An image is a moment captured in time, but it is never the full story. What cannot be seen is the thought behind the image, the planning, the journey, or the outtakes. An image is a paradox. It's a blatant truth and an all-out lie.
But most importantly, an image is a carefully articulated rendition of light. A thesis, rather than a work of art. I manipulate light to represent how I wish to see the world around me. I concentrate light to bring out details; I soften it to mold together elements. I filter it to produce colors. Light is my paintbrush and the world is my canvas.
A Story of Loss: Light Attenuation
Ever creatures of familiarity, people tend to balk at the concept of seeing things differently. But that is exactly what the underwater world forces a person to do. Light does not travel through water the same way it travels through air. When light travels through water, the water retains energy from the light. This causes the lower energy wavelengths of light to be lost in a process called light attenuation. During this process, red light is lost at a depth of 15 feet underwater, orange light is lost at 25 feet, yellow light is lost at 35-45 feet, and green light is lost at 70-75 feet. What is left is an environment where blue light is the prevailing underwater light, rendering other colors washed out and de-saturated. Understanding how light is lost underwater is the key to understanding how to bring it back - and that often involves a lot of equipment....
Finding the Balance
Underwater Ambiance: Nature's Paint Brush
The first thing I do when I take a photo underwater is look around me. I judge the quality of light - the color, the intensity, the distortion. Then I look for where the sun is in relation to my subject. Although the light from the sun has changed as it passed through a matrix of water, that doesn't stop me from taking advantage of the power it has to offer. Before I adjust any other aspects in my photo, I point my camera towards the sun and meter the exposure to the ambient light in the background. I let mother nature have her say.
"Artificial" Light: The Personal Paint Brush
In order to "bring colors back" underwater, it's necessary to carry "artificial" light. This can be anything from a small flashlight to a powerful strobe to an internal flash on a camera. Artificial light introduces white light at a close distance to the subject. Thus less colors are lost by the time the light reaches the subject and the camera lens. Simply pointing a flashlight isn't enough. Artificial light is the paintbrush that creates the scene. It must be orchestrated to illuminate only the desired tones and details. And this could not be done without scaling to size.
Scaling to Size
Light treats every underwater creature differently. Some creatures glow like lanterns in the dark. Others are obscured by their own soft tones and complex shapes. It's important to scale available light and properly expose a subject. With large reef scenes and animals, I often try to illuminate a large amount of the frame with two powerful strobes. If the reef is obscured by complex shapes and colors, one strobe or angled lighting produces the proper shadows to isolate a subject.
But the fascinating art of underwater lighting reveals its true form with the smallest of the ocean's creatures. Underwater macro photography is often dominated by "artificial" light. Yet large strobes can overpower a little creature and flatten an image. The trick to getting true detail from a macro subject is to use a snoot. A snoot is a bundle of fiber optic cables that is attached to the head of a strobe and reduces the beam of light to the diameter of about an inch on average. Scaling light down to the size of the subject allows for beautiful contrasts in the image that bring out every microscopic detail. The trick is to line up a ring of light an inch in diameter with a subject that is even smaller, and photograph it in surge, current, and low visibility. It's easier said than done....
Photography is my medium; light is my paintbrush.
With pixels to proxy for my eyes, I aspire to organize the whirlwind of life into digital moments captured in time.
Every photo represents a small tile of the vast mosaic we call Earth.
I hope you enjoy these photos from the sea.
Painting with Light
Post-meridian Sockeye Salmon, Lake Iliamna, Alaska
Balancing ambient and artificial light at the Eureka Oil Rig, California
Blue and green light are the most common colors underwater
Ambient light shining through a kelp forest cathedral at Anacapa Island, California
Hilton's Aeolid nudibranch lit with a tiny beam of light from a fiber-optic snoot.
Light the Way to Healthy Oceans
There is no one on this planet who does not owe their lives to the health of the world's oceans.
Oceans drive currents, regulate climates, produce oxygen, provide food, act as waterways, and contribute to the vast biodiversity on our planet. Yet we as a society seldom acknowledge the multifaceted role the other 71% of the globe plays in our lives. It's no fault of our own - we were never built to reach the abyssal depths of the great blue sea. But now we can, and therefore we should. It's time rekindle our spirit of adventure and stop lamenting the travesty of our inability to coexist with nature. It's time to turn our eyes to our great blue backyard and realize we are not done learning from our planet.
It's also time to turn our cheek to modern pessimism. Yes, green house gases are resulting in massive change on a global scale. Yes, people are eating a lot of fish. A LOT of fish. But again, there's no reason to mope about it. There's always something to do. I can't say I know all the answers. But in all my time as an underwater photographer and fisheries observer, I have found that small deeds everyday effect great change.
Swim without sunscreen. Sunscreen hurts coral.
Pick up trash. There's a lot of it.
Take a picture of a fish, but not too many.
Know where your seafood comes from. Buy from sustainable fisheries.
Eat farmed bivalve shellfish. Its even better for the environment than going vegetarian. Just ask Ray Hilborn
Eat baitfish, such as sardines and anchovies. Its better for the environment than eating other fish.
Don't support shark finning and don't eat shark fin soup
Harvest as much as you need, but not more.
Try to keep off the bottom when you're diving. Use a finger on a rock for stability.
Support artificial reefs like shipwrecks, decommissioned oil rigs, etc.
Keep your pets away from tide pools (you'd be surprised what they can eat)
Go hang out at the beach. The more people there, the more people care.