Raja Ampat 2015 Video Highlights

It has taken some time but I have finally edited down my video clips from the Underwater Tribe Raja Ampat trip aboard the Mermaid II liveaboard in March 2015.  As expected, the Raja area delivered some amazing diving for our group of explorers and the Misool area was especially abundant with clear water and plenty of fish.  If you would like to read a brief trip report on our 2015 adventures then please head on over to our Trip Report from March.  If you are interested in joining us on a trip of a lifetime to Raja Ampat we have booked the Mermaid II for the same moon phase at the same time of year in 2017 and we still have spaces available, please check out the 2017 trip page here: Underwater Tribe Raja Ampat 2017

Black and White – Touch of Grey

With the sudden surge in popularity of Black and White images on Facebook and other social media, it’s time to post this article that Mike wrote for Scuba Diver Australasia magazine in 2008 for the “In Focus” column.  The format and photos are not necessarily the same as the magazine layout.  Enjoy!

Manta Ray silhouetteIf I’m presented with a series of art prints it’s always the classic black and white photo that stands out. Check the Web or flip through some diving magazines and you’ll notice a lack of underwater black and whites though. Why is that?

Several reasons: Cameras are set up to shoot colour images; folks don’t want to spend time converting to black and white in post production; and of course the underwater world is so full of rich colours, it may seem a waste to photograph marine life in monotone. Seeing the underwater world solely in colour, though, is like going to Starbucks and ordering plain black coffee! Which means there’s a treasure of photographic opportunities awaiting the shooter willing to conceptualise outside the box.

While Doug Sloss has already written about converting a colour image into black and white using Photoshop, I want to take a different tack. Let’s look at the “why, when, and where” of thinking in black and white.

Charismatic Megafauna

SharksNot every subject in the water lends itself to shades of grey. Obviously, a bright red sea fan with numerous colourful crinoids and soft corals attached to it won’t be nicer if you capture it in black and white. Instead, subjects with strong lines, contours, and shapes work well in black and white; examples include wrecks, wharf pillars, whales, and manta rays. But are these types of wide-angle subjects the only suitable subjects? Not by a long shot.

By thinking outside the box, you’ll be surprised how many different subjects look great in black and white. Anemone bulbs, nudibranchs, schooling fish, fish portraits, and even coral reefscapes can be given a whole new look with a simple colour conversion. The key is to look for textures and shapes that are out of the ordinary.

Take the humble anemone for example. Whereas most shooters will concentrate on capturing the antics of a playful anemonefish, look instead at the jewel-like details of the individual polyps. The play of shadows across the bulb tentacles creates a perfect abstract rendition of a relatively common subject.

Diver on Sand in Black and WhiteWhen composing photos of fine detail to convert to black and white it’s not just the composition that counts. In order for the photo to work it must be illuminated properly. A well thought out image will have a good balance of light and shadows throughout. This is very important as it’s these areas that display the subtle layers of grey and black that will make the image “pop.”

When using strobes to illuminate an underwater subject it’s very important to use them wisely. Using two strobes to evenly light the entire subject doesn’t give the opportunity to create hints and textures. Instead, varying the power of the strobes or using only one will create the dramatic light needed to cast fine shadows across the subject.

Other subjects that lend themselves well to monotone are “charismatic megafauna” like sharks, whales, mola mola, and manta rays. Why would this be, you ask. It’s simple. Since all are pelagic in nature, they need to blend in with their environment in order to hunt or hide from predators, and as such utilise basic skin tones: grey, black, or white. However, their lines and shapes make them instantly recognisable to the average diver. Combining the sleek contours of a shark with the mysterious and subtle tones of a black and white image create a sense of mystery and awe. The same is true of mola molas – their grey skin appears bland against a blue background but contrasts sharply with the subtle grey of the open ocean when converted in Photoshop.

Diver and Schooling Horse Eye JacksThe sheer size of a great whale is impossible to light with strobes and photos of them often tend to “wash out” toward the blue spectrum. A black and white conversion allows the strong aura of the whale to stand out better against a light coloured background. This leads us to the next advantage of colour conversion: the ability to save a slightly over or underexposed photograph or one that tends too much toward blue/green natural light photos.

I have a number of photographs in my collection where I was too far from the action and my strobes weren’t able to illuminate colour properly. Shooting in RAW and using the white balance adjustment can often bring colour back to these photos, but I often try a black and white conversion instead.

