to go back to the wild.  They have successfully seized many of these unique and endangered animals from very poor conditions and are able to care for them much better than those keeping them as pets.  I know its tough to see photos of these animals behind bars but its better than what they had before, the staff at Tasik Oki truly do keep good care of their animals. If you have the chance to visit Tasik Oki then please do, also, if you have some spare income to offer as a donation then it’s always appreciated as it goes to the benefit of these animals.




Sun Bear! I had no idea they were so small

Not 36 hours after arriving back in Bali, I was off on another private photo class in Tulamben before having a few days in Sanur to finish a couple of deadlines.  Now it’s the first of May and I started the day out with a 2.5 hour bike ride with my friend Graham, a great way to start the day!  I will be heading out to north Bali in a couple of days for more photo instruction and then then who knows?!   2013 has started out as a busy year and also a good and bad one (for reasons I won’t get into here) but the rest of the year certainly looks like it will be busy and fruitful with a lot of exciting adventures coming up!  Looking forward to it.


Lembeh Sunset

Underwater Tribe/NAD Lembeh Photo Workshop 2013 Day Two

SimonBuxtonID-130416-00025-2Day 3


Up early today to one heck of a full day of diving!  The plan is to dive, dive, and dive some more:  three day dives and one night dive.  Matt and his group of intrepid souls head out to Makawidey Pier and Pantai Perigi for the morning with seahorses, flambouyant cuttlefish, coconut octopus, and a Randalls frogfish as the highlights of two 75 minute dives.  Mike and the “Mimic” gang head to Makawidey 2 with the usual show of seahorses, mantis shrimp, and not one but two giant frogfish as well as Tanjung Kubur with more seahorses and cuttlefish to be found.  The afternoon started with a great lunch of Beef Rendang followed by a lesson about Adobe Lightroom cataloguing and importing by Matt.  The afternoon dives had coconut octopus and the colour purple:  a purple seahorse as well as a purple Ambon scorpionfish, very cool.  After a brief snack of pisang goreng at the resort we all headed back out on a night dive where we saw several frogfish, octopus, flambouyant frogfish, and of course a cute little bobtail squid.  Once again we had a great dinner around the famous NAD Lembeh longtable with the meal consisting of a local favourite of Soto Ayam (chicken noodle soup) and fresh fish.  The meal arrangement at NAD is one of my favourite features of the resort, they set up all of their smaller tables into one long table so that everyone who is staying at the resort has the chance to sit and chat to everyone else.  It truly is a very sociable affair as the guests are constantly sitting beside a different person at each meal and meeting new friends from all over the world.  After the meal Mike launched into an interesting 40 minute discussion/slideshow about “Playing with Light” where he discussed unorthodox lighting and how to make both macro and wide angle photos stand out from the crowd by simply thinking more about the use of light.  Not long after this lecture the tired troops hit the sack after almost five hours of underwater time for the day!  Until tomorrow…

Underwater Tribe/NAD Lembeh Photo Workshop 2013

Day 1

We were very happy to welcome 12 eager photo students last night to NAD Lembeh Resort!  After a brief introduction of the instructors, Mike Veitch and Matt Oldfield, along with NAD’s owners Simon and Zee Buxton, we had everyone introduce themselves and tell us a little about themselves.  In a sign of a truly international event we are hosting students from Singapore, Malaysia, England, Thailand, the USA, Mauritius, Russia, and Brazil! Wow, what a group.

LembehLandMV13-410Day 2

Up bright and early today for two morning dives.  We have split the folks into two groups of six and each instructor is following along with each boat in order to give personal tips to each student.  The way the Underwater Tribe organizes photo instruction in events like this is to accompany each diver for a full dive giving one on one photo tips throughout the dive.  Once the instructors have finished diving with each of the six members of the group we will switch boats and then accompany the other six so each diver will have the chance to dive with each instructor.

We dove 4 different sites in the morning and the list of critters was long!  Frogfish, ribbon eels, nudis, squid, octopus, spiny devil fish, flambouyant cuttlefish and the list goes on!  After a great lunch, Mike gave a talk about photography in Lembeh and the best methods of capturing the critters.  The afternoon saw the groups heading out on a third dive before a beautiful sunset at the resort.  Following a few sunset drinks Mike gave the “big” lecture on how to control f-stops, shutter speeds, and strobes, only 3 people fell asleep!  After a big dinner Matt Oldfield inspired the group with a slideshow of images from Sulawesi showcasing the beautiful macro and wide angle opportunities that can be found in the area.


Off to Lembeh!

Photographer and CuttlefishIt’s been a busy few weeks in Bali between teaching a few photography courses to some great students and a quick 5 day whirlwind tour around the island with Aquamarine and Simon and Sofie Pridmore.  After 12 hours at home, I am now in the Makassar airport on my way to Lembeh Strait and the NAD Lembeh Resort for our first Underwater Tribe/NAD Lembeh photography workshop.  Its been a long time since I have spent any time in Lembeh and I am really looking forward to it.  Will do some diving and photography but really looking forward to spending some time with Simon, Zee, and Matt Oldfield as well as a great group of photography students who will be joining us next week.  Matt and I will be posting photos and updates on our blogs and Facebook if you would like to follow along.

Photographically I am going to concentrate on the wider side of Lembeh, so stay tuned!