Underwater Photography 101: Focus! Focus! Focus! (Part 2)

Underwater Photography 101: Focus! Focus! Focus! (Part 2)

Sometimes a photographer becomes bored or loses enthusiasm for common subjects.  But common subjects can be the catalyst for creativity. Some of the most interesting photographs are of common subjects that are depicted in an unusual way. Focus can be one of the tools a photographer uses to express a feeling or an idea, and artistic focus can add interest to a common subject.

One of the great tools a photographer has is the ability to change the depth of field.  You can determine how much of the image you want in focus by how open or closed your aperture is. An aperture of f/16 or f/22, for example will allow a much deeper depth of field (focus) than f/8.  The following two images are of Christmas Tree worms.  One is in sharp focus, and one is softly focused:

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Christmas Tree Worm. Nikon D7000, 105mm lens, f/29, 1/250th
Christmas Tree Worm, Nikon D7000, 105mm lens, f 5.6, 1/250th
Christmas Tree Worm, Nikon D7000, 105mm lens, f 5.6, 1/250th

Although both images are of a Christmas tree worm, the focus encourages a completely different emotion from the viewer. The sharp feathery radioles or hair like appendages in the top image imply excitement, whereas the soft fluffy radioles in the bottom image invite calm. It may be hard to believe, but the only camera setting that is different in both images is the depth of field or aperture of the camera. The aperture on the top image is set to f/29 which gives the image a lot of depth of field, allowing the entire worm to be in focus. The bottom image has an aperture of f/5.6 which opens the lens up quite a bit and gives a soft focus to the worm.

Take a look at the next two images. The depth of field on one is wide open, while the other is stopped down. How do the two images make you feel? Is one more artistic than the other?

Praying Mantis taken with Nikon D7000, 105mm lens, f/18, 1/100th.
Praying Mantis taken with Nikon D7000, 105mm lens, f/18, 1/100th, ISO 500.
Praying Mantis Portrait taken with D810, 105mm, f/8, 1/160th.
Praying Mantis Portrait taken with D810, 105mm, f/8, 1/160th, ISO 320.

You might notice that the image with the wide open aperture also has a higher shutter speed.  Since the open aperture let in more light, the shutter speed had to be higher to compensate.  This brings me to another focusing tool which is how you use light.  The image above is quite bright.  This image was taken with the camera lens facing the sun.  Notice how the light creates a hazy effect around the mantis’s body.  Let’s go back under water and see how this can affect an underwater image.

Amphipod taken with D7000, f/16, 1/100th, ISO 500
Amphipod taken with D7000, f/16, 1/100th, ISO 500

The image above appears to have a little motion blur and haze around the amphipod, which adds to the idea of the movement of water. But the halo effect in this image is created by shooting directly through the water toward the sun, with a higher ISO, so that the blue water shows through the translucent shell of the amphipod. Taking an image of a super-macro subject with a blue background is not very common. Most of these types of shots have a black background. But this brighter blue background allows the viewer a sense of the environment. It is also creative.

Sometimes motion is an important part of an image. The sea palm below was being whipped around in the surge along with this photographer. I wanted to show the movement of the sea palm so I used a technique referred to as a “spin shot.”

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In this case, I used a slow shutter speed (1/10th) to get the blur effect around the palm. In addition, I spun the camera around in a circle quickly as I took the shot. The strobes were used to freeze the part of the palm in the center of the image so that it isn’t blurred. The aperture was f/9 and the slow shutter speed created a blur around the palm which gives the feeling of the water movement. The same idea is used tracking a fast moving animal. If you have rear curtain sync on your camera, this will further aid in getting a motion blur effect while keeping the subject in focus. My friend, Michael Zeigler, has written a wonderful tutorial about this technique on the Samy’s Camera blog entitled “Dragging the Shutter Underwater.” Check it out for more great tips.

So the next time you feel you are in a slump, or just need some creative ideas, give these focusing techniques a try.  You may be pleased with your results!

To see part 1 of this tutorial, click “Underwater Photography 101:  Focus, Focus, Focus!  Part 1”

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My photographs are taken with a Nikon D7000 in Sea and Sea Housing using two YS-D1 Strobes.
All images are copyrighted by Brook Peterson and may only be used with written permission.  Please do not copy or print them.  To discuss terms for using these images, please contact me
Copyright 2017 Brook Peterson

4 thoughts on “Underwater Photography 101: Focus! Focus! Focus! (Part 2)

  1. I’d independently discovered spin shots a few months ago, while taking pictures at a pinball league night. The machines make for wondrous light trails, given the chance.

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