I was going through old photos to pick a few I needed for a certain project, when I came across this one. It made me think of how great it is to have good friends to go on diving vacations with. I mean, some people go in vacation on their own, and they make friends along the way, and that is cool. But it’s really great to have really good friends you can count on, to make your vacation days even better, just with their presence and, really, the pleasure of their company, and the brightness of their smiles.
Smooth Trunkfish Juveniles are about the size of a pea. They hover in sheltered areas among corals, using small pectoral fins that can be barely seen with the naked eye. When I first saw this one, I didn’t have my camera with me,so made a mental note that it was near a certain sea fan, by a certain square rock. The next day, my buddies and I went back to Karpata, and this time I had my camera with me. I looked around for a certain square rock, near a certain sea fan, and I was glad to see that my little friend was still there.
As with many other marine creatures, it takes a little bit of patience to get a good look at these little guys. Seaweed Blennies can reach 3 inches in length, but are wary of lumbering divers, and prefer to retreat inside their coralline homes when they are approached too hastily. This particular one was in the shallows at Something Special in Bonaire, near the marina, only a few feet away from the underwater webcam.
Secretary Blennies live inside small worm holes, and seem to feel secure in their tiny homes. Their brains may be small, but they probably have figured out that divers are not trying to eat them. Although, sometimes, they do get a little too close, and that’s when it’s time for the Secretary Blenny to pull The One Trick it knows: retreating into the hole and waiting until the big shadow has gone away. Patient divers can get quite close if they move slowly and approach gradually. These one-inch long fish have very expressive faces that are interesting to watch, and may occasionally dart out of their holes to grab suspended particles of food.
At Karpata, on Bonaire, in the Dutch Antilles, there is a coral, near a certain sea fan, by a certain square rock, where in March 2010 lived a tiny fish that looks like a black pea with yellow polka dots. The Redlip Blenny in this photo lives on the same coral. If a diver is patient and able to stay in one place while being “gently” swept back and forth by the surge, the Blenny will allow the diver to approach and reward the curious human with a nice smile.
The Brothers Islands are in the middle of the Red Sea. These two specks of land are practically made of coral. That’s actually true: the Red Sea used to be higher, even at the time of the Roman Empire, when these two island were mostly submerged. Millennia of coral growth have brought us these two islands, and as you can see, they are still definitely in the realm of coral. Near the surface there’s the best light, and that’s where I spied this pair of Red Sea Raccoon Butterflyfish. What I like about this shot is the mix of natural and artificial light, and, of course, the reef! That’s what it all looks like over there, and it’s absolutely worth the travel time. A lot of people see this picture and think it’s an aquarium shot, because it almost looks fake. Funny how we got it all backwards: we expect what looks like perfection to be artificial, while the natural version is often disappointing. Well, it’s good to know that natural perfection still exists, although we may have to travel a long way to get there. But it’s still there.
It often happens, during dive trips, that the guide will give a briefing about something outstanding before a dive, and divers will listen and say, yeah, sure, I’ll check it out. Later, during the dive, most divers forget about what they heard because they are completely taken away with the immediacy of the dive, and then all of sudden, turn a corner, and WOW! that was outstanding – uh, right, *that’s* what the guide was talking about! Well, at Daedulus, in the Red Sea, there’s an anemone city that’s worth diving every day. There are tens and tens of anemone and each one of them is populated – teeming – with Clownfish, like this Amphiprion bicinctus. Some of them adults, most of them juveniles, hundreds of them. So if you want a nice picture of them, it’s just a matter of time, aim, wait, and you will be rewarded.
