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Just add water: Photographing below the surface

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BY CHRIS PAPARO

My fascination with marine life started when I was 6 years old on my first fishing trip. I spent hours watching fish in home aquariums, trying to glean the secrets that would allow me to outsmart them with my rod.

From fascination grew a deep appreciation, and at 16 I became scuba certified in an effort to enter the underwater world. Shortly after my first plunge into the ocean,  I bought my first underwater camera. I’ve been documenting marine life from under the surface ever since.

I tend to scuba dive, but sometimes I leave the bulky gear at home and enter the water with only a mask, snorkel and fins (and of course my camera). Without lugging my scuba equipment, the water feels serene and I feel a part of the aquatic world. Without the sounds of heavy breathing through my scuba gear, I can hear the natural sounds of the sea. The quiet calms the marine life and allows me closer access without forcing them to change their behavior.

Unfortunately I do not have gills, and my time spent beneath the waves minus my scuba equipment is limited to how long I can hold my breath. Try holding your breath for 30 seconds. It might feel like an eternity, but when trying to create photographs, it’s incredibly short. I have to find a subject, move into position to capture the best angle and press the shutter before returning to the surface for a gasp of air. I often get multiple chances for stationary or slow-moving subjects such as a sea star, but fish on the move are a challenge and often result in the picture of its tail as it swims away.

Proper planning is key to capturing a printable image of a moving creature while free diving.

First, I try and pattern my subject. Are the fish staying in a particular area? Are they consistently swimming by a specific point?

Once I get a feel for where I am most likely to encounter my subject, I scout the surrounding area, looking for locations that will allow me to get out of the current, such as behind a bridge embankment or large boulder. At these locations, I am able to stay in the water column without expending too much energy and hopefully my subject will come to me.

While free diving has its advantages, I prefer using scuba gear while shooting underwater. While the gear is bulky, heavy, noisy and rather expensive, it allows me more time underwater to explore and photograph. With scuba equipment, I can slowly swim along the bottom, peering within the crevices of rocks looking for an oyster toadfish or exploring eelgrass meadows for the elusive seahorse.

Having an extended bottom time makes it possible to photograph very skittish animals such as bay scallops. With 18 pairs of eyes, they are constantly looking for danger. They quickly close their shells if approached, and only open them again when the coast is clear.

By not having to regularly return to the surface for a breath, I can slowly close the distance between the scallop and me. If it should shut before I get an opportunity to squeeze the shutter, I can wait until it reopens its shell.

Even with more time, there are still challenges to shooting underwater.

Suspended particles are the nemesis of every underwater photographer. They decrease visibility, reduce available light and create image noise known as backscatter. Backscatter occurs when the light from a flash strobe bounces off floating specks of debris in the water column. The resulting image is often overexposed and the intended subject is smudged with white spots.

Diving in close proximity to the bottom often stirs sediment into the water column. Perfecting the art of neutral buoyancy while scuba diving is crucial to capturing clear underwater images. Remaining neutrally buoyant grants me the freedom to hover in one location without coming in contact with the bottom. This is extremely important when photographing benthic organisms such as flounders. With the low profile of the fish, my camera needs to be just inches from the bottom when photographing them. The slightest extraneous movement causes sediment to lift into the water, destroying any opportunity I might have had to get a quality photo.

The saying “just add water” might sound like an easy set of instructions, but when added to the field of photography it only creates numerous challenges never experienced by the terrestrial photographer.

But mastering these skills can be its own adventure and allow you to show viewers an underwater world so few people experience themselves.   ♦

— Born and raised on Long Island, New York, Chris Paparo has been exploring the wilds of the island for over 30 years. As a wildlife photographer, writer and lecturer, he enjoys bringing public awareness to the diverse wildlife that calls the island home. His passion for coastal ecology, fishing and the outdoors led him to obtain a degree in marine science from LIU/Southampton. He manages the Marine Sciences Center at the Southampton campus of Stony Brook University. You can follow Paparo by visiting his website http://www.fishguyphotos.com or on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter @fishguyphotos.

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