A Guide to Abstract Underwater Photography
The hardest part about abstract underwater photography is knowing when you’re ready to attempt the discipline.
Many photographers, and creative artists in general, have a deep desire to express themselves in an abstract sense but don’t have the knowledge or experience to do so just yet.
In a way, I believe abstract photography is a rite of passage that must be earned, and only after you’ve mastered the basics of photography and diving will you possess the tools to transfer your vision through the lens.
My personal journey began with the unwavering determination to perfect lighting, composition, and camera settings in the simplest form of “scientific shooting,” without much in the way of creative afterthought.
Once the muscle memory to achieve this was set in stone, I felt the next logical step was to choose an underwater photographer I admired and attempt to replicate one of their photos as closely as possible.
I highly recommend that you use this as your own launching pad. But you’ll find that artists can be incredibly cryptic when it comes to their craft, so the only real way to remove the veil is to figure it out yourself.
I can honestly say that after a three-hour session underwater attempting to replicate Matty Smith’s “Enchanted” seahorse shot, I walked out of the water as a completely different underwater photographer!
In this article, we’ll look at how you can approach abstract underwater photography and hopefully come away with unique, creative images.
What is abstract underwater photography?
Abstract underwater photography is a discipline that breaks away from an accurate depiction of reality and uses a wide range of techniques to intentionally redefine what we see in our everyday lives.
This is usually executed through the use of colors, shapes, textures, and sometimes wonderfully cryptic framing. Abstraction is fluid. Abstraction is freedom. Abstraction invites the viewer to form their own interpretation.
This non-representational practice can also introduce elements to a photo that cannot be captured in the traditional sense.
However, an abstract photographer may think of slowing the shutter speed right down, as a way to introduce movement and acceleration into their image.
Suddenly you have moved beyond traditional ‘scientific’ portraiture and into the creative side of the underwater photography world.
Abstract nature photography
Mundanity and consistency are the death of true creativity. Abstract photography allows creatives to see with their minds what they cannot see with their eyes.
We are essentially inviting our viewers into the space where our egos, madness, and raw creativity reside, and subjectively, the viewer will either love it or hate it.
Most of us can appreciate a beautiful, standardized photo when we see it. However, abstract photography can challenge our brains to create their own interpretations, which stimulates curiosity and imagination.
It can also provide an opportunity to draw attention to an otherwise mundane or commonly seen and photographed subject.
I believe that the trend in underwater photography competitions is now leaning very much toward abstract photography.
With the rise of cheaper, more accessible camera options, we rarely see divers cruising the depths empty-handed, and so the judges have seen it all.
They are now inviting photographers to break the conventional barriers of traditional underwater photography and subject portraiture to explore what has not been done or seen yet.
Attempting some of the techniques we mention here may allow you the opportunity to stand out from the rest while letting your imagination pour through the lens.
Here are some ideas to get you started, with tips on how to execute them. Though, of course, there is no end to the number of creative ways to use your camera!
1. Blurred motion images and long exposure shots
This is perhaps my absolute favorite method of shooting underwater. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a way to take a static, familiar subject and inject it with motion, antithetical color, and jaw-dropping originality.
Essentially, it is the practice of slowing your shutter speed all the way down to the single/double-digit numbers (an absolute abomination to traditionalists) and harnessing the power of strobes to freeze action where necessary.
It baffles me time and time again when I discuss slow shutter photography with highly seasoned shooters, and they have no idea that strobes do, in fact, freeze action (regardless of shutter speed).
So put this in your knowledge bank and keep reminding yourself that strobes freeze action!
Hence, with slow shutter photography, the most important technical element to refine is how your strobe hits the subject.
As with traditional underwater photography, it’s essential to have the eye and/or centralized features crisp and in focus.
As long as your lighting hits these critical components, you can sit back and allow the majesty of slow shutter to transform your shot.
Lighting techniques for long exposure shots
Your lighting techniques will be determined by the kind of long exposure shot you’re attempting to create.
This is because you’re essentially going to be opening up your shutter to anything from 1/2 and 1/60 to produce a distinct long exposure shot.
Wide Angle Long Exposure – Standard
Whether it be CFWA or a standardized wide-angle shot, this approach can be achieved with dual strobes and an otherwise traditional setup.
You’ll likely be dealing with larger subjects such as sharks or cuttlefish and will essentially capture motion in the silhouette of the creature (e.g., dorsal fin of a shark), quick-moving parts of the creature (e.g., the wavering movement of a cuttlefish fin), and the overall background of the frame.
You’ll also find that if you’ve been blessed with a nice sunny day, your overall color spectrum will appear almost “cartoonish” and oversaturated, another outrageously funky by-product resulting from slow shutter.
Rear curtain, long exposure shots are also incredibly rewarding for wide-angle photography, as you can create a “trailing,” silhouetting sense of movement with your subjects.
