Swimming with Sea Dogs.

Last month, yes that’s how far behind on my pictures I am… anyways. Last month we headed out to Santa Barbara Island to hang with some sea lions in the large rookery on the island. I’ve never had good luck photographing these swift swimmers, but this day I was armed with a wide angle lens and two strobes and the results were… well… better than before, but still with lots of room for improvement. We ended up shallow, spending a good deal of time in 6-15′ of water. I was using the 8mm fisheye, a lens that I love, though I quickly found out that with such a wide lens, the sea lions needed to get extremely close, which didn’t always happen. After the day of diving, and upon talking with others on the boat and looking at my pictures, I also realized that I really should have tried some shots with just the ambient light. The 1/160 shutter speed on my E-PL1 isn’t quite fast enough to really freeze the sealions as the zoomed by, and I was shallow enough much of the time that I could have turned off the strobes and bumped up the shutter speed. Ah…well, something for next time.

PEACEful Day.

On Saturday I had my first trip with Bluewater Photo. We went out on the Peace dive boat to Anacapa Island, for four fantastic dives. Once again, in what is starting to be a really nice trend, we had summer like weather. It was sunny and warm and the visibility was upwards of 50 feet on average! To top it off I was testing out a new camera, the Olympus E-PM1, the latest in their line of mirrorless cameras. In addition I was using the Panasonic 8mm fisheye lens with Precision dome port. This was my first time getting to actually shoot wide angle, and let me just say… I LOVE this fisheye lens! I was still using a single strobe, and that made it difficult at times; I can definitely see how two strobes are basically necessary for such wide angle shots. Half the time I had a nicely exposed foreground and background, but black in the middle… or only half of my image would be properly exposed leaving the rest very dark. It was hard to work around, but really got me to appreciate the importance of strobe placement! In addition to practicing some lovely reef shots I also practiced with silhouettes and got a great shot of a harbor seal! We dove with sea lions at one of the rookeries, hit up Landing Cove where I found the awesome swim through, stopped at Rat Rock, with a floor covered in brittle stars and lastly dove Channels where a friendly family of harbor seals hangs out. I had a great day mingling with the new group of divers on the Bluewater charter and can’t wait for the next one! Here is hoping this warm weather, calm seas and awesome viz trend sticks around for awhile!!

Back to the Rigs.

At the beginning of February I went back out to dive the rigs on the Sundiver Express through LA Dive and Ride. The trip was a blast and we encountered midsummer-like calm weather. The ocean was flat as a pancake, the sun was shining and the water was very clear! To top off the great day of diving, we were visited by a school of young Mola Mola on the first dive. I counted up to 10 at one point, and while somewhat skitterish, they hung around just off the rigs for the entire dive. One the second dive, the sea lions were as curious as ever, cruising down to the divers and zooming around as we waited during our safety stop. All in all, a great day of diving!

Hello Harbor Seal.

At the end of the third dive as I was headed back to the boat I saw something dart through the kelp ahead of me. Rounding a corner of one of the rock channels I saw a harbor seal laying in the sand. He looked up, saw me and darted away before I could get a picture. Excited because I haven’t seen a harbor seal under the water while diving as of yet, I continued on to the boat. As I neared the anchor chain, macro lens put away and camera set as wide as possible, just in case, I came across him again! He was slithering along the bottom, nose in the sand looking for something to dig up and eat I expect. Either not hearing me or just ignoring my presence he continued along before darting away again after a few minutes.

Surprisingly, he kept coming back! As one point he swam over and settled into the sand right in front of me, watching me fumble with my camera, hoping to  get it into position and snap a decent shot. He never settled quite long enough for me to take a couple shots, so it was either you got it or you don’t type of situation. I was excited about this shot, though in order to have the background exposed properly I had the shutter speed set too slow to capture the seal crisply. The strobe froze him in place, but the longer shutter speed allowed him to blur after the strobe had fired. Next time, I ought to open up the aperture so that I can stop down the shutter speed in hopes of still having a well exposed background and a nice crisp critter!

One last try, before needing to give up and head back to the boat, but I guess I got too close (seriously was worried as I inched nearer and nearer that he might try to bite my camera or myself, but he just sat there watching me) and my flash was a little over powerful, he even had to squint!

Overall I found it incredible how inquisitive this guy was, and how huge! The seals always seem smaller compared to the sea lions, and they are a little bit, but they are still pretty huge! I got to sit and watch this guy cruise around the kelp and dig in the sand. I watched him chase a fish nearly catching it. It was incredible. Just wish the viz had been a little clearer, and the surge a little less so that there would be less sand and particles floating around in the water!

In Your Face.

The last picture of this series really gets up close and personal. I was practicing with macro and found a VERY lazy scorpionfish laying on a group of rocks. He allowed me to get super close with my macro lens and snap a couple shots. I inched closer and closer, working to to get a nicely centered face on shot. Eventually I did and I love this one. Its a little busy, if I could have blocked the strobe a little more so that just the front of his face was lit with the rest of the fish dropping more into black I think it would be even more dynamic, but for first time practice, I’ll take it. You can really see the character of the fish when he’s up this close; the grumpy face, slightly smirking at the camera as if he knows something I don’t. Though really, who knows… scorpionfish could be rather polite and classy folk.

