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To catch a trout…

From halcyon childhood summer days spent with siblings fishing a tributary of the river Wharfe, I had always been fascinated by the trout.  An elusive and wily fish, it was a rare occasion when we mustered enough patience and skill to catch one.  Then we would marvel at its striking beauty before gently slipping the fish back into its stream.

The enigmatic trout

The enigmatic trout

These days I am more interested in catching images of fish and last year I began to think hard about how to catch a river trout on camera.  These cautious fish live in rivers that can run clear enough to allow underwater photography, but the fast and shallow water makes the fish difficult to approach.  So there seem to be relatively few good images of river trout and I naturally extended the idea to photograph other species like grayling, chub and barbel.

Those childhood days taught me enough about trout behaviour to know that donning a wet suit and trying to attempt this with snorkel or dive gear was a non-starter.  It needed a remote camera that could be installed in the right position and a system to activate it when the fish had regained confidence in its surroundings.

the compact polecam

the compact polecam

I had three candidate designs: a pole-cam set up, using a bicycle brake lever and cable to mechanically trigger a compact camera; a purpose-built housing for a professional DSLR that would allow tethered shooting through a laptop connected by a USB cable; and a small DSLR in a different home-built housing with a wireless trigger.  Each had advantages and disadvantages ranging from cost and complexity of build to degree of camera control.  In the end I went for broke and build all three by hand.

These kind of projects can take months, even years to complete.  This one started with a few sketches that helped firm up my ideas and a trawl of the internet to enhance my (already quite reasonable) engineering skills, with new techniques like chemical welding for perspex sheets.  First out of the workshop was the compact set up.  The images above and below show what it looks like in and out of water.  I used an Olympus XZ-2 with an INON wide angle lens in a PT-054 housing, nested within a perspex framework that allows mechanical triggering of the shutter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The shutter mechanical trigger

the compact polecam in action

the compact polecam in action

The advantages of this design are simplicity, light weight and mobility.  Although you cannot really chase trout around with it, once they become accustomed to it in water, you can move it around gently to optimise the viewpoint.  The big disadvantage is that you have to shoot blind using manual mode or a semi-automatic exposure mode (aperture or shutter priority) and you cannot easily review images as you take them.  The range of movement is of course limited by the pole, which works out to about 2-3 metres.  But this manual triggering of the shutter works well and here is an early result.

early result with the compact polecam

early result with the compact polecam

Next up was the design that I expected to deliver the best images.  I wanted to control all principal camera functions from a laptop with a live view of what was happening underwater to allow stronger compositions.  I was willing to anchor the camera in a fixed position using a purpose built frame, albeit with some control over camera height in the water and an ability to pan in the vertical plane (to make best use of natural light throughout the day).  The system used a USB cable to allow the camera to talk to the laptop and I also used an independent commercial magnetic trigger (Retra UWT) for a back up remote shutter, as laptop power often ran out in the field.  Although I started with a simple perspex box design, I modified it to take the front end of my Nauticam housing in order to take advantage of the port and vacuum systems.  The beauty of this is that it needs only one cable coming out of the box to activate all camera controls.

remote control rig for the Nikon D4

remote control rig for the Nikon D4

I knew that I would have to use bait to attract the trout close enough to the camera, so I used a trickle feed system, whereby maggots could wriggle through small holes in a box perched above the rig and periodically drop into the water.  I also hand fed small trout pellets to get the trout rising in the water column for more dynamic images.  This led to one of the initial problems; Mallard ducks on the river soon worked out that Colley offered a free meal service and they started to compete with the trout for food.  And yet this had its own advantage, as I captured a few interesting behaviour shots, including a duck photo bomb…

the duck photo bomb!

the duck photo bomb!

Finally, I wondered whether it would be possible to use a radio frequency trigger through a shallow water column to let me place a small camera on the river bed, but without any external attachments using cables.  This design is still in test as I write so I will update you in due course.

 

a design for a small SLR triggered by a standard radio frequency remote control

a design for a small SLR triggered by a standard radio frequency remote control

Without revealing all of my images at this early stage, and noting that this is still a work in progress, here is the kind of result that I’m now getting.  It’s been well worth the effort and this holds great potential to photograph other timid freshwater river species.

Rainbow Trout sunburst

Rainbow Trout sunburst

Best wishes my dear friends

Paul

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Beautiful blue beasts

I just swam with and photographed my first blue sharks off the south coast of UK. A sublime experience.

