5 Iconic Red Sea subjects
Updated: Dec 28, 2022
My quick and simple guide to photographing five Red Sea subjects
The Red Sea holds one of the greatest collections of shipwrecks in the world. From the open, coral-rich splendour of the Ulysses, to the deep and atmospheric Rosalie Moller, wreck fans will not be disappointed! Great light and visibility, a wealth of marine life, and easy exploration all combine to make diving on Egypt's wrecks a stunning experience.
Whether you’re departing from Sharm-el-Sheikh or Hurghada for the northern liveaboard circuit, or just planning a few day-dives from your hotel, wrecks will be on your radar. But how to get that perfect Red Sea wreck shot?
It's all about wide-angle
The scale of a wreck calls for wide-angle photography and using the lens or setting that will give you the widest possible coverage of your subject.
dSLR and compact system users will choose their widest lens, or widest zoom setting. On a dSLR a fisheye lens in the 10-12mm range is ideal. Make sure you match your lens to your camera though, some lenses for cropped-sensor cameras will not work well with full-frame bodies. I had to ditch my old Nikkor 10.5mm when I upgraded to the full-frame Nikon D800. I chose the Sigma 15mm which is quick to focus and ultra-sharp, even at the edges of the image.
Compact camera users may want to add a wet lens to achieve greater coverage. These are interchangeable lenses that are fitted onto the housing and can be mounted or removed underwater, hence the name 'wet'. Some compacts will have a wide-angle setting built-in, so make sure you 'zoom out'.
You might read about the differences between rectilinear and fisheye lenses. Rectilinear lenses such as the NIkkor 16-35mm, capture less distorted images, for when you wish to retain the straight lines of a wreck's structure, and want to avoid the ‘fisheye effect’. Rectilinear lenses do best when coupled with a very high quality dome port. Some smaller domes can cause blurring on the periphery of the image.
The Giannis D
The Giannis D is a great subject! Typically, well-lit and in clear water, the wreck from the 1980s offers the chance to get an entire boat in the frame. As the bow is now part of the reef, you will easily locate the stern, for this classic shot. Make sure you’re one of the first in the water if you want to avoid other divers.
You’re going to want to select a fairly high ISO level (560-800 is ideal) to give you plenty of scope to use a narrow aperture to give as much depth of field as possible (scenic mode on a compact will achieve the same result). As for flash, even the strongest strobes on the widest arms aren’t going to illuminate all of the boat, so use natural lighting.If you’re using a compact, it might be best to make sure your flash is turned 'off' to avoid any backscatter (if left on ‘auto’ it’s likely to fire).
If you can, shoot in RAW and correct the white balance later in Photoshop, to give a more natural-looking effect. You could try a colour-correcting filter to counteract the blue cast to the light, but remember to take it off when you turn your flash back on.
Keep a look out for dolphins as well, they often turn up later in the day and can make a safety stop an unforgettable experience.
No visit to the Red Sea will be complete without diving the SS Thistlegorm. Perhaps no single wreck has been photographed as often, nor provided more pages for print and website alike. Its cargo and long-term care have caused more professional squabbles than any other pile of iron. People get passionate about this boat, and for good reason.
It’s an attractive wreck on the outside, but it’s inside that the Thistlegorm contains its real treasures: trucks, motorbikes, aircraft parts, rifles and more war-time materiel.
If you’re on a guided dive you might not have a great deal of time in the holds to capture a photo you’re proud of, so the key is careful use of flash and careful finning to avoid kicking up silt. If you can get in first, do so, and get your shot. You can tour the exterior later.
Select a strong subject and frame your shot carefully for maximum drama. If you’re using twin strobes vary their power output to provide more even lighting, but don’t let the subject look over-lit, you want to retain a sense of atmosphere.
Call them 'Anemone Fish', call them 'Clowns', call them 'Nemo' if you must… everyone will try to photograph a clownfish. Their ebullient nature and refusal to leave their anemone home means you have a subject that is not going anywhere, rare behaviour in a fish!
The key with shooting any fish is to get the eye in focus. In this shot the edge of the fish’s eyes are crisp and bring the portrait to life, leading your eye into the picture. Many pros rely on manual focussing to guarantee they get the perfect focus point. I use a dedicated macro lens (a Nikkor 105), though many compacts have superb macro functions, The Olympus TG series for example.
Another technique that can capture clowns and their anemone home in context is close focus wide-angle. As the name implies, the technique relies on the close focussing ability of wide-angle lenses (sometimes less than ten inches) and allows the subject and surroundings to appear in the frame in full focus.
Many photographers using this technique opt for mini-domes in the four to six-inch diameter range. They can work really well with fisheye lenses and allow you to get much closer to the subject. In this shot I was shooting the clowns in this rose anemone and managed to capture a buddy pair, giving an extra element to what would otherwise have been an acceptable, but relatively dull picture.
Photographing nudibranchs can become an obsession and deserves more than I can provide here, but if you’re a newbie to nudis, then the pajama slug might be the first of its kind you see, and the first you photograph.
Pajama slugs are the most frequently seen nudibranch on a Red Sea reef. They are often seen on night dives as their vivid colouration makes them easy to spot in a torch beam.
Again the key is focus, and you’re going to want to ensure the animal’s rhinophores (twin structures at the head end) are in the sharpest focus possible. Even though they are not eyes, they appeal to that part of our brain that wishes to make an emotional connection with an animal.
Select a high aperture value (your camera’s macro mode should have done that for you if you’re using a compact) and use a focus light or torch to help ensure you’re focusing on the rhinophores. luckily nudis aren’t fast moving, but as you’ll be close to the subject even small movements can cause blurring!
Taking an image that captures the reef as you remembered it, in all its colourful majesty, can be challenging. Pictures seen on a screen at home may look drab and lack colour. Our mind’s eye has a different recollection from the camera’s true rendition.
Shooting reefs means you’ll be ‘going wide-angle’ and this is where a rectilinear zoom might be handy as you can get a wide reef shot, but if the need arises (perhaps a turtle passes by), you have the reach for a portrait shot. Compacts with zooms built-in might have the advantage here! You can also try close focus wide-angle by selecting a single dramatic coral formation (or even a fish) as your main subject and using ‘the blue’ as a frame and as contrast to the subject’s colour.
Needless to say, strobes are important in bringing out colours, but one trick that many divers should try is shooting upwards. Shots of reef life taken from above tend to look very flat. Shooting upwards with a strobe gives you the chance to capture the sun in the blue, and adds contrasting colour to the image.
For compact camera users this is where you can really improve your images by adding a strobe to your set-up. Of all the pieces of kit available, the addition of a strobe to a compact camera is the single best buy you can make to dramatically improve your photos! As the strobe is physically further away from the lens, you’ll get less backscatter bouncing back at you and you'll get more colour in the finished picture compared to the camera's built in flash. You can also begin to invest in professional components (strobe arms and the like) that will give you years of service as you upgrade to more professional equipment.