Filling the Frame.

The second to last group of pictures from my photography adventure a couple weeks ago is of a tube anemone. I had my macro adapter with me and really wanted to work on some macro shots and practice with “filling the frame,” another one of Scott’s composition tips. I had a little trouble at first, not getting my camera to focus properly…that is until realizing I had messed with the settings on my camera and was not even in the mode I wanted to be. After taking a second to switch back into manual and check my exposure settings I tried again. This time everything worked right. After that I spent the next 15 minutes (at least!) huddled over this anemone trying to get a shot with it wide open, perfectly centered with its tendrils spreading out of the frame. Finally I got it…well its maybe not 100% in the center, but its pretty darn close!

I continued shooting, trying different angles, still working to fill the frame but also to see if a lower angle, or an off angle would create a more compelling image. I remembered the rules of trying to use the diagonal and ended up liking this next image…

What I really liked is how the inner tendrils of the anemone are more prevalent, carefully reaching up and out of the dark center. Once again, I had trouble not shifting any sandy bits as I knelt in the sand next to the small creature, but as a first time practice I’m okay with the small white spots of sand marring the dark center. If I really wanted to I’m sure I could take them out in photoshop, but I haven’t had the time.

After awhile I remembered I was underwater with a finite air supply, so I checked my gauges, surprised to find my air half gone and 30 minutes elapsed. Yikes! Looking around I also discovered that the rest of the group had moved on to other subjects, so I said goodbye to my anemone and swam up to shallower water in order to make the dive last a bit longer and to find another macro subject.

School’s Out.

At the end of the second dive, I was headed back to the boat when I happened across a large school of fish. Realizing that I was too far away for my strobe to really work,  I tried to quickly adjust settings as if exposing just for the background, while also keeping in mind the moving subjects… ie: not a very slow shutter speed or I’d just get a bunch of blurs. I took a few shots, then started to move toward the schooling fish adjusting my strobe as far out from the camera as possible, hoping to get near enough to illuminate some of the school, but also eliminate backscatter.

This plan definitely helped, though of course as soon as I started swimming toward the school then turned away, so instead of getting a massive group of fish swimming at me, I now had them swimming away from me. I was able to get close enough for my strobe to catch some of the fish which definitely helps to add definition and make the fish pop from the blue background, but I still could have been closer. For a first time, and random run in I think I did pretty well. In addition, I tried to remember some of the “rules” of composition from Scott and attempted to fill the frame with the fish, but also use the diagonal. I think the last picture worked the best in that respect, as I was able to line up the fish coming into the frame from the upper right and exiting the frame almost in the lower left. Just a tiny little tilt would have really made it pop with the diagonal, but just like everything there’s always room for improvement!

Foto Frenzy.

I’m going to try something new this week. Instead of one long post about the glorious weekend I had diving and posting multiple photos for you all to check out I’m going to break it down. I’m going to post one photo at a time and try to analyze it. Why you may ask? Well….

On Friday I spent the evening with Scott Geitler (of Blue Water Photo Store and UW Photo Guide fame) and a couple other folks to really learn the essentials of underwater photography. I’ve been wanting to take a class for AGES, for up to now, everything I’ve shot, and the little bit I know about photography has stemmed from some small knowledge of expsoure, composition rules, etc from a black and white photography class in high school, one in college and just reading articles online. Most of my shots have been luck…mostly snapshots, with not as much thought as should go into the composition, proper exposure settings and so forth. I mostly would shoot on P mode or similar, hoping for the best and typically not getting it. This class was designed to outline the basics for underwater photography, go over certain “rules” as well as help us understand how to set the camera and strobe(s) for different types of shots to get the best exposure, lighting, and composition that you can get.

If I took one thing away from the class it would be that underwater photography is all about the shutter speed. Scott explained one very important rule: Your shutter speed does not affect your strobe power. At first this made little sense to me, but once explained (the strobe fire at about 1/10,000 of a second, much faster than any shutter speed… so they will not be cut off by the camera exposure) it totally makes sense. This “phenomenon” also explains why I was having so much trouble before when trying to get the background properly exposed, as I worried about using a slower shutter speed thinking it would blow out my strobe. So silly.

The next most important lesson I learned was that I need to get closer. No really… closer and closer and closer. Apparently I tend to shy away from getting up closer and personal with my subjects, either from worrying about scaring them away (here’s a tip… my camera has a zoom!) or from just not thinking composition, and trying more to capture just the entire thing. I practiced getting closer, to “Fill the Frame” – one of the composition rules I learned, searching for pattern, filling the frame to create unique views. In addition to that I learned how important it is to not “amputate” a subject, that is when shooting more of a fish ID style shot…trying not to accidentally cut of a fin or part of the tail can make or break a photo. I do that a lot, I realized, as I looked back at many of my favorites from years past and saw how often bits and pieces of the subject extended past the edge of the frame.

