About the island
Layang Layang is a small coral atoll located in the South China Sea, about 300km north west of Borneo. Officially part of Malaysia, the island houses a Malayasian Navy Base and the Layang Layang Island Resort. Available activities include diving on the coral wall that drops 2000m into the depths, and jogging up and down the airstrip (safe, as the plane only lands three mornings a week).
Being so small, Layang Layang is a place you go for diving, eating and sleeping, and this is facilitated by the schedule. After a wake up call and first breakfast, the first dive is followed by second breakfast, the second dive, lunch, the third dive and then afternoon tea. A night dive under the jetty or by boat is optional, and if you go ahead the kitchen will stay open for your dinner until you get back.
For the week I spent diving here, this schedule was supplemented by downloading a memory card full of photos and changing and charging camera and strobe batteries multiple times a day. Over 20 dives I took over 3,500 photos, and a severe edit and delete regime was required to arrive home with the best shots from the trip already selected.
Layang Layang rises out of 2000m of blue ocean, and the currents bring lots of nutrients to support a thriving ecosystem. Our general dive plan was to drop down the wall to an acceptable depth between 20m and 40m, depending on how many dives we had done for the day. From there we would gently multi-level up the wall, finishing the dives on top of the reef flat in the shallow sunshine.
On this particular dive I was carrying an extra strobe, and trying to see if the off camera lighting techniques I use in the caves were any good on the sunlit tropical reef. The previous few dives had mostly revealed the answer to be no, and given me a collection of uninspiring shots. With either the strobe pointing towards the camera flaring across the photo, or the strobe pointing away from the camera indistinguishable from an expensive and shiny rock, it was time to try something new.
After some thought, I decided I was trying to use the third strobe too close to the camera. That meant that for this dive, I was looking for a foreground subject and a background that would benefit from some additional lighting. The more practical requirement was somewhere to perch the strobe that wouldn’t damage the coral or require a submarine to go and fetch it off the bottom of the ocean.
About the shot
Despite the limitations of my wide angle lens, I really enjoy photographing clownfish in the tropics. The anemone provides great negative space to capture the fish against, and there’s a reason these photos win a lot of competitions – they’re both cute and movie famous. For these guys up the top I lined the third strobe up to provide a little more colour to the background reef and snapped away.
This particular shot has caught the anemone’s residents perched atop their home. I was hoping lighting the background would provide more contrast for the black and white fish hovering above the anemone, but this hasn’t come about and they blend into the reef. I’m far from convinced that the additional light has provided the same depth that it does in the average cave shot. The second shot, although cropped to a more standard close up viewpoint, has great colours and is arguably the better picture. There’s definitely some further thought and experimentation to be done around the third strobe, possibly in providing a connecting middle ground between the front and rear subjects, or refining the distances involved.