Reefs in Wide Angle

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Some of the most breathtaking underwater images are those showing the sweep of the reef. We tell you how to go wide and capture stunning reefscapes 

To successfully shoot great reefscapes you have to take into account a multitude of variables. Light, other divers, distortion and visibility all affect the outcome. Some of the most common problems are actually caused by the camera and housing setup in itself – if you don’t have the correct combination of dome port and spacer rings to fit the lens you’re using, blurry corners and focus problems may be the result. The manufacturer will be able to help, so for now let’s assume that you have negotiated the technical challenges and you are ready to shoot…


Be bright – choose light

Light is all important. In macro photography this comes easy, because strobe light is all you need. When shooting wide angle, you will have to balance the strobe light (in the foreground) with the ambient light (in the background). To get as much light to work with as possible, you want to use a ‘bright’ f/2.8 lens like the Nikkor 10.5 mm fisheye or Nikkor 14-24 mm f/2.8 or equivalent for Canon users. This is especially important in temperate waters – in the tropics were you have much stronger sunlight you can get away with using a less bright lens such as the Sigma 10-20 mm f/4-5.6.

If the light allows it, you can catch some great reefscapes even without using strobes. The light from the strobes doesn’t travel very far under water anyway, and if there’s nothing closer to your camera than 2-3m  (6-9 ft.) you might as well turn them off to minimize backscatter problems. This works great in shallow water on top of the reef where there’s plenty of light. Shooting at the top of the reef can be tricky, with waves, current and rapidly changing light conditions. When you tilt your camera slightly upwards you suddenly capture a lot more light, and have to adjust the settings. The same happens when you tilt the camera downwards for your next shot – it’s suddenly too dark. 

If you’re just shooting the reef, you normally have plenty of time, but if you have a moving subject like a turtle or a manatee, setting the camera to auto might be a big help. Normally, any good photographer will tell you that manual setting always gives the best results – but this is only true if you have the time to adjust them properly. I find that using aperture priority or even full auto can be very helpful when shooting in very shallow water.


1. Oil Slick Reef, Bonaire Caribbean reefs are often underestimated, but at Bonaire you'll find reefscapes that match almost anything you can find elsewhere. The clear, particle-free water makes strobe positioning easy. Nikon D300 in Nauticam housing, 10 mm, 1/80 sec., f/4, ISO 200, 2x Inon Z-240 strobes

2. Gulen, Norway The North Atlantic offers some spectacular soft coral reefs with plenty of color. When shooting like this it's important to turn down (or off!) the strobe power when getting close to the reef to avoid overexposure. Shooting in shallow water is a good trick in temperate waters - there is much more light. Nikon D300s in Nauticam housing, 10 mm, 1/80 sec., f/8, ISO 200, 2x Inon Z-240 strobes

3. Gulen, Norway The kelp forest reefs on the Norwegian west coast offer beautiful scenery. Strobe positioning becomes critically important because the nutrient-rich water holds more particles, and the strobes may have to be turned down to avoid backscatter. A lower F-stop and higher ISO helps compensate for less light. Nikon D300s in Nauticam housing, 10.5 mm fisheye, f/3.5, ISO 400, 2x Inon Z-240 strobes


Controlling your light

Many otherwise great close-focus, wide-angle (CFWA) images are ruined by too much light, either on one side or below the subject – or you end up lighting the water at either edge of the image. This can be corrected by simply keeping in mind what happens when you approach a subject – you angle the camera left or right to get the reef falling off to one of the sides, or you angle it upwards to get some nice, blue water in the background.

In both cases you inadvertently move one of your strobes very close to the reef, resulting in an unwanted highlight. Often it's not enough just to pull the strobe back – I also turn down the strobe power quite a bit to get just the needed amount of light where I want it. Since the distance often is very short, not much power is needed. When tilting the camera a lot, the upper strobe (or left/right, depending on the angle) sometimes doesn’t light up anything at all, and then it might be a good idea to turn it off completely to avoid it lighting up the water and/or causing backscatter.


Put a sock in it

If you’re using optical cables to trigger your strobes, you might have experienced the same problems I’ve been having with my setup – light from the camera’s internal flash is reflected from the inside of the dome port, totally ruining your shots. While easiest avoided by using electric cables, there are different contraptions on the market designed to solve this problem. 