Finally the last big lesson I took away was “Shoot Up”. This sounds easy, but if you think about how we fin along while diving, its usually over the reef looking down upon the fish. Many of my shots I now notice are either looking down or straight on a subject. Scott really stressed the importance to shoot up, especially out here in our beautiful kelp forests, the only way to really express the grandeur of those plants is to get really low, and shoot up, allowing as much of the strand of kelp to extend through the picture’s background. Mostly this get low, shoot up rule stands for wide angle photography, but even when close up in Macro, getting low and angling up at a subject will create unique and bold photos, and of course, getting up close and personal will add character to my shots.

After absorbing all this valuable knowledge I went out on the Magician dive boat with Scott on Sunday where we put these principles into action and I learned how far I have to go, and how much I’ve been doing wrong! I had three long (all nearly an hour…which hasn’t happened in ages due to teaching or to deeper dives) dives, where we were given “homework assignments” to work on, trying to put all the principles that had been taught Friday into action. So that’s what I’m going to try and talk about over the next couple of days… all the shots we worked on during Sunday’s in water portion of the class. While my photos aren’t masterpieces by any means, I got a couple I like, and am excited to share with everyone, especially a couple nice wide angle (despite not having a true wide angle set up… which I seriously want now by the way), where the background was clear and properly exposed, a problem that had always plagued me… mostly because I did not understand how to achieve the background exposure.

So, sit back and remember to check here, facebook or twitter. I’ll be trying to add a post every day or so as I go through the pictures, and once I post them here, I’ll add the photo to a FB album as well.

Pea Soup.

Saturday morning, I excitedly drove down to Long Beach to board the Sundiver Express bound for the oil rigs, one of my favorite places to dive in Southern California. As I’ve mentioned previously (here) the rigs are unique because of their three dimensionality. There’s no bottom, and the entire structure is covered with life, so you can dive along, across, up, down and around each beam and support. I’ve been on two trips previously, both of which were fantastic with great visibility, and calm seas. As we motored out to the rigs, the day appeared to be just like before, the sun was shining and the sea was flat as a pancake. Unfortunately, once we’d plunged off the boat and into the water, we discovered that the ocean was not going to be as clear as the cloudless sky. There was a ton of crap floating along, mucking up the visibility and choking out all the light at depth. Unfortunate, but not the end of the world.

This was my first real chance to use my new strobe that I had recently purchased, so regardless of the viz, I was eager to test it out. Overall the strobe worked beautifully…it fired properly, and I found that by loosening my clamps a bit I could easily move and reposition the strobe as needed. The auto focus on the camera can still be finicky, especially in the low light we had at depth, and when using the close up lens I discovered that there is a pretty small window of focus available which can make it trickier to get the focus locked. However I feel that with time, I’ll get better at it. Despite having some focus trouble in the beginning I really do love the new close up lens, the shorter depth of field really helps your subject pop out in the picture, and the ability to get a more true macro is fantastic.

The upper 50′ of the Eureka rig had been stripped last August when I last dove the oil rigs, but slowly life is starting to come back. One little critter than has come back and is thriving are the Hermissenda crassicornis, a beautiful and easily identifiable opalescent nudibranch with brown and orange cerata covering its back. Its got two oral tentacles that extend like probes off the front, and of course the two rhinophores that stick up like rabbit ears on the top of its head. Between the two rhinophores is a bright orange stripe that runs the length of its body bordered by an electric blue stripe on either side. These guys were everywhere, which made exploring the stripped section of the oil rig rather exciting. I also came across two other nudi’s; a San Diego Dorid (who had his head stuck into some coral making him impossible to photograph well, and a couple Triopha maculate, though none of my shots came out in focus.

The second dive, while still fairly poor visibility, was really a trip. There were a group of sea lions lounging on the rig near where the boat dropped us off, and apparently our group was very exciting. Throughout the entire dive we had several sea lions diving down and around us before darting back up to the surface. It was fantastic and aggravating at the same time. They were great to see, and fun to watch, but trying to get a picture of one is darn near impossible because of the speed. Half the time they were gone before I even had a chance to move the camera, and more often my camera would not focus in time. I did manage (mostly luck I’m sure) to snap one shot in focus as a sea lion zoomed towards me.

His large, comical eyes are nicely in focus and he’s staring right at the camera. Add in a bit of a current wanting to pull us all off the rig structure and out into the sea made for a bit of a struggle when trying to keep the camera steady and pull of some macro shots.

Despite the poor viz, as always diving the oil rigs was a blast, and I thoroughly enjoyed practicing with my new set up. I’m really looking forward to more chances to hone my skills and start to really improve my photography skills now that I have the gear that will allow me to do so! Here’s to many more posts with better and better photography as the year progresses!