One of my favourite images is of a large school of sharks in French Polynesia. The original slide is a washed out blue/green because I was too far from the sharks. The subject itself was very appealing but the overwhelming blueness of the image made it an ordinary shot. By scanning it to digital and converting it to black and white I was able to save a once in a lifetime photo, and it now hangs on my wall.

The Soul of a Wreck

USS Liberty WreckSome of the most dramatic underwater subjects aren’t fish but rather man-made objects. Diving on shipwrecks is a haunting experience for any diver. But capturing the essence of a lost ship lying on the bottom of the sea isn’t an easy task.

Using the subdued hues of grey in a monotone image, the emotion and power of the final resting place ship is undeniably more powerful than the use of a bright blue background. The mood of what are often war graves is captured perfectly in black and white, and the subtle shadows create a deep feeling of mystery and emotion.

Other man-made structures that work well in black and white are docks or piers. Shafts of bright light streaming through the wooden planks of a dock, or bursting from behind a series of pilings is an unforgettable image. Many of these objects are home to large schools of fish seeking shelter. This added element of marine life adds a complementary “near and far” subject to the image. Be careful when shooting this style of photograph: The low light of morning or late afternoon works the best as the sun is low on the horizon, and won’t overexpose the whites in the background.

One of the best rewards of a well-planned and executed black and white photograph is the end result of printing. The classic tones of such photos really stand out. We now have at our disposal a fantastic way to display photographs in a different way: on canvas. Many professional print shops offer digital printing on canvas at very reasonable rates. Taking a black and white photograph and having it displayed and framed on stretched canvas can help make that image into a timeless display of art.

Pink AnemonefishThere are also a few exciting tricks that can be done in Photoshop to make your photo one of a kind. Consider leaving a portion of the subject in colour while converting the rest of the image to black and white. A small splash of bright colour against an otherwise grey background makes the composition stand out from the crowd.

Now that you know what subjects to look for, get out there and think in monotone. Flip through some of your old “just missed” photos and you may find a hidden gem amongst the chaff. And don’t be discouraged by the green water at your local wreck dive – thinking in terms of lines and contrast necessary for black and white will allow you to capture that iconic image you’ve been shooting for. sd

The Art of Super Macro Photography

This originally appeared in Scuba Diver Australasia Magazine as a part of the “In Focus” photography column.


Pregnant Pygmy SeahorseThere comes a time in every photographers career for a new challenge, you will know when you are ready for this when taking the same style of shots over and over again becomes static and uninteresting.  Fortunately for underwater photographers, there are many challenges available without having to break the bank.  One of the biggest, and certainly most rewarding, is the world of “super macro” photography.  Super macro is when we shoot something at greater than a 1:1 ratio.  However, it’s not easy to shoot such small subjects; special equipment, a steady hand, and a great deal of patience are all required when shooting the smallest of the small.


There are several ways of creating a system that can take super macro photographs, and it’s not only DSLR shooters who can shoot these photographs, compact camera users can as well.

Dioptres- dioptres are a small lens element that screws onto the front of your existing lens and allows you to focus much closer than your regular lens, enabling you to fill more of the frame with your subject.   These are available in two basic formats.  The most popular is the wet-mount dioptre that fits onto both compact cameras and DSLRs.  One advantage of the compact camera in this regard is the ability to stack two or even three of these lenses together in order to focus on the tiniest of underwater inhabitants.  The second dioptre option is an internal one that fits onto the lens itself before putting the camera into the housing.  Obviously this will limit your shot selection on a given dive as you will not be able to take it off underwater.  The second negative of this system is that your “long focus” is limited to a short distance, often not much longer than two feet; this is bad when you want to shoot subjects a little further away.  Also, be aware of which brand of dioptre you buy; cheap, single element lenses will create distortion around the edges and ruin an otherwise beautiful photo.  It’s better to spend a little more in order to purchase a double element lens, this will produce sharper images..

The dioptre system works well on a variety of subjects that are easily approachable.  Many inhabitants of the reef will allow photographers to approach within centimetres.  It’s these creatures that you should be seeking when shooting with a dioptre.  Frogfish, lionfish, scorpionfish, nudibranches, and coral patterns are just a few of the subjects that come to the top of my mind.  Imagine the intricate details of a crocodilefish eyeball filling the frame without having to crop!

