Shooting Wide in Raja Ampat

By Beth Watson

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7102   Schooling barracuda, Barracuda Point           1/250, f/8, ISO 320

Raja Ampat in Indonesia is a vast archipelago that incorporates over 2,500 islands. The coral reefs here host one of the highest concentrations of endemic fish species in the Pacific Ocean and the visual impact is stunning.  Situated within the Coral Triangle, West Papua has been coined the Bird’s Head Seascape and is considered the world’s premier epicenter of marine biodiversity. Bird’s Head Seascape lies above a tectonic plate convergence zone, making it one of the most geologically active places on Earth. The currents of the Pacific Ocean flow through this region, bringing in rich nutrients creating an environment that cultivates extreme marine diversity.

This fantastic province has an endless array of extraordinary photographic opportunities, both above water and below. Underwater photographers will have the arduous decision whether to use a macro or wide angle lens in this wildly beautiful region. The massive coral bommies, shallow water mangroves, shoals of glassy sweepers and schooling fish are best recorded using a wide angle or fisheye lens. It is difficult to capture the essence of the region’s splendor using a macro lens. Consider shooting wide, and focus on the entire scene. Please also take time to observe and enjoy the macro species as well.

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The Mangroves, Mangrove Slope                  1/80, f/7.1, ISO 160

Composition: 

Wide angle photography produces its own set of unique challenges. Creating impactful, colorful, sharp images requires thought and preparation. There are several variables that need to be considered when photographing underwater wide angle scenes.

Scan the reef and water column, looking for visual impact. A good composition will engage the viewer, whether it is simple or complex. Sometimes, the “less is more” theory works well. Bird’s Head Seascape is often an underwater extravaganza. There can be so much action, it becomes difficult to know where to look, and much less what to shoot.

After the decision has been made what to shoot, a few questions need to be answered before setting up for the shot. What direction is the sun shining? Which direction is the current running? How much air is left and what is my depth? Do I have proper buoyancy to capture the shot?

After these questions are answered, proceed with your camera settings, strobe positioning etc. Practice this sequence often; it won’t take long until it becomes second nature, and the questions and answers come quickly. The result will be improvement in photography and diving skills.

A few lucky people have a natural eye for composition while others often struggle. Visualize the final image before it is captured. Look at the works of other photographers whom you admire. What do you like and dis-like about their images? What draws your attention? Is it the color, subject, lighting, lens choice or composition? Don’t emulate other photographers, take what is inspirational, build on that, practice and create your own style of photography.

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Soft coral and schooling scad, Aerbork Jetty  1/125, f/8, ISO 160

Camera Settings:

It is important to know the background color and brightness is controlled by the shutter speed. The higher the shutter speed the darker the background. If a blue background is too dark, lower the shutter speed to create a background with lighter shades of blue. However, if there is a moving subject in the frame, a minimum shutter speed of 1/100 to 1/125 is required to freeze the action. If the shutter speed is increased, it might be necessary to raise the ISO to compensate.

Artificial Light:

Lighting wide angle scenes can be challenging. It takes time, patience and most of all practice. Balancing ambient light with artificial light can be a hurdle for those new to the technique.

When lighting wide angle scenes, several variables need to be taken into consideration; The position and strength of the sunlight, distance to subject, strobe power and camera settings all contribute to the end result. Shooting a scene that is parallel to your camera lens will enable the entire scene to be evenly lit. Otherwise, the strobes will not reach the distant areas of the image, resulting in diminished colors and dark spots. Use a diffuser on the strobes to soften and spread the light for even distribution.

For wide angle images, longer strobe arms are ideal as they will add more lighting coverage. However, this does not necessarily apply to super-wide angle lenses, such as the Canon 5-15 fisheye lens. If long arms are used it may be necessary to draw them in. Otherwise, the strobe light may not reach the center portion of the image, causing a dark spot. A solution would be to place a third strobe above the camera.

To prevent strobe flare and backscatter, extend the strobes behind the camera lens and angle them outwards. This is especially crucial when using a fisheye lens. Another technique is to position the sun at your back and adjust the strobes above the camera at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions. Aim the strobes in the same direction the sun is shining through the water. This will mimic the sun and add additional light on the subject. Experiment with various strobe positions to discover what works best for different situations.

A good starting point for strobe power is 1/4. Most wide-angle scenes can be adequately lit without cranking up the strobe to maximum power. Dial in the strobe settings manually instead of relying on TTL. It can be difficult to properly expose a wide-angle scene using TTL.

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Colorful pinnacle, Black Rock                       1/100, f/8, ISO 160

Conclusion:

Diving Bird’s Head Seascape is a wonderful experience, both above water and below. The photographic opportunities are truly remarkable, from schooling fish to amazing coral bommies, and everything in-between. It’s a destination that begs to be re-visited.

Take it to the next level. Trial and error is intrinsic in improving photography skills. Learn from mistakes. It may require many captures and discards before the next print-worthy image is created. Be a visionary — if you see it, you can shoot it!

Tips:

  • Include a diver in the scene, it adds interest, scale, and gives the viewer a sense of “being there”.
  • Take control of the camera. Try shooting with manual settings.
  • Void/Negative space is a welcome element in image composition.
  • Always shoot in RAW, if possible. This will allow for non-destructive editing practices.
  • Don’t sweat over the white balance of an image, it is easily corrected in post-processing.
  • Look at other photographers’ work and learn from them.
  • Be creative and think outside the box. Try new techniques.
  • Venture outside the comfort zone.
  • Expect the unexpected.

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Ocean Geographic Explorer (OGX) is a diving adventure resource with a special focus on marine photography and ocean conservation. Our content is divided up into six primary categories: Travel, Sea Science,  Equipment, Photography &Video, Conservation, and Lifestyle. We endeavor be a portal for people with all levels of interest in the marine environment  to learn about and become part of a community of like-minded ocean lovers who enjoy sharing their knowledge of and experiences in our fascinating ocean world.

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