A fascination with maritime history has led to some of my most exciting and challenging assignments as a photographer. Cold, deep water, poor visibility and strong currents are all conditions in which I’ve had to operate in to deliver wreck stories. Yet despite appearing daunting, I quickly realised that rather than changing my subjects to easier ones, I would have to change and improve my skills as both a diver and a photographer.
Becoming a deep wreck photographer has progressed my diving and photographic skills more than any other discipline, but before I could take on the more challenging assignments, I first had to master the basic principles. Here are my top tips for improving your wreck photography, regardless of how deep you choose to venture.
- Go Wide
Wrecks are big, so a wide-angle lens is essential. Nearly all of my wreck images are taken with a fisheye lens, the number one choice for capturing large scenes.
2. Make A Plan
With a journalist’s mindset, I am trying to tell the story of the wreck via my imagery, so it is important to have a plan, or I could end up coming away with random shots of unrecognisable rusting metal! I consider the visibility, if it allows me to shoot the entire wreck, or if I should be photographing the details. I read the history and familiarise myself with the wreck’s layout before the dive. I talk to people who have dived it. Such planning is the most important for a deep dive, where I may only have one brief chance at nailing the images.
3. Identify the Key Shots
Find a recognisable feature to focus on rather than random wreckage. Winches, guns and propellers are a good start and may even become my main shots if the visibility is not good enough to capture the whole wreck in one image.
4. Use Models
Models can be people or animals. Divers are really useful for providing scale and instilling that sense of exploration and adventure, whereas marine life shows how the wreck has become a living reef. If you are lucky enough to have a willing diver to model for you, then good communication before and during the dive is essential. Agree signals for manoeuvring, talk about the plan, tell them where to look (not into your lens!), how to pose and where to point the torch so that it guides the viewer’s eye to the main subject.
Most importantly, remember to be nice to your models!
5. Capture the Atmosphere
Conveying scale is an essential aspect of wreck photography and something I try to do whenever I have the visibility. I want to produce an image that inspires the sense of awe that I felt on the wreck and also tell a story of exploration and discovery.
6. Be Where Others Aren’t
Other divers and their bubbles can ruin your composition, so keep them out of the shot. Wherever possible, I always aim to jump first, and work quickly, especially if the wreck has sediment as once this is kicked up, it can take a while to dissipate. Go for clean compositions where you isolate your subject from the background clutter.
7. Master Your Lighting
Wrecks offer vast areas to light and can prove a challenge if you choose the wrong technique. Don’t try and light up the entire wreck with strobes as the light output won’t illuminate such a large area. Save strobes for when you have a close-up foreground subject, and balance that light with the ambient-lit background. Ambient light photography is an important aspect of wreck lighting, whether black and white or coloured, and you will need to concentrate on the form and contrast of the wreck. Look at the shadows and highlights being created by the sun. Off-camera lighting techniques involve powerful LED lamps or remote-triggered strobes to light faraway areas and is one of the most creative and fun forms of wreck lighting. Experiment with it.
8. Practice Makes Perfect
In order for me to get key images on important shoots, I practise my techniques constantly. I use purposely sunk wrecks at inland dive sites, and practise the same techniques in shallow water that I will then use on deep wrecks. The more effort I put into this preparation, the higher my image yield will be when it really counts.
Taken from Asian Diver issue 4/2017, “Wrecks of Asia”.