Black water diving

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Jemeluk Bay, Bali, Indonesia,

Nikon D810, Nikon 105 Micro VR, 2.8,

Sea and Sea MDX D810, 2 x Subtronic Nova,

1/250, f.20, ISO 100

Black Water Diving has been recently into fashion. As the number of skilled underwater macro photographers is increasing, it is harder and harder to get an eye-catching image that stands out from the crowd. Most of the exotic critters, even on remote destinations, have loads of photos uploaded on the internet on a daily basis.

Black water diving provides a chance to capture something unique, and that is also appealing to the dive centres, as it can be done in many locations – you just need a place where it’s safe enough to dive, at night, with some current, and where the plankton from the deep ocean ascend to the shallow in decent visibility.

Currently, it isn’t very popular (yet) in Amed (Bali), though Jemeluk bay offers very good conditions: it’s close enough from the deep Lombok straight to have a nice variety of critters, and sheltered enough to be safe, on many days. Also, there are plenty of fisherman boats available to hire at a reasonable price.

I heard many people do it while drifting. Here we just docked to a mooring at the entrance of the bay, with mild current. The jukung was equipped with a small generator and powerful lights, for squid fishing, so it attracted many critters to the shallow. We just had to stay close to the cable, watch them arrive, and eventually drift along with them for a few shots, before swimming back to the original position.

Though we could easily see the bottom, it’s very important to keep a good notion on depth and ascent speed, and not to be carried away on following the critter to the depth or to the shadow.  It’s better to miss a shot than to get decompression sickness. Also, a good frenzel equalization technique and a mask that allows doing it with no hands, is recommendable. Protection (gloves, hood) can be important, as many critters are itchy and stinging.

Black water diving is mostly critter hunting.  Everything moves so fast, you’re happy just to get the critter framed and sharp. A powerful focusing light is mandatory. Also, you want a motor driven, fast (and close) focus macro lens. I shot this images with the only one I had available (105 mm), but I totally recommend a 60 mm. No viewfinder is needed. You want the biggest field of vision to spot your chosen critter among the plankton soup. Use single point autofocus at the middle for a rough prefocus and adjust by moving the camera back or forward. Even the stellar autofocus from Nikon D810 tend to hunt on these circumstances, so play safe and do it manually.

For aperture, use the smallest you can, before diffraction starts to steal sharpness from the image. I set it somewhere between f.18 and f.22. Above that you may be limited by strobe power. I use my 270 W Subtronic Novas either in 1/2 or full power, as the critters are translucent and not so refractive. Speed is not really important, as there is no sunlight (unless you have more than 2.500 lumens on the focusing light, in which case you want the fastest  – 1/320, for D810). As for all real fast action, forget TTL. It’s too slow, and power consuming. Point your strobes forward, equidistant from your lens and pull them just slightly forward, to avoid some backscatter. The rest you will inevitably remove on post processing.

Back water diving is a game of chance, trial and error. Many cool subjects are just too fast or uncooperative. Some have the stupid tendency to stay almost glued to your port’s glass, while others will swim away for no reason. It’s also totally addictive, as there is always something new coming out of the darkness. Do it safely and have fun!

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