Tag Archives: cameras

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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movement in still images…experimenting

I think that I know the theory, but find it really tough to express movement in underwater still images and I fail far more than I succeed.  So I followed some sage advice and devoted some proper time to experimenting.  Not just with a few images, but whole dives dedicated to the idea with well thought out plans in mind.

The real break was finding a school of Indian Mackerel on my current trip to the Red Sea.  I could find this school on most dives and the frenetic pace of these fish moving up & down the reef near the surface (which has texture) is ideal.

using slow shutter speeds to express movement in a still image

using slow shutter speeds to express movement in a still image

I tried every technique that I know, from the well-documented slow shutter and rear curtain flash, to panning in natural light and panning ahead with front curtain flash.  Shutter and aperture priority both worked (as did manual exposure modes), but I had to work the ISO hard to get the right combinations and used low power flash to allow burst shooting using a moderate frame rate (composition is very difficult with such fast moving subjects).  I had poor early results, but persistence working the subject and the techniques tends to pay off.  I think that the results are still a work in progress, but my ideas are now much better formed and I’m ready to attack the next opportunity subject with more confidence.  So thank you to Alex Mustard for encouraging his students to devote time to experimentation.  I’m hugely encouraged to do more of this!  Check out the 3 minute video at this link to compare some traditional images of the school with slow shutter speed work of various kinds and – the only thing that really captured the character of these fish (thus far) – some video footage.

Happy New Year, 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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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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First copy of the second book!

an exciting moment for any author - first book off the press

an exciting moment for any author – first book off the press

I think that it’s great when we can still feel a child-like excitement now & again.  Today was such an occasion when I met my publisher in Oxford and finally put hands on one of a few pre-production versions of the book, Winning Images with Any Underwater Camera. It’s such a great moment to see the hard work of over 2 years presented so professionally by the publisher. Thank you Alex Gibson!

Two copies of the book already went out to the UK dive magazines that will lead the initial book reviews and the other 2 copies are being used for publicity leading up to the book launch.

On that latter score, please do come along to the book launch if your schedule allows.  It is an open invitation to anybody who is interested in underwater photography generally and photographic composition specifically.  The event will start at 6:30 pm on Wednesday 11th June with drinks leading to a 7:30 pm opening address by Alex Mustard.  I’ll follow up with a short pitch about the book and my humble aspirations for it.  The venue will be Ocean Leisure Cameras, right next door to Embankment tube station.  I would just love to see you there!

Over the next few weeks I will run some articles here on why I hope that this book will be an important contribution to the body of knowledge about underwater photography.

all the best, Paul

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Why composition matters: aesthetics and photographic intent

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” Ansel Adams

composition is a supremely cost-effective way of improving our images

composition is a supremely cost-effective way of improving our images

For the next 5 months as I make the final run-in to an end-of-May 2014 publishing date for my new book Winning Images with any Underwater Camera, I’m going to set out a few of the big ideas in the hope that I might gain your interest in it.  This could be the first underwater photography book that has tried to weave together ideas from traditional theory and contemporary science. I aspire that it will add something to the corporate body of knowledge and advance our mutual quest to more consistently produce images that win the minds of our friends, family, peer photographers, judges of competitions or editors of magazines and books. The emphasis in this book will most definitely be on any camera, because its thesis is that composition (and not technology) is the supremely cost-effective way of improving our images.

Although underwater photography can be functional and therefore a craft, for example in journalism to tell environmental stories or in marketing to advertise scuba equipment, most people interested in this book will be pursuing underwater photography for its pure enjoyment and therefore more closely associate their images with creative or fine art. Your photographic intent is generally to draw attention to some of the finer things in life, for example the sleek lines of dolphins and sharks or the exquisite geometry, shapes and symmetry in a big fish school. Your images are communicating extraordinary things and good photographers develop this clear intention to communicate. To portray something rather than just record what they see. The difference is subtle, but vital. To communicate, you need to understand a little about aesthetics, which people define differently, but which I like to think of as perceiving and feeling. I always feel the undercurrents of emotion when I see certain spectacular things underwater, but also when I see some of those beautiful images that successfully capture it.  It is easier to remember this idea of perceiving and feeling if you think of anaesthetic, which is something to stop you feeling.

This emotional response from a viewer is what you’re looking for; a genuine appreciation of your work in the eye of the beholder. But here’s our first problem, because I deliberately avoid the word beauty, which is so often associated with aesthetics. Unfortunately, beauty has been a contested concept since the time of Plato, who demonstrated that it was paradoxical, illusive and complex. And many successful underwater images can depict quite ugly things, albeit in a way that still holds the attention of a viewer. So this will be how the book starts: a little bit of philosophy to understand why aesthetics are so important. But the book will then draw on contemporary scientific research to understand exactly how people look at and think about images. From these starting points, it will develop a new model of composition specifically for underwater photographers.

If this subject interests you, please follow this blog to see the story of winning images unfold and to learn more about the book launches in London.  For those that I have not already greeted in 2014, I hope that it is not too late to say Happy New Year to you and the very best of fortune with your own photography!

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