Dive Magazine , January 2008
More than half of British divers own some sort of camera – but to take great pictures, you’ve got to choose the most photogenic dive sites.
JP Trenque, the new chairman of the British Society of Underwater Photographers, recommends the dive sites that inspire him most
It is a common misconception that temperate-water diving is difficult and that the British coastline is surrounded only by murky water. In fact, there is much colour and beauty to be seen in our waters, and while conditions may be more challenging, the rewards can be even greater than tropical diving.
Most aspiring UK photographers take their pictures on club or group trips that have been arranged to provide the most thrilling experience possible. Taking pictures, then, tends to be an afterthought, and a great many camera-toting club divers complain about a lack of opportunity and appropriate subjects. Yet with a bit of planning, you can put yourself in a position where better pictures are guaranteed.
A key to success is to organise the dives with photography as the main purpose.
Unlike ‘normal’ divers, who swim around to explore a site, underwater photographers
make the worst buddies because they tend to find one especially favourable spot - say, the gun on a wreck or a well-placed anemone – and stick to it for the duration of the dive. But far from missing out on a variety of subjects, they concentrate on a small number of themes and often tend to spot more interesting tiny critters.
With the advent of compact digital cameras, underwater photography is no longer the
preserve of a privileged elite.
But to get to grips with the low-light, low-visibility challenges that come with UK diving, you should make life easy on yourself by choosing sites that give you an advantage. You should look for sites with relatively easy access, where a proximity to deep water allows for above-average visibility, and you should choose places where you are ensured a healthy array of subjects.
So, here are some sites that will allow you to get to grips with your camera and bring back pictures that will show the real story of diving in Britain. And remember: green water is nothing to be afraid of…
Eddystone Lighthouse, Plymouth
Standing proud 21km southwest of Plymouth, the Eddystone Lighthouse can also be
reached from nearby Looe. It is perched on a lively reef with many photographic
opportunities on offer at any depth. Good buoyancy skills are required near the rocks because of the lack of bare spots to hold on to and the occasional surge, which can add to the challenge.
On the south side of the reef at a depth of 18m, the rocks are carpeted with jewel anemones in colours from yellow and green to pink and purple. They make great macro (or extreme close-up) shots and are firm favourites
among entrants in BSoUP’s
British Splash-In Championship every July.
For best results…
Adding light from your built-in flash or an external strobe brings out the brightness in the anemones as if they’d been painted with day-glo colours. As light doesn’t travel as far underwater as it does on land, it is crucial to get as close to the anemones as possible.
Before the dive, check the minimum distance that your camera will be able to focus on.
Shooting very close to the subject will pretty much guarantee results, even if the water is charged with particles. In good visibility, walls of jewel anemones can also make great wide-angle subjects, using ambient light. Set the camera to manual white balance (see this month’s Snapper School on page 79) to reduce the green tinge and bring up the warmer
Mulberry Harbour, Wittering
Accessible by fast RIB from East Wittering, the Mulberry harbour is best dived four hours before or three hours after high water at Portsmouth. Originally designed as a floating harbour on the Normandy coast after D-Day, it drifted away and sank before being towed across the Channel to its current resting place.
The dive is easy and shallow, which sometimes causes the site to be quite crowded with less experienced divers trying to complete a couple of laps around the structure in a single dive.
Tompot Blennies, Lumpsuckers
The Mulberry supports an abundance of life, including tompot blennies – some of which can be quite inquisitive once they have become accustomed to the close
proximity of a camera lens. With a bit of patience, it is possible to see a
whole blenny venturing out from its hole.
Early-season divers visiting the site can also be greeted by lumpsuckers, enigmatic
deep-water fish that rise to breed and lay eggs in March and April. Don’t forget
to bring a warm windproof jacket with you on the RIB though, as the 30-minute
ride back to Wittering can be extremely chilly.
For best results…
Once again, it is recommended to find a spot and avoid moving until the animals have had a chance to get used to you. For better photographs, use a flash and point the camera slightly upwards to avoid ‘squashing’ the fish against the background.
SMS Dresden, Scapa Flow, Orkney
Shipwrecks are the very essence of British diving, and this German cruiser is one of the best. When in Scapa, you’ll hear some of the more experienced divers talking about their love for battleships, but they are less suited to photography than the light cruisers, because they turned turtle when they sank, and many of their key features are now hidden from natural light. Now, the light cruisers aren’t exactly small, but they do have the virtue of not lying upside down.
Lying on its side in about 35m of water, the Dresden is well colonised by soft corals and plumose anemones. Its deck is instantly recognisable and the 5.9in guns can’t fail to make an impact, especially when conger eels take up residence in
the barrels. The sheer size of this wreck is such that you could never hope to photograph it in its entirety, but if you get a good day with favourable visibility,
it is a realistic aim to photograph large sections or features. For this, turn off your flashlight and use your camera’s low-light settings to photograph large
areas of wreck.
