My last two "Behind the Photo" posts have been about images I was interested in explaining. Instead, today's post is about an underwater photo several of my friends have asked me to explain. I'm hoping to also provide some insight as to how you too can experiment with some images on your next trip to the pool, or other body of water. Underwater photography of reasonable quality doesn't have to cost you thousands of dollars, and it doesn't have to involve a complicated setup of several clunky pieces of equipment.
Equipment: The Right (S)Tough
There's no way around it: you'll need a good underwater camera to get a shot like the one you see above. There are a few different reasonably priced options out there, but for this shot I used the Olympus "Tough" TG-4. I've owned this camera for almost two years now, and have talked about before. Though the ubiquitous GoPro cameras dominate the realm of action video—and can technically go deeper underwater—it's hard to surpass the quality of the images, and ease of use, you can get out of the Olympus Tough series, straight out of the box. If you're particular about your photography and you like adventure (but don't want to shell out a ton of money), the Olympus Tough series is just for you.
There are two main reasons Olympus beats most other cameras when it comes to pure photography: 1) the TG-4 can shoot in RAW format; and 2) the TG-4 has an unusually bright, high-quality lens. The fact that it can shoot in RAW format means that it can capture files with much more information in them than a regular JPEG file. As a result, RAW files are much more flexible when you make adjustments using photo processing software like Lightroom or Photoshop (keep reading to find out why this is important). While the recently released GoPro Hero 5 is also capable of shooting RAW, the quality of the Olympus sensor is superior for photography, capturing more detail with clearer images.
Moreover, the Olympus TG-4 has an impressively wide f2.0 aperture. By comparison, the latest GoPro has has a narrower aperture of only f2.8 (smaller number is better). This means that the Olympus' lens can open wider, and let more light onto the sensor when you take a photo. More light on the sensor means you can take better, clearer, more colorful pictures when there's not much light (common underwater). A f2.0 aperture also means you can get slightly more separation between your subject and background (i.e. sharp subject, blurred background).
I should also note that Olympus has very recently announced the next iteration in the "Tough" series, the Olympus Tough TG-5, which will start shipping on June 16 (in about a week). This means the TG-4 is likely to drop in price soon, so you might want to wait a couple of weeks before you get one.
The Idea: Total Square (Sort Of)
The idea for this photo occurred to me rather unexpectedly. It was a hot day in Muscat, and I decided to take advantage of the pool in my apartment complex (which, frankly, I don't do as often as I should or could).
Walking up to the pool, I noticed that the awning above was allowing several squares of sunlight to form on the pool floor. As the sunlight crept up the side of the wall, I saw how it formed a trapezoid, and I saw a natural frame for what might make for an interesting photo.
I essentially decided to photograph a bit of my own weirdness: as I mentioned in a recent instagram post, one of my favorite things to do in swimming pools is to hold my breath, let out enough air that I sink to the bottom, and sit there underwater for as long as I can. I've done it since I was a kid, and I wanted to try and capture it.
Timing is Everything
I knew that before even lining up my shot, I'd need to figure out how to properly set the timer on the camera so that I could shoot myself. I was alone, so I figured I'd have to set the timer so that I could sink down and press the shutter button on the camera, and give myself ten seconds or so to swim to the other side of the pool, position myself over the square of light, sink down to the bottom, and wait for the camera to shoot.
One of the greatest (and little discussed) features on the TG-4 is it's fantastic self-timer. First of all, you can program the camera to shoot on a delay of up to 30 seconds. Most cameras, even some semi-professional ones, like my beloved Canon EOS 6D, can only shoot on up to a ten second delay. More importantly, and even more uniquely, you can program the camera to then shoot not one, but several photos (up to ten) at regular intervals (between one, and three seconds).
This combination of functionalities gives you enormous power and flexibility when using the self-timer. In short, taking this kind of shot, by myself, with pretty much ANY other camera—including a GoPro—would have been close to impossible.
Lining it Up: Move Your Feet
Having set up the timer, I still had to line up the camera so that the trapezoid of light would be in the center of the frame. That part was easy enough, since I could more or less eyeball the position of the light from the opposite side of the pool, and swim down to carefully balance the camera so that it was in front of the square of light, pointing in the right direction.
A much more difficult task was ensuring that the lines in the floor tiles were more or less symmetrical (I can be a little obsessive with the details in my photos). I didn't have any goggles with me, and the square of light was moving too quickly for me to go find a pair. That meant I would have to somehow line up the floor tiles underwater, without being able to see through a viewfinder or screen.
I ended up fine-tuning the positioning of the lens in relation to the floor tiles using my feet. The pool was shallow enough that I could float at the surface looking down, and use my feet to adjust the position of the camera.
Trial and (Mostly) Error
After finally lining up the camera came the really hard part: getting my timing right so that I'd be in an interesting position, properly placed in relation to the floor, wall, and the square of light behind me, with a proper exposure, and all before the light moved out of the way. There was a lot of trial, and a lot of error. I must have swum back and forth between my camera and the other side of the pool at least 20 times, if not more.
Below are a few examples of the (many, many... many) shots that didn't work out. Many times, either I was off center, the camera moved as I swam away from it, my timing was off, or the camera set the wrong shutter speed, exposure, or focus point—making the image too bright, too dark, or too blurry.
After the Shot: Finishing Touches
Combing through the images, I finally found one I liked. I was right against the wall, with the trapezoid of light squarely behind me, and the symmetrical (enough) floor tiles at the bottom of the frame. Now I had to get the file to look how I wanted in terms of color, contrast, tonality, and exposure.
This is where the fact that the TG-4 can shoot RAW files really, really shines. As you can see below, the difference between before (left) and after (right) is significant. Without going into too much detail (I feel like I've done that already), I increased the contrast, adjusted the colors, balanced the exposure, , reduced the noise in the image, added some sharpness, and removed some of the haze.
I hope you found this extended discussion of my process in getting this shot useful. Good luck out there with your own underwater (or out of water) shots.
If you have any ideas on how I might have done this differently, or examples of photos of your own that required a little persistence, perspicacity, and precision, I'd love to hear about it. Also please let me know if there are any of my photos you'd like me to explain; I'll be happy to oblige.
All underwater images in this post taken with the Olympus "Tough" TG-4; all other images taken with the Canon EOS 6D, and the Tamron 35mm Vi DC f1.8 lens.