Nothing To See Here / by Michael Zeigler

Armored sea star. Nikon D850 and Nikon 105mm ƒ/2.8, Ikelite DS160 strobes. 1/200, ƒ/16, ISO 200.

The Destination

I recently joined a local dive club (CIDA) for a trip to, what was supposed to be, Gull Island, off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, California. Well, Mother Nature had other plans for us. A large swell and blustery winds forced the fearless crew of the Conception to the other side of the island, far from the coveted purple hydrocoral and dense kelp forests that we were eager to see.

We ended up hugging the coastline and anchoring in a sheltered cove under cloudy skies. Not knowing what to expect, I jumped in the water with my trusty macro set-up to explore the site. Now, it is no secret that I am a huge fan of pre-planning and pre-visualizing my subject(s) and composition(s) hours, if not days, before I jump in the water. All of my pre-everything went out the window with the change in scenery. No worries … I’ll just wing it.

I’ll just wing it.
— Me, like two seconds ago

The Dive

As I descended the anchor line I was greeted by what could only be described as a desolate reef. At first glance the surroundings seemed to be completely devoid of life with the exception of a few fish. As I typically do when I encounter these types of conditions, I headed out toward the sand. Not only is the sand a great place to find subjects and cool critter behaviors, it is also typically deeper and therefore less prone to surge.

The cloudy skies and dreary surroundings put me in a black-and-white kinda mood, so I switched the Picture Control setting on my Nikon to Monochrome. I have found that by being able to see the results immediately in monochrome helps immensely when composing and lighting the frame. I first encountered the armored star (pictured above), and I watched it for a few minutes as it slowly but methodically made its way across the sandy sea floor. I typically do not shoot straight down on my subjects, but this opportunity seemed to demand that I break that “rule.” I positioned the strobes a few inches on either side of the port in order to create a relatively flat composition with a hint of contrast.

Try This: When post-processing your image in Lightroom, be sure to choose the appropriate color profile in the Development module. By default, Lightroom populates the “Adobe Color” profile. You can choose your camera-specific profile (eg Camera Neutral, Camera Monochrome, etc) by following these steps: Development Module > Basic Panel > Profile > choose your camera specific profile. I find this helps immensely and you will probably find that the resulting image looks very close to the image you saw on the LCD immediately after making the image underwater.

Swell shark. Nikon D850 and Nikon 105mm ƒ/2.8, Ikelite DS160 strobes. 1/200, ƒ/16, ISO 200.

Just a few moments later as I approached the reef where it meets the sand, I noticed something along the bottom that I had only seen once before. I have seen their unmistakable egg cases (aka mermaid’s purses) countless times, but this was just the second time in ten years that I’ve seen a swell shark. Their skin is looks rough, and it’s covered in a gorgeous array of dots and blotches. Its eyes are mysterious and cold, and I thought a B&W image would best suit this subject. A single (stage left) strobe positioned slightly behind the shark cast nice, contrasty shadows across its head, while keeping the reef under its chin in the dark.

Simply by remaining still along the bottom, orangethroat pikeblennies slowly started to emerge. Nikon D850 and Nikon 105mm ƒ/2.8, Ikelite DS160 strobes. 1/200, ƒ/16, ISO 320.

I spent a majority of the second and third dives watching the sea floor come alive with movement from orangethroat pikeblennies. It was just a matter of being still and patient before they started to emerge from their homes and hideouts in the sand. They tend to occupy abandoned worm holes, so at least you know that to look for the next time you try to find some. The image above best showcased their behavior that particular day, not terribly shy but not overly flamboyant either. I tried this image in monochrome but it was too flat and lacked personality, so I captured it in my usual “neutral” picture control setting, which I find portrays the most accurate and natural colors when I open the file in Adobe Lightroom.

Even when trips don’t go as planned, it’s fun and challenging to change course and shift focus to a new plan. Still, take the time to pre-visualize at least what you think you may see, and also assess how you’re feeling. Your mood can have a great impact on the way you see your subjects and scenes.