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Lights, Cameras, Action!

By Jeremy Cuff

With the advent of the digital camera, a great many divers have also become photographers. Some are content to simply "point and shoot" on their annual dive holidays. For others, the pursuit becomes more serious, usually involving investment in specialist photography equipment with a view to creating images worthy of publication and competition success. It is for those "more serious" underwater photographers that a niche in dive travel has evolved in the form of dedicated underwater photography trips to some of the world's diving hotspots. We chose a trip to the Kona Coast of Hawaii's " Big Island" with leading UK underwater photographer and teacher Martin Edge…

Underwater photography is a challenging subject to learn, and difficult to do well. Ideally, it needs concentration and a slow, relaxed and stress-free way of diving. In fact, you could even say that underwater photographers have, out of necessity, developed their own style of diving, what is often referred to as the "photo dive".

"Photo dives" are more than just "diving with a camera" – it is an entire approach. But adopting the right approach isn't as simple as it sounds. I'm sure that there are many aspiring photographers who have been on dive trips where they've ended up disappointed. The reasons may vary for each individual, but are likely to centre around two contributory factors. Firstly, that the dive group swims at a pace that isn’t conducive to good underwater photography and secondly that there's no-one else to learn from.

These days, there are many options for underwater photographers wishing to travel. Several leading photographers and tour operators now escort groups to a great variety of exciting and far flung destinations, creating an environment that is more conducive to concentration, learning and good end results.

We chose to travel to the Kona Coast of Hawaii's "Big Island" aboard the Kona Aggressor on a charter led by Martin Edge, the UK's foremost teacher of underwater photography. The places often go quickly, so we booked the trip about a year prior to departure, just to make sure we weren't disappointed.

Hawaii's "Big Island" is some of the world's newest land. It's geographically remote and still volcanically active. In the Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea is still erupting as it has done for the last twenty or more years, and just after our visit, we heard news of a major earthquake that sparked fears of a tsunami, which fortunately didn't happen.

Along the Kona Coast, geologically recent lava flows are numerous, providing clues about the underwater topography we would be exploring. Instead of walls festooned with innumerable gorgonians and soft corals, we found rubble slopes, dark volcanic sands, submerged craters, pinnacles, archways and lava tubes.

There are a few dive centres in the main population centre of Kailua Kona offering day trips, but few, if any boats regularly ply the waters of the entire Kona Coast. To get to the best areas, mostly in the south, the Kona Aggressor is the only real option. It's a good boat with a helpful and courteous crew, familiar with dealing with the "issues" of photographers. The boat is equipped with a dry camera area, camera rinses and an endless supply of small "camera" towels.

Once underway from Kona, we briefly headed north. We visited Turtle Pinnacle, which isn't so much a pinnacle but an area of unimpressive coral with a few bommies. But there's a turtle cleaning station there and if you're lucky you may encounter several turtles and occasionally mantas. In fact, the winning "turtle grooming" image from the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2006 was taken at this very place. So, the photographic potential is there.

Nearby, is the site of one of Hawaii's "signature" dives – the incredible manta ray night dives. There are very few places in the world where you can dive with mantas in such close proximity. The history of these encounters dates back to the Kona Surf Hotel (now the Sheraton) to the south of Kona where lights were installed to illuminate the water for the benefit of the guests. The lights attracted plankton, which attracted mantas, which attracted divers, who put in even more lights. This unique "symbiosis" has happened ever since, although many of the mantas "migrated" to the current site when the Kona Surf Hotel closed. Now that the hotel has reopened, and the lights have been switched back on, some mantas are returning to the original site.

At dusk, we surveyed the sea from the deck of the Aggressor, as a few other dive boats gathered nearby. Occasionally, something would disturb the surface waters – it was the gathering mantas. Buzzed with anticipation, we were soon kitted up and in the water, finning excitedly along a trail of glow sticks laid by the crew and into the manta's "arena", a nondescript area of rubble and coral with submerged lights.

