British and Irish Underwater Photography Championships 2015

The results of the British and Irish Underwater Photography Championships 2015 were announced today and I was delighted to learn that I been awarded both wide-angle category winner and the overall title of BIUPC Champion 2015.

BIUPC Champ 2015

The winning image was an in-camera composite of two images taken at the same site in Loch Long in SW Scotland. The competition is an on-the-day event, where competitors could capture images at any site in Britain and Ireland, but the images had to be captured within a 24-hour window and submitted electronically before the end of the day. The image made the news here too

The weather leading up to the event had not been great and the vis reports from the South coast of England had not been good, so my buddy Trevor Rees (who won the compact category) and I chose to make the long drive to Scotland from our homes in the midlands. A round trip of over 700 miles in 48 hours was worth the time on the road, as we were able to complete four dives each on the day for a total of over 250 minutes underwater. This allowed us plenty of dive time to nail the shots we wanted when conditions were perfect (and it was a lovely day that Saturday).

Traditionally “wide angle” and “macro” were types of image dictated by the narrow range of lenses available to underwater photographers. Nowadays the range of cameras and lenses used underwater produces a sort of continuum with no clear boundary between the two. I wanted to create an image which sat firmly in the “grey area” between the two and showed a small creature large in the frame, but with a dramatic depiction of its environment.

The foreground image is of a Sea Loch Anemone (Protanthea simplex) which is a very small creature common in Scottish lochs. I used a macro lens (Nikon 60mm) and a narrow snoot to make sure that only the creature itself was illuminated and the rest of the frame was black.

I then got out of the water and switched to a wide angle lens and shot a variety of shots looking up out of the water. I was attracted by the lovely green colours of the trees, seen through the water’s surface. On that sunny day, I also worked hard to create a sun burst too, although it is difficult with my camera (a 10-year old Nikon D200) and very easy to burn out the highlights.

Wide angle image of my buddy Trevor Rees, which was Highly Commended

When I had a pair of images I was happy with, I combined them in-camera with the image overlay function (I had checked in advance that this was allowed within the rules). The rules allowed for very limited editing of the image, so I adjusted levels, colour balance and sharpening on the raw files and converted to JPG.

I also spent some time with my patient model, working on a more traditional close-focus wide angle image. The visibility was about 4m, so I had to keep both my model and subject close to the camera to maintain impact. It was also a struggle against the suspended particles and the fine silt easily stirred up from the sea bed. Images taken in strong sun in the afternoon on a rising tide were definitely superior to some earlier shots with weaker light and more turbid water. This image was Highly Commended.

Being in an area with very poor phone signal, we had a bit of a pantomime being able to upload the images, but were glad to find a bar in Arrochar with wi-fi (thank-you Ben Arthur’s Bothy!) so Trevor and I could submit our images.



Small is beautiful

Polycera quadrilineata
A small nudibranch (Polycera quadrilineata) on a kelp frond in Loch Long. Nikon D200 + 60mm Micro Nikkor lens and single Sea & Sea YS-110 strobe and "bottle snoot"

This small nudibranch (less than 1cm) was one of very many crawling on the stalks of kelp in less than 2m of water in Loch Long. I took this image on the second of two dives at the site. The first time I had gone in with a wide-angle lens, looking to take some close-focus images and/or diver images. However the topology and poor vis did not allow me to produce any images I was proud of; in fact I lost my buddy for a large part of the dive. As we emerged together, I was feeling a little disappointed, but he was raving. “What a fantastic site! Did you see all those nudibranchs? I found plenty to work on“, and so on. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen them. It just goes to show how much the eye tunes in to a certain type of subject. Because I was searching for things bigger than a coke can, I did not notice the exquisite but tiny creatures.

On my second dive, after a swift lens change and grabbing my bottle snoot, I saw so many of the little critters that I was amazed I hadn’t seen them last time. They were so plentiful that I was spoiled for choice and able to find several subjects in just the right location to help me shoot them from a good angle. I’ll have to remember that when some divers say a site is boring because there’s nothing to see…


Hermit Crab Addiction

Hermit crab, Loch Long
A hermit crab (Pagarus bernhardus) watching the divers swim by, Loch Long. Nikon D200 in Sea & Sea housing, Tokina 10-17mm, twin Sea & Sea YS-110a strobes

Does anyone else find hermit crabs additive photographic subjects? I find it very hard to swim past one and not oblige it with a portrait. I’m not sure why they’re so addictive. It might be because they seem to ooze character with their cheeky body language and their habit of stationing themselves in prominent locations. It might be because of the amazing range of shells they occupy- all shapes and sizes and even with holes in; the shells are also often adorned with other sea creatures along for the ride. It might be their strong red colour, which often looks striking on a bland dive site. Or, it might be the challenge of capturing all the fabulous detail of their heads and claws.

They are a very common subject, but they are not an easy one to photograph well. There is a lot of white on their shell, which is easy to burn out with the flash. Talking of flash- black background or green water? They have a habit of sitting in an inviting position and, just as the camera is almost in the best spot, moving jerkily off. Those eyes on stalks are complemented by antennae long and short, and one must capture them just in the right position for a pleasing photo.

Well, this I could not swim past this fella in Loch Long. I was shooting with a fisheye and he (she?) was large and sitting well off the flat sea bed on a piece of kelp. An inviting position and a co-operative subject. There was however, rather more silt in the water for my liking. Nevertheless, I blasted off a dozen or so shots. I’m fairly pleased with this shot, but it won’t keep me swimming past the next hermit I see…


Getting snooty

Backscatter is a constant problem in underwater photography. So, the less water is lit up, the “cleaner” the image. I have always struggled with backscatter in these turbid UK waters and I have marvelled at the spotlessly clean images produced by other photographers. My buddy Trevor introduced me to the idea of “snoots”, which limit the area of lighting from a strobe, and which produce noticeably cleaner images, as well as opening up interesting lighting possibilities.

In his typically practical way, Trev uses various plant pots and cut-down drinks bottles to produce the fabulous lighting in his images. I’ve made my own “Trev-style” bottle snoot and very much enjoyed the images it has allowed me to produce.

Here’s a pic of Trev at work, with his Nikon 85mm macro lens and dioptre (which is why you can’t see the subject of his photo!).

Trevor Rees at work in Loch Long using home-made snoots. This one in use is made from a Tonic Water bottle, so making it involves drinking a Gin and Tonic! This image was taken with D200 and Tokina 10-17 lens @10mm and lit with dual Sea & Sea YS-110 strobes.