Getting better results with wide angle lenses

For the past 6 weeks, I have been working on getting better results with wide angle lenses. Before I dive into the details there – a quick techie update – new akaso cams were released in December (good alternatives to rather highly priced gopro hero 5) so that’s worth checking out if you are on the action cam side of your underwater photography journey. When looking at my previous work, I wasn’t happy with the amount of backscatter, hotspots, and editing I had to do as a result. After re-reading Martin Howley’s recommendations on this, I came to three conclusions.

Here is the story of past 6 weeks and the lesson learnt trio…

First, my strobes are positioned too close to the camera and this creates hotspots in the image. You always get backscatter close to hotspots and end up having to crop these areas. The solution is to keep your strobes at least 50-70cm away from the dome port at all times.

Second, I was placing them level with, and slightly below the dome port where they needed to be placed noticeably above and behind to properly illuminate the scene. When placing the strobes in the old position they simply did not cover enough of the frame to light evenly.

Third, at the same time they needed to point slightly outwards to avoid backscatter. Pointing outwards flashes particles in the water from the side, where these reflections can’t be picked up by the lens.

On Saturday, I set out to test this on a boat dive at North Head. Conditions were good, but not great, with about 10-15m visibility and visible particles in the water. The first thing I noticed is that the camera operates much “heavier” when both flash heads are extended this way and also creates more drag – but see for yourself what a difference this setup makes!

Backscatter is pretty much gone from all the images and with it the need to use the dreaded clone stamp. I have to admit I had nagging doubts whether the kind of tropical water clarity i was after would be possible in Sydney at all – it is so good to be wrong sometimes 🙂

My best photo was shot with 10.5mm fisheye at f/11 for 1/60s in 16m of depth. I was lucky to have a model (thanks Josh!) and composed it after several similar images I have seen in magazines with a foreground subject in the lower third and a diver against a sunball in the upper part of the image. Backscatter is reduced to a bare minimum and the only editing done on this photo is level adjustments and contrast. Finally achieved natural color with flash, covering the entire frame – it feels good when you learn something. Here is a great video from the Aquatic Eye about wide angle photography.

How to tell good photos from bad ones

When sorting through my recent photos from great barrier reef diving Australia, I had to discard lots of shots.

This happens every time coming back from a long trip, I end up with hundreds of photos, often several of the same subject with different exposures or simply shot in rapid succession. From all those shots I need to nominate the good ones, which I will later edit.

I probably have to disappoint most of you here, but my typical ratio of good/bad photos is about 1/10, so it is important for me to be able to sort out lots of bad shots early. My approach is basically looking at every single photo for about a second and quickly decide if there’s something wrong with it, then discard it. In case of doubt, I will try some simple adjustments. Only the photos that “survive” this process become candidates for further editing.

So how to tell a good photo, or one with potential, from a bad one? In no particular order, I try to do the following:

  • Does the photo clearly suck and it can’t be fixed? Out of focus, too much backscatter, washed out colors, too far away? These photos are sorted out early.
  • Have I broken any golden rules? i.e shoot downwards, parts of subject cut off? Never have to look at these again.
    For fish, can I immediately tell the subject from the background? If the subject is not obvious, see you later.
  • Is the subject’s nearest eye totally sharp? A sharp eye can make the entire photo look good, but if it isn’t in focus the shot most likely can’t be saved.
  • To see if I have good composition, I scale the image down to a small size or look at it from further away to see if it “makes sense”?
  • To see if an image has good exposure I consult the histogram. Are there blown out highlights on the right end of the histogram? These photos go out the window.
  • If not sure turn about the light in a photo, I turn it into black and white then see if I like it? This test is infallible to tell subject background separation too.
  • If it’s not perfect, does a part of the image jump at me that wants to be cropped out, or blown up? If there is nothing interesting in the shot, discard it.
  • After several shots of the same subject, I always try to choose the one where the subject is closest to the camera.
  • If a photo “survives” this routine, I am more likely to invest further time and eventually publish. I do get about 10% of my shots over the line like this, maybe less. Here and there I will go all the way with a photo and end up not liking it anyway, mostly from too much editing. I generally think less is more and in such cases err on the side of caution, without publishing.

Hope the above helps you about choosing your best shots – let me know if you have other tricks down your sleeves!