We have all seen cleaner wrasses and gobies doing their thing around larger fish, who diligently show up at cleaning stations just like SUVs at a car wash. But what I don’t often see is a cleaner fish taking a break inside the mouth of the fish being cleaned, like this Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) resting in the mouth of a Giant Moray (Gymnothorax javanicus). Now, to be honest, the wrasse was not resting all that comfortably, but that’s probably not because the moray, which was about 6 or 7 feet long, could have swallowed it in a few milliseconds. It was because of me, that unusual blob of stinky neoprene with light-emitting protuberances, hovering there, checking them out. I tried not to abuse their tolerance and left after a couple of shots. In the end, no picture is worth harassing the very creatures we have traveled around the world to admire. Sometimes we get lucky, and this time I got to take home this great shot that tells us a lot about different species figuring out a way to do business that’s beneficial for all. Now if only some business executive could learn from that.
Well, it looks like I am going to be dry for a while. It’s time to go back into the old photo collection to dig up little jewels that have been set aside to be reconsidered later, only to be completely lost to the large black hole that forms in our memory once we turn 40. For example, I was looking through some Turks and Caicos photos to make a large print of the shark eye, when I saw this shark mug, which had been deemed not-good-enough back then.
Now, that’s not so bad, is it? It’s got spunk, the little cute guy. You see some nice Caribbean sun light on its back, and some strobe light on its pretty face. This and a few other Caribbean Reef Sharks were very interested in the high-pitch sound the strobes make when they’re recharging, and stayed with us for about half an hour, until it was time for us to ascend because we were running out of air and we were loaded with nitrogen. It wasn’t deep, but many of the dive sites visited by the Turks and Caicos Explorer start at 30 or 40 feet, so there’s nothing to do while going back up but floating in the blue, letting the nitrogen go.
It seems like I’m complaining, but that beats sitting on this couch on a February night waiting for the snow to come and cover the Northeast. Not only it beats it, it blows it full out of the water. Water, mmh, I guess I’m circling back to it. But I’m going to be dry for a while…
My picture of the two Red Sea Raccoon Butterflyfish was chosen by CORAL as a photo contest winner for their January 2010 E-Current newsletter. CORAL also made the image available for download to use as a desktop wallpaper. I am happy and grateful they chose my photo, and to be now permanently enshrined in their wallpaper hall of fame.
I am very proud to announce my first photographic contribution to Simplesteps.org, a non-profit website, for an article about ocean acidification. They also decided to use one of my pictures on their home page, at least for a little while. This is what it looked like.
Special thanks to Rob Goodier for thinking of my photos when the need for “images of coral reefs teeming with life” arose.
As it often happens, after returning from a diving trip, I find myself looking at the photos I took and seeing all the mistakes I’ve made, wishing I could go back right now and do it right this time. The mistakes I’m talking about are the little details I manage to ignore while underwater, and that are so obvious when looking at the images on my laptop. The LCD on the back of the DSLR is a great help and sometimes a little deceiving, because it’s never as good as a 17″ monitor.
Although I am checking color histograms (most of the time at least), I often don’t see the “other” little details. Like, for example, the dreaded air bubbles on the dome. They’re a little annoying detail that make this image unusable. It won’t take long to clone them out of existence with Camera Raw or Photoshop, but even if it takes ten minutes, compare that to the one second it would have taken to swipe those bubbles off the dome before taking the picture. And this is just one picture. Although spots can be removed from more than one image at a time with Camera Raw, that works best with dirty sensor spots, because they are always predictably in the same exact spot. And usually they’re not as many as the bubbles spots in this example. So the lesson here is: one second of thought underwater, before taking the picture, can translate to ten minutes per photo of mind-numbing (or relaxing, depending on how you view it) cloning work in post-processing.
Another classic mistake for me is leaving the strobes on when they’re not necessary. Sometimes natural light is enough, either because there’s nothing within 6 feet to be lit by artificial light, or like in this example, because natural is the subject of the photo. Now it beats me why it didn’t occur to me to switch the strobes off before taking this picture. Oh wait – I know: because I’m an amateur. That’s right. Lack of experience. Perhaps next time I find myself looking at a beautiful play of light, like this one in the cracks near the surface at Little Brother Island in the Red Sea, I will remember to turn off the strobes, adjust aperture and shutter speed, frame and take the picture.
