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By Jenn Gidman
Images by Erik Valind
When Erik Valind confirmed he was heading to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas to conduct a photo workshop with Fstoppers, he built in a couple of extra days to go back to his Florida roots: shooting underwater photography. "I'm from Florida originally, so I grew up doing all the surfing and wakeboarding competitions," he says. "And if I wasn't the one riding, I always had my camera to take pictures of the action."
To add more underwater photography to his portfolio, Erik arranged meeting up with the trainers of the Atlantis' dolphin experience for a photo shoot before his scheduled workshop. "I approached it like a mock campaign for Atlantis," he says. "I brought two models down to re-create photos of people interacting with the dolphins."
Along with Erik on his underwater adventure was the Tamron SP 15-30mm VC wide-angle lens, which allowed him to capture the entire dolphin in each frame. "If I had had a fixed-focal-length prime lens, I wouldn't have been able to get wide enough to capture these massive dolphins in the photo, so the 15-30 was huge for that," he explains.
Erik took all of the images shown here at 19mm. "Normally I'd be able to put a gear inside the extension tube so I could zoom in and zoom out, but because it's a brand-new lens, there aren't custom gears for it yet," he says. "Every time I wanted to change the focal length, I would've had to have taken the camera out of its housing, zoomed it in or out, then put everything back together again."
The super-wide-angle capabilities of the 15-30 were critical in helping Erik pull off the dolphin session. "Subjects below the water are magnified about 25 percent," he explains. "If you take a more zoomed-in picture with a telephoto lens, the difference in size between the model's body above the water and underwater would be more apparent. When you have a wider-angle lens like the 15-30, however, that wide angle expands your whole image: It pushes away your background and pulls in your foreground, which makes the magnification in the lower half of your frame less apparent."
Erik needed to specially house his 15-30 lens to make it work under the surface. "Lenses all have a specific extension tube, as well as a unique dome, to put on the front if you're shooting split-level underwater," he says. "I was limited to one lens using this special housing, because my other lenses wouldn't fit into this specific housing configuration."
Erik and his crew worked with a mother dolphin and her baby, who was a little more shy when the session started. "The mother was definitely a little more comfortable," he says. "The baby was super-curious and zipping around, but it wasn't as photogenic because it was easily spooked. We even had to make sure what we were wearing was appropriate: no bathing suits with shiny accessories or reflective material that would scare it."
Erik and the trainers eased into the session to make sure the dolphins felt relaxed. "It was just like you'd do a portrait session with a person," he explains. "I was working with two handlers in the water who would give the dolphins direction on doing all their different tricks, such as kisses and belly rubs. We had a verbal shot list with all the things they were capable of doing: I'd position the models, make sure the sun was coming in from the right direction, and then the handlers would bring the dolphins in. We'd start with the easiest poses, then move on to the more difficult ones as they got more comfortable. For instance, the brunette model clapping with the dolphin was one of the early photos, followed by the blond model holding one, then the two models doing a belly rub with the mother dolphin."
Focus was another challenge Erik had to confront during his session with the dolphins. "It's very difficult to focus underwater because your camera's not actually focusing on the people or subjects who are 5 or 10 feet away from you—it's focusing on the reflection of the people in the dome that you have on the front of the camera," he explains. "So focusing takes a bit longer."
On a telephoto lens, he explains, you can shoot at F/2.8 or F/5.6 and will only get a couple of inches in focus. "Using the 15-30 allowed me to shoot at F/22, ISO 500, for all my images and attain a greater depth-of-field in which both the dolphin and the model were in focus," he says. "I wanted to have as few variables as possible because I was trying to concentrate on the more difficult aspects of capturing the dolphins in action and also trying to take the split-level images I'll talk about in a bit."
Erik was sensitive to how the dolphins would react to the equipment and setup, so he opted for all-natural lighting. "A lot of times if I'm shooting above the water, I'll try to get the light coming in from the side or backlight the subjects and augment that with strobe," he says. "I didn't want to scare the dolphins with strobes, though, so we waited till it was closer to high noon so I could keep the sun at my back and so the light would aim directly down in the water and penetrate it better. We did bring out 4x6 silver reflectors at one point, but they scared the baby dolphin—it wasn't something he was used to, so we put them away."
Using the histogram on the back of his camera allowed Erik to maintain control over his exposures. "It's really hard with a digital file to recover overexposed files, so I took some shots before the dolphins were brought in," he says. "I had the models come in the water first. It's going to be darker underwater because the light is filtered through the water, which lowers its intensity. I knew it was going to be a little underexposed underneath the water line, but the important thing to me was not clipping the skin tones on the models above the water."
All of the images shown were taken at 1/200th of a second. "There wasn't a lot of cloud coverage, so my exposures were pretty consistent," he says. "When the dolphins were really moving, they were booking, and my shots would have been blurred at that shutter speed. But since most of the images we wanted were more posed shots, that 1/200th of a second was perfect to freeze any moderate motion."
One of Erik's goals for the session was to capture a series of split-level images that showed half the subjects over the surface, half under the water. "These are very precise types of images with a lot of trial and error involved," he says. "I had a mask and snorkel on and had to hold my breath as I tried to get the photo. At first when I was submerging my camera, none of the photos were coming out. Trying to get that line in the perfect spot is really difficult—it was either covering the dolphin's eye or a part of the model in some of my earlier tries."
After a few tries, Erik started finding the sweet spot. "It helped when the water was really calm," he says. "That's when I was able to get some of the more-contained, flatter lines that divided what's above the water from what's below it. Later on, as the dolphins got more excited and the water got more choppy, it got harder to get that nice, even split."
In one of Erik's final images, he was able to capture the mother and baby dolphin in what he calls a "photographer's shot." The models had left, and it was just Erik and one of the trainers in the water with the dolphins. "It was neat because the mom and baby came over and were just hanging out; the baby finally let me get a photograph of them together," he says. "I usually don't want water droplets on the underwater housing because they refract and reflect light and draw attention to themselves. But I kept them in this one—because I'm tech-oriented, I thought it would be cool to actually take the viewer out of the picture a little bit by reminding them of the photographic process through the droplets."
His venture back into underwater photography was, as Erik puts it, a "refreshing reminder" of how tough it can be. "I forgot how it's not at all like photographing above the surface," he says. "I ended up getting too comfortable after a while: I shot all morning with the underwater housing, then took the housing off to photograph the models in waist-deep water on the paddleboards. I momentarily forgot I was back in above water mode and accidentally let my camera dip into the water for a second. Thankfully, the camera survived after a quick cleaning back at the hotel"
Still, for his first time photographing dolphins, it ultimately proved a rewarding experience. "It was humbling to work with them," he says. "They were so intelligent and curious. It was my first full day of shooting while I was down in the Bahamas, so it set the tone for an awesome week."
To see more work by Erik Valind, go to www.erikvalind.com.