Caught by the River

The Making of a Photograph

Mat Bingham | 27th May 2018

Mat Bingham attempts to improve on the dipper photos he took back in 2014, and explains the technical difficulties with shooting underwater.

Some readers of Caught by the River may recall the above shot of a dipper which I took in 2014.

I was never really happy with it. I don’t like the lens flare created by the water droplets and I find the v-shape formed by the two branches in the background really distracting. The original intent of the photograph was to show the rock above and below the water with the dipper perched on top. On the day I took this photo, the water level was a bit too high and so I feel it doesn’t really work.

This was my first foray into underwater photography, using a homemade waterproof camera housing I cobbled together for a few quid. It was made from a plastic box, acrylic sheet and lots of silica sealant. For some reason I decided to spray the housing in a camouflage pattern and name it Davy Jones Locker 2 (Davy Jones Locker 1 leaked so badly I couldn’t put a camera in it).

Davy Jones Locker 2 had several flaws – for one, it floated, which meant I had to weigh it down with a rock. Also, I used a cable release to trigger the camera, which required fifteen metres of cable. Once in the river the cable created so much drag it kept moving the camera housing out of position.

The problem with taking this type of split above and below the water photograph is that even though the river is crystal clear, the amount of light below the water is approximately three times less than the amount of light above the water. This exposure range is too much for the camera to handle, and the resulting photograph will either be a very dark image below the water or an over-exposed image above the water.

There are two options for dealing with this: the first is High Dynamic Range (HDR).  This is a setting on most modern digital Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras which enables the camera to take three different exposures, which are then merged into one image. This works well for landscape photographs where there is very little movement in the scene, but it doesn’t work for moving subjects, as it produces ghosting on the photograph. Also, HDR photos have a slightly ethereal quality about them – google HDR photograph and you will see what I mean!

So that left me with the second option, which is to use a graduated filter on the front of the camera to darken the scene above the water and balance the light levels. This required a longer exposure than I would have liked and limited me to taking the photo on a bright sunny day, when the light can be a bit harsh.

The dippers that nest at the location I chose like to use a particular rock in the river to launch themselves up to the nest when feeding the chicks. The rest of the year the dippers are much more widespread along the river, making it too difficult to predict which rock they will land on. I therefore had a narrow window of opportunity to take the photograph, when the adult birds were feeding their young at the nest.

To take the photograph there were a number of things that were outside of my control which needed to happen. The dippers needed to use the same nest site and successfully raise a brood of chicks and the river had to be at the correct water level, such that the rock was half in and half out of the water. The dippers also needed to use the rock regularly to perch on. Finally, due to the balancing of the light levels, I could only take the photograph on a sunny day.

To reshoot the image I decided to build a new camera housing and contacted a plastics company who agreed to make an acrylic dome that I could bolt onto a plastic waterproof case. The benefit of a dome over a flat piece of acrylic is that it corrects for the refraction of light caused by water – the effect where objects appear bigger underwater than they really are. I also purchased a radio trigger system that enabled me to fire the camera remotely, avoiding the need for a long cable. Wet testing the new housing took seven hours in the bath before I dared put a camera inside. By March the system was ready, and it all came down to one day when everything I needed occurred. The resulting photograph can be seen below.

It’s a photographer’s lot to never be happy with his images, but at least this is a slight improvement on my first attempt. Maybe next year I will try it again.