Dioptres are a relatively inexpensive and simple method to achieve greater magnification in your photography, as no other pieces of equipment are needed.  For those who don’t want to be stuck shooting one style of photo per dive, the external dioptre option is the system for you


Lembeh09MV-3789Somewhat more complicated than using a dioptre is the use of a teleconverter (TC for short).  Used only by DSLR photographers, these are special add-ons that fit between the regular lens and the camera.  A TC usually comes in three strengths, 1.4x, 1.7x, and 2x, meaning the TC makes the lens 1.4 times up to 2 times stronger than the lens itself.  The teleconverter is great for shooting shy critters that normally can’t be approached closely with a regular setup.  Fish that are notoriously camera shy will never allow a diver with a dioptre to get close enough to get a good photo.  However, using a TC will allow the photographer to take the photo from further away than normal, meaning shy creatures can fill the frame with a pleasing composition.  Think of a field of garden eels and how unapproachable they are; when you finally sneak within shooting range they quickly disappear into their holes.  By adding a teleconverter on a 100mm lens, the working distance becomes twice as long, enabling you to stay outside of their comfort zone and still fill the frame.  Some teleconverters can be used in conjunction with the cameras autofocus system, which is a great benefit, other ones cannot.  It’s best to check that a TC will work with your camera’s autofocus before you buy it.  TC’s do have several drawbacks however.  The autofocus system slows down very noticeably and is certainly not conducive to photographing fast moving subjects.  The other drawback is that specialized ports will be required. As the TC will make your macro lens extra long, you will need long extension tubes to encompass them.

Light Light and More Light

Lembeh10MV-653One thing that super macro craves is lots and lots of light.  In order to start shooting the small stuff, one of the first things you will need is a good quality focusing light.  Typically this will be an underwater flashlight, not the spotting light from your strobe.  Spotting lights are important as they will aid your eye, as well as your camera’s autofocus, in finding points of contrast to focus on.  Having strong strobes is also a definite must.  Due to the extreme magnification of using teleconverters, the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor is limited; the equivalent apertures are in the f64 range and higher.  Therefore a strong strobe, placed close to the subject, is required in order to “blast” enough light at the subject to expose it properly.

Trials and Tribulations

The first step to shooting a successful super macro photo is to find the proper subject.  Due to the extremely shallow depth of field found at these magnifications, only certain subjects will work.  Concentrate on looking for tiny subjects that are not very common: nudibranch rhinophores, fish eggs, eyeballs, and fish scales.  It’s these eye-popping subjects that are so out of the ordinary that they can’t help but catch the eye of the viewer and leave them wondering “how did he/she do that?”  However, you must be careful when shooting subjects at great magnification.  The key is to keep the main parts of the subject on the same plane of focus.  Even the slightest offset will cause a portion of the photo to blur.

Lembeh09MV-2209There is nothing more important in super macro than keeping a steady hand and having endless patience.  The rewards from achieving a full frame photo of a pygmy seahorse are wonderful, but don’t get discouraged when it takes 60 minutes to achieve.  Even the slightest movement from these tiny fish will throw your focus out of whack.  It’s best not to be trigger happy in these circumstances but to be patient and use small movements.  The best strategy is actually to use the camera on manual or locked focus.  By locking focus, the camera will not go into “hunting” mode; you can control what parts of the frame are in or out of focus by moving back and forth from the subject itself.

Shooting “super macro” is not for everyone.  It’s not for the photographer who wants to see as many different things on one dive as possible, nor is it a great idea to bring with you on group dive trips.  In order to fully explore this niche you will need to choose a subject and stay with it for a very long time; this is no time for the guide to be harassing you to stay with the group.  Therefore, you will need a patient dive buddy with a great eye for small things.  Another thing to keep in mind is the topography of your dive site.  Locations such as Lembeh Strait are perfect for super macro photography as it offers a sandy or mucky slope without a lot of live coral on the bottom.  A sandy bottom composition is preferred as shooting at this magnification requires a steady base, such as lying on the bottom or the use of a small tripod.  Diving in a beautiful coral garden is not recommended when trying to shoot something at 4 times its natural size!

What are you waiting for?  Head on down to your local camera or dive shop and investigate the possibilities available for your camera.  You never know, the moment you add one of these elements to your repertoire might be the time you see those tiny anemone fish babies popping out of their eggs!