Photography In The Islands

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The verdant green hillside tumbles down to a deserted golden beach, fringed with majestic coconut palms. Tall ships and sleek yachts glide by on an azure sea. You and your companions spend joyful days sailing, snorkeling and exploring. As the water laps against the side of your yacht, you wonder how you'll ever be able to recapture this carefree feeling after you return to the hustle and bustle of the "real world." How will you convey the unspoiled beauty of the Virgin Islands to your friends back home? Well, while memories and tans fade fast, photos last and last.


It's hard to go wrong with today's cameras; top of the line models now offer auto-everything, simplicity and the basic point and shoot cameras deliver control, sophistication and zoom lens capability previously reserved for high-end machines. Serious shooters will probably want to bring a 35 mm single lens reflex (SLR) with a fullcomplement of lenses. A wide-range zoom lens (35mm to 135mm or longer) will cover most situations. For capturing onboard action, a wider angle lens (24mm) will be good. A long telephoto lens (longer than 21 Omm) is difficult to use on a moving boat,

but can deliver some dramatic shots. Today's automatic "fill flash" is ideal for filling in the deep shadows caused by the tropical sun and for shooting sunset portraits. A polarizing filter can intensify some colors and make the water appear clearer, but it adds a lot of contrast and eats up light. Remember, if you bring every gizmo and accessory you own, you'll spend your entire holiday lugging it around and worrying about its safety. If you're a snap-shooter thinking about upgrading, consider one of the new, water resistant automatic cameras. While not waterproof by any means, they are a little more durable in a marine environment. Even if you're a serious shooter, you might also want to bring a simple camera rather than risk your expensive SLR.


These days, legions of holiday makers are leaving their SLRs and "snap shot" cameras behind and going forth armed with video camcorders. The latest generation of video cameras are small enough to be taken anywhere and deliver an incredible "broadcast quality" picture with point and shoot ease. But they're equally capable of recording endless hours of meaningless, boring video. With a little planning, practice, and discipline, your vacation movies can be quite entertaining.

Here are a few basics: Hold the camera steady (use a tripod or brace yourself), set the zoom at widest angle setting and get close. Don't over do panning and zooming. Film selectively, you don't need record every activity every time it happens. When you do decide to record an activity, shoot it in a logical order-establishing or big view shots to set the scene, medium shots to show the action and close up shots to show details—you should try to tell a story. Keep it short unless something very special is happening. Limit each scene to 10 to 20 seconds of meaningful video. Try in-cam-era editing, where you shoot your scenes in the order and length that you want to view them. Don't forget live "voice over" narration to explain what and where, but don't' over do it. And while you don't want to have the date superimposed over all your video, it's not a bad idea to do it for the first shot of each day, sort of like the entry line in a diary. Remember, keep it short, interesting and steady, and think before you push the record button.

Bring plenty of batteries and tape they're not readily available on the islands. A wide angle adapter lens for use in the narrow confines on the boat helps capture all the action. Video cameras are especially sensitive to water/spray damage, including condensation formed when coming from a cold, air conditioned room to warm, humid air. A good case is essential. Charging batteries on board can be complicated so find out in advance how much 110 AC power there is. If there's only 12 volt, then invest in a 12 volt charger, but double check the polarity before plugging it it.


Bring the type of film (print or slide) you normally use. There is plenty of light in the tropics, so make sure you bring some finegrained, slower speed film (ISO 100 and lower) for crisp and clear shots. Four hundred speed film is great for sunsets .and twilight scenes. ISO 200 is great, an all around compromise. For slide film photographers, Fujichrome's new Velvia (ISO 50) is very color saturated and makes the images come alive. Kodak's new "Underwater" film has confused a few people. Basically, it's a slide film with increased sensitivity to red in order to compensate for the predominantly blue light at depths below 20 feet. We've found it to be useful for wide-

angle shots in shallow water. For bright c< 1 orful shots of divers or marine life, the best technique is to get close, use a strobe and "normal" film. Film processing (both E6 slide and print) is available on the island. As always, keep your film out of the sun and avoid having it repeatedly X-rayed at airport security stations. If you transport your film in a ziplock or mesh bag, it's easy to have it hand checked.

Protecting Your Equipment

Even though you've come all this way for the sun, sea and sand, it doesn't mean that your cameras should partake as well. Salt water and sand kills cameras! While an outright dunking in the sea is certainly catastrophic, it's the cumulative damage caused by spray and carelessness that needs to be prevented. Today's state-of-the-art electronic still and video marvels are especially sensitive to salt water damage. Special ized cameras, protective cases, and preventative measures all help, but a little bit of common sense and awareness go a long way.

Salt water is very corrosive and it does most of its damage invisibly, destroying the hidden inner-workings of your camera. Even 1 (you quickly wipe off the occasional splash, few drops of saltwater that seeped inside your camera will continue to absorb moisture out of the air, damaging your camera long after it appears to be dry..