Usually, you'll find mantas described as "graceful" and "peaceful" and so they are, but there was an intensity, perhaps even aggression about this encounter. It was a fantastic experience as eight or nine mantas swirled in a "plankton feeding frenzy", bumping and jostling for the best lit areas where the food was most concentrated. Literally "lights, cameras, action!"

Diving with mantas at night presents photographic challenges. As a rule, photographers tend to shoot macro on night dives, rather than wide angle or fish eye, so prior to the dive there was much discussion about how to best capture them. Nobody, not even Martin, had any previous "benchmark" with which to draw from, so it was a case of trying something logical and seeing if it worked. The instant feedback of digital helped us understand the photographic conditions which I described in my notes as "dark, chaotic, lots of plankton and suspended particles, lights, mantas everywhere, stray fins, composition difficult". But it was great, and we were pleased with some of the results.

After the mantas, we headed back south, past Kailua Kona and down the Kona Coast away from the main areas of habitation. The seas were generally calm, although the skies became gradually more overcast, which we learned was quite common feature of the weather in this area.

We visited several sites during the week, spending the most time where the photographic potential was greatest, instead of ticking off as many dive sites as possible. This enabled subjects to be "worked on" over the course of two, three or even four dives.

We spent a lot of time at the Hive, a varied site with plenty of macro life and an interesting archway and lava tube area, which was great for wide angle work. Rob's Reef was also a site full of photo opportunities, especially the lava tube close to the shore, although the surge made steadying yourself with a camera very difficult. Never Never Land was also a good site, where a submerged crater provided an effective "frame" for modeling divers against the surface, with the moored boat adding to the composition.

The crew were also helpful as "spotters" with some great frogfish specimens being found during the week. Amusingly, photographers would often queue up to photograph these unique fish. It looked rather like a supermarket checkout!

As the week progressed, opinion on the boat was divided about how "good" the diving was from a photographic point of view. Certainly, the lack of typical wide angle subjects such as gorgonians, colourful soft corals and anemones made the sites more of a challenge photographically. Personally, I thought that was a good thing. Instead of being overwhelmed by photographic potential, which can create a "comfort zone", we all had to work harder and perhaps be more inventive in order to find good subjects. Martin, for example, spent time on several dives working on his "fish photography" techniques, an area he said that he'd neglected.

This "subject scarcity" caused quite a bit of debate amongst the diving group about what to photograph, and it's through this interaction and looking at each other’s results (easy with the instant feedback of digital) that make these kinds of trips are so rewarding and worthwhile. Everybody learns from each other.

On any similar photography trip, expect to be busy between dives, although there is still time to relax. Cameras need to be looked after, o-rings need greasing, batteries and strobes need charging, different lenses and ports might need changing, and images must be downloaded and studied. Each night, after dinner, the photographers would often discuss, display, criticise and troubleshoot their work culminating in a small competition at the end of the week. Unfortunately, I didn't win it!

As already touched on, there are now several renowned photographers leading underwater photo trips, so it's up to the individual to decide who to travel with, and what destinations appeal. In the case of Martin, his record speaks for itself. He is passionate about teaching both in terms of personal tuition and the written word. Readers of this magazine will be familiar with his monthly column, where he describes photographic techniques, often drawing from the experiences of his dive travels, and those of his students. And there's also his book, "The Underwater Photographer", recently upgraded to include digital camera techniques. It's essential reading for aspiring photographers.

Martin's approach to teaching on the liveaboard is much less formal than his classroom sessions, as you're also there to relax and enjoy the wider experience. You can involve yourself in the group as much or as little as you want. In short, you continue where the classroom courses finish, by practicing and honing techniques in "real" diving situations, with "real" subjects.

So, should you book onto this kind of trip? Well, probably "yes" if you've an interest in underwater photography. It doesn't matter what level you feel your work has reached, or how ambitious you are with your photography. By traveling with like-minded individuals, you'll be virtually guaranteed of an interesting and absorbing time, with the opportunity to learn and improve your underwater photography in the best possible environment.

Autumn 2006

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