Tag Archives: aesthetics

Hidden Peaks in Underwater Photography – and a BBC Interview

In the joyous peaks and frustrating troughs of life, what often makes the brief view from a summit rewarding is the effort involved getting there.  So as I briefly soak in the heady atmosphere of winning the coast and marine category of the British Wildlife Photography Awards at my first attempt, I inevitably reflect on what it took to achieve it.

Winner BWPA Coast & Marine and Highly Commended BWPA Animal Portraits

Winner (BWPA Coast & Marine)                                                  Highly Commended (BWPA Animal Portraits)

I think that a willingness to try something new and a determination to succeed feature high on my list.  Although other people photographed blue sharks before me and to a standard that inspired me to have a go, it is still a relatively rare subject.  I was lucky to pick up two awards for the shark photography: in one case using only natural light; in the other augmenting shallow water light ripples with a hint of flash.

But it was the highly commended image of a rainbow trout in an urban setting that gave me the greatest sense of achievement.  It is not my best trout image, because it was taken early in the development phase for my remote control underwater photography.  But it represents better use of my imagination.  A previous blog explained part of the uphill journey, but the modest height achieved served only to expose a hidden peak that I’ve yet to climb.  I’ve strapped on some intellectual crampons and re-designed a third underwater camera system that might now let me reach that final summit.

Highly Commended (BWPA Urban Wildlife)

Highly Commended (BWPA Wildlife in the Urban Environment)

All three designs have a common feature: operating the camera from a distance so that the fish are not spooked.  One design uses a simple mechanical trigger on the end of a pole.  Another uses a laptop to control the camera through a USB lead.  But this final design seeks to break free of physical tethers using a wireless transmitter.  As I write, I’m waiting for the final components to be delivered from Germany, after which I will assemble the camera and then test it on another UK chalk stream.

Meanwhile, I had another delightful four minutes of fame when one of the trout images hit the British press.  The image below was serendipity and a light-hearted by-product of the trout project, but it really caught the public’s imagination.

Duck photo bomb

Duck photo bomb – widely published in the British press

There may be a book to be written about this.  Not just to show the beautiful fish and other wildlife that inhabit these wonderful British chalk streams, but about the way you can become so immersed in the behaviour of animals and the exhilaration of capturing it on camera.  I have found few things in life that are all at once so completely absorbing and relaxing.  A real zen moment!  Watch these pages for more results – and look out for an interview about this on the BBC South regional news, on your screens some time on or after 2nd October.

Best wishes, my dear friends

Paul

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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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Whither conventional wisdom in photographic composition?

I liked this image of a saltwater crocodile, but never thought it particularly special. You cannot even see its eyes, and that is often a critical factor. But at nearly 84,000 views on one site alone (500px), it has become my most looked-at image and in the space of only a few weeks…so what’s engaging people?  I put a little thought into it, if only to discover what might draw the next 84,000 people to look at one of my images..!

Saltwater Crocodile

Saltwater Crocodile.  Copyright Paul Colley 2015  www.mpcolley.com

Overall, not too many people photograph these animals and novelty has always been a valued commodity in aesthetics and composition. I also think that the open mouth & sharp teeth may be a draw and the legs are not streamlined as they usually are when a crocodile is swimming in open water; they are temporarily splayed out to slow down the crocodile, which had just been swimming towards me.  But is the absence of the eyes a positive factor? Does the viewer, forced as ever to take the photographer’s selected perspective, feel safer engaging with this potentially dangerous creature from underneath, where its soft belly is more visible?

As one fellow photographer told me recently, I tend towards over-analysis of images. But in my short experience as an underwater photographer, thinking about these things more deeply tends to lead to useful discoveries.

This is one of many reasons why I studied underwater photography composition in depth for 2 years and then wrote a book about it. Even if people argue that there’s not too much new in this field, my riposte is that new and updated perspectives often help to unlock the mysteries for others. So do feel free to dig in: Winning Images with Any Underwater Camera.

best wishes, dear friends

Paul

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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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Back to School

Of all the sites that I go to in Egypt, I would dive Shark & Yolanda another thousand times and never get bored of it.  I’ll let these images explain why:

There is just something about fish schools that draws photographers in like magnets.  It’s one of nature’s great spectacles and I always feel privileged to observe and try to capture the essence of schooling behaviour in a still image.  I recently started shooting video, but not as often as I should and not as well as I might.  A certain friend will beat me up for not remembering (in my huge excitement to swim with these schools and take the still images that come more instinctively) that my camera has a good video capability that could capture this unity of movement more easily.

One image that I liked was somewhere between order and chaos.  I had been with the barracuda school for almost 15 minutes and it accepted my presence so well that I could almost move inside it.  Apart from the immensely powerful experience of being that close to a big mass of fish, which move in unison without visible signal, I loved the images that transpired.  But they were challenging compositions: frame-fillers that had as much chaos as they did formal structure.  What do you think?

inside school (2)

Best wishes, dear friends

Paul

 

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where to invest that most precious resource: our time…

for future generations to see too...

for future generations to see too…

This Wednesday 11th June, with the help of Alex Mustard, Ocean Leisure Cameras and Dived Up publications, I will launch a book of which I am proud.  I hope that it will answer something about how we invest that most precious resource when we’re engaged in underwater photography: our time.