On board the boat, keep your camera protected from waves and spray. A gallon size, heavy-duty ziplock or even a small (5 gallon) garbage bag will work wonders. Keeping your camera hidden under a lightweight waterproof j acket until you're ready to shoot also is a possibility. But if it's really blowing, simply leave your camera below decks, out of harm's way. AUV, or skylight niter, will help protect your lens from salt ¡■>ray. Don't forget that the salt water "contamination" you collect on your hands and face just from being on a yacht is passed to your camera every time you pick it up. Freshwater face washes and "camera only" towels and paper towels help to minimize this. I always have a dry, clean paper towel in my pocket. Never change film or lenses when there is any chance of spray or splashes.

Getting your camera ashore is another matter. Dinghies are a lot wetter than you think. On a professional shoot, I place my camera bag inside a heavy duty garbage bag (tied closed) and then place that in a canvas bag. Sometimes I use a waterproof, hard "pelican" case, but they're heavy and bulky and difficult to work out of. Be wary of placing an unprotected camera bag on the floor of the dinghy, there's likely to be a lot of water sloshing around. If you want to take pictures from the dinghy and keep your camera dry, slow the dinghy down (stop it if necessary) and avoid shooting while motoring into the wind. A lot of cameras get soaked climbing out of the dinghy to go ashore. Seal everything back up before you splash your way through the surf. If you're at all unsure of your balance, pass your camera bag to someone already ashore and hold it high against big waves.

Ashore, the biggest problem is sand. Even waterproof cameras are not sand-proof; sand gets into the o-ring seals and destroys them. Practice the same care on the beach as you did on you yacht and you'll do fine. A "camera only" ziplock and beach bag will prevent others from inadvertently throwing wet, sandy towels and clothes on top of your camera. After a swim, dry (and rinse) you hands, face and hair before shooting. As discussed below, disposable cameras are perfect for dinghy and beach trips.

Underwater Photography Equipment

The easiest and cheapest way to get started in underwater photography is to purchase a couple of waterproof, disposable "snorkel" cameras (i.e., the Kodak Weekender or Fuji Waterproof). Not only are they waterproof, but they're also dinghy- and beach-proof. Take one everywhere and enjoy worry-free vacation photography. While we don't sanction "one time use" cameras, in this situation it's far better to trash a $ 10 to $20 disposable camera than your $600.Nikon.

The Weekender is rated to about a dozen feet and ideal for swimming and snorkeling. But if scuba diving is in your plans, you'll need to move up a notch. Ikelite, a manufacturer of professional underwater camera housings and strobes, also makes the Aquashot housing (around $80) for use with Fuji or Kodak disposable cameras-with-flash. The advantage over the snorkeling cameras described above is twofold. First, the cameras have a built-in flash which will bring out the brilliant colors of the fish and corals. Without flash, everything deeper than 20 to 30 feet underwater is blah blue. Second, the Aquashot housing is rated to 125 feet, as deep as you are likely to go. This combination of housing and disposable camera-with-flash is a great trouble-free way to get started in underwater photography with minima] risk or investment. The pictures rival those taken by expensive underwater cameras.

An Underwater Photography Primer

Regardless of what kind of camera you use to take underwater pictures, there is one maxim that holds true—get close. The less water you shoot through, the clearer, brighter and more color-saturated your pictures will be. There are exceptions of course, but most good underwater photographs are shot within four feet of the subject, which is quite close within conversational distance. If you can reach out and touch your subject, you're too close, much further away and you're too far. The perfect distance is a handshake distance—reach out and shake hands with your buddy and fire away. If your subject (a fish, say) isn't interested in shaking hands, then just imagine a double arm length. However you measure it, it's pretty close, but that's what it takes to get good underwater photos.

With most cameras, at three to four feet from your subject the dimensions of the area photographed will be roughly two by three feet. Angelfish, parrotfish and coral and sponge formations are appropriate subjects. Tiny fish and huge vistas requires specialized lenses. Remember, that while pictures of coral and fish are fun and challenging to take, make sure that you take plenty of your companions. Try to avoid shooting down on your subject. If at all possible, aim across or even up slightly, this helps separate your subject form the background and even adds a little drama to the image.

Most published underwaterphotographs boast brilliant colors. However, due to the natural absorption of sunlight by water, your pictures will suffer form the underwater "blues," unless you use a flash to bring out the reds and yellows. Smaller cameras with built-in flashes do a fine job of balancing the flash with the available light. Even the most powerful underwater strobe won't reach past five or six feet. Try to avoid stirring up the bottom, the resultant strobe lit "back scatter" will look as if you were diving in a blizzard.

The coral reef and its inhabitants are very fragile, so please, no standing on or grabbing delicate coral structures or removing anything from the sea. Take only pictures, leave only bubbles. Jim and Odile Schemer are the owners of Rainbow Visions Photography in Tortola, specializing in underwater photography and video.

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