dives

Winter wonders

With all the bleak weather, it’s easy to forget that the underwater world serenely carries is n beneath the waves of the Scottish sea lochs. Today we had a dip in Duich this morning and returned to the Loch Carron narrows at Strome this afternoon. I love both these sites; Loch Duich is home to all three UK species of sea pen, and it’s my favourite spot to shoot fireworks anemones, but today I was interested in the communities with cram themselves on the rocks. Much of the Loch bed is mud and looks barren at first (though there is actually a lot of activity). One finds occasional rocks which give sea Loch anemones, brittle stars, sea squirts and squat lobsters something to hold fast to or hide under.

Strome this afternoon was alive with small critters (as always) and provided me with plenty of macro opportunities from tiny Isopods in the dead men’s fingers, to queen scallops filtering their dinner from the tide and gobies showing off in the shallows

dives

Defying Dennis

February half term is a favourite time of mine to make a pilgrimage to the west coast of Scotland. My buddy Rob and I picked Loch Carron, but had not reckoned on storm Dennis. The poor driving conditions did not deter us and we took the East coast route to Inverness, avoiding the winding A82 past Loch Lomond. Arriving at about 10pm, we chose our overnight camping spot thinking we had shelter, but it was a wild night indeed.

The following morning it was still pretty wild at North Strome, one of the best shore diving sites in the UK, but it was serene underwater. I was keen to try out my new backscatter MF-1 strobe and snoot, to grab some super macro shots. I hinted in on the tiny amphipods swarming on the dead man’s fingers, only a few mm long. On the way back, I could not resist also having a go at the little gobies in the shallows.

trips

Fireworks and flame shells

Underwater photographers tend to take a different view of dive sites on a trip to non-shooting divers. We will often be keen to keep returning to the same site repeatedly on a trip rather than trying to see a different site on each dive. So it was on a recent trip to West Scotland, I dived in only two sites. In each of two sea lochs, I dived in a single area. However these were very much contrasting locations, one a very clean high energy site needing slack water and the other a slightly murky low energy spot. Each is home to unusual but “locally common” species, well worth braving the 6-degree water temperature for.

Loch Duich is home to the impressive fireworks anemone and the maerl bed of the narrows at the head of Loch Carron is home to hidden flame shells, as well as a mass of macro subjects. Here are a selection of images to give a flavour of the sites.

First of all, Loch Duich:

And here’s North Strome on Loch Carron:

dives

Looking for skeletons

One of the pleasures of underwater photography is learning about sea life which many divers don’t even know exist. The Skeleton Shrimp (Caprella linearis) is one such species. They are not exactly tiny (up to 2cm long) and are actually really quite common. It’s just that they are very difficult to see. They spend their lives clinging to other sea life, grabbing food particles from the water. They are usually seen on hydroids, because they are easy to spot there, though they inhabit many other hosts which get them into the current, such as Dead Men’s Fingers, but are much harder to spot on those.

So it was, I spent a very enjoyable dive in Loch Creran recently hunting for these critters. They have often been photographed before and I wanted to make a different kind of image to what I had seen previously. By using a high-power diopter, I concentrated on just the head of the creature, shooting across the hydroid fronds. Shooting an abundant species allowed me to hunt down a suitable rock with a conveniently placed hydroid, so I could shoot without disturbing the fine silt ubiquitous at this site. I like this shot because it shows the shrimp through the fronds of the hydroid, like an elusive jungle animal seen through the undergrowth. The shallow depth of field of the diopter ensures subject separation by throwing the hydroid out of focus.

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On the other hand, this second capture unintentionally caught the shrimp with its claw arms wide. It made me smile because whereas the first image seemed to say “you can’t see me”, the second seemed to say “Ta-da! Here I am!!”

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Nikon D500 + micro Nikkor 105mm + Nauticam SMC.

dives, equipment

Through the looking glass…

During a recent trip to lovely Loch Linnhe, I spotted a tiny juvenile squat lobster hiding in a decaying piece of wood. I have to confess to an addiction to these charismatic creatures; I love their bright orange colour, the Popeye aggression with which the wave their claws and the intricate detail of their jointed bodies. I had promised myself that I would not shoot any on this trip, but I decided to change that to “I won’t shoot any adults” (I *nearly* managed that).

In fact this gave me a change to try out two diopter lenses for getting closer to tiny critters. On the first of two dives at the same site from a beach in Kentallen, I tried out a fairly standard +5 wet diopter and the following day, I tried out a Nauticam SMC, a much heavier and powerful lens (lent to me by a friend).

I found the SMC easier to get focussed (for both lenses, I used autofocus to get the focus to the correct position and then “rocked” to get the subject in focus). The shallower depth of field of the SMC gives a more pleasing effect, but I was more interested in how sharp the images might be – it was hard to get the images properly focused, but I am pleased wit the results from both. The SMC gives higher magnification and adds drama to the image, but its much harder to get it in focus. In particular, it is important to get ones “ducks in a row” – in other words, the points in the frame which need to be sharp must be in the same plane. This makes framing the image hard at times – I like the composition below, but I was struggling to get both of the squattie’s eyes sharp.

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Both images have been cropped from portrait format but have the full width of the frame.

Top: D500, Nikon 105mm + Nauticam SMC, ISO200 f/32, 1/100s.
Bottom: D500, Nikon 105mm + AOC+5 diopter, ISO320 f/20, 1/125s

trips

Loch Leven Sea Pens

Loch Leven is one of the smaller sea lochs. It is only just more than six miles long and very narrow – especially at one point about two miles from its head at Kinlochleven. However, it does offer some species not often seen elsewhere. Diving from its shores also offers reliable diving in any weather at any time of year. Today, the water was warmer than the air. We were searching out sea pens- long filter-feeding creatures found in quieter sites. Entering the water by the graveyard about half way along, my buddy and I passed over seemingly endless mud. At about 12m, the sea pens began to appear; this site offers all three of the native species. Pressing on, we found a large cluster of the tall sea pen (Funiculinaquadrangularis). These beautiful creatures are more than a metre tall but very thin. Seen in close up, they are lined with feeding polyps. I was very pleased to capture a splendid tall individual with several others in the background.

Our second site was further up towards the head if the Loch, beyond the narrows. Using a convenient slipway, we found a steep bank of broken stone leading to a muddy bottom at about 20m. The very fine silt makes photography very challenging, so the success rate was limited, but the eerie undulating mud, pockmarked with burrows made for an interesting dive. It did, however, yield a nice shot of a phosphorescent sea pen (Pennatula phosphorea).

publications

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.