Electric blue and gunmetal: the blue shark

Electric blue and gunmetal: the blue shark

These so-called wolfs of the open ocean pick up scent trails quickly. Less than an hour after settling down to drift south of Cornwall, a tell-tale tug against a lightly-tethered bait announced the cautious arrival of our first shark. When it finally showed near the surface, it was a beauty at over 2m long. Images of blue sharks have long inspired me to photograph them, but I was not well prepared for that first look at a really elegant shark with its gunmetal blue back and huge pectoral fins. Stunning!

Frustratingly, she was reluctant to close in.  Eventually a more confident smaller shark came to the boat.  After taking a few images by hanging my camera over the side, I slipped into the water with mask & snorkel. Straight away she came to check me out. It was quite hard to concentrate on the necessary work to get the images.  I just wanted to marvel at the exquisite lines and colours of this gorgeous shark.

An inquisitive juvenile

An inquisitive juvenile

The visibility was initially quite poor, which made things testy.  I occasionally lost sight of her in the gloom and my heart rate would rise as she bounced me unseen from behind and below. Keeping eye contact was difficult. But the images were coming nicely, so I soon had those that I had visualised and, beginning to feel the cold, climbed out.  How useless I’ve become in cold water – in the same wet suit that I used a few weeks ago in 31 degrees water off Cuba, 16 degrees in the Atlantic felt icy by comparison.

My new favourite: blue sharks rule!

My new favourite: blue sharks rule!

Soon, more sharks arrived, including a cute juvenile only 1m or so long.  In the improving light and visibility, we think that there must have been 7 separate visitors to the boat and I certainly counted 5 all at once in the water.  For those interested in the photography, I was experimenting with very high ISO and very low strobe settings to allow high frame rate flash-filled images.  I’m quite pleased with the results; it lets me nail peak of the action more reliably, especially as these sharks can move very quickly.

So as much as I love the silky sharks of Cuba, I now have a firm new favourite: blue sharks rule! My thanks to Charles Hood for his patience and persistence to finally get me among these exciting sharks; he runs a superb operation out of Penzance.  Watch out for my best images on the competition circuit…

For those interested in underwater photography, I have just opened a new purpose-built classroom in Wiltshire for teaching 1-to-1 and 1-to-2 entry level underwater photography, advanced photographic composition and post-production skills.  All courses are tailored to individuals.

With best wishes to you all my dear friends

Paul

 

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using bait to attract sharks…the risk

a young reef shark, just before it mouthed my camera...

a young reef shark, just before it mouthed my camera…

Using bait to attract sharks so that divers & snorkelers can more easily observe these over-fished but wonderful creatures is controversial.  I’m in favour of these controlled encounters, because it helps the education and advocacy that these endangered animals need. But there are some risks.

I became more alert to it after a friend expressed her discomfort while trying to exit the water at the end of a dive.  The sharks had been attracted by a steel box containing fish remains, but in open water the guides lift the box onto the boat until divers safely exit.  Only then do the sharks get the reward of a fish head or two.  But the sharks had learned to anticipate it and started closing in as the dive was finishing.  I found myself in the same position recently and watched sharks come very close aboard as I climbed onto the boat.  But it was my experience in water where I felt the risks more acutely.  Here’s what happened.

In open water, 3 young reef sharks broke away from a stately group cruising in big circles.  One came to investigate my flash guns, which emit electrical fields that the sharks’ amazing sensors can detect.  Sometimes the sharks mouth the flash units to test what they are. It’s happened to me before, but on this occasion the young shark grabbed the strobe a bit more forcefully.  My reaction was wrong.  I shook the camera hard to encourage the shark to let go.

The sudden movement made the shark back off, but it also peaked his interest and he turned back hard into me, at which stage his 2 buddies sensed something interesting might be happening and in a heartbeat they closed in at an alarming rate.  One mouthed the dome port of my camera and left a small scratch to add to one that I had recently collected from some human mishandling.  The other sharks did not touch anything, but for a few seconds they circled at speed within touching distance.  My heart rate went up and they seemed to sense that too.  I was relieved to be joined by a dive guide who saw what was happening.  The pattern of shark movements soon returned to normal.  My heart rate took a bit longer to recover!

An experienced shark diver declared to another diver/photographer friend that of all the sharks he had dived with, reef sharks were the most twitchy.  I should put this in perspective, though.  My overwhelming experience of shark diving is of controlled engagements with inquisitive creatures that are interested in us, but which very rarely threaten.  Statistics reassure: I am at far greater risk of injury every time I drive my car, no matter how carefully I do that.  So I’m certainly not put off diving with sharks.  I’ll just learn from this experience to control my body language more carefully when around sharks (keep cool)…and continue to respect these wonderful animals when I enter their world…

…on which note I’m out looking for blue sharks in British waters again.  I’ve been unsuccessful finding and photographing these elegant sharks thus far.  Tomorrow’s another day as they say…and I’ll be in the water solo with them if we’re lucky enough to find them, so should get plenty of opportunities for good images.  Fingers crossed…

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A case of the blues, some jellies & a selfie

I’ve long wanted to photograph a blue shark, but like all wild animals, they’re all the more exciting to see precisely because they’re wild and – in their choices of where they swim – difficult to predict.