For best results…
Due to the depth and particles in suspension, the amount of light reaching the deck is reduced. To compensate for this, set the ISO settings on your camera to a high value. This is likely to produce random red dots on your image, but such digital ‘noise’ can be turned into arty grain if you later convert the colour picture into a moody black and white image. If the amount of available light is reduced because the sun is too low or the water is murky, you will need to use external strobes and concentrate on much smaller areas of the wreck. A buddy wearing smart dive gear and carrying a torch can give scale and add life to the image.
Black Carr, St Abbs
The voluntary marine reserve in St Abbs is the set of a Splash-In photo competition held each year during the August bank holiday weekend. The combination of low currents, good visibility and an abundance of life makes it ideal for photographers. One of the favourite subjects is the voracious wolf-fish found near Black Carr, literally a stone’s throw from St Abbs Harbour.
Wolf-fish, Brittlestars, Octopuses
Living in the deeper part of the site and spending most of their time hiding in crevices among the rocks, wolf-fish have been known to venture out of their lairs to pose for photographers. Their wrinkled, battle-scarred faces are the stuff of legend and, in their endearingly ugly way, they have become one of the A-listers of temperate critter photography.
Black Carr is host to many other interesting species, from octopuses to fearless lobsters and even tiny scorpionfish. The rocky sea bed is covered in kelp, although some patches have been colonised by colourful brittlestars crawling on the bottom in their thousands. You could spend a whole weekend diving the same site and come back with a great variety of pictures.
For best results…
Brittlestars are very photogenic as both wide-angle and macro subjects. Having a compact camera allows you to take a few close-up shots before attaching the add-on fisheye lens to capture panoramas – a distinct advantage over professional SLR housings.
The Robert, Lundy Island
A photographic tour of underwater Britain would not be complete without dropping anchor off Lundy, northwest of Clovelly.
The resident seals are the obvious attraction here, but no photographer should visit Lundy without diving the wreck of the Robert at least once. One of the most colourful and encrusted wrecks anywhere, this coaster sank in 1975 and lies intact on its starboard side at a depth of 22m at low tide.
Plumose Anemones on Wreckage
The best time to dive the wreck is at low slack and on the flood tide. If the sun is high as you descend, it is worth getting a few shots of the field of plumose anemones and soft corals that smother the rusting hull.
In contrast with the Scapa wrecks, the Robert is relatively compact, making it possible to fit large areas of the ship in one frame. Combining the vibrant
orange of the plumose anemones with the green water in a harmonious image is a technical challenge, but the results can be stunning.
For best results…
As you reach the deck, a helpful buddy should switch on a torch and illuminate a point of focus on the wreck. If you have a powerful enough strobe, you can try to create balanced light images where the camera aperture is wide enough (small aperture numbers) to capture natural light in the background and your strobe illuminates the scene in the foreground.
Compass jellyfish, which get stuck to the wreck by their tentacles, can add life to your image. The wreck is also home to juvenile pollack, scorpionfish and tompot blennies.
TOP TIPS FOR GREAT BRITISH PHOTOS
- Choose sites that are easy to dive
- During the dive, concentrate on one small section of the site. You’ll see just as much, if not more
- Get as close as you can to the subject. When you think you’re close enough, get closer
- Take your time. With a bit of patience, shy subjects will become accustomed to you and will let you get closer
- Creatures swimming away and fishes’ tails seldom make interesting subjects. Try to make eye contact
- Avoid placing the main subject in the middle of the frame. Move it slightly towards the side of the image
- Look out for distracting backgrounds. Try to position yourself so that the background is uncluttered
- If you use an external strobe with a wide-angle lens, move the strobe out so that its axis points away from the axis of the lens to reduce backscatter
- Filters work a treat in the UK if the light conditions are good. By using filters instead of a flash, backscatter is all but eliminated
- Join BSoUP! The informal meetings are a great source of inspiration. Visit www.bsoup.org for more details
OTHER TOP PHOTO SPOTS
The British Isles offer such a variety of photographic opportunities that it is impossible to choose an ‘ultimate site’. St Kilda, the Isle of Man, Ireland and Wales are all great destinations.
The Farne Islands, with their colonies of grey and harbour seals combined with great wrecks and scenic dives, also rank high among photographers’ ideal locations.
But every summer, from Plymouth to Scotland, Britain is home to perhaps the greatest
photo subject of all – and you don’t even need dive gear to take its picture.
Stay still at the surface and watch the gentle giant: the basking shark.