A Once In a Lifetime Shot

Posted in Under the Sea on March 27th, 2010 by MadDog
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The weekend got off to a perfect start this morning when I crossed the terminal wires on my boat battery and blew the voltage regulator on my engine. I had to cancel the day for five divers standing on the dock waiting for me. I hope the remainder of their weekend went better than mine. Fortunately, Richard Jones is in town, so I went out on his boat, Sanguma  along with Jenn, Jo and Ush.

I have lots of other news about the weekend, some good, some not so. I’m sitting at the office on Sunday afternoon writing this because the power to the security camera pole where my wireless connection makes its hop to my house has been out all weekend and, of course, my wonderful TELIKOM phone lines won’t carry data today because there were a few drops of rain last night.

I could keep on complaining for hours, but I don’t have the time. Too bad. It’s my favourite hobby.

One of the bright spots of the weekend is in this image:If you’re not a diver, you might not think that it’s such a big deal. Believe me, it is.  The shot above was taken by available light at about eighteen metres at The Eel Garden  at Pig Island.

What you’re looking at is two giant Notodoris minor  nudibranchs engaged in a super slow motion mating act. (UPDATE: Frank Peeters points out that this is actually one N. Minor.  His explanation is perfect; I can’t argue with it. See our comments below. I’m only slightly deflated.) The reason I’m showing you three nearly identical images of the same scene are partly technical and partly because I’m so dumbfounded by my luck that I can’t stop inserting the images in this post. It’s one thing to see a Notodoris minor.  I’ve found a spot at The Eel Garden  where I can usually find one if I take the time to look. It’s another thing to find two of them together. However, I have never before, and very likely never will again catch two of them in the act of laying and fertilising eggs. The shot above was lit by the flash on my camera.

Needless to say, I grabbed many, many exposures of the pair. I did not want to risk something going wrong. I tried several different camera settings. I made up this image in Photoshop which, though it seems faded compared to the others, shows the fine structures in high detail and really gives a more accurate idea of the shape of the things:The image above is over twice the pixel dimensions that I usually put in the journal. I normally limit resolution to 1600 pixels. This makes them load faster if you want to click to enlarge. It also protects me a little from those who steal images from the web and foist them off as their own. Yes, it has happened to me. My copyright (see the bottom of the page) allows free non-commercial use of any of my images without seeking permission as long as you simply attach my name to the image or (preferably) include a link to Madang – Ples Bilong Mi.  That’s fairly small payment for the work that I put into presenting my best work on this site. I’ve found plenty of my images on other web sites with no attribution. I’m not sure why someone would do that, but it doesn’t make me particularly happy. Anyway, if you want to see some amazing details of the egg-laying nudis, click on the image above and be ready to download about a half of a megabyte.

I also thought that you might be interested to see the old wrecked catamaran river barge which is right beside the place where I find the Notodoris minor:That image is a stitch-up of seven separate frames. It covers about 160°.

Since we’re doing a lot of yellow today, I’ll throw in this snap-shot of a Latticed Butterflyfish (Chaetodon rafflesi):I’d rather that the other one had gotten out of the way a little sooner. This image was the result of a ten minute chase. Butterflyfish are very frustrating.

I’ll have more weekend adventures later. They include a very nice party, a car theft by a drunk, a house invasion and possible rape (we don’t know yet) and probably some other things that I’ve already suppressed deep in my memory vault.

I’ll also have some nice shots of my peeps.*

* I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it. -Naz

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To Flash or Not To Flash – That Is the Question

Posted in Photography Tricks, Under the Sea on October 19th, 2009 by MadDog
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Yes, you have guessed it. I am going to bore you once again with the topic, “Whether to Flash or Not?” This is a matter of little import to those who do not regularly submerge their precious cameras in high-pressure saltwater, something which surely violates fundamental laws of nature and sanity.