In general some sort of ring around the lens will block the light from the internal flash, so check with your supplier what is available for your brand and lens choice – or make one yourself. I have been using a tennis sock and a neoprene ring to get rid of this annoying problem when using my 10.5 mm fisheye, which is very small in diameter. It may not be the ideal solution, but it works perfectly fine.


1. Regona Cave, Cape Verde Shooting inside caves and caverns means having to be extra careful. To avoid backscatter (there were lots of particles falling off the ceiling) I turned the strobes off and used the cave entrance for ambient light with the diver in silhouette in front of it. High ISO, very slow shutter and a low F-stop was necessary to make it work. Nikon D200 in Nexus housing, 10 mm, 1/30 sec., f/4, ISO 640, no strobes

2. Gulen, Norway The challenges of shooting in temperate waters with lots of particles is exemplified in this image. There is a veritable snowstorm around the video lights of the other photographer, but very careful strobe positioning enabled me to shoot in the opposite direction without lighting the particles too much. It also proves images don’t have to be backscatter-free - sometimes it adds a pleasing quality. Nikon D300s in Nauticam housing, 10mm, 1/50 sec., f/7.1, ISO 200, 2x Inon Z-240 strobes


Going wide in bad visibility

Apart from all the mentioned challenges, shooting wide angle is relatively easy in tropical waters, compared with temperate waters. Great visibility and few particles in the water make strobe positioning less crucial, and you don’t have to worry about algae, plankton, thermoclines, fresh water layers and run-off from rivers, which doesn’t exactly make shooting great reefscapes in the Northern Atlantic any easier.

Only at certain times of the year can the cold-water photographer expect to have similar conditions as his warm-water peers. This normally occurs in the middle of the winter when the water is at its coldest, and the reward for enduring the harsh elements is crystal clear water. On the downside underwater photographers have to cope with heavier gear, thick gloves and sometimes frozen fingers.

The basic principles of shooting wide angle are nevertheless the same, regardless if you’re shooting above the polar circle or close to the equator – but strobe positioning becomes much more important. If you don’t get it right, you will most often capture a horrible snowstorm instead of a beautiful reef. The trick is to angle the strobes more outward than you normally have to in the tropics: This reduces the amount of light hitting the water (and particles) between your camera and the close-focus subject. Ideally, you want just the edge of the strobe light to hit the subject. Pulling the strobes backwards also helps – the camera housing shades the light, and it minimises the problems caused by too much light at the edges of the image. 

These days, cameras with excellent high ISO capabilities are making it a lot easier to shoot reefscapes, wrecks and panoramas in temperate waters. High ISO allows for more light to reach the sensor, and you don’t have to turn up the strobe power as much. This also helps in avoiding backscatter.


1. Gangga Island, Indonesia Rarely have I seen such a colorful reef! Shooting in brilliant sunlight in shallow water I had all the light I could dream of and crystal clear water enabled me to turn strobe power to the max. Shooting at a very high F-stop and fast shutter I could capture the sunburst, while still lighting the reef properly.Nikon D300s in Nauticam housing, 10 mm, f/160 sec., f/16, ISO 200, 2x Inon Z-240 strobes

2. Siladen, North Sulawesi, Indonesia Another shot where the reef is lit only by natural light. A fast shutter captures the shafts of sunlight, and there is no strobe light to wash out the beautiful patterns made by the waves. Shooting half-way over the edge provides depth and a pleasing composition.Nikon D300s in Nauticam housing, 10 mm, 1/160 sec., f/11, ISO 200, no strobes


Keep tabs on the aperture

Another thing to remember is using the aperture to control the amount of light reaching the sensor. Since I often work in temperate waters with less light, I’m used to shooting at very low F-stops to be able to capture anything at all without pushing the ISO to high. This doesn’t work very well in the tropics! 

Especially when shooting against the sun you need to use a relatively high F-stop to avoid the image being burnt out; even the light from the surface is often too much if you don’t push it to F8 or higher. 

Good visibility and lots of light enables you (and you camera) to see further under water. If your F-stop is too low, you lose depth of field (DOF) and end up with unsharp, blurry backgrounds. This also calls for more strobe power to get enough light (and thus color) in the foreground. At the same time, using a fast shutter helps you freeze motion and capture those beautiful shafts of sunlight from behind an outcrop or through an opening in the reef.


