Besides being one of Southern California’s best dive sites for creating stunning underwater macro images, diving oil platforms are also an underwater photographer’s paradise for capturing equally incredible wide-angle photographs. Unlike macro photography, where great visibility is not always necessary and, therefore, can be shot all year-round, I have found greater success shooting wide angle at oil platforms in the fall and winter months when visibility is best. After the thick plankton layer thins and the sun peeks out through the “June gloom,” it is time to blow the dust off your wide-angle lens, replace and grease your camera system’s O-rings, and brace yourself for one of the most incredible wide-angle dives in Southern California.
With visibility commonly reaching in excess of 120 feet, the colorful marine-life-encrusted paralleling and intersecting substructure of an oil platform makes a great setting against a beautiful blue-water backdrop for a cast of unique and interesting marine creatures competing for your photographic pleasures.
Some of the more obvious wide-angle photographic opportunities while diving oil platforms include curious and playful sea lions that have taken up residence on many platforms; the large purple jellyfish that ride the current through the platforms; the common sight of long salp chains dancing with the current; the large schools of bait fish circling the outer perimeter of the substructure; the unique-looking mola; and, of course, the oil platform’s substructure.
Aside from all of the obvious wide-angle photo opportunities one might encounter while oil platform diving, my favorite photographs often utilize a diver as a model. A diver in a photograph achieves two very important goals. First, it gives the viewer a sense of scale. As an oil platform diver, I understand the immense size of the substructure, but to the unfamiliar eye, a diver figure accentuates the colossal size of this underwater substructure that supports the oil platform.
Secondly, a diver figure in the photo creates a sense of human interest, often drawing the observer into the image and capturing the viewer’s interest.
Unlike macro photography, where success may come early simply by pre-setting a few photographic variables, i.e., shutter speed, aperture, focus, and TTL (through-the-lens) lighting, the successful wide-angle photographer needs to learn and understand how to use these variables to their advantage.
The first thing to consider is how much ambient light is available and what exposure combination will best suit the photograph. For example, one might consider a faster shutter speed when photographing sea lions as they gracefully dance around the oil platform substructure, hence allowing for larger apertures, or possibly using a smaller aperture to create greater depth of field for substructure shots, but with the resultant trade off of being forced to use slower shutter speeds.
Secondly, when adding strobe lighting to wide-angle photographs, the successful underwater photographer needs to understand how to operate his or her strobe(s) manually. Refer to your strobe owner’s manual for strobe power; i.e., guide number, to help determine proper strobe-to-subject distances. Also, be aware of the angle of light your strobe(s) projects, for this is key when determining strobe placement.
TTL lighting is not very effective when shooting wide angle. Generally, when shooting wide angle, TTL lighting practices tend to cause overexposure of the foreground while the system is unsuccessfully trying to illuminate the background, leaving the photographer frustrated and confused about disappointing results.
A couple of last things to consider. Different animals may be found at different depths. For example, colonies of metridiums may be found at a depth of 100 feet or deeper. These animals require colder water for their survival, and that is why they can only be found at these depths on the oil platforms. Please realize when diving at that depth that the amount of ambient light is quite limited. Select a slower shutter speed or faster film to compensate for the amount of ambient light necessary to adequately light the background as you fill the foreground with strobe lighting.
Also, as is typical when diving the Channel Islands, Mother Nature is usually better behaved in the morning, with visibility usually diminishing by late afternoon when strong winds and currents prevail.
Lastly, and most importantly, oil platform diving is an advanced dive even under optimal conditions. Please know your limitations and dive accordingly.