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PhotoPro 4: Pygmies and giants

This article was published in DIVE Magazine in May 2009.

Having done battle with backscatter, Alex Mustard addresses the controversial nature of digital photography, and gets some iconoclastic opinions from one of his heroes.

Last month, I covered some of the post-processing techniques used in the fight against backscatter. And I am sure that discussing Photoshop techniques in a photography column caused murmurings of disquiet in some corners of the underwater photographic world. 'Slides were pure and honest,' they'd say. 'No digital image can be trusted; manipulation is now just a mouse click away. The good old days have been lost forever'.

There are many flaws in such arguments, but recently I heard an illuminating perspective on the so-called traditionalist view from the Bafta- and Emmy-winning BBC cameraman Peter Scoones. Scoones took up diving in the 1950s and founded the British Society of Underwater Photography (BSoUP) with Colin Doeg in the 1960s, so you might expect him to be firmly in this traditionalist camp. Not so, as I found out when I had the chance to quiz him when I joined his liveaboard charter in Thailand.

Despite all his filming work, Scoones remains an active stills photographer. He is a big fan of digital and openly welcomes any digital processing technique that can enhance his creativity. He heralds it as a 'return to real photography'.

'Back in the 1960s we mostly shot black and white, he explains, and we compared our results as prints. The skill of the photographer was controlling the whole process, both in the water and out. You were judged on your final image, not how you got there. In the early days of BSoUP we had many professionals, and darkroom manipulation was part of all of our formal photographic educations'.

'When Ansel Adams [the pioneering landscape photographer] shot 10x8, he dodged and burned like hell. The starting point is being there and thinking about it. Choosing the lens, the angle, the time of day, all those steps involve as much image manipulation as anything you do in post.'

I put it to him that digital is considered by some to be disingenuous compared with slides and he is quick to point out that transparency film was never the originator in underwater photography. 'They are ignorant of the true history of underwater photography,' he replies bullishly. 'Slides did become popular later, just like digital is now. Transparencies were originally embraced because they provided higher contrast than print film. First Kodachrome, then Fujichrome. It is all a progression. Now digital is preferred for its inherent advantages.' Ever the innovator, Scoones not only embraces each advance in imaging technology, but he is among the first to come up with new ideas for images made possible by the latest format.

Photoshop is just another tool for the underwater photographer and it is not going away. We all know we can use it to mop up our spillages, but more importantly, we should adopt a Scoones mindset and think of ways to use Photoshop to extend the types of images we can create. Knowing what it can do should change what we try and capture in our limited time underwater.

The image above is a digital composite of four images of the same pygmy seahorse leaping from a sea fan and reattaching itself. I took them in the Lembeh Strait in Sulawesi, Indonesia back in 2004. Even back then, the world was saturated with pygmy photographs and I was searching for a fresh angle. A Photoshop composite was in my mind, but I never dreamed I would be this lucky. Fortune smiled, and within 15 minutes of the end of the dive I already had a low-resolution version of this image on my laptop.

In composites or not, many pygmy seahorse images suffer from a lack of eye contact. I always photograph pygmies without a torch, even though it makes focusing harder, because I find the light makes them turn away from the camera. Just a slight turn, even where you can still see the eye, takes the edge off a photograph. Also, I don't shoot high numbers of frames: I only fire when the shot is spot on. The less I flash 'em, the more cooperative I find pygmies.

Dancing Pygmy. Nikon D100 SLR. Subal housing. Nikon 105mm and +4 dioptre. 1/180th at f38. Two Subtronic Alpha strobes 1/4th power.

If there is a negative of Photoshop it's that it leads some to sloppy in-water techniques. Perhaps the biggest mental hurdle facing underwater photographers these days is to get over the 'that must be Photoshop' stage. There is a certain element in all of us, when we see an image that is better than our own, to conclude that it is skill with the software, rather than the camera, that is responsible. Holding on to such a belief will only hold our own photography back. I have been fortunate to dive with many of the world's best underwater photographers, and I can assure you that their best shots invariably look the same on the camera's LCD screen as you see them on their websites and finally on the printed page.

Scoones would never settle for an imperfect image. We should aspire not only to use Photoshop to correct our mistakes, but to create types of underwater images that have never been possible before.

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