Apr 022012

Spectating on a drift dive

About the site

The Heads of Port Phillip Bay are one of the more dangerous stretches of water in the world for shipping. A combination of huge tidal flow through the narrow entrance, wind conditions and the prevailing south westerly swell from Bass Strait can create incredibly unfriendly conditions in this small area. Even if the conditions are acceptable for diving outside the Bay, it can be impossible to transit the Heads to get to these dive sites. With nasty waves in the Heads, the attention turns to dive sites within the Bay.

These include Pope’s Eye, a rock annulus in the middle of the bay, South Channel Fort and Chinaman’s Hat to play with the seal population. Lastly, parts of the channel just inside the Heads can be dived at slack water, even in fairly terrible weather. But slack water is a limited time opportunity, and when the tides are running drift dives through the shallows just inside the Bay are the order of the day.

JDZ drifting

About the dive

Drift dives are normally not great for photography. With the current behind you there’s no opportunity to stop and reframe, and subjects go whizzing by at high speed. Depending on the terrain you also need to keep an eye out for upcoming bommies and other collision hazards, reducing the focus on the camera.

On the other hand, there’s always an opportunity to try something new. There are some great underwater shots of fish and larger animals moving through a blurred background (check out Brian Skerry’s portfolio), and the panning technique is another skill to learn. This drift dive offered the opportunity to be moving at the same rate as my buddies, a more reliable subject for practising on than marine life. Instead of swinging the camera round, I stayed as still as possible in the water and let the current move both myself and my subject at the same rate. From here I experimented with aperture, shutter speed and strobe power settings to achieve the right balance of lighting and blur.

About the photo

Panning shots work by using the strobe light to fill in the subject in the foreground, freezing the action. This works best if the central subject would be relatively dark without the flash, and the camera doesn’t capture many details during the longer exposure. This allows the subject to be lit, and frozen, by the flash. The blurred background comes from ambient light throughout the exposure.

The scenery in these shots was relatively flat and punctuated by the colourful sponge life you can see in the second photo. Although we were in the shallows and it was a cloudy day overhead, there was a fair amount of sunshine coming through. My initial attempts were both blurry and blown out, without a frozen subject in them. By reducing my aperture I was able to reduce the light on the immediate subject and compensate for the longer exposure.

As you can see in the shot above, there was a moderate amount of backscatter in the water. Normally I’d reduce strobe power slightly and angle out to avoid this, but the need to freeze the subject in action made this tricky. I found to really light (and freeze) the moving diver I needed to be much closer than I would normally take diver shots at, and point both strobes straight at the diver. Both of these shots are uncropped.

These shots are not perfect examples of the technique, but they do show a different perspective on a drift dive and give the feeling of speed. Panning shots are also useful for still water diving when following moving subjects, or to add interest to a static scene. Getting the right mix of settings and movement can be tricky, so there’s definitely more experimentation to come.

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