Location: Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia
Dive Site: Kwanji (awesome place to get grilled tuna or jack during surface interval)
Depth: 18 Meters
I was a student in a workshop run by Irwin Ang and it was a pretty rough day. Being at the end of the dive season in late December, the waves at Tulamben were fairly high and made shore entries hard. We aborted at a dive site the next day. The surge was killing my stability to take focused shots without motion blur. I was overweighted by 3kg just to keep from getting pushed around as much by the surge. That also made water entry even more worse with the big waves: it’s hard to keep your head above the surface when you’re packing 8kg of ballast and no exposure suit.
When the start of the dive is hard, it’s almost impossible to get into the right mindset to go hunting. Sometimes you can’t find anything because all the creatures are on strike or asleep. Or it could be that you forgot how to see and you need to just take pictures of anything so your eyes work again. So I started looking for abstracts to take pictures of.
If you’ve never been to Tulamben, it’s the land of black sand… all volcanic rock. After every dive, you dig it out of your dive clothes. It’s awesome for low-key (black background) images. And it’s easy to see white things on.
I found this tiny white tubeworm, a white thing on the black sand. It was at the most 3mm across. This takes a supermacro setup and even with the macro mode on the TG4 I barely had enough magnification to see the subject. So I zoomed in and used focus lock and manual focus to as close to the lens as I could get.
Lighting was hard–at anything below 12m or so there isn’t enough ambient light. I had been hand-holding a torch with my left hand alongside the camera. But the more you zoom (ie, the closer you get to supermacro), the more light you need. A single torch just wasn’t bright enough.
I almost always carry an extra torch in my right thigh pocket. So I pulled it out, turned it on, and set it on the ground about 1.5cm to the right of and slightly in front of the tubeworm. Then I put my other torch similarly on the left side. This made a “miniature portable underwater macro portrait lighting studio”. Just like your glamor shots only different. =)
I did bump the ground once and the tubeworm disappeared for a couple of minutes when it felt the vibration. Working close with tubeworms, you sometimes have to back off a bit, let it relax and come back out. They can feel vibration and they can feel moving water. The trick with a tubeworm on the bottom is to remember where they are because otherwise you’re back to searching on the sandy bottom.
Lighting. Carry extra. In the tropics, I usually wear neoprene tech diving shorts with thigh pockets and have one or two more torches clipped off in my right pocket. This allows me to mark good subjects for friends and add more light when I need it.
The ground can sometimes give you a third, fourth, and fifth hand. Feel free to set a torch down to provide side lighting or even backlighting. Add colored lights if you feel like it.
When you can’t find a normal subject like nudies or shrimp, look around at coral, tubeworms, etc. Find patterns and abstracts. Sometimes it’s that your brain isn’t in the right mood to look for tiny things and taking pictures gets it working right.
Take a minute to watch the subject and go slow when you set up for a shot. Some subjects don’t like shadows, the wake of a diver, white light, or vibrations. Almost always go slow and then 150% slower than that.