Saturday, June 2, 2012

Back from Borneo

It is good to be back writing my blog.

May was only the second month since September 2009 that I did not post an update to one of my OCA blogs.  2 weeks traveling and then a couple of weeks extra time away from the OCA have recharged my batteries and renewed enthusiasm that was beginning to flag.  The OCA has transformed my life, providing an all consuming hobby and a sense of purpose outside of my career.  However, it is hard work, I have to keep reminding myself that I am studying for a degree not a simple correspondence course in Photographic technique.  I am doing as much or sometimes more work each week than I did when studying for my first degree in Mathematical Physics, granted I was a lazy git back then.  The big difference was that I had a 3 month break each year when in full time study, a luxury I no longer enjoy.  I have contemplated taking a break from the course for June-September, but the truth is I wouldn't know what to do with myself.  In the end a 1 month break was just the ticket and something I need to do once a year around my vacation.

Back to that vacation, how did it go and what did I achieve.  When I set out this year I was very conscious of wanting to apply artistic thought to my underwater photography, but at the same time try and kick back a little and enjoy the holiday.  In previous years I would spend 8 hours a day preparing for and completing 4 dives, then spend at least 2 hours downloading 300-400 frames to evaluate and edit.   This year I abandoned my laptop and took instead an image tank that connected to my iPad.  Instead of 4 dives we did 3 and typically shot 50 frames versus 100 per dive.  Downloading and a brief look took place in the bar over a chilled beer.  MUCH BETTER!

Another reason for taking fewer shots was that I spent far more time underwater thinking about what I wanted to shoot and how I was going to shoot it.  I went from being reactive to proactive.  This is nature photography, so chance played a large part, however, I still could predict from the dive site what I would encounter and prepare accordingly.  I had two overriding objectives, the first to portray the underwater environment as I see it and to place the animals I found in their environment.  Much underwater photography is highly stylistic and formulaic, photographers have adopted a small number of popular shot styles and then done them to death.  It is a little like an underwater camera club session, cliches abound. There are two current trends:

  1. Use of a fisheye for wide angle, distorting reality, but allowing very close up shooting
  2. Extreme macro, producing ever more detailed images of the strange animals that inhabit the reef.
Both have their place, but are being done to death.  I consciously tried to step away from this and do my own thing, not always successfully, but on the whole I am pretty happy with what I achieved.

My first goal was to capture the reef and the incredible beauty of Sipadan.  This is very much harder than it looks as the dynamic range of the scenes can be immense especially when the surface is present.  I balance this by using flash guns to provide some fill light, however, it is very easy to blow out the highlights.  The challenge is a maximum sync speed on the flash of 1/250s.  Typically I shoot in Aperture priority, however, when including the surface I had to move to Shutter Speed priority which risked a very small aperture and then losing the flash - I could go on, it is hard to do, but when it works...

Another priority this time was to portray the act of diving

Turning to the animals I encountered, their environment was key, I wanted the viewer to have a sense of where they lived and the threat they faced.  This is not always so easy, most of the following shots use a 60mm macro lens, which does not have a terribly large field of view when shooting at 50cm from the subject (pretty much the maximum effective working distance for the strobes in water).  A further challenge is that I wanted the world to look real, which meant blue backgrounds, i.e. what you expect to see underwater.  This means a wide aperture, much beyond f/8 and the background would render nearly black, precisely the type of stylized imagery I wanted to avoid.  Again keeping the shutter speed below 1/250s became a challenge, but with a macro lens a much more workable one.  Low apertures bring other problems such as making focus far more critical and also the flashes illuminate more of the water and also the crap that is in the water. Thank goodness for the spot removal tool, tedious but essential.

Having said that close up was not my thing, I could not resist a few goes at portrait shots:

On the whole I feel I met my brief and have around 150 good images that now need to slim down to around 100 shots that will become part of the book of the trip.  One reason all of the aspect ratios are the same in this post is that I plan a very strict format for the book retaining a horizontal 3:2 aspect ratio for the included photographs...

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