Mum dragged me to an art gallery once, to instil some sophistication and culture in me. Bless her for trying. Still, though, it did leave me with a lasting appreciation for some of the impressionist painters. Van Gogh, I like. Not so much all the haystacks.
Anyway, blurred underwater photos – where a slow shutter speed is used to create blur and a strobe flash is used to “freeze” motion – speak to my latent pretentious arty sensibilities in a similar way.
Unfortunately, I’d never had much of a clue how to take these shots myself. After reading Alex Mustard’s amazing Underwater Photography Masterclass book though, I figured I’d give it a try.
I’ve just finished a liveaboard dive trip to the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park on the Philippines Siren. That presented a perfect opportunity to obsess over underwater photography. Our last dive of the day was always a “dusk dive”, surfacing shortly after sunset, and the low light levels meant I could use the slow shutter speeds necessary to create motion blur.
After some fiddling around with the settings, I settled on 1/8 sec shutter speed, ISO 200 or LOW, f/8.0, and had my (dual) Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes set to 16. My Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera has 5-axis body stabilisation, which I thought about switching off or adjusting, but in IS-AUTO mode it automatically compensates for panning (according to “Mastering the Olympus OM-D E-M1” by Darrell Young), so I left it on the default. Seemed to work okay.
I was using my Panasonic 7-14 mm wide angle lens, a Nauticam NA-EM1 housing and a Zen 170 mm dome port. My default strobe position was about 10 / 2 position (think of a clock face) relative to the housing handles, with 2nd curtain flash sync set on the E-M1. That requires the preflash mode on the strobes (orange light) to work properly.
My favourite shots came from either finding a large, distinctive single subject (such as a sea turtle or giant trevally) or schools of colourful fish, partially isolated against a dark water background but with enough reef to get some obvious blurring. I was panning with the main subject, attempting to maintain focus on the eye.
Hit and miss, but loads of fun, and definitely a technique I want to persevere with. Try if for yourself on your next dive in poor light. Got any tips or questions? Add them in the comments!
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