Wreck Photography

Wrecks are magical places and the essence of wreck photography is to capture that magic. Wreck photography does therefore require a 'feel' for the subject.

Take your average wreck diving fanatic. You see their eyes light up when they talk about their favourite wreck. They can even get excited about the way a wreck is lying! This is the sort of devotion you need for good wreck photography, only as a photographer you are trying to prise away a photograph, not a porthole!

You don't need to be an experienced wreck diver to photograph wrecks. Wrecks make excellent wide-angle subjects for beginners - not least because they stand still! Wrecks don't even need to be boats. Submarines, aeroplanes and even sunken cars require the same treatment! Even if you prefer natural history subjects, wrecks should not be ignored, as they attract a myriad of marine creatures.

A wide-angle lens is best for wreck photography. You can concentrate on one feature if the viz is poor, or pull back to get the whole wreck in shot if conditions allow.

Wreck Photography Strategy

The orientation of a wreck will determine the best angles to shoot from. Wrecks that are upside down are the hardest to work with. They can be featureless but, if the prevailing visibility is greater, or equal to, half its length you can get a side on view of the whole vessel if you have a lens of sufficiently wide angle. There are also closer shots to be had at either end (your buddy and the prop or down low shooting up at the bows for example).

More usually a wreck will be lying at an angle and this can be a handicap. Quite often a photograph of a wreck lying on its' side will work when viewed rotated as if it were the right way up  - providing there is nothing in shot to betray which way is up, such as divers' bubbles.

Wrecks that are upright, intact, and in visibility to appreciate them are easy to work with, but unfortunately rare! Intact wrecks are also usually deep so you can't waste bottom time, You must head straight for the photographic hotspots: the bridge, engine room, or prop for instance.

Given the luxury of a few dives on the same site you should begin to capture the character of a wreck. All wrecks have a story to tell and any historical angle should always be explored. Military wrecks are often steeped in history.

You must resort to formula shots if you don't have the benefit of a few dives on the same wreck e.g. inside looking out, down low shooting up at the bows, or up against machinery for example.

Wrecks are the only underwater subjects to have a straight lines. This means you can look for, and exploit, strong compositional devices such as converging lines and diagonals. Repetitive features, receding into the distance can be included to add depth.

Placing familiar objects out of context, by illustrating the way that the sea has tamed these manmade structures with marine growth, gives foreground interest.

Wreck shots don't always require a diver in frame in order to 'resolve' them, but the relationship of the diver to a wreck is a popular theme, and the inclusion of a diver does give a sense of scale.

Wrecks are the one of the few underwater subjects that work from a camera position which is above and looking down. This is probably because a ship is a familiar object to see from a 'Bird's eye view; or perhaps because such a shot suggests the start of dive and the anticipation of exploration. Whatever the explanation, you will probably find yourself in a position to take such a shot at the beginning and end of a wreck dive and at this time other photographic opportunities may arise. It is usual for dive boat skippers to put a shot line onto a wreck for descent/ascent and this provide the opportunity for shots of divers decompressing to shoot a few more frames.

It is very rare that the inclusion of the sun in shot works with wrecks, usually depth renders it a formless 'blob'. It is often more pleasing to work with the sun behind you and to aim for a uniform and correctly exposed background. You can however give the sun more form by hiding it behind your subject. Silhouettes can work quite well, and such shots often translate well into Black and White.

Electronic flash can destroy the mood of a wreck if you are not careful and you unintentionally overexpose the foreground. On the other hand it is possible, and extremely effective, to use flash for foreground fill with balanced light if you get your exposure spot on. Also, by using the flash well off camera, you can make a feature of lighting and, by varying the angle of the light source (and therefore the shadows), you can cause the wreckage to appear to change shape .

Equipment for Wreck Photography

The first technical decision to make shooting wrecks is ISO setting. Choosing a high setting  (e.g. 1,000 ASA or higher allows you to shoot in lower light but can be grainy when enlarged) or choosing a slower setting (which gives better quality but require longer exposure times). It depends on available light which, in turn, depends on depth.

Long exposures that would be unacceptable with moving subjects because they would result in blurred images can be very successful on inanimate objects such as wrecks. The usual approach is to select automatic exposure mode with an aperture in the middle of the lens' range and, with yourself and the camera braced hard against some convenient wreckage (or on a tripod), you can record detail that can't even be seen with the naked eye.

A full frame fisheye lens, covering 180 degrees, is ideal for long exposures and gives excellent results despite distortion of straight lines.

Smaller apertures and subsequent improvement in depth of field can also be achieved with longer exposures but don't expect this technique increase visibility to match though!

Interior wreck shots can also be made on time exposures but more often require a lighting strategy based on flash photography. However, you must not ignore natural light exposure when doing an 'inside out' shot.

The difficulty with using flash as the main light source in wrecks is in getting an even lighting. There is nothing worse than overexposing an object close to the flash. Given that the effective range of any flash underwater is limited to less than two metres, it is impossible to evenly illuminate the interior of all but the smallest cabins.

Flash coverage must obviously match the angle of view of the lens; otherwise you get a very unattractive 'pool of light' effect. Unfortunately your flash must be considered a point source due to its size in relation to the subject it is illuminating. This results in a 'hard' light with clearly defined shadows.

Due to the short duration of flash it is hard to predict the 'shape' of flash coverage. Ugly shadows may appear which you didn't anticipate. To counteract this the light source needs to be as large as possible, either by diffusing or bouncing off a reflector. This is usually impractical but the light source can be pulled slightly behind the camera to improve coverage.

Slave strobes (flashes triggered remotely by the main flash) will fire consistently in enclosed, darkened spaces such as wreck interiors. They can be lodged in some most unusual places!

Silt is a problem on all wrecks, inside and out, and is especially prevalent on wrecks in harbours. The trick is to make a conscious attempt to sort your buoyancy out before you enter. Care should be exercised when working in confined areas. After a group of sports divers have 'explored' a wreck, clouds of disturbed silt, and air bleeding out from lower decks, will frustrate your efforts to get a good, clean shot; so make sure you are first down the shotline.

When you know you have a limited bottom time you should research the wreck to pinpoint likely subjects.

finally, a word about safety. All dives with no clear surface, such as cave and wreck penetration, require training and planning; if you haven't got it, don't do it, especially with the added handicap of a camera - the best shots are nearly always close inside or just outside wrecks anyway. Also, any wreck lying in the wrong orientation will have objects that are hanging which shouldn't be - make sure you're not underneath them when they decide to fall!

more: wreck shots submitted by our members to our photo contest