Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

Photographing subjects underwater

While photographing sea urchins in Hawaii, I was reminded that shooting images under water is tricky due to the number of variables that come into play. When I first saw these sea urchins, I thought: No problem. I’ve photographed things under water before. We even had an earlier post about photographing sea anemones in Australia.

Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

Sea Urchin, Kona, Hawaii

The Problem

I found three sea urchins that formed a nice triangle. When I first arrived on the scene with a group of students, I shot a quick photo and everything looked fine because the angle of the sun was fairly low.

  • Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

    First Attempt

  • Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

    Prism Effect

After helping some students, I later tried to shoot the urchins again but realized there was no way I could get the images sharp. When I zoomed in close, I realized that the light was diffracting and creating rainbow-like halos. You can see these in the image above. I tried several potential solutions… different shutter speeds, different angles, waiting for the water to be still, even focusing manually… but nothing seemed to work. The halos were still a problem.

I stepped back to consider what was causing these halos and I realized that the angle of the sun had shifted since I took my first shot. The sun was now fairly high in the sky which also caused a fairly bright background behind the sea urchin. The bright sun combined with its current position was creating a prism effect reflected from the water. This prism effect was the cause of the halos.

The solution

I needed to find a different sea urchin and use a different perspective to photograph them. I found one in shallower water surrounded by a darker background. In this environment, reflected light would not be a problem. Because the sea urchin was in shallow water, I was able to shoot it directly from above which then put the sun behind me. This minimized the softness created by these rainbow halos.

Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

Photographed in shallow water with sun behind me

So, this is an important lesson… when you’re out in the field, there is no one formula that provides the solution to every problem. Even if it’s something that worked in the past, this is no guarantee that it will work again. Out in the field, you must be able to think and figure out how to get around each problem. Field work is a great place for out-of-the-box thinking.

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.

Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams


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