There are two big reasons why compact cameras lag behind in wide-angle photography when compared to their more expensive DSLR cousins. First, compact cameras’ built-in flashes set at their highest outputs are not able to illuminate a specific area at any respectable distance. And second, their built-in lenses at their widest ends are not sufficient to cover large subjects when shooting at close proximities.
As far as lighting is concerned, one can’t overemphasise the importance of external strobes when shooting wide-angle images underwater. When placed at a strategic angle, strobes allow the camera to capture colour-accurate images that are (hopefully) backscatter-free.
Getting close to wide-angle subjects with your compact is a trickier prospect. Unlike the numerous high-quality and affordable close-up dioptres on the market, there are relatively few dedicated wide-angle wet lens attachments. These wet lenses range from the sophisticated but too-expensive-to-own, to the poorly designed ones that leave unsightly ghost flares all over your images.
However, a good wide-angle attachment that matches your camera, housing and pocket is an essential investment if you want to shoot bigger subjects closer. With a smaller water column between your camera and your subject, you’ll be able to have a more colourful and clearer image.
Choose your subjects wisely
Compact cameras have built-in lenses that provide versatility topside, but don’t provide a wide angle of view underwater to capture many larger subjects and scenes. When you’re shooting with a compact camera’s built-in lens only, you’ll need to choose subjects of an appropriate size. For instance, smaller sponges and gorgonians shaped like their giant forms will fit nicely into your frame at close working distances to give you comparable image qualities.
Are you encountering fish too large to fit into the viewfinder’s frame? Or is your dive buddy bugging you to take his picture? Again, there are things you can do to work with the limitations of your camera. Two options worth considering, in this case, are shooting silhouettes from a distance against the sun or simply getting in closer to get partial body shots.
Close-focus wide angle
By adding a wide-angle or fisheye wet lens to your compact, you will be able to focus quite close to your subject, allowing you to capture what’s known as a close-focus wide-angle shot. You can also select the macro mode and move your camera even closer should you come upon a particularly friendly fish, or find some interesting corals or invertebrates.
Of course, having a fisheye wet lens this close to your subject will cause it to distort. But this isn’t necessarily unfavourable. The distortion will ensure your image gives a fresh perspective – something different from what we are used to seeing. Keep in mind, though, that some strobes will give you a yellow hue when shooting at such close distances. The easiest solution to neutralise this effect is to set the camera’s white balance slightly towards blue.
If your compact camera has a special “fisheye effect” function, make sure you steer well clear. Contrary to what you might want to believe, this function will not make the lens optically wider. The fisheye effect is only an electronically distorted version of the wide-angle image captured by your camera’s sensor.
Get sharp, get focused
Most marine animals are coloured to merge with the water column. Thus, switching the camera’s focusing point to the largest available size will allow the camera’s autofocus system to better detect these camouflaged creatures. The use of a proper target light will also help a confused autofocus system to differentiate dully-coloured subjects from the background.
For compact cameras boasting of big maximum apertures, such as f/1.4 or f/2, unless you are a diehard “Japanese pastel blue” fan, you will notice such apertures give you a depth-of-field so shallow, a big part of your image will be out of focus. A more sensible choice of apertures for compact users shooting wide angle will be between f/4 to f/11.
All camera lenses have a sweet spot where they capture images with a maximum level of sharpness. This can be estimated by stopping your lens aperture down 2.5 to 3 stops from its largest aperture. That means a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 will be critically sharp when you shoot between f/2.8 and f/4, and an f/2.8 lens will peak in sharpness from f/5.6 to f/8.
The compact compromise
Now that you’ve chosen your subjects carefully, and decided what lens attachment and lighting works best for your camera, you’ll need to concentrate on getting the exposure right. A correctly exposed image is an educated compromise between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO; whether you shoot using a semi-automatic mode or prefer going manual, make sure you’re comfortable with the mechanics behind proper exposure (see “Compact User” on shooting in Manual mode).
Understand the inherent technical limitations of the sensor and the lens, you will be able to squeeze the maximum performance out of your humble compact camera. You may be surprised at what kind of wide-angle images it can produce.
By William Tan
This article was published in SD OCEAN PLANET (Issue 4/2015)