Sometimes I surprise myself by screwing up the most basic things, like for example not focusing on the subject. Now, using the 105mm Nikkor lens with autofocus can be a real pain, because it often goes in wild back and forth swings looking for focus, which seem to take forever while I’m holding my breath and trying to stay still, and I wonder if it wouldn’t be best to just leave it at a fixed focus and move the camera back and forth. But since I know that, I should really pay more attention to making sure that the subject is in focus. This sea star is sitting on a pretty boring background, it really shouldn’t have been hard to focus on it and get a nice crisp shot of it. It could have been a winner, and instead it’s just a demonstration shot.
And finally, uneven lighting. You go to the store and buy all of them fancy underwater strobes. You pack them and take them all the way to a remote place. You make sure the batteries are charged. You go diving and see a nice crocodilefish (or similar bottom dweller) sitting on the sandy floor. You adjust strobe intensity to make sure you’re not going to overexpose the picture, because at least you know that the sand reflects a lot of light and you need to dial down the intensity. You take the picture and check the histogram and notice that there are no highlights, so you happily swim off to the next subject. But you also need to make sure that your subject is properly lit. It’s easy, you can just look in the LCD, although admittedly sometimes it’s not so easy to see. But in this case, it’s pretty clear that the sand in front of the fish is clearly lit, and the tail is not even lit. This was a great chance to have a nice spotlight on the fish, to make it pop out, in spite of its natural camouflage colors. Again, it could have been a winner, and instead, the best I can make of this image is an example of what needs to be avoided.
Of the many mistakes a photographer can make in the course of a single dive, these are just the few I have picked because they were so easily preventable. You know, like they say, an ounce of prevention…
I have been trying to pin down a “70% Water” mission statement for a while, but as anyone who has ever tried to do such thing very well knows, it is hard. It seems simple at first; in fact, all you have to do is say what you want your mission to be. How hard can it be? You know why you started doing what you’re doing. But when you try to put it into words, it becomes a game of compromise between a narrowly defined goal, which you may quickly outgrow while it already makes you feel boxed in, and a sweeping, ambitious quasi-evil plan of world domination.
In my case, is it really just underwater photography? I have to be honest, I don’t spend enough time underwater to realistically hope to make a meaningful contribution to the “underwater photography scene”, at least not in the next five years. I am too impatient for that. Photography is something I want to do because I enjoy doing it. But photography is a vast field with countless specializations and many, many different and ever-growing new niches. Why limit myself to underwater nature close-up digital stock photography? Would it be too ambitious to add wide-angle? Or above-water? Or non-nature? Why not go all the way to artsy abstract black and white surrealistic views of abandoned neighborhoods?
So, that’s the question, where to draw the line. In writing a mission statement, it helps if you’re capable of wide stroke generalizations and blurry concept, also known as marketing- or lawyer-speak, as opposed to literal, exact definitions, which is typical of geeky computer programmers, like me.
This is the best I can do, so far: “The purpose of Seventy Percent Water is to portray in images the connections among water, life and humanity“. This includes a lot of possible subject matter, and that’s probably good for now, because I am an amateur who needs practice. Maybe after I spend enough time doing this, I will be able to narrow it down more. For now, this mission statement already excludes many, many possibilities: no pictures of schoolchildren, rocks, bicycles, homeless people, live chickens, local ball games, Russian criminal tattoos, or pizza slices, unless they have something to do with water. I think the main point is that water has to be part of each picture, or at least be implied, as in the image of a water taxi docking at Brooklyn Heights.
A beneficial side-effect of this tremendous brain-squeezing effort is that with a mission statement you generally get a tag line for free. In fact, after producing the one-liner above, it was a easy to extract the tag line which now embellishes the top of this blog page, “Images of water, life and humanity”. Another benefit of the vague-sounding statement is that water does not need to be in the image, it just has to be implied. So for example, the picture of a fairly well-known bridge can work, because most people know that it spans above a body of water.
