Fisheye lenses are best for CFWAMustard ’s MASTERCLASSAlex Mustard turns his attention to the discipline of Close-Focus Wide AnglePhotographs by Alex MustardIf there is one essential piece of advice in underwater photography, it is ‘get close, then get closer’. It is such an essential mantra that I know several photographers who have written it on a sticker on the back of their housings.

Getting close rewards us with pictures that have more colour, contrast and clarity. Getting close with a wide-angle lens brings another benefit. The short camera-to-subject distance forces the perspective of the picture, so that the subject appears larger and it seems to pop out of the background creating an almost 3D effect. The resulting photos have high impact, especially when the foreground subject is colourful or a charismatic creature.

This technique is known as Close-Focus Wide Angle, or CFWA to its friends. And it is well worth getting full acquainted with all the details of CFWA because, for me, it is the most-important technique in underwater photography. Once we’re on top of CFWA, we can produce eye-catching wide-angle shots, of most subjects, in any conditions. CFWA is a sub-division of wide angle, for pictures taken within touching distance of the subject (although we should not reach out and check). This close working distance creates unique challenges, particularly for lighting, but the extreme perspective creates big impact.

CFWA is best shot with fisheye lenses because they focus close and their unmatched, ultra-wide coverage creates the most-dramatic images. Rectilinear, aka non-fisheye, wide-angle lenses can be used for CFWA, but cannot force perspective as much. Many people think that big strobes are essential for all wide angle, but CFWA actually does not demand that much strobe power because of the close working distance. But a pleasingly soft quality of light is essential, which is hard to achieve, because the strobe light simply doesn’t have the space to spread. Good quality strobes really make a difference, and we invariably need good diffusers too. The quality of light is also really improved by pulling strobes backwards, to maximise the space for it to soften. At the least, strobes should be behind the handles of the housing, if not being completely behind the line of the back of the housing. And importantly the powers and positions of the strobes need to be adjusted to ensure the subject is evenly illuminated.

If our foreground subject is parallel to camera and in the centre of our picture, then two strobes set to the same power will light it evenly. However, this would be a very boring composition. So in most attractive frames, the foreground subject will be off centre, left or right, bottom or top halves of the frame, and therefore our strobes are invariably set to different powers. The strobe that is closer to the subject needs to be set to a lower power, while the strobe that is further away must be turned up. And the closer to the subject we are, the larger this difference needs to be. In standard CFWA, our strobes usually end up with between three and five clicks difference on the power settings. This is why TTL strobe control doesn’t work well for CFWA, because TTL tells both strobes to give the same amount of light, giving a poor quality of light, unless the subject is central.

For exposures we should think of CFWA images in two layers: a flash-lit foreground, and a background illuminated by ambient light. Since aperture affects both it is simplest to leave this alone much of the time. Especially because aperture also controls corner sharpness and depth of field. I usually set aperture pre-dive and change it little. Then it is just a case of adjusting flash power to alter foreground exposure, and shutter speed to alter background exposure independently. We should not be afraid of using long exposures, if necessary, in deep or darker water, and it is easy to shoot sharp images down to at least 1/20th and slower, as the foreground will remain pin sharp because of the flash.

CFWA compositions are usually most powerful as verticals, because most marine life grows upwards and the background varies much more so in the vertical than horizonal, making the picture more visually interesting. When shooting verticals, it is important to try and avoid uplighting the subject, or frying the foreground sand, which is an easy trap because these are usually the closest part of the picture to our lighting. The solution is being aware of the problem, and making sure we adjust our lighting accordingly, usually by turning down the power of the lower strobe.

CFWA is the most powerful technique in underwater photography“ This technique is known as Close- Focus Wide Angle, or CFWA to its friends. And it is well worth getting full acquainted with all the details of CFWA because, for me, it is the most-important technique in underwater photography Non-fisheye shots work, but have lower impact“ CFWA also requires us to manoeuvre very close to subjects, and before going in to take any CFWA image we must be certain that we can do so without damaging the environment ”CFWA also requires us to manoeuvre very close to subjects, and before going in to take any CFWA image we must be certain that we can do so without damaging the environment. It is important to accept that some subjects will always remain inaccessible and the best images come from subjects that give us space to work, so we can find the perfect angle for the composition. Small changes in the position of the camera will make big changes in the relative positions of the foreground and background in the frame.

When building a CFWA photograph we must find both an interesting subject and also an attractive background. The challenge is finding these in the same place! When I spot the potential for an interesting background, like a jetty, kelp forest, coral outcrop, etc, I will focus my dive on that area and hunt for foregrounds in the vicinity. A good background gives the image depth leading the eye through the frame, creating a CFWA image that truly looks three dimensional.