Wide-angle photography is traditionally discussed as a single technique, but Alex Mustard has always maintained that the lens on your camera doesn’t constrain you to one type of photography that comes neatly with a single bag of tips and tricks, as he explainsPhotographs by Alex MustardWith a wide-angle lens we can shoot up-close, great scenes, split levels, available light, big animals, remote strobes, the list goes on. Each discipline requires different settings, different compositions, different lighting and more. And that is before we come on to the specific approaches required for various types of marine life, or wrecks, or divers...

Therefore, key to successful wide-angle photography is to be aware which flavour of wide angle we’re tucking into, which puts you on course for making a host of good decisions and, ultimately, quality images.

While there are lots of options for wide angle, the two techniques that we return to time and again are Close Focus Wide Angle (CFWA) and Big Scene Wide Angle. We will cover both in detail in the next two issues, but this month I will highlight the key lighting differences. Understanding how the two differ helps greatly to know what to change when switching between them. But first I need to run through some of the core advice for all sumptuous underwater wide shots.

Underwater, most of the time, wider is better. The more our lens sees, the bigger the scene we can shoot, from as close as possible. It has long been said that underwater photography would be easy if it wasn’t for the water. Well, an ultra-wide fisheye lens is the best way of getting rid of as much water as possible. These lenses make the subject look further away which makes the water look clearer, records sharper details and helps us get more light on the subject, giving better colours. However, this characteristic means that wide-angle compositions need strong subjects, so that our pictures don’t just feel like backgrounds. The distortion of fisheye lenses is problematic on land, bending straight lines, but is advantageous underwater. The characteristic barrel distortion emphasises the central oval area of the frame, making our main subject loom towards the camera, creating an almost 3D image. At the same time, the fisheye makes the edges of the picture recede, creating depth and separation in our composition. This dovetails perfectly with how our strobe light works, which can easily illuminate this foreground, but will fall away quickly. Finally, and without boring you with optical equations, fisheyes just work better behind dome ports than other wide angles.

The ‘but’ is that wider lenses are harder to work with. Fisheyes demand that our strobes must be able to evenly illuminate a large area. And that we must be able to balance the ambient light with the artificial. Strobes are controlled by power settings, sunlight is tamed with shutter speed and both will be brightened and darkened by ISO and aperture changes. Creating even illumination from strobes is particularly tricky when we’re close and using a wide lens, making strobe positioning and powers critical. Finally, the wide view also means we are more at the whim of sea conditions, and when light is not ideal we may have adjust our compositions. Other wide-angle lenses are available, of course, and they all have important roles. But if you don’t regularly shoot with a fisheye underwater (I never use one on land) then you are holding your photography back!

Stunning photos demand a specific quality of light and underwater our flashes provide our main lighting. Typically, we are striving for a naturalistic feel - we need strobes to bring out the colours in our subjects without creating fried hotspots and big unlit shadows. The best way to get even lighting is to use two strobes, add diffusers and pull them back, so the light has time to soften and spread. Forgetting that last factor is the one that most often holds back the quality of lighting. From this point the lighting demands of CFWA and Big Scene Wide Angle diverge, and we set ourselves up much better for success if we stop and consider which type of shot we’re taking.

For Big Scene shooting our strobes need to be out wide and carefully positioned, pointing forward. The wide strobe arms minimise backscatter, while aiming ensures we don’t waste light. They will be on high power and usually on the same power, or just click or two different. This is because both strobes are a relatively long distance from the subject, so will both give a similar amount of light. With a super wide lens we will still be pretty close to the subject, but beyond touching distance. Big scene shooting demands good visibility, and can be easier when it is not too bright underwater and we don’t work against the light, as it easier to balance the ambient light level with our flashes.

Big scenes mean high power strobes on long armsThere is not just one type of wide-angle photographyFisheye lenses shoot vistas from as close as possibleDespite using the same lens, CFWA is very different. Strobes are pulled in close to the housing, so that they light the main subject and don’t end up going behind it. As we are now close, within touching distance of the subject (don’t touch it!) backscatter is not a big issue, even in murky water. Our flashes are on lower power, because of the close distance. It is highly likely that the strobes will have to be on quite different powers to achieve even light across the subject, because one is likely to be much closer to the subject than the other. This is why TTL doesn’t work well.

These very different requirements, just in terms of lighting, are a reminder that one size does not fit all in wide angle photography. It is part of what makes is so rewarding to master. Next month we will climb into CFWA in detail.

CFWA is suitable for poor visibility