Winning Images with Any Underwater Camera” addresses photographic composition in depth.  The investment that you’re really making if you commit to a book like this is not money.  By any measure in the underwater photography world that you might use, a book is not expensive.  The biggest investment that we can make is setting aside time to learn something that might help us become better underwater photographers.

If you’re not already committed to joining us at Ocean Leisure Cameras this Wednesday at 6:30pm onwards, do consider buying a copy of the book.  I believe that it will push you – like me – a few steps further towards making images that might count.  Crucially for me, this means engaging those outside of our community who also need to see what the underwater world is about.  We can inspire those people with our images to support the policies that we more instinctively embrace: to protect the lakes, rivers & oceans that are home to those beautiful creatures that we all have the privilege to interact with.

As ever, my best wishes to you dear friends (and wish me luck too).

Paul

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gearing your photography for success

Reflections at 1 week to book launch

the technical & artistic path to winning images (there is a 3rd axis - drive & involvement)

the technical & artistic path to winning images (there is a 3rd axis – drive & involvement)

The book “Winning Images” makes an argument for 3 axes along which underwater photographers make progress, but that you have to make progress on all 3 if you are to create admired, stunning or (for a lucky but talented few), iconic images.

Axis 1 is technology and technique.  You can buy your way along the technology path, but even a modest compact camera is so powerful these days that we are all pretty well along that road.  Technique takes some training and practice.

Axis 2 is your personal drive and the degree to which you become immersed in the underwater photography world, be it in clubs, societies, competitions…the list is endless, really.  You need a will to succeed and the means to inspire and help you.  Friends really do help.  I was genuinely inspired when I first started underwater photography by people within the British Society of Underwater Photographers.  And I’ve made some wonderful new friends since.

Axis 3 is artistic vision.  Not everybody has it from scratch, but it can be taught and the basic building block is composition.  Unfortunately, many people wrongly suppress this axis to pursue technology.  Technology can help, but you can invest thousands of dollars, pounds or euros in it when by comparison only a very modest investment in deeper knowledge of composition could provide far greater gearing for your success.

That’s my argument and I believe it passionately.  If you agree, consider buying “Winning Images with Any Underwater Camera”, which is the first book for underwater photographers that seriously addresses some searching questions that we all need to answer about composition – if we really are determined to produce better images.

If you can, do join me and Alex Mustard at the book launch in London (details below); I extend an open invitation to everybody who is interested in taking composition to the next level of understanding and I will provide you with some wine, soft drinks, canapes, a few words from me & Alex and an opportunity to buy a signed copy of the book.

Wednesday 11 June 6:30pm at Ocean Leisure Cameras near Embankment Tube station. “Winning Images” book launch – additional details

Best wishes to you, my dear friends

Paul

Winning Images with Any Underwater Camera

Winning Images with Any Underwater Camera

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Launch minus 3 – the saturated image market

The underwater photography market is saturated with images…how can our images stand out in this noise?  Reflections at 3 weeks to book launch

The underwater photography market is saturated with images…how can our images stand out in this noise?

The underwater photography market is saturated with images, which are now produced by the million every year.  There are lots of average pictures out there, but there is also an explosion of good images too.  How can our images stand out in this noise?

The book that I’m advocating has some answers. But I already anticipate a cry that the book market is equally saturated.  Or is it? Although I draw heavily on the existing body of knowledge, I seek to differentiate too, so the book “Winning Images” dives into some unexplored gaps in our knowledge of underwater photographic composition.

Our top-side photography cousins made more progress than divers with this.  We know the basics, I’m sure: negative space, the rule of thirds and so on, which are valid and worth developing.  But nobody has articulated 2 important things in its underwater context. Foremost is a detailed model for composition.  Not rules, but a structure for thinking more consistently about the issues. I’ve provided us with a starting point.  Next is consideration of the weight that we attribute to each of the different and sometimes competing composition concepts. The book deals with – and develops in detail – 8 concepts, but more critically an overarching theory of how they all fit together.

Although the independent first reviews of the book are not yet published, I do know that one notable critic already believes that this will become the bible for underwater photography composition.  So consider making a modest investment in something that I am confident will make you a better photographer.  Signed copies of the book for those who want it quickly are on sale now in the UK through this link.  But if you can wait, do join me and Alex Mustard at the book launch in London (details below); I extend an open invitation to everybody who is interested and will provide you with some wine, soft drinks, canapes and an opportunity to buy the book.

Wednesday 11 June 6:30pm at Ocean Leisure Cameras near Embankment Tube station. “Winning Images” book launch – additional details

all the best, my dear friends

Paul

Winning Images with Any Underwater Camera

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the press release is out & the office is full…

the office is full of books - only temporarily, I hope!

the office is full of books – only temporarily, I hope!

Well, the office is now piled high with copies of “Winning Images“, but only temporarily, I hope!  I’m delighted with the quality of the books from the main production run.  Initial sales of signed copies to UK-based friends are now under way through the web site and postage is free.  Here is the official press release.

The book will be on general release from 29th May, available through stores like Ocean Leisure Cameras and through Amazon.  And don’t forget the 11th June London launch at Ocean Leisure Cameras, starting at 6:30pm.  It’s an open invitation to all who are interested; enjoy a glass of wine or two on me!

best wishes, my dear friends,

Paul

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Joss Woolf (Chairman BSoUP) interviews Paul

Joss Woolf interviews Paul for the BSoUP magazine “in focus”; click the book image below to listen…

Winning Images with Any Underwater Camera

Winning Images with Any Underwater Camera

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