Overall, I am pretty satisfied with this mission statement, at least for now. I gives me a theme to work on, and enough room to keep exploring subjects while I find interesting avenues to pursue – while I am stuck in dry-land between dive trips. I am sure that the experience I gain while practicing on land will translate into better underwater images. Sure, I don’t have an underwater tripod, and there isn’t much artificial ambient light in the places I go diving that I’ll be able to produce this kind of photographs, but in terms of learning to juggle in my mind all the variables involved in making good photography, I think I can use all the practice I can get.
Yesterday evening I was walking home through Prospect Park. It was getting dark, the sky was filled with fast-moving storm clouds, and it had been raining, but a little bit of sunlight was making it through, every once in a while. In other words, the light was fantastic, almost unique. It gave a surreal quality to all the familiar paths, which also looked different because almost none was around. I wished I had my camera with me, like many other times. But I didn’t have it, and I was tired – it’s a long way from Midtown – and I just went home.
Today there was another storm before sunset, but then the sky cleared. I picked up the gear and went to the park. Just to see – I was hoping for the same light. The light was different, of course, but the green of vegetation was rich, and I got stuck for a while trying to capture the eerie look of this semi-abandoned building.
I could have caught a better impression of the “mysterious” path, and I know the sky was too bright, and it would have been a better idea to come back later when the lamppost was on. That’s what I’m thinking now, but when I was there, it wasn’t that obvious. I guess that’s why I’m writing this now.
I moved on and five minutes later I turn the corner and – holy shit – there’s a rainbow. I am absolutely unprepared and have no idea what to do. So, I point the camera at it and take a snapshot. I even set up the tripod, right there in the middle of the road, and take a few more. But the pictures I am taking really suck, because I am in the middle of a road, there are just trees and asphalt and road lights, you know, not the prettiest scene. I want something nicer in the foreground. I make my way down the lakeside. When I get there, there’s a family of swans right there, feeding, mom, dad, and two cygnets. Neither the swans nor the rainbow will stick around forever, so what do I do?
I try the rainbow first. I wish I would remember to turn the polarizer – it’s there for a reason, but it seems that the super-amateur which is me can’t focus on details during the creative urges and can’t remember to check its camera settings. This is the best I can get out of the rainbow. It doesn’t make it justice because it was really the crispiest, most stereotypical rainbow I have ever seen.
Unfortunately, there were no ponies, and no unicorns, to pair up with the rainbow. It looked a lot better than that in real life, and still don’t know what I should have done to make the best of it. It was unreal. But the swans where there, calm, posing, gently floating on the green scum, and clearly feeling a little jealous of all the attention the rainbow was getting.
They didn’t seem too upset by my being there snapping pictures at them, so I kept going for quite a while. Eventually, I think I got a nice family portrait.
I could have taken out the 105mm lens for some close-ups, but they looked so good together, and I am really trying to stick to one lens at a time, as a sort of training, especially with the wide-angle lens, which is the one I feel least comfortable with at the moment.
After the swans I went to other areas, tried to get some shots that I could later use to experiment with CS3’s feature “Merge to HDR”. I did take a few but the experiments didn’t yield anything useful, so I’ll spare you the (unimpressive) results.
There’s always something picture-worthy at Prospect Park at sunset, and often it’s not what you think you will find. I went there to get the stormy light of the night before, and I instead I got a rainbow and a friendly family of swans, but I wasn’t prepared for them, and I feel I didn’t make the best of it. I guess the lesson here was to go un-prepared, and ready to *think* when something unexpected comes up, instead of freaking out because you know that these interesting subjects are not going to be there forever. Just relax, think about what you’re doing, make sure you’re checking all the settings, and envision the image you want to take. Easy, no?