1. Nærøy, Norway Winter brings crystal clear water to the Northern Atlantic, but you still need to get the basics right. In this image poor strobe positioning causes too much light to hit the left side, and there's not quite enough in the middle. The left strobe should have been pulled further back to avoid overexposure. Nikon D70s in Nexus housing, 10.5 mm fisheye, 1/100 sec., f/9, ISO 200, 2x Inon Z-240 strobes

2. Lygnstøylsvatnet, Norway This lake came into being in 1908 after a rockslide and offers a very unusual underwater scenery. Visibility may be very challenging in fresh water and you need to time your visit carefully. Shooting without strobes means using a higher ISO setting, a slow shutter and a large aperture to get enough light to hit the sensor. Nikon D300s in Nauticam housing, 10 mm, 1/60 sec., f/5.6, ISO 640, no strobes

3. Gulen, Norway Capturing a huge kelp forest in shallow water requires not only a patient dive buddy. Balancing the light without having too much power on the strobes usually takes a few tries. I wanted to capture the fresh, green color of the kelp and just add a touch of light at the front to bring out the golden brown. Nikon D300s in Nauticam housing, 10.5 mm fisheye, 1/125 sec., f/6.3, ISO 250, 2x Inon Z-240 strobes


Get some help

In general, the same composition rules apply for wide-angle reefscapes as for macro. A pleasing diagonal, a diver or a fish up in the corner – you know how the images should look. The challenge is getting them! Working with models under water can be tricky, and it is important to discuss what you want to do before the dive. Agree on signs to help you direct the model, but keep it simple: Although you can see the model just fine up there against the blue water, he or she usually can’t see you very well behind that cluster of soft coral down in the darkness.

Trying to use regular divers as models usually doesn’t work very well, because they swim at their own pace and totally disregard the genius image you have in your mind. Dangling gear, fins in every direction – they’re just not good models. Most of the time they’ll be swimming away from you and your only option is to sprint ahead, find a useful part of the reef with something nice and colorful on it – and wait for them to catch up… If you want some great pictures with a perfectly placed diver, you better team up with someone willing to cooperate.


1. Blue Hole, Bonaire A really fast shutter made it possible to capture the breaking waves without overexposing the image. I tried a high F-stop without luck; I needed to freeze the wave action before the white foam filled the top of the image. 1/250 sec. is the maximum sync speed on the Nikon D300 - and it was just enough. Nikon D300 in Nexus housing, 10 mm, 1/250 sec., f/6.3, ISO 200, 2x Inon Z-240 strobes

2. Siladen, North Sulawesi, Indonesia Huge coral fans are always a spectacular sight, but can be tricky to light evenly. I turned down the power of the lower strobe to avoid overexposing the bottom in front of the fan. This image would have been perfect if I had made a deal with one of the divers to do some modeling!Nikon D300s in Nauticam housing, 10 mm, 1/125 sec., f/11, ISO 200, 2x Inon Z-240 strobes

3. Tufi, Papua New-Guinea The crystal clear waters at Stuart's Reef combined with spectacular coral reefs makes wide-angle photography a true joy. This image was shot on top of the reef where there was enough light to get some color even without strobes. A really fast shutter froze movement while the F-stop provides ample DOF. Nikon D300s in Nauticam housing, 10.5 mm fisheye, 1/250 sec, f/7.1, ISO 200, no strobes


Other wide-angle issues

Most wide-angle lenses will cause your image to curve toward the sides. This may be a problem when shooting wrecks, but the underwater world is very forgiving when it comes to reefs and seascapes – there are no straight lines! This means that the distortion will not be visible – although you will see some stretching in the corners when you get really close to something. The trick is to find something sticking out from the reef, instead of shooting against a flat background. You can bend the water as much as you like – nobody will be the wiser.

When using an extremely wide lens you also have to pay much more attention to what’s going on around you. You want to avoid having anything at the edge of your picture. Not only does it look distracting, but the distortion of most very wide lenses make for instance a diver look completely ridiculous. When using a fisheye with a 180º field of view, this means keeping tabs on literally half the world!



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