So I spent 2 days searching the sea off North Cornwall looking for these sometimes-elusive creatures. I did not see one this time, but I love it when you have time to swim in open water and just play around with a camera. Many in my delightful group (the Bristol Underwater Photography Group) turned to the ubiquitous jellyfish for some light relief and I have to say that I have barely tapped the potential of these subjects. We also saw seals & dolphins (images coming up elsewhere), so what’s not to like about hanging around on our oceans?

Jellies helped pass the time...

Jellies helped pass the time…

Jellies helped pass the time...

Jellies helped pass the time…

And who, when slightly bored of waiting for the star of the show to pitch up can resist a selfie? I also succeeded in photo-bombing a colleague through Snell’s window!  Here’s my product of the boredom, but I also had the great privilege of joining a colleague on his 1200th dive. What better way than to drop to 57 metres and photograph a WWI submarine?  Now that really was exciting!

boredom = selfies!

boredom = selfies!

In all, a delightful week in Cornwall. I shall be going back soon to keep exploring this gem a coastline with its wonderfully diverse marine life.

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Runner up & best shark image: November hotshots, underwaterphotography.com

Runner up November 2013 & best shark image, uwp.com

Runner up November 2013 & best shark image, uwp.com

Well, I seem to be on a roll. This black & white image of a silky shark was the overall runner up and best shark image for November in the international competition run by underwaterphotography.com. My first image from Cuba to pick up an award. I hope it will not be the last!

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Sharks & Salsa: Iconic Cuba

Caribbean Reef Shark

Caribbean Reef Shark: compact camera using natural light

I arrived back in UK yesterday morning after 2 weeks glorious diving in Cuba, where with fellow photographer Nigel Wade I provided instruction for underwater photography, with my emphasis placed on using compact cameras. Watch out for an article in Scuba magazine that will provide details of the excursion and some more images. The article will conclude that this kind of journey comes pretty close to dive travel heaven, with a heady mix of great diving, fabulous friends and the iconic social/cultural aspects of Havana. I’ll be hosting the photography element of similar trips to Cuba next year with the Scuba Place.  The first one is already scheduled for January.  Check out The Scuba Place for more details.

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Photographing Sharks

Reef Shark - too traditional a viewpoint?

Reef Shark – too traditional a viewpoint?

Tomorrow I travel to Cuba for the first time and I’m fortunate to have 3 interesting assignments in hand.  One is to write an article for a UK magazine about diving in this very interesting country, which has its unique pulse, above & below water.  More of that in due course.  Another is to create some images for my book and for a column that I’ll be writing next year for an American magazine.  The final assignment is a self-imposed project to create, within the first 2 assignments, some images that might start to define a photographic style that I’m now seeking to develop.  It will be dominated by the wide angle underwater scenes that I have grown to love, but also I hope, by something more artistic than just capturing moments in time.  I’m starting the idea with some shark & other big animal photography to see if I can inject a much stronger sense of movement into the images.  There are some well-know techniques for this, of course, which I’ll try, but I’ve also been experimenting with variations of artificial and natural light that might be possible with compact cameras.  Methinks I’ll need some discipline in order not to revert back to the techniques that I already know work, especially as there will be some self-induced pressure to get assignments 1 & 2 in the bag.  Here’s hoping that the images will have more impact than my erstwhile (more traditional work) shown above…

 

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Developing a photographic style

Motor Bike on the SS Thistlegorm, Red Sea

Motor Bike on the SS Thistlegorm, Red Sea

I spent a year agonising about my next DSLR, or whether I would even get one with the micro 4/3rds format looking so impressive. There is so much technology on offer that it seems difficult to make a bad choice. So I worried less about the numbers (measurebating as Alex Mustard so eloquently puts it) and more about where my photography might go, now that I can devote time to it. Alex had already sowed a seed in my head years ago in an article that he wrote for Martin Edge’s book, The Underwater Photographer. It concluded with that most difficult issue for any photographer: with so many good photographers and great images out there, how do you develop a photographic style? Well, a few years after reading the article and on the cusp of upgrading my trusty D300, it finally clicked what should drive the camera choice, namely photographic intent and not technological edge. So I have at long last made a critical choice and acquired a full format camera. For the next few years it will be a combination of Nikon D4 and an Olympus XZ-2 compact. Oh, and the style that I would like to develop? Ask me at the Dive Show or keep following this blog…

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