Duxy turns his attention to wreck photography, and explains how great hulking lumps of rusting metal can produce stunning underwater photographs if a bit of time and effort is put into the preparation
Diving is made up of some clearly defined sub genres, and wreck diving is surely one of those factions that engenders a lot of passion in its followers.
When I was a guide in Egypt, we were often bemused by the ‘rust junkies’ that holidayed in Sharm, especially among the beautiful coral reefs that were our backyard.
They couldn’t wait until Thistlegorm day, some of them failing to get enthused about such big hitters like Shark Reef, or Thomas and Jackson in the summer. Transforming into enthusiastic chatterers, like expectant children, en route to Sha’ab Ali in the wee hours of the morning, saying “are we there yet?”
It was only when I had left working at the coal face of dive tourism that I started to love wrecks and got to understand why these places garnered such passion. And now I love them.
And I particularly like photographing them. Where once the Thistlegorm was a chore to be endured as a stressful day at the office, I now love picking the right time of day to shoot the stern or bow, and advising others about where to find, and how to shoot the classic shots that have been made popular by the likes of Alex Mustard and others.
I have escorted a number of photo trips now where wrecks were the main focus, and so I will share with you some of my favourite shots and also how to get them, and maybe surprisingly you’ll find that a lot of the time it’s actually less about what buttons to press and the technicalities of photography, but more about the logistics of the dive and the prevailing conditions which will dictate the shots you get.
First things first
Safety is always of paramount importance when diving, even more so when your average depth may be a bit deeper than a typical reef photo dive, so planning and forethought is a really good idea.
Getting in without a plan for the shot you want, at the very least will end up with poorly realised images, and at worst could be dangerous.
And build lots of time into your plan, I will refer to the Thistlegorm a few times in this article I’m sure, so I will use an example from my own experience.
I have been asked many times to facilitate the shot made famous by Alex Mustard of the beams of light streaming from behind the front and sometimes rear wheels of the motorbike inside the port side corner in hold number two.
It’s not a difficult shot to take, but requires a discussion prior to getting in, as when your actually there communication is less easy, even more so if you’re inside the hold looking out.
You can see your model if you’re using one, out in the well-lit hold, but they can’t easily see you, as you’re blending into the background gloom of the area around the bike.
So if you haven’t thought of this then it’s easy to get caught out, as the person modelling can’t see the shooter giving ‘helpful’ directions to their model!
On a trip I’m leading it’s much less important I get shots of the bike, and so my job in the plan is to facilitate, but I may well grab a quick shot as I’m placing the remote strobe behind the wheel for others to use.
Once the remote strobe is placed I will take up the role of model and the shooter will get in position to get some shots. I’m used to where I need to be in the frame, but the shooter may well have to come out into the light to direct their model. All this movement can cause the shooter to stir up the sediment so if you’re close to the bike you need to be very mindful of this and using raised frog kick, move slowly and carefully in and out of the hold.
Einstein was explaining relativity to someone once, and he said that an hour sat with a loved one whizzes by in a minute, but a minute sat on a hot stove feels like an hour.
This could very easily explain how time flies by when you’re the one taking the shots, and you’re going to swap places with the model so they can get a shot too, so please be mindful when working as a team like this that it seems an age if you’re modelling, but only feels a very short while if you’re trying to get the shot.
This can impact on your no-deco limits, so as before, a good plan is in order.
Normally with the bike shot I find that if I’m with just two other divers, then that is probably the only shot we’ll end up getting if we want to do it justice, and all concerned get satisfactory shots.
Of course, if you’re on your own with a buddy and you’ve worked it out between you then you’ll have a bit more time, but be aware that these things will often take much longer than you guess, and build that into your plan.
Time of day is very important to a lot of wreck shots, so I’m going to use a couple of examples, the first one at the Thistlegorm again and then we’ll move to Abu Nuhas to possibly my favourite wreck photo site, the Ghiannis D.
The beauty of a dedicated escorted trip is I allow an ‘open deck’ at certain locations. And the Thistlegorm is one, and for me the very crack of dawn is a fabulous time to dive on her. Not everyone is an early bird like me though, so if dawn is at 5am, then I will often plan with a guide or one of the diving crew to get in at first light.
This actually means breaking the surface when it’s dark, but the hidden sun is just lighting up the horizon.
I will arm the guide with a good torch too, to model with, and the night before we’ll have had a discussion about what we need to do – it’s a teamwork event and we both have to be happy with what is happening.
The shot I’m referring to is the stern of the old girl, covered with streaming fusiliers, and is an example where we stuck to the plan, but then were granted with an extra bonus that I had to think quickly about to get the shot I eventually ended up with.
We had discussed prior that Adel was going to model around the stern of the boat, and I was shooting with my fisheye so the stern metalwork was very close to me, but I was still able to get her all in. I like to shoot with a model as it lends scale to the shots, allowing the viewer to identify themselves at the location.
I shot with a strobe as I wanted to see some colour in the rusty metalwork as I’ve seen hundreds of very similar stern shots, and wanted to mix things up a bit. As it was very dark I was down to very slow shutter speeds to record some ambient background light, and with a fisheye lens I have managed to shoot as low as a tenth of a second, as long as I’m super still.
Again buoyancy skills are paramount here, as you’ll just end up with an unintentionally blurry shot.
I had moved Adel to on the wreck looking out from the starboard side, and at that moment, a swarm of fusiliers burst upon us, they were only there for a few moments, so I took a few shots.
The one I like is the one here, where my slow shutter speed has shown them as blurry ticks with a sharp front, where the flash has fired.
Another point is that I always set my flash synch to second curtain as default, as this means that the blur is behind the moving fish with scenarios like this.
Important not to get over excited either, as this shot relied upon me keeping stock still with the fish providing all the movement.
The final thing I’d like to show you is a plan myself and my buddy that day, Christian Llewellyn from the Wrecks of the World Facebook group, came up with.
The Ghiannis D in my opinion is best dived as the second or an early third dive of the day.
The sun is higher and so interior shots of the galley mean that the light is streaming in aesthetically through the starboard portholes.
Our plan was to wait up shallow near the stern until the rest of the group had carried on inside the wreck. We both wanted a couple of classic stern shots with a diver in to lend some impressive scale to the proceedings. Once we had these, we were to venture inside and grab some shots looking up through the engine room. This is quite disorientating as she is resting on her starboard side, so first time you enter her, be aware that you might feel a bit dizzy.
After the engine room shots, we went to the galley and shooting at a very high ISO and slow shutter speed, camera held rock still, I got my favourite galley shot.
I wish I could claim that the shots here are all from that one dive, but alas they are many months apart, so honesty is the best policy as always.
That’s the thing you see, with wreck photography, trying to emulate shots you admire, you will often have to just take it on the chin and try not to get too disappointed when the plan doesn’t work, be happy if just one of your planned shots works out, you’ll just have to return and try again another time.
There’s a lot more to talk about with this subject and in particular how wrecks can be a win-win for all comers, as aside from being spectacular photo subjects themselves they also provide shelter for a host of marine life big and small, appeasing those for whom large rusty objects are a turn off. So I plan to revisit this topic and cover some more points at some time in the future, but for now, I’ll bid you goodbye and please keep safe down there.
Photographs by Paul Duxfield