Underwater Photography: How to Photograph Wrecks
Exploring a shipwreck as part of your underwater photography trip is a captivating experience, and beckons scuba divers to unlock the secrets of the deep.
A good image can convey the mood and atmosphere of a shipwreck while also inspiring the viewer. How a photographer creates an image that inspires is a matter of carefully applied photographic techniques.
This article will explore the strategy behind creating inspiring photographs of wrecks.
There are several different types of wrecks, each with thier own atmosphere. For example, there are old shipwrecks that may have carried valuable cargo, warships that were lost in battle, or even purpose-sunk ships for scuba divers.
Wrecks can also include aeroplanes, train cars, automobiles, cargo lost at sea, structures, and even flooded towns.
Lighting in wreck photography
The first and most important element in any good photograph is the use of light. Many shipwrecks are dark by virtue of their location, and this can be an advantage or a disadvantage.
Perhaps you want to simply show someone what cargo you found inside a wreck. You can shoot an image of the cargo using strobes that would tell the story.
If you can find an angle that allows light from the outside to penetrate the cargo area, use that to your advantage.
Putting blue water in the background of an image gives the image depth and is much more interesting to the viewer.
Using light to create depth
Sometimes there is no outside light available. However, you can still use light to your advantage.
Putting an artificial light source such as a torch or remotely triggered strobe behind an object can help to make it stand out and give your image depth.
In the cargo hold of the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm for example, there are several trucks parked side by side. They are against the wall of the ship so it is not possible to shoot them with outside light.
However, an artificial light source placed close to the wall sets the truck apart and creates a much more interesting photograph.
Remote light can also be used to emphasize an important element inside a shipwreck.
In the Chrisoula K wreck in the Red Sea, there is a workroom that has a drill press. The room is small so there is not much room for a diver to enter for a photo. However, there is an opening in the wall leading to an adjacent room.
A remote strobe can be set up to light up the drill press while the diver is holding the camera in the adjacent room.
By adding another diver entering with a light, the photograph gains depth and interest.
In most cases, the wreck itself is far too large to shoot with strobes. Most photographers will focus on a smaller element of the wreck when using strobes, but there are several options when shooting the entire wreck.
Depending on the depth of the wreck, you can try shooting it without any strobes at all. This will require a higher ISO, lower shutter speed, and more open aperture.
Another solution to getting a natural-looking photo of the entire wreck is to use a red filter to restore the color. These filters are made to attach to the lens itself, so if you decide to go that route, you must commit to the entire dive.
Results are usually very good, creating a photograph that has blue water through the entire photograph while showing the shipwreck in its natural color.
Black and white underwater photography
Black and white photographs are a good choice in underwater photography if you want to capture mood.
Be mindful when composing your images that when you shoot with the sun at your back, the shipwreck will have a lot of detail, and the shadows will be minimal.
If you shoot facing the sun, the shipwreck will have deep shadows, creating a darker and sometimes more ’emotional’ image with a dramatic effect. Shooting into the sun is particularly suitable for black and white photos.
Black and white can also work particularly well with remote light, as seen in the helicopter image below.
This requires a little bit of work in post-processing to separate the light from the dark. If you want a darker image, the blues must be darkened, and vice versa for a lighter image.
Keep in mind that the photograph is black and white, so it is only the blue channel that is darkened or lightened.
Many wrecks have been underwater for a long time and support a great deal of natural growth. This abundance of life around a shipwreck is in sharp contrast to the shipwreck itself, which may signify destruction and death.
The contrasting characteristics of life and death around a shipwreck can be very satisfying in a photograph. Shipwrecks naturally become an artificial reef and a safe haven for sea life.
For example, this unidentified wreck in Sri Lanka was found because fishermen knew there was an abundance of life at this location. So, while on the wreck, don’t be afraid to point your camera towards the life surrounding the fixture you’re photographing.
The Carnatic (photographed above) ran aground on Sha’ab Abu Nahas reef in the Red Sea in 1869 and has been underwater for more than 150 years. The wood has decayed, but the metal cross beams are still intact.
As a photographer, it is important to seek out the beauty found in the decay, for it becomes a part of the ship’s story.
Photographing divers on wrecks
Having a diver in your image often elevates the picture and helps give perspective to the story.
Sometimes you might just want a diver hovering above the wreck or shining a light on an important element. Sometimes, however, you need a diver to emphasize the space or size of an object.
If you are in a dark area of the wreck, and your dive model is wearing a dark wetsuit, you must be very deliberate in how you photograph them, or you may end up with a photograph featuring a floating head!
In the above photograph of a diver inside the Tristar L-1011 Jetliner in Aqaba, Jordan, it was necessary to have him hold a light shining behind him to create a separation between diver and background.
Without this light, his body would have blended into the darkness. A remote strobe or video light is usually sufficient backlighting for people or objects in dark places.
Many wrecks are unidentified, but those who discover the wreck are driven to learn the history of the craft. For many wrecks, there is an identifying fixture such as a nameplate, cargo, or type of equipment that helps researchers discover what happened.
The HMS Perseus was lost in Colombo Bay near Sri Lanka during WWI. There are many shipwrecks in the area, but only two are known to have been sunk by a ship known as “The Wolf” during WWI.
When the Perseus was discovered, its identity was confirmed because of the type of steering quadrant that was used. This quadrant is an important fixture for telling this story, so getting a photograph of the steering quadrant was the goal of the dive.
Some fixtures become important after the fact, such as this compressor known as R2-D2. Most ships have a compressor, so the fixture itself is not important. But this compressor is found on the WWII ship Fujikawa Maru in Chuuk Lagoon, Malaysia.
It resembles a soldier wearing a gas mask, which is reminiscent of WWII. In fact, there are several gas masks found on the ship itself. This fixture lends a bit of humor to an otherwise bleak story, and it is one of the most photographed fixtures in Chuuk Lagoon.
I highly recommend doing a little research before diving a wreck to find out what its story is, and then set out to create the images that tell that story. It also makes the experience of seeing and diving the wreck much more interesting!
Read more: 13 Ways to Improve Your Underwater Photos
How you choose to tell a story through your wreck images depends on how your photographs illustrate it. Think about the mood you want to convey and the atmosphere you experience while you are on the dive.
Plan ahead to make the most of your photographic experience, and if possible, I recommend doing multiple dives on the wreck until you understand its ambiance.
If you prepare yourself with the right photographic techniques, you will be able to dive prepared with a strategy to make the most of your dive and tell the story of your wreck diving adventure with captivating images.
Good luck and enjoy the adventure!