Friday, 6 July 2012

Guide: How to Take Photographs at Sea

Taking your camera out with you on a boat is an excellent way to get up close to marine creatures in their natural environment, but also poses a unique set of challenges both for the photographer and the equipment. As you can probably tell, I’ve spent an awful lot of time working at sea which has given me some amazing opportunities to see and photograph some stunning marine animals in their element. In this short guide, I list my top 5 tips for taking better wildlife photographs while you’re at sea

1.  It’s going to be wet, so prepare your gear before you go
If you’re going out to sea, it’s going to be wet! Even if you manage to get out on a beautiful clear day, with no waves and no rain it’s often much more humid out on the water than on land so make sure you and your equipment is prepared. If your boat doesn’t have a dry area on board, then taking a drybag or waterproof case of some sort is a must so you’ve got somewhere safe and dry to store your gear when you’re not using it (or for when it starts to get wavy and the rain comes on!). If you intend to do a lot of photography at sea, then it’s well worth investing in weather-sealed equipment to avoid the worst of the long-term corrosion that comes with photographing in salt spray, but it’s not something to worry too much about for the occasional trip. I still own a (not weather-sealed) Canon 400D which got completely swamped by a wave once while it was round my neck (it was a case of save myself and soak the camera or fall in the sea) and it’s still working perfectly well now after a bit of a towel dry and some time near a radiator! If you can do, it’s worth trying to make as few lens changes as you can and do them as quick as you can (especially if you’re exposed on deck) to avoid allowing the dampness and salt inside your camera body, but it’s not something that’s worth losing sleep (or good photographs) over unless you’re likely to get rain or spray in there.
It’s also worth mentioning that it is ALWAYS colder at sea than you think it will be, so pack decent waterproofs (jacket and trousers) and warm layers so you can spend as much time outside as possible. A decent pair of walking boots or outdoor shoes are also great for keeping your feet dry and giving you grip on the deck.

2. Manual mode is your friend
Having my camera set to manual (and ready to go) meant that when this whale appeared unexpectedly next to our ship I was ready to get the photograph and didn't need to worry about the camera settings.
With a bit of knowledge about the behaviours of different species, it is possible to predict when the most interesting  shots will happen.
This one’s pretty important since boats are only ever going to provide an unstable platform for shooting from, but there are a few things you can do which will help:
Rough seas and expensive cameras are rarely a good combination...
Leaning against something sturdy will help balance you against the swell.
Seasickness: Seasickness is probably one of the worst feelings in the world and is said to come in two stages: the first stage, when you’re afraid you’ll die, and the second, when you’re afraid you won’t! There are a LOT of different ways to avoid seasickness, and the ones which work are different for different people. There are a lot of over-the-counter tablets that you can buy (I like Stugeron because I don’t get side effects with it, but other people find it makes them too drowsy), but I think one of the most important things is to make sure you eat before you get on the boat. Having a bit of ballast in your stomach does the world of good and is the one thing I’ve heard a lot of people talk about when we’re at sea for long periods of time – not eating properly is about one of the worst things you can do to yourself! Similarly, make sure you drink plenty of water. Some people (myself included) find ginger can help settle their stomach (in whatever form you prefer – crystallised, tea, biscuits, whatever!), and of course, watching the horizon (or the wildlife) also helps make you feel a bit more steady. And if none of that works, lying down somewhere quiet for a while often helps.
5.Stay Safe
This is absolutely the most important thing. If you fall out of a boat into temperate (e.g. UK) waters, the sea temperature is low enough year-round to kill you from hypothermia pretty quickly (and it will ruin your camera!). At the end of the day, it’s not worth falling in the water for a photograph so use your common sense – wear a life jacket, and if there’s any doubt that you might not be able to keep your balance and shoot, don’t shoot.

The exact settings you apply to your camera are going to vary hugely depending on what you intend to shoot, whether it’s birds in flight, people working on a boat or seascapes for example, but there is one thing that I find enormously useful regardless of the photographic subject and it is setting my camera to full manual mode. I understand that the idea of using manual settings can seem overwhelming initially (it was years before I gave it a try), but once you get used to it, it makes photography at sea far, far easier. Essentially, putting your camera into manual means that you choose the aperture, shutter speed and ISO yourself to produce the exposure you’re looking for. When I started out, I shot exclusively in aperture priority mode, keeping the aperture as wide as possible and usually leaving the ISO around 400 to keep the speed up. The camera would meter the scene (usually using spot metering) and would adjust the shutter speed (and therefore the exposure) itself. This is fine under most circumstances, but becomes an enormous pain in the ass if you’re trying to shoot a bird in flight which keeps crossing above and below the level of the horizon (which most do with ridiculous regularity). Because the sky is very bright relative to most birds and certainly to the sea, as the bird flies you have to constantly adjust the exposure compensation to adjust for the changing background (not necessary if you can keep the subject bang on centre all the time, but I’m not that good!). Anyway, I eventually decided that this was far too much work, made the plunge to using manual and never looked back! Using manual, you can take a couple of test shots to make sure you’ve got the exposure correct, then (providing the light doesn’t change by much) you can ignore it the settings completely and just focus on taking pictures. It also allows you to respond much faster to photographic opportunities because your camera is always ready to go. As long as you remember to check the exposure is still correct when the light levels change it’s dead easy.
3. Know your subject

This is good advice for photographing any wildlife. If you can, try and do a bit of research before you go, so you know which species you are likely to see in an area, what they look like and what their common behaviours are (for example, knowing how different seabirds feed in the water will help you anticipate when and how they will strike the water, allowing you to take a more exciting shot). It will also help you decide if you’re causing a disturbance to the animals, and when you should back off. If you can’t do this in advance, most boats offering wildlife trips will have guides on board (who are often qualified marine biologists) who will be more than happy to talk to you about the different species. Similarly, you can learn a lot about the behaviour patterns of different species just by watching them for a short while, so if you are seeing a lot of one particular species it is often extremely beneficial to observe them for a bit without trying to photograph them. Most species have highly repeated behaviour patterns and once you know what you’re looking for, it’s possible to predict when a gannet is about to make a dive, or when a fulmar is about to take off for example. Similarly, different animals have different ways of flying around boats – gulls and fulmars might glide alongside a boat for a while, but often do it in stages between flying and resting on the sea surface, while kittiwakes will fly in a figure-of-eight pattern behind a boat until they get fed up. Being able to predict how an animal is going to behave will massively help your photography by allowing you to anticipate when the best shot will happen.
4. Get your sea legs on!
• Check the weather: Given typical British weather, it’s not always possible to predict what conditions will be like on the day, especially if you’re booking a trip well in advance. Still, if you are able to choose what days you go out on, it’s generally best to start with calm days until you get the hang of things. I generally find that XC Weather gives excellent forecasts for coastal areas and is well worth checking out before you go. 

 Brace yourself: How much a boat moves around will generally depend on its size and how far from shore you’re travelling. Typically, the further from land you go, the bigger the swell will get and the bigger the boat you need to stay stable (there are always exceptions, but it’s a good general rule). If your boat does start moving around, it is usually possible to brace yourself against something for a bit of extra stability, but make sure you keep the camera strap around your neck in such a way that you can drop the camera quickly if you need to hold on. Tuck your elbows into your sides, keeping one hand on the camera body and shutter release, and the other under the barrel of your lens. Standing with your feet apart and knees slightly bent will allow you to use your legs to absorb most of the motion, and standing at about a 45 degree angle to the waves seems to work pretty well. A good, grippy pair of boots is a must for helping you keep your balance.