The vast majority of people snapping away today depend on their cameras to decide whether to flash or not. I am against this notion, since it produces countless nasty-looking photos Alas, I am a voice crying in the wilderness. My word on the matter is simple:  Learn how to make the flash on your camera submit to your will and then learn when you need it and when you’d get a getter image without it. Many people have thanked me for this entirely unsolicited advice. Your mileage may vary.

So, what’s the big deal underwater? Who cares?

Well, you do care, if you are interested in seeing what a given critter actually looks like underwater. If you just want a pretty picture with bright colours, then you turn on your flash and you will have far less work to do on your computer to get a usable, if misleading image. I usually want my images to display to you what I saw. Here is (yet another) example, a Divaricate Tree Coral (Dendronephthya roxasia):

Divaricate Tree Coral (Dendronephthya roxasia)

I think that it is quite pretty as it is. Moreover, it is exactly as it appeared to  me when I saw it at about 25 metres at Barracuda Point,  which is lousy with the things.

From the same position, I took this image with the flash turned on:

Divaricate Tree Coral (Dendronephthya roxasia)

Well, that too is a pretty image, but it’s not what I saw. One has to remember that, the deeper you go, the less of the spectrum is left. Only blue and a little greenish light penetrate more than a few metres. So, everything looks blue. Your eyes magically adjust to most of this and restore some balance. However, when you add the sunlight colours of the flash, which is designed to mimic sunlight (its colour temperature), then you completely upset the colours which are displayed in the resulting image. In effect, you have shown the object as it would appear at the surface.

Here’s another one:

Palm Coral (Clavularia sp.) - Available Light -

That’s a Palm Coral (some species of Clavularia)  which has appeared here before. It was shot in with the natural lighting. Check the delicate green shades in the centres, especially around the edges of the clump, where the exposure is a little less. This is a very pretty coral with delicate nuances of colour.

In this flash shot that I got last Saturday for comparison, the nuances are overpowered by the sunlight-white light of the flash:

Palm Coral (Clavularia sp.)

All of the pretty greens are lost.

Here is one more example. This one is a little harder to justify. This is our old friend and regular on Madang – Ples Bilong Mi,  the Spotted Shrimpgoby (Amblyeleotris guttata):

Spotted Shrimpgoby (Amblyeleotris guttata) - Available Light

For comparison, I made one exposure with natural light and one with flash. By now, I’m sure that you can see the difference. The shot above is flash-less.

This one is with the flash turned on. Again, it is not an unpleasing effect. In this case, it does score some points. Because it intensifies the colours that are the distinctive markings of the fish (primarily the orange spots and the dark pectoral fins, not to mention the clown-like eyes), it helps one to remember the primary identification features:

Spotted Shrimpgoby (Amblyeleotris guttata) - Flash

If you memorise the image above, you’ll have no trouble identifying the species when you are cruising over the sandy bottom.

You just have to remember that the first example image, without the flash, is how it is actually going to appear.

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Planet Rock Frolic

Posted in Photography Tricks, Under the Sea on December 22nd, 2008 by MadDog
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We cruised out to Planet Rock in Astrolabe Bay Saturday morning for our regular weekly dive. It was murky with fresh, green water from the Golgol River down to about fifteen metres. At that depth there was a thermocline (a sharp change in water temperature). Below, it was much clearer.

The best shooting was up-close because of the murk.

I’ve talked before about my preference for available light shooting. I’m most particular about it underwater.

Here’s an example of why:

Nudibranch by available light

The image above is exactly what I saw with my eyes. The colours are as I remember them. Having been a photographer nearly all my life, I’m pretty particular about colour being correct. I took the image without flash and then used Photoshop to correct the colours so that they looked as I remembered them. To me, this seems to portray the scene more naturally – as a diver would see it.

It’s good to note here that this trick works only to a certain depth, depending on water clarity, topside weather (sunny or cloudy), and the time of day. These all affect how much and the quality of light that you have to work with.

