Text by: Todd Winner Photography by: Todd Winner and Michael Zeigler
Shipwrecks have always been fascinating to me. Almost every wreck has some amazing history, an interesting story, or some unsolved mystery attached to it. Wrecks make great artificial reefs (whether sunk intentionally or not) and marine life is often abundant around them. As photographers, there are some wrecks where we can portray both tragic loss of life and beauty in the same image.
Diving and photographing shipwrecks presents many challenges. Often times their size and depth make it impossible to see the whole site on a single dive. Even when we have the opportunity to do multiple dives on the same site we are still limited to bottom time and breathing gas.
Part of successful wreck photography is limiting your attention to the most important shots. This often involves shooting extremely large objects, sometimes way too big to light with strobes. To get the most out of shooting wrecks, you will need to use ambient light, strobe light and sometimes a combination of both to achieve good results. Many photographers will even use filters and remotely-triggered strobes for shooting wide wreck scenes. It’s up to you to recognize when to use the variety of lighting techniques available.
Certain wrecks require extra care when diving since cables, nets, and other items may present an entanglement hazard for divers. Like any diving activity, stay within your comfort and training levels.
Top 10 Tips for Shooting Shipwrecks
Shoot an Establishing Shot
This is most likely going to be an ambient light or ambient with filter shot, as most wrecks are too big to light with strobes. If the visibility is good enough this is often the first shot I go for. If possible, descend to the site before the other divers to have a chance in order to capture a diver-free image. Having a diver in the shot can add scale but too many divers will often ruin the shot. If open circuit divers are penetrating the wreck you can have bubbles escaping the wreck for hours after the last person has exited. This can make for an interesting image in itself, but if you are after a bubble-free shot you will need to get there first.
Get the Signature Shot
Many wrecks are just too big to do on a single dive, so get the signature shot before moving on to other things. And unless you are the first person to ever dive the site, there is probably already an established and well-known signature shot. This image is an important part of the ship or an artifact inside the wreck. It can be the bow gun, prop, ship’s bell or anything that is easy to recognize on the wreck.
Shoot the Props
Similar to the signature shot, nothing stands out more than a encrusted prop from a ship. This is often the second or third shot that I will seek out when shooting a shipwreck.
Look for Silhouettes
Most wrecks are loaded with great silhouettes, whether you use them in the background with a strobe-lit foreground or on their own. The king posts, masts and ship guns are all good places to look for silhouette potential.
Bows and Sterns
The bow and stern of most wrecks are often the most recognizable parts of the ship.
When the visibility is too poor to shoot wide-angle, break out the macro lens. Most wrecks are loaded with tiny marine life.
Typically as underwater photographers we want to shoot “up” in order to separate our subject from the background but wrecks often look great when shot from above.
Shoot Some Color
The steel hulls on many wrecks attract sponges, soft corals and other colorful marine animals. Take some shots that show how the wreck has transformed. The key is to include something in the shot that still makes it recognizable as a wreck, otherwise it will just look like a colorful reef.
Interior and Skylight
This is my favorite type of wreck shot and it is not always possible on every wreck. It is essentially some item or artifact lit by my strobes inside the wreck along with light from a skylight, porthole or other opening in the hull that lets in some ambient light. I think these types of shots really give the viewer an idea of what it is like to be inside the wreck. Note that your exhaust bubbles from open circuit will dislodge particles from the ceiling when working inside a wreck, and that it doesn’t take long before you are shooting in what looks like a snow globe. It’s also important to work fast and maintain good buoyancy to avoid disturbing even more sediment.
Many of the wrecks we dive have gone down with the loss of human lives. Some still contain bones to this day. I feel it’s important to treat such wrecks with the same respect you would show at any other gravesite.
Todd Winner is a contributor, instructor, and trip leader for Samy’s Underwater Photo & Video and has over 20 years of experience in underwater still and broadcast video. To see more of Todd’s work please go to www.toddwinner.com.
Michael Zeigler is a contributor, instructor, and trip leader for Samy’s Underwater Photo & Video, as well as an AAUS Scientific Diver. More of Michael’s underwater photography can be seen at www.seainfocus.com.