Underwater tests

Underwater photography test - North Fork Skykomish River, Index, Washington
This past weekend I set out to test a few photographic ideas. One such idea I’ve been thinking about is photographing spawning salmon. I think I was partly inspired by some of the work that Seattle photographer Jon Cornforth has done in the past along these lines (link here and here). Now, I’m primarily a landscape photographer so when my thoughts stray into “specialty” areas of photography, I tend to think about how I can accomplish the same goal in a low frills manner. In the example photos taken by Jon, he’s using a $2,000 protective housing and placing his camera down in the water. I can’t possibly justify spending that much on a housing for something I’m going to do rarely.

So how else am I supposed to get these kind of pictures? Would you believe a $15 aquarium?

Well….that’s my bright idea, and that’s what I was trying out this past weekend. I started with a 10 gallon glass aquarium that I picked up at a local pet store for $15. The next thing I picked up was a photo bean bag like this one sold on Amazon for $28. A little steep price wise but I’ll probably be able to utilize this for other things in the future. Another piece to the puzzle is something I already had- a wireless remote for my shutter. The one I’m using is one of those Chinese specials you find on eBay (just search for “wireless remote”). Mine was $15 and it’s supposed to have an effective range of 100 feet which is PLENTY of distance for this endeavor.

A closer view of my set up
A closer view of my set upSo that’s the basic list of items I purchased for this. In terms of my camera, I used my 12-24mm wide angle at 12mm with a circular polarizer to help eliminate any reflections off of the aquarium’s glass. As for a location, I chose a side channel of the North Fork Skykomish River, up valley from the town of Index. The lack of any rain over the last 2 months has dropped the water levels quite a bit. This fact meant that there weren’t any spawning salmon to photograph right now. It did, however, provide some stable conditions for my experimentation.

The first thing I learned was that an aquarium without any weight in it will float. I grabbed a couple pieces of river rock which helped add some weight and finally allowed the aquarium to sink down into the water. It wasn’t too difficult to level the camera thanks to the bean bag and my flash hot shoe bubble level. Setting a focus is a different matter. Attempting to select a focus point & then autofocusing just doesn’t work. Before I head out to attempt this again, I’m going to experiment with close range focusing to give me a better idea of where focus should line up on my lenses indicators.

I fumbled around in the main part of the side channel, trying to compose a shot which was roughly 60% underwater / 40% above water. The scene underwater is naturally darker and sunlight reflecting off the forest’s canopy made for an extreme contrast. The best way to combat this would be to use a graduated ND filter. Unfortunately, space inside the aquarium was limited so fitting a filter holder for my 4×6 ND filters would have been tough (assuming I had one of the Z Pro sized filter holders which I don’t). Eventually I settled in to a backwater side channel to the side channel which I believe will have spawning fish when the river levels rise.

Salmon fry in a side channel along the North Fork Skykomish River near Index, Washington
Salmon fry in a side channel along the North Fork Skykomish River near Index, Washington
I was taking test shots and finally getting a handle on things when I realized that there were small salmon fry swimming around in front of me. For a while, I stood back and stared intently at the frys as they swam around. Every time one would happen to cross through my framed area, I would click my remote to take a picture. I knew I would have to freeze the motion of the frys so finding the right settings were a bit of a chore. I bumped my ISO up to 1600, my aperature to F7.1, and my shutter speed to about 1/20th of a second. My RAW files were a bit on the dark side but the huge dynamic range of my Pentax K-5 allowed me to brighten up my photos back home in Photoshop. I felt pretty good and finally packed it in after about a half hour of test shots.

Once I got home, I noticed some additional things I need to correct before I try this again. First, a thin layer of foam would be a good thing to have to protect the glass bottom from any weight you put into the aquarium (in my case, river rock). Second, I also need to pick up some black fabric to drape over my weighted bottom and the glass side of the aquarium behind the camera. In my shots with the small frys, you can just make out the reflection of my wireless remove in the upper right corner. In the above/below water shot, you can also see the reflection of a white-ish river rock. Whoops! Finally, I need to be a little more conscious about water drops on the outside of the aquarium glass. I didn’t pay attention to that and the end result looks like water drops on the lens. I’m encouraged by my initial tests and will hopefully have some more to share in the coming weeks when the salmon start returning!

To close off this post, I want to include a couple photos I was fortunate enough to take of a bobcat (Lynx rufus) I happened to stumble upon while hiking in the hills above Sultan earlier that same day. I turned the corner of this logging road and the bobcat was loping up the road 20 yards in front of me. I instantly froze but the cat sensed my presence fairly quickly. Instead of running off, it decided to sit down in the middle of the road and watch me. I quickly took an iPhone photo. It still sat there. While talking out loud to the bobcat, I slowly put down my backpack and fished out my camera and zoom lens (it never fails that you will ALWAYS have a wide angle mounted when you need a zoom and vice versa).

Chance encounter with a bobcat (Lynx rufus) on a logging road above the town of Sultan, Washington
Chance encounter with a bobcat (Lynx rufus) on a logging road above the town of Sultan, Washington
Chance encounter with a bobcat (Lynx rufus) on a logging road above the town of Sultan, WashingtonThe bobcat laid down and seemed to take a quick cat nap (pun intended). I took more photos, trying to use my treking poles as a crude monopod. I moved up slowly a couple yards. The bobcat moved back a couple yards and sat down again. This time I extracted my tripod and set it up. By now the bobcat was losing interest in me and turned and continued to walk slowly up the road. I snapped a few more shots while it eventually stopped and sat down at a bend in the road. I tried to slowly get closer but the bobcat finally turned the corner and disappeared. A cool experience and a complete accident! This PDF will give you a nice primer about bobcats.

3 Responses to Underwater tests
  1. Michael Russell

    Funny, that first underwater Sockeye photo you included was the first one I thought of too. I’d not considered using an aquarium like this though. Curious to see what you come up with once the salmon start running!

    Very cool to see a bobcat! I’ve seen one once, as it ran across the road but I was working and didn’t have a camera with me at all. Cool to see it though.

  2. Steve Cole

    Thanks, Michael! I’d love to go right back out and experiment some more but those water levels need to rise.

  3. Senior Pictures

    Hey Steve those photos are awesome. I would like you thank you for posting this types of things they are really looking beautiful.