Macro Long Exposure – Standard
Because of the narrow frame of a typical macro shot, you’d be inclined to use a snoot for slow shutter – you don’t want your strobes blanketing the entire frame or (simply put) there will be no slow shutter.
I usually find the “rockstar” element of these shots is the background, as the motion of the ocean comes to life behind your subject.
Read more: A Guide to Underwater Macro Photography
Slow shutter blur motion
Here’s where you can surrender to the abstract artist within and really let things fly off the handle.
Essentially, this technique is the art of painting in your movement, as opposed to relying on the organic movement of the ocean and its creatures.
You’ll need to arm yourself with a snoot and ideally low-light conditions. There are two distinct ways to achieve this discipline, both incredibly technical and challenging to execute.
After you’ve set up the shot with the snoot light aimed at the parts of the subject you’d like to freeze, press the trigger and swipe your camera in the direction to which you’d like to blend your creativity.
This is not by any means a gentle process; imagine you’re trying to swipe a bee away with your entire rig.
Whenever I coach photographers in this discipline, they’re almost afraid to overdo the degree of “swipe,” but don’t be afraid to channel your inner “swipe demon.”
This technique is slightly more challenging than the front curtain, as you have to ensure your lens and snoot are aimed directly where they need to be at the precise moment the flash fires.
Because of this, it may be worthwhile to have an assistant handling the snoot. It is essentially the opposite of the front curtain, swiping prior to the snoot firing.
Rear curtain enables you the opportunity to paint the scene in prior to the frozen action – this can afford you the opportunity to get funky with alternate lighting sources.
2. Finding compositions and noticing details and textures
However, the creative discipline of abstraction invites the shooter to break the pattern of tradition when the situation presents itself. Rules are meant to be broken.
Isolate elements and fixate on patterns and textures that are constantly overlooked, or magnify unusual portions of a subject.
These are components that will leave your viewers dazzled and perplexed, while they admire the fresh perspective you’ve presented before them.
For example, you might zoom in on the refined spiral that encapsulates a Nudibranch’s rhinophore, backlight an eel to accentuate its obscure shape, or even shoot close to the shallows and capture the subject’s reflection as it bounces off the surface.
There is no end to the new and unusual perspectives you might create once you get your eye in and start to think differently about your compositions. There is always a new way to photograph something!
Recommended equipment and settings for abstract underwater images
To help you in your abstract underwater photography journey, here are some tips for settings and equipment.
Any sort of setup can be used to achieve abstract underwater photography, but my go-to would have to be the 60mm macro with a single snoot.
This lens is ideally suited for mid-sized macro critters such as anglerfish, seahorses, and small-scale fish, as you’re able to capture the essence of the creature while maintaining enough of a backdrop to paint in the scene.
I’d say you’d probably want to use a ratio of 50/50 when it comes to subject/background balance, always favoring the backdrop for spatial preference.
For macro creatures, as mentioned previously, a snoot is essential. You want that narrow beam of light to hit the main features of the critter while inviting creative chaos into the majority of the shot.
Your shutter speed will be purely determined by how light or dark the environment is at the time, but I would say in low light conditions (e.g., under a dark pier) you can play with anything between 1/2 and 1/15, while bumping these settings up to 1/60 in sun-soaked situations.
It’s really important to keep your aperture as closed off as possible (high numbers) to capture those rich, vibrant colors.
Don’t be afraid to bump up your ISO slightly more than usual when attempting this technique. We’ve all been schooled to keep our ISO as low as possible with photography in general; however, abstract photography is the dissident of the discipline.
Most of the successful shots I’ve taken have been anywhere between 200 and 400, so have a play with this range to find the sweet spot.
Abstract tools have been passed off as gimmicky and/or tacky but can be quite intriguing if executed well.
Try piecing together some ocean-safe, household tools to fashion yourself some interesting lighting utensils.
I’ve attempted using sparkly wrapping paper, a crystal spherical ball, and the understated Magic Light tube to get funky with abstract underwater photography. There are no rules here!
Abstract underwater photography is a discipline that dares you to be different, inviting you to break traditional creative barriers and convey a concept or emotion buried deep within your imagination.
It’s important to hit the water with a clear sense of what kind of shot you’re trying to achieve and remain loyal to this concept until it’s executed properly.
If you’re afraid to miss out on a photographic opportunity due to its risky nature, I’d refer you to Paul Nicklen’s recommendation of the 20/60/20 rule.
Nicklen spends the first 20% of the shoot banking the traditional, crisp, and technically accurate shots appropriate for National Geographic content.
He then spends the bulk 60% of the shoot exploring new techniques, angles, and abstraction within his creative boundaries (he believes this is where his best work comes from).
The last 20% is reserved for the true creative beast within, to allow the opportunity to fail attempting new and exciting experimental shots. This formula should provide the best “all-rounder” for a successful underwater session.
At the end of the day, have fun breaking the rules, and embrace the chaos of abstractive anarchy below the surface!