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Bonaire, along with Aruba and Curaçao, form a Caribbean Island group referred to as the ABC islands. They are located north of Venezuela. The island has pristine reefs close to shore, and is below the hurricane belt. Many people consider this island “Diver's Paradise,” just as it says on the automobile license plates. When a group of friends said they were going to Bonaire, my dive partner Olga Torrey and I decided that after a season of Northeast wreck diving, practicing photography at Dutch Springs, and a trip to the cold waters of Alaska, a nice and easy pretty-fish trip should be put on the calendar.
I shoot with the Olympus E-620 in the Olympus PT-E06 housing, with Olympus UFL-2 strobes. Since being as close to your subject as possible is the first rule of underwater photography, I always shoot with the Olympus 7-14mm wide-angle zoom or the 50mm macro lens.
Olga shoots with a Nikon P7000 in the Fantasea FP7000 housing. Since the P7000 takes very good video and still images, she uses Sea & Sea YS-01 strobes, with video lights mounted next to them. The lights are attached to the housing with the Beneath the Surface Tray and ball joint arms. A triple ball clamp is used to keep the video light next to the strobe. For wide-angle work, Olga also used the Fantasea BigEye wide-angle dome.
When photographing subjects on a reef, start easy. Start with subjects that don’t move. There are plenty of subjects that will stand still for you. Work on getting close to your subject. If you are more than two feet away, it is usually not worth pushing the shutter button. Concentrate on balancing the available light to your strobes. Set a middle f-stop that gives you plenty of depth of field. For wide angle, f/5.6 is fine. If shooting macro, you might want to be at f/16 or f/22. Use your shutter speed to control how light or dark your background will be. Then use the power dial on your strobe to adjust for your subject. Once you are comfortable doing this with stationary subjects, it is time to advance to moving subjects. Use the settings that you used on the stationary subjects as a pre-set for the moving targets. Try to move into the same subject-to-strobe distance, so that you don’t have to readjust the power settings on your strobes.
Photographing fish isn’t easy. The first rule of underwater photography is to get close to your subject. The problem is, no one told the fish. The fish brain thinks that anything bigger than they are is looking for brunch. As you approach a fish and raise your camera, you are more likely to get a photograph of fish tush than of fish heads.
It takes time and experience to approach your subject. You want to move in slow and smooth. The idea is not to be threatening. Chasing fish never works. Try to see the direction they are moving, and try to come from a different angle and get in front of them.
With a dive partner/model, you could use hand signals to position them. Even if you dive with the same person all the time, sometimes communication gets confused and you don’t get the shot that's in your mind’s eye. This could lead to the post-dive argument. It might be harder to get a great fish photo, but at least you don’t hear how bad your hand signals are!
Once you master getting a nice simple image of a moving fish, it's time to go to the next level. Use composition and lighting to produce interesting images. Experiment with different shutter speeds. This way, your images will have varied backgrounds. Follow all the composition rules of land photography. Use the rules of thirds, S lines, and try to frame your subject. I also like to move in really close on large subjects and just show detail. With fish, this should include an eye. I also like to move in the other direction, to show the animal in its environment.
Besides the wonderful reefs, Bonaire has some very interesting piers. We dove Salt Pier. Bonaire is an ideal location for the production of salt. Cargill Salt Company has a pier with a conveyer system for loading ships. Underwater, the pilings are encrusted with life and teaming with fish. This site is perfect for both macro and wide-angle photography. We used the pilings as a composition element when shooting the marine life. We also used the pier for diver portraits of each other, and managed to avoid the post-dive argument!
Bonaire also has a number of shipwrecks scattered around the island. The small upside down tugboat, originally named the Cavalier State, sits in 90’ of water. The haul is well decorated with coral and sponges, with many reef fish circling the wreck. A wide shot of the bow really shows the structure, since the wreck is small. The Olympus 7-14mm lens focuses really close, and has great depth of field. I was able to capture a small Honeycomb cowfish, and still have the wreck in the background. Taking details of the wreck with marine life in the photos also makes for interesting images.
The Hilma Hooker is a wreck-photographers dream with an interesting past. This 236’-long cargo vessel was built in Holland in 1951. In 1984, she ran into some mechanical rudder problems. She was taken in tow and brought to Town Pier. Customs immigration officials decided to search her after discovering the ship lacked documentation. Turns out she was carrying over 25,000 pounds of marijuana! The marijuana was confiscated and burned. While the authorities attempted to find the ship’s owners, she was moored just offshore. Her hull was not in the best condition. She began to take on water, and her pumps eventually gave out. On the September 12, 1984 the vessel sank.
Besides photographing the wonderful marine life which calls this wreck home, shooting the structure and the details makes for some very graphic images. Using you dive partner as a model adds scale and a human element to any wreck photo. The structure is also interesting, so still-life photos of the helm (steering wheel) or other artifacts makes for compelling images. Going inside the wreck and shooting out will make nice image. Use a bright available light exposure to add blue color coming through the openings. Then use your strobes to fill in the shadows and bring out the details of the machinery inside the wreck, or your dive partner.
Larry Cohen is a past president of the NYC Sea Gypsies, and a founding member of The New York Underwater Photographic Society. He also crews on the New Jersey dive boat, the John Jack. When not underwater, Larry spends way too much time at a desk at B&H Photo. During that time he can answer your underwater-camera questions in Live Chat oryou can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. See his other work at www.liquidimagesuw.com
On 11/09/11 Larry will be the speaker at The NYC Sea Gypsies dive club meeting. He will be talking about and showing photos of the Japanese shipwrecks of Truk Lagoon. For more information go to http://www.seagypsies.org/