Tag Archives: underwater

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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Making those images count in 2016…

I’m excited about 2016.  Without setting out the full list of what is in prospect, let me highlight three important things that will feature in my programme this year.  I hope that all will result in more images that count in the conservation of our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans.

Foremost is a photography commission.  A portfolio of images above and below water for Fauna & Flora International; a big conservation organisation that has a Marine Protected Area project in Cambodia in need of high quality imagery.  I will be there in February and March to start the work.  The Blue Marine Foundation recommended me for the job after my voluntary work to help create a marine protected area for Ascension Island, which has just been announced by the UK government.  Incidentally, I met Clare Brook, BLUE’s CEO and Charles Clover (Chairman and Trustee) in December.  You should watch this conservation charity in 2016; its people are achieving much and quickly.

I’m delighted to take a turn as Chairman of the British Society of Underwater photographers for 2016, following the footsteps of irrepressible Joss Woolf.  I’m fond of this organisation and want to help it sustain and develop what first attracted me to it as an aspiring underwater photographer.  It’s people were generous with their knowledge and profoundly helpful to me.  I would like to give something back by making the Society ever-more accessible to those who might benefit most from it.  I’ll be starting a dialogue about this with its members very soon.

the freshwater river project: trout and grayling on the river Anton in Hampshire

the freshwater river project: trout and grayling on the river Anton in Hampshire

The third thing I’m itching to resume is my freshwater river project (see previous blogs too).  This grew and grew in 2015.  I was interested principally in trout and grayling for 2015.  At an end-of-season charity presentation to the good folk of Stockbridge in Hampshire, who had helped me with the project, I made some interesting new connections who helped to fire my imagination ever further.  So I shall be  developing the technical, conceptual and artistic sides of this fascinating project.  I feel that this project is getting somewhere and that I’m on the cusp of some great work.  Maybe my best yet…

There’s always more to tell, of course; trips to new locations, some teaching through the traditional Red Sea workshops, my first formal exhibition of printed work and a speaker programme that gets broader and ever more interesting.  To chat about later, I think.

For now, let me wish you great success in your 2016 endeavours.  And a very happy New Year to all of you, 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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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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Royal Photographic Society Award for “Winning Images”

There’s a risk of sounding self-congratulatory when announcing personal achievements, but in truth most of us are modest and simply express pride in what we occasionally achieve.

I had a nice surprise 2 weeks ago; the best way to receive good news. Subject to minor bureaucratic process, the Royal Photographic Society are about to award me Associate status of the organisation for the contribution that “Winning Images” has made to the research, education and practice of underwater photography.  This follows an RPS gold medal last year for the image below of my niece.

Winning Images & the Royal Photographic Society gold medal image

Winning Images & the Royal Photographic Society gold medal image

I’m naturally quite proud of this formal recognition for the book, which comes from outside the normal lanes of critical acclaim for underwater photography.

I believe that the book is helping photographers at many levels better understand that all important topic of composition.  Independent reviews out there support this view, as do reviews by regular customers.  So…if you are interested in learning why “Winning Images” is beginning to achieve serious acclamation, do buy a copy and take a deeper look.

I’ll be on overseas assignments in Spain, Cuba & Egypt most days until New Year now, so at the risk of breaking cover rather early, I wish all of you a peaceful & relaxing holiday period.  For BSoUP colleagues, I will be back in country briefly for our Christmas gathering on 16th December, subject to my flight getting in that morning…see you in London!

Best wishes, 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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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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