This is the same nudibranch shot with flash. Since the colour temperature (how reddish or bluish) of the flash is designed to mimic sunlight, using flash underwater actually shows you how the subject would appear as if it were seen at the surface in sunlight. Not necessarily what you’re after, if you want ‘realism’ – whatever that might be.

As you can see, the whole image takes on a pinkish glow and areas that appeared to the diver as white can sometimes look reddish:

Nudibranch by flash exposure

It’s possible to correct for this in Photoshop, but it’s simply easier to skip the flash and take the naturally lit shot.

Sometimes, there’s simply no choice. If there is insufficient light, you’ll not get a decent image without flash. If you’re too deep, there’s hardly anything left but blue and some purple light. You can’t, as they say, squeeze blood from a turnip. You can’t get reds, yellows, greens, etc. If there’s nothing left but blue light. You have to turn your flash on.

Here’s a little hermit crab shot at about thirty metres:

Hermit crab at 30 metres by flash exposure

Though to me he looked mostly bluish-greenish, with flash he appears ‘natural’ to our eyes. If fact, he appears as if he were sunlit in a couple of feet of water instead of one hundred.

There you go. Flash has its place underwater. I have to admit that, if I had the kind of money it takes to purchase fancy underwater photographic equipment (thousands and thousands of bucks), I probably would. In that case, I’d probably use flash a lot more. The dinky flash on my Canon G9 is effective only to about a half-metre.

It reminds me of the old ‘fox and the grapes’ story. As the grapes were out of reach of the fox, he concluded that they were probably sour anyway, and he went about his way satisfied. Since the pricey gear is out of reach for me, I am quite happy to learn to squeeze the most possible performance from the equipment that I can afford. The fancy gear is probably more trouble than it’s worth anyway.

That’s my sour grapes.

NOTE:  All the above concerning shooting with available light applies only if you are shooting in the RAW mode on your camera and processing with the Photoshop Camera RAW filter or some equivalent. If you’re shooting photos underwater in the JPG mode with no underwater filter mounted on your camera or your camera does not have an ‘underwater’ shooting mode, then you will probably never get shots that really satisfy you unless you use flash. Everything will simply look greenish or bluish.

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Doing It in the Dark

Posted in Photography Tricks on November 7th, 2008 by MadDog
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Every dinky camera made has a flash built in. That goes for even the most expensive of the point-and-shoots. A big clunky external flash unit puts you squarely in the geek realm insofar as fashion goes.

However, most internal flash gizmos are next to useless if you want to create interesting photographs.

So, why not go with what you’ve got?

In most situations, with a decent camera, if you can easily read a menu, then you have enough light to take a photo without flash, if you remember only a few little things.

First, your camera is going to want to flash its flash. Don’t let it! Most cameras can be told, “Don’t flash, or I will smash your lens in!” You may not want to put it that strongly, but be insistent. You might have to abandon your principles and read the manual.

Next, if your camera offers you a more sensitive sensor setting (usually called ISO – whatever that means), then set it to its highest number. This will allow the camera to take a picture in low light conditions without having a horribly slow shutter speed. The less light, the longer the shutter needs to be open to let the light in. If you make the film (sensor) faster (more sensitive), then you don’t have to leave the shutter open so long. This helps with the next problem.

Try to find a way to brace yourself so that your camera moves as little as possible. Your shutter is going to be open a long time – possibly as much as a half-second or more (hopefully much less). If your camera moves, you’ll have a blurry mess. It works best to brace the camera itself against something relatively immovable instead of bracing your body and trying to hold the camera still. A lamppost, table, car bonnet or wing (hood or fender for Yanks), tree, or an extremely sleepy elephant will do.

When you’re firmly braced, press your shutter button to its first position, wait for the beep or other indication that it’s focused, then gently push it the rest of the way while trying desparately not to move the camera.

