THE DEEP END

Andrew Spooner learns how to take pho­to­graphs while swim­ming with sharks in Thai­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

THE in­struc­tor’s words are ring­ing in my ears: ‘‘ To get a de­cent un­der­wa­ter pho­to­graph you need to get close. Re­ally, re­ally close.’’ The dark shape nestling on the seabed be­neath me is be­gin­ning to take on a men­ac­ing air. I can see big, sharp teeth and a pointy dor­sal fin. How much closer should I get? It is a leop­ard shark; I am now about 4m away, and know for a fact I’m not close enough. And while the 3m-long shark may look se­date, even a lit­tle bit cud­dly, I also know I’m not go­ing to get any closer.

‘‘ There’s an enor­mous variety of fish where we’ll be div­ing,’’ says Thomas Peter, my in­struc­tor from Ao Nang Divers, a fives­tar Pro­fes­sional As­so­ci­a­tion of Dive In­struc­tors dive cen­tre lo­cated on the south­ern Thai coast­line near Krabi. I’m here to take the PADI dig­i­tal un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phy course, and the pre-dive brief­ing is whet­ting my ap­petite.

‘‘ We’ve got fan­tas­tic coral beds, snap­pers, bar­racu­das, man­tas, stingrays, scor­pion fish, morays and sea horses,’’ Peter ex­plains. ‘‘ If we’re re­ally lucky we might see a whale shark, but our big­gest draw has to be the leop­ard shark.’’ Gulp.

With the ad­vent of cheap, mass-pro­duced dig­i­tal cam­eras and a grow­ing num­ber of qual­i­fied divers (be­fore at­tempt­ing the dig­i­tal un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phy course it is rec­om­mended that you have com­pleted the en­trylevel PADI open-wa­ter course), tak­ing pic­tures un­der­wa­ter is en­joy­ing some­thing of a boom. What was once a highly spe­cialised ac­tiv­ity, re­quir­ing a sub­stan­tial out­lay, is be­com­ing much more af­ford­able. Com­pa­nies such as Sony and Canon are cre­at­ing ba­sic com­pact cam­eras that in­clude sub-aqua set­tings, and even the no­to­ri­ously pricey air­tight hous­ings (to keep your cam­era safe at ex­treme depths) don’t need to break the bank any more.

Much like the terra firma at­trac­tions of African wildlife sa­faris, sub-aqua tourists are ea­ger to see the big preda­tors. Sharks, with­out a doubt, are a big draw but, as any sub-aqua pho­tog­ra­pher will tell you, it’s the lit­tle crit­ters that are the most pho­to­genic.

‘‘ Small an­i­mals such as sea­horses don’t move around that much,’’ says Peter. ‘‘ The best way to shoot the smaller stuff is with a macro, which is a kind of mag­ni­fy­ing lens that lets you get great close-ups. But there are plenty of tricks I can teach you and which you’ll learn as part of the PADI course.’’

When I ar­rived the pre­vi­ous evening, Peter handed me the PADI dig­i­tal un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phy man­ual as bed­time read­ing. ‘‘ It’s very sim­i­lar to other PADI course books,’’ he said. ‘‘ There’s ex­pla­na­tions and in­struc­tion fol­lowed by a se­ries of knowl­edge re­views which you’ll need to com­plete as part of the course. Don’t worry, they’re sim­ple.’’

I ploughed my way through the course book, try­ing to learn ev­ery­thing there is to know about how sub-aqua con­di­tions af­fect pho­tog­ra­phy. The big­gest is­sue is light. Deep un­der­wa­ter, light is dif­fused, re­sult­ing in a loss of colour. The deeper you go, the more colour you lose. To com­pen­sate for this, subaqua snap­pers do two things: those who can af­ford it use gi­ant strobe flashes to drench their im­age in light; those on a bud­get (such as my­self) have to re­set the cam­era’s white bal­ance.

Ba­si­cally, what this in­volves is re-ad­just­ing and bal­anc­ing the in­ner work­ings of the cam­era to suit the spe­cific light con­di­tions. Most dig­i­tal cam­eras al­low you to do this man­u­ally by point­ing the lens at a pure, white im­age and push­ing a but­ton. In fact, white­bal­anc­ing is so im­por­tant to sub-aqua pho­tog­ra­phy that my PADI man­ual comes com­plete with its own white-bal­ance slate.

The next morn­ing brings my first chance to test what I’ve learned from the man­ual. ‘‘ We’ll check the seals on the hous­ing first,’’ says Peter as we set sail for a se­ries of dive sites just off the stun­ning is­lands of Koh Phi Phi. ‘‘ There can’t be even a sin­gle hair or grain of dirt on the seals, or the hous­ing could flood.’’

With the cam­era safely en­sconced, Peter be­gins the dive brief­ing. ‘‘ Our first dive is at Bida Nai,’’ he ex­plains. ‘‘ There’s a nice reef, plenty of fish and some great soft and hard corals. It’s a re­ally colour­ful dive.’’ We plunge into the wa­ter, reach­ing a depth of about 14m. I im­me­di­ately be­gin fid­dling with the white bal­ance on my cam­era and start snap­ping pho­tos of sea fans, cut­tle­fish, stingrays and even a tiny sea­horse.

Just 40 min­utes later, stoked by my first Jac­ques Cousteau mo­ment, I clam­ber back on the boat, strip off my dive rig and start ex­am­in­ing my pho­to­graphs on Peter’s lap­top. ‘‘ Seems like you didn’t set the white bal­ance cor­rectly,’’ he says as we look at end­less green-tinged mono­chrome images.

Af­ter an hour spent learn­ing how to white- bal­ance by rote — ‘‘ Press that but­ton, not that one,’’ says Peter re­peat­edly — we pre­pare to get back in the wa­ter.

‘‘ This dive site is called Hin Bida,’’ says Peter, ‘‘ and there’s a big pop­u­la­tion of leop­ard sharks here.’’

At the reef, Peter taps my shoul­der and points. About 3m away a leop­ard shark glides by. I reach for my cam­era but miss the shot. Damn. We carry on, and I man­age to get shots of a grotesque scor­pion fish, some as­ton­ish­ingly bright coral and a few de­cent close-ups of a gor­geous plumed lion fish.

Then sud­denly I spy an­other leop­ard shark. It is on the sea bed, static and un­mov­ing. I turn and look at Peter and can see him will­ing me for­ward. I set my white bal­ance, edge to­wards the shark and be­gin to snap. Sud­denly, it rises from its slum­ber, gives me the evil eye, turns tail and swims off. Phew.

‘‘ Why didn’t you get closer?’’ asks Peter when we are back on the boat, look­ing at the grainy, dis­tant shark cap­tured by my cam­era. ‘‘ Leop­ard sharks never at­tack.’’ How was I meant to know that?

As we make our way back to shore we look through the rest of the pho­tos, tweak­ing them with Pho­to­shop, ad­just­ing the colour and the bright­ness. It quickly be­comes ap­par­ent that my best ef­forts are close-ups of small sea crea­tures.

‘‘ It’s like I told you,’’ says Peter. ‘‘ You must get as close as you can.’’ At least next time I’m eye­balling a shark, I’ll know ex­actly what to do. The In­de­pen­dent

Check­list

Ao Nang Divers runs a variety of PADI cour­ses from about $180. More: www.ao­nang-divers.com. www.padi.com www.thai­land.net.au

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Sea of plenty: South­ern Thai­land of­fers divers some of the world’s best sub-aqua photo op­por­tu­ni­ties, with ev­ery­thing from vivid coral reefs to schools of trop­i­cal fish and leop­ard sharks

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