Tag Archives: photography

Gorgeous Gentle Giants

Giant Manta Ray - I need a wider lens!I’m not long back from what might have been the best dive expedition of my life.  It would be easy to overdo the superlatives, but three things made the trip to Socorro in the Pacific Ocean stand out.

First the boat, Nautilus Belle Amie, and its crew.  Outstanding in every respect.  It can be tough diving in strong and unpredictable currents over very deep water.  But the balance between safety and freedom to get on with your dive was perfect.  5 star accommodation and food, wonderful service from a friendly and very interesting crew.

 

Secondly, the geology above and below water.  Volcanic, big, stark, spectacular.Paul_Colley-29

whitetip close up-2

And then the animal encounters.  Uber-playful dolphins, huge swirling schools of jacks parading against the azure blue, sharks coming out of your ears.  But also what we really went for, which was the giant mantas.

If you follow the brief and don’t chase them, you can get some amazing encounters from these 6 metre wingspan intelligent giants of the ocean.  They look like stealth bombers in their sometimes all-black livery as they approach silently out of the deep.

I don’t want to say much more.  Just to retain the images and emotions of diving at such a remote location with some of the Pacific ocean’s most charismatic creatures.

Magnificent.  Wonderful.  Exceptional. shark_jacks

 

Best wishes, dear friends.

Paul

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Volunteering for Adventures…

_2293564-2Psychologists argue that people who volunteer their time or other resources are generally far happier in life than those who do not. It’s a chance to give something back. And to feel good about it.

I try to set aside a few weeks every year for good causes. It means that I earn less, but in reality we all become far richer through these experiences. This year I agreed to work with Fauna and Flora International, an organisation that is supporting an important initiative by the Cambodian government to create a Marine Protected Area in the Koh Rong archipelago. The organisation wanted a portfolio of images above and below water to communicate what was at stake.

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Volunteering does not necessarily mean that you pay for the privilege too! In this case, the organisation funded my logistic and field costs. My concession was to not over-burden a hard working charity, so I lived at modest cost within the local economy and waived my normal photography fees. To offset loss of earnings, the organisation happily accepted a non-exclusivity clause and I hope to recover a modest amount through articles and talks. For the most part, the deal involved living in remote fishing villages with no running water or flushing loos and to use fairly austere sleeping quarters. This just meant living properly with the locals.  A problem? Certainly not; it just adds to the sense of adventure and it’s amazing how soon you forget all those silly luxuries that we don’t really need._DSC4712

I’m writing an article about this for DIVER magazine, so will not tell all the stories here. But with three weeks of solo diving in some quite novel settings that included jumping off commercial fishing boats, it had more than its fair share of excitement. I came back quite battered physically, coming as close as I ever have to breaking a limb. And I even ended up in hospital just after I got back to UK, having collapsed with a nasty lung infection.

But the rewards were huge.  I met some wonderful people during my time in country. Young and old. Most of them Cambodian. But some other nationalities too trying to help the country on its way, or to carve out new businesses. Nearly all of them completely positive in their outlook.

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There’s something profoundly rewarding about volunteering. I think it gives us better perspective about how fortunate we really are in life.  And a chance to help others who might not be.

We should all do more of it.

Best wishes, dear friends.  Paul

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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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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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Cuba – opening up to the World…

Silky shark in the Gardens of the Queen

Silky shark in the Gardens of the Queen

The historic announcement this week by President Obama heralds a long-overdue warming of the US relationship with Cuba.  It came as I finished another fantastic photography trip to the Caribbean island. I had been wondering ever since I first visited Cuba, to dive in its amazing waters, what the impact of a thaw in US relations might have on the country and in particular on its apex-predator-heavy coral reefs.

Foremost might be the pressure for more diving inside long-established marine reserves, where most of the predators find rare sanctuary.  It could be hard for Cuba to resist the assumptions that might come with any new investment in the diving infrastructure.

But the Cubans have a great feel for conservation of their resources, so I hope that they will resist any pressures that ultimately threaten what they currently have, which is a reef system in balance and dominated by hundreds of predators: sharks of many types; huge groupers in big numbers; saltwater crocodiles; and big schools of large game fish like Tarpon.

I’m optimistic that sense will generally prevail.  But having seen this coming for some time, I’ll repeat what I’ve been telling many of my friends over the same period: if you want to guarantee seeing Cuba at its best – above and below water – visit in the next few years before the big corporations make their moves on property and the leisure industries.  Although some investment will be essential and create very welcome improvements, Cuba may never be the same again.  So go now!  Here’s a link if you’re interested in the diving: Shark Diving in Cuba

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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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