Remember, it’s okay if the people move a little, especially the hands and feet. The little bit of blur will illustrate the motion and make the photo more interesting. You just have to hold the camera as still as possible to avoid blurring the entire scene.

Here’s an example of a shot that would have been completely ruined by flash:

The Fun-House mirror trick

I’m having a little trouble with my legs. They seem to be getting shorter.

This shot would have been impossible with flash. The subjects are at wildly varying distances (inverse square rule, remember?). Also, flash would overpower the interesting things that light is doing in the scene:

Wedding preparations

I had the camera braced solidly against the kitchen door frame.

Here are a couple of shots from the Slippery Noodle Inn (Indiana’s oldest tavern) in Indianapolis. The entertainer is the finest harmonica player I’ve ever heard. He used to live in Melbourne. He bills himself as Harper. I’ll write more about him sometime:

Harper at the Slippery Noodle Inn

Aside from the fact that Blues Clubs and such don’t like people flashing cameras all about, these shots would have been throw-aways without the excitement of the ambient lighting:

Another shot of Harper at the Slippery Noodle Inn

I grabbed the two frames above with the camera sitting on the table with the front tilted up by a book of matches.

Here’s another shot from the Slippery Noodle Inn:

Blues at its finest - at the Slippery Noodle Inn

Flash? Forget it. The shot would have been worthless.

This frame was taken in a cabin up in the Vienna Woods. The primary lighting was the kerosene pressure lamp:

A cabin in the Vienna Woods

By using the available light I captured the moment exactly as I remember it.

In many places you are not allowed to use flash. Don’t despair. You can still capture amazing images.

I shot this one in the Reptile House at the Indianapolis Zoo. It was, as you can imagine, very dark. Only a small spotlight about as strong as a candle was shining on this snake. The snake wasn’t going anywhere fast, so I pushed my sunshade right up against the glass and held it there while the shutter was open for possibly two seconds:

DON’T wake up the snake!

So, if there’s not enough light and you don’t want to make enemies,


You can see some other posts where I’ve shown available light examples here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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What Colour IS IT?

Posted in Under the Sea on March 23rd, 2008 by MadDog
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I love the colours that I see underwater. It is a different world. But it is not all bright garishness down there.

Like all underwater photographers, I strive to capture colours that mesmerise the viewer while conveying an approximation of what I saw with my eyes. While I want to be accurate, I also need to do what is necessary to convey a pleasing image. This means a little cheating at times.

But how does one create a truly accurate photograph of what one was actually seeing? The interactions of lens and sensor physics, depth, water quality, and computer post-processing create so many variables to deal with that it becomes a highly subjective exercise.


One thing that I’ve discovered is that the flash on the camera is my enemy. The photo above of a Moorish Idol (Zanclus comutus) was taken using only natural light. The flash was turned off. Without getting all technical, let’s just say that available light photography underwater stretches every corner of the photographic envelope. It’s not easy.

Chasing the fish, keeping it centred in the viewfinder, keeping it in focus, remembering that during all that you can’t shake the camera because you don’t have the flash to ‘freeze’ it for you . . . It all uses up a lot of air.

It’s worth it, however, because I can honestly say that the colours that you see in the photo are exactly (as near as I can remember) what I saw. It’s a new photographic adventure for me.

Here are a couple of other similar photos that I took yesterday at Planet Rock. This is an overhead shot of Richard Jones.

Richard Jones

Here’s one of Rich along with Lorraine Collins as they photograph a magnificent anemone. Note that only the brightly coloured anemone stands out. (Click any photo for a larger one.) Another thing that I like is that all the shadows are in their natural positions. Things don’t look as if they are being illuminated artificially by a source not located overhead.

Rich and Lorraine

The colours are not vibrant, but they are accurate. These were taken on a hazy day at about 25 metres. The water above was milky and greenish from the discharge of the Golgol River. Nearer the surface colours would appear brighter, but never as vivid as is seen when using an electronic flash.

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