There are no other images that better connect land-loving humans to the underwater world than split-level photography. Being able to see what is happening both above the water level and underwater is a great way of telling the whole story. Whether you are showing a healthy shallow reef and tropical island or the mangrove forest continuing its journey underwater, it is a technique that becomes very useful once perfected.
There are some obvious requirements like a very large dome and calm sea conditions to help you get split shots. However, you shouldn't just be clicking these images at the end of a dive whilst waiting for guests to get back on the boat, these shots require as much planning, time and thought as any other shots worth taking. With some imagination and exploration you can find unique locations to test this style, maybe a garden pond or local stream that has an interesting backdrop on land. Freshwater locations can also have interesting and different creatures underwater, then there are the infamous pigs that swim in the sea that have now been featured by many underwater photographers. If you think about it and get creative, this technique can produce some very unique and interesting images.
To perfect your split-level images, here are some useful tips to follow:
- Use a fisheye lens. The best setup for this style of photography is a fisheye lens in a large glass dome port. Larger domes are better as they give you a larger window to the underwater surface. If you have ever tried to get a split shot with a mini-dome and less than perfect conditions, you will know the meaning of the word frustration, as getting the water line where you want it across the image is nearly impossible.
- Use small apertures. Small apertures are better to increase your depth of field. Your underwater subject is likely to be closer to the camera than the surface focus point, so you really need to increase your chances of having everything in focus. If you are in dark conditions like mangrove forests or streams, then push the ISO up to increase the aperture settings.
- Find the perfect time of day and water conditions. This is a tough one as the calmer conditions are usually early in the morning; however, the sun will penetrate deeper during mid-day and help light the underwater conditions. I actually like conditions when there is a small wave so that you get some curvature to the water surface. In my opinion, a curved surface gives more shape to the image.
- Stay shallow. It helps to shoot these images in the shallowest water possible — the light penetrates better and you can get closer to the shoreline if you are incorporating an island in the top half of the image. If you are shooting reef scenes, shoot at low tide so that the coral is even closer to the surface, but be careful not to damage any coral.
- Pay attention to buoyancy. If you are planning to be in the water a long time, it may help to trim the weight of your housing so that it sits nicely on the surface. Some of the current camera housings are very heavy and slightly negative when in the water. If you don't have any floatation arms, get some type of float and attach it to your housing so that you don't stress your arms too much.
- Use Photoshop or graduation filter. The top half of the image will always be brighter than the underwater section, and there are a few ways of balancing this. Back in the film days, graduating ND filters were used and can still be used — the only downside is that you are then forced to shoot portrait or landscape once the filter is installed. Strobes can also be used and are recommended if the underwater portion is much darker; however, it can be difficult to light the entire underwater section. The other option is to expose for the top part of the image and then tweak the underwater section in Photoshop.
- Keep your dome port droplet-free. Water droplets on the dome port will be one of your biggest problems, but there are a few options for reducing this. Baby shampoo can be rubbed on the dome — leave it for a while and then wash off when you start shooting. There are also certain cleaning products for car windshields that help improve the rain run-off, and these can also be used on the dome. My method is simply to use a bit of my own saliva on the dome and then dunking the dome before each shot — you'll get a good run-off before taking your shot.
- Choose your subjects. You don't always need amazing subjects underwater — sometimes, a clean sand beach and an amazing island is enough. The pattern of the sand and sun reflections through the waves give a pleasing shot. Think outside the box though — I have recently seen some very interesting freshwater split-level shots and even rock pools can be very effective.
- Find local culture or conservation images to photograph. This method is great for cultural shots, such as seaweed farming, village fishermen in shallow waters, etc., and also conservation subjects. I have shot the rescue of a whale shark with this method and the hunting of leatherback turtles, as it was important to show the action happening above and below the water.
Shooting this type of image is great fun, and when perfected, you will find it very useful when telling stories — whether it be a simple location article or conservation piece. It is the perfect style to connect nondivers with the underwater world.
This article is by Jason SIlay, the Managing Director of Scubazoo Images based in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Jason Isley has been shooting the underwater world for more than 15 years. Although he started as a videographer, he now concentrates on photography and manages the publication department of Scubazoo.