April 2009 – September 2010
In 1995, when I was a fresh full-time wildlife photographer – after quitting my Industrial Photography day job of many years, I went for 12 months on my very own photographic expedition through the Coral Triangle. I first visited Christmas Island, Australia for half a year to document the red land crab migration and whale sharks found in the clear waters of the Indian Ocean. After 6 months on that magic island, I travelled through the Philippines, Sabah Malaysia and Indonesia, traveling to the many places that we re-visited on this current expedition.
CAMERA EQUIPMENT AND ACCESSORIES
Back then I brought my Nikon film cameras and 1000 rolls of 35mm Fuji film along with some developing chemicals and an E6 developing machine to get instant results of my work. My Mac Notebook computer back then only had a black & white screen and a 150MB Harddrive (the size of only two TIFF size pictures nowadays). Email was the newest thing then, unknown to even many top international magazine photo editors. Old dive guides & Edi Frommenwiler from the dive liveaboard Pindito still remembers me developing my pictures in the back deck of this beautiful phinisi while I traveled with him around Raja Ampat in 1996-97! Even Raja Ampat was widely unknown back then.
Today modern technology makes photography and travelling so much easier. Our MacBooks have 1TB Harddrives and there are no more films, let alone chemicals to lag around. The number of images are only limited by my work effort and size of my hard drives.
To accomplish the mammoth task of shooting wildlife, underwater and topside for straight 18 months, with most likely no chance for any maintenance if there was a breakdown, we decided from the onset to bring the most reliable equipment. I have been shooting with Nikon cameras for the past 20 years, so there was no changing of anything. I needed familiarity with all my camera equipment and I already had all Nikon lenses. I had 2, by this time old and dated Nikon D200 camera bodies and a Nikon D3. As this was a massive assignment, we decided to buy the two latest Nikon camera bodies for this job – a Nikon D700 & a Nikon D3x. But I had to sell my D3 to do this 🙁
So, what’s in the box?
- Nikon D3x (26MP for high resolution images)
- Nikon D700 (13MP for low light and all around images)
- Nikon D200 (Backup)
- Nikon 10.5 mm Fisheye (mainly for underwater)
- Nikon 16 mm Fisheye (mainly for underwater)
- Nikon 24 mm Tilt/Shift lens (to extend depth of field on planes)
- Nikon 14-24 mm lens (general wide zoom, topside)
- Nikon 18-35 mm lens (general wide zoom, underwater)
- Nikon 24-70 mm lens (general mid zoom, topside)
- Nikon 70-300 mm lens (topside)
- Nikon 80-400 mm lens (topside)
- Nikon 105 mm micro (for close ups)
- Set of extension rings (for more close ups)
- Three SB800 land strobes and a wireless SU800 control unit
- Two SEACAM underwater housings for the D3x and D700 with four uw strobes
- Manfrotto carbon tripod, an old one that I could also use underwater
- Arca Swiss ballhead with Really Right Stuff Panoramic clamp
- Foldable solar panel to charge batteries
UNDERWATER PHOTO GEAR
One of the most important things to shoot on this journey is the underwater world of the Coral Triangle. To do so I needed the right tools.
I really like images that show both, the underwater world and topside in one image. We call these pictures “split levels” but they are also known as “half-and-halfs” or “over-unders”. In most cases I use a fisheye lens for them with an angle of 180º from corner to corner. Fisheye lenses are about the widest lenses you can get and this does the job very well. Here is how I do it:
Above is me in Misool Eco Resort, Raja Ampat, Indonesia and behind me was our wonderful bungalow . . .
Lissenung Island is in New Ireland, Kavieng Papua New Guinea.
One of the biggest problems underwater is the loss of colours with growing depth and water clarity. Depending on weather, location or even fellow divers stirring up the silt, visibility can be as low as zero. But under normal circumstances in the tropical oceans, it would be about 10 to 30 meter average viz. The bigger challenge is the loss of colours at growing depths (and distances). The colour red disappears from 5 meter depth onwards. To compensate for all these factors, it is best to be as close to the photo subject as possible and use one or two uw strobes. For most of my underwater wide-angle shots, I like to use a fisheye lens. As much as these kind of lenses distort on land, it is the perfect lens for underwater use, because I can go really near the subject. Here are some examples:
We stayed in Walindi Plantation Resort in Kimbe Bay in West New Britain, Papua New Guinea.
I used to be an engineer a very, very long time ago, and had never liked that job at all, but it taught me some very useful skills. One of it is that I can design and manufacture gadgets for my photographic needs – underwater and topside alike. I like to shoot animals in their natural environment, no matter how big or small they are. For the small creatures, instead of a large dome glass that I used for big manta rays, I needed a very small one which I made a long time ago from acrylic. But acrylic is very prone to scratching. After a design brainstorming session with Harald Hordosch of SEACAM, he redesigned my acrylic dome in glass that is now traded by SEACAM as “Fisheye Macro Port“. But Stella calls it “The Yogi Dome”.
The underwater world is full of wonders, and as closer you look the more wondrous it gets – there is detail in the details. In order to shoot these tiny subjects, I need a different uw camera setup. Generally I use a 105 mm Micro lens to get close.
We dived with Lembeh Divers from Lembeh Island.
The problem with still images is, well, they are still. But the underwater world is in constant motion. Only video can show these dynamic movements properly. But on rainy or cloudy days or in the evenings, even an underwater photographer can bring motion into a still picture. It helps when the surrounding environment is rather dim and yet the ambient light can still be captured with the strobes. I use a longer exposing time at, let’s say 1/8th of a second and flash the moving subject while I move along with it. This takes quite a few trial runs but generally there is a goodie that comes out in the collection.
Link to Tubbataha Reef entries.
For topside, I mostly used the following Nikon lenses: 14-24mm, 24mm tilt/shift, 24-70mm, 70-300mm and the 80-400mm.
If there was no light (as in shooting in the dark) I had to bring my own form of flash or strobes. Aside from the uw strobes, we brought three SB800 topside flashes which I mostly triggered wirelessly with a SU800 control unit. This gave me freedom from cable clutter and flexibility in positioning the strobes.
Link to Leatherback turtles of West Papua entries.
A big part of our photo assignment was to show all sorts of fishing activities in the Coral Triangle – artisanal, commercial, small and big time. A lot of fishing happens at night and very often involve pump lamps or Petromax lamps. These kerosene fueled lamps deliver a very beautiful golden light. But in order to portray it perfectly, the time of day matters. There is only a 15 minute window – about 30 minutes after sunset, when the ambient surrounding light is about equal to the artificial light.
Link to WWF in Wakatobi, South Sulawesi, Indonesia entries.
Beside diving and uw photography my other great passion is aerial photography. At some points on our epic journey we had the opportunity to hop on helicopters and small planes. Best done without doors or windows to sniff some really fast air. Just as fast have to be the exposure times of my cameras (at least 1/500s), otherwise the pictures turn out blurry.
Shooting is the fun part of photography and many travellers we met along the way envied our work calling it “vacation”. Well, there is more to it than that. There is editing and post production after the shooting. For all the computer work I have to do, 80% of my editing time is working with Adobe Lightroom 3, and the rest is with Adobe Photoshop CS5. Images have to be sorted out – selecting, deleting, colour correcting, cleaning out all the sensor dust of the image and finally properly captioning the selected and corrected photos. This requires 2 to 3 times more work than the shooting time.
We are constantly working. We had zero weekends, no holidays, no breaks at all during these past 18 months. Our schedules and obligations were so tight. We knew if we took a break, we would lose momentum and suffer the consequences later on.