“Should I bring my wide angle or macro setup for this dive?”. If you haven’t asked this question yourself, you have probably at least heard it. In Hawaii, this is your dive guides best or worst question, depending on how they can talk their way around an adequate answer. Anyone that’s worked in diving more than 2 weeks in the water will know that you never guarantee a critter. But in Hawaii, on any given dive, at any given site, our opportunities run the gamut from great wide angle to great super macro.
Certainly, we have our signature wide angle dives. The shark cages on the North Shore of Oahu or the famous Manta Ray Night Dive in Kona are classic wide angle. Grab that fisheye lens and start practicing keeping your feet and strobes behind you. The animals come so close you can easily reach out and touch them, (but don’t or I’ll slap you), so you’ll want to get as wide as you can to capture the essence of the encounter with them. And there are other classic wide angle dives like South Kona with the black coral forests or on the back side of Molokini with the reef sharks and dramatic drop offs rising up to that dramatic sun ball. But what about your average boat or shore dive? In Hawaii, there is no right answer. And if your glass is half full, there is no wrong answer and you will be able to train your eye to get good images with whatever lens you want.
Quite often, the visibility gods look kindly on Hawaii and several places have class AA water allowing some of the best visibility in the world which to you means great clear blue water images. With the hot spot geology that formed the islands, there is almost always really deep water (RDP) in the vicinity of a dive spot. Always do your flounder imitation and keep one eye down on the reef and your other eye out in the blue. At any given time, you may see some of the most sought after pelagic creatures on your dive - whales, dolphins, sharks, mantas, eagle rays. As you descend on each dive while you’re getting settled, take a reading out into the blue (mentally or actually use your camera) and know what kind of light you’ve got out there. That way, in the panic of the moment as “Mr. Big” is swimming by, you have a slight chance of being more prepared and remembering what Fstop to set your camera to ahead of time. In between dives and heading to and from the dives sites is the time to look for the other big stuff. It’s not unusual to run across pilot whales and their shark buddies, humpback whales in season, or one of several species of dolphin that are in the area year round. Take your camera out of the housing and grab your long lens to get some great dolphin spinning or whale breaching action. If your lottery ticket wins the big jackpot, whale sharks seem to be a year round visitor to the islands, you simply need to be in the right place at the right time with the right lens and the right boat and the right group of people in the right corner of the pacific ocean. Simple.
Hawaii’s best kept secret is the Hawaiian Green Sea turtle. Although they continue to be threatened by all of our modern ocean threats, plus a few more, they have made a resurgencein the Hawaiian Islands in the past 30 odd years after being placed on the endangered species list in 1973. It is quite common to see these curious ancients on your Hawaii scuba dive and in fact some would say you could “walk to shore on the backs of the turtles” at some of the local dive sites. They come in all sizes in the islands, from the “Volkswagen beetle” look-a-likes to the small swift and sure teenagers to the startled little “hubcaps” that seem to have just arrived back at the party. These are an amazing photographic opportunity for the underwater photographer, wide angle or macro. If you sit still and don’t flail in the water, they can be curious and swim up to you and your camera to see what it is you’re doing. The larger ones will rest on the bottom at Maui’s Turtle Reef and allow divers to watch them sleep. Better yet, if you come across a cleaning station like Kona’s famous Turtle Pinnacle, they will sit still on the rocks or coral while their shells are cleaned by the local reef fish - we call that a turtle flower pot. What more could you ask for than an underwater photographic subject that doesn’t move and sits for portraits with their friends?
When I first started taking underwater photos, I didn’t care about anything but macro. It wasn’t just because it was easier, (really), but because the little guys in the ocean are much more colorful and gave such vibrant, saturated results that people rarely saw with the naked eye. Macro is always a surprise. With subjects that don’t move or don’t move as much, it’s easier to concentrate on composition and a good shot. If you love a treasure hunt looking for “Ms. Little” and like to keep yourself buried in a coral head, take your macro lens to Hawaii. Those of you who are nudibranch hunters will not be disappointed - we have the easy ones to spot that are out in the open, as well as the less than easy to find ones that are tucked away under the ledge so that you have to play twister to get your camera and spotting light anywhere near it. Our nudibranchs range in size from 1 cm to the beautiful spanish dancer which can reach over 1 foot in length. They move so slowly that your camera’s auto focus will have no trouble with them.
But don’t limit yourself to nudibranchs. There are a large number of colourful rustaceans that would like to pose for you - banded coral shrimp, defender crabs who would like to pinch your nose off, and cleaner shrimp who will jump in your mouth and clean your teeth or your finger nails if you ask nicely. If you’re feeling like you need a challenge, try your hand at capturing the tiny whip coral shrimp. It generally doesn’t move but the whip coral does and you can send your cameras’ auto focus motor into a tizzy. Which brings up the best macro subjects - moray eels. Generally, they’re all talk and no action so get nice and close. The majority of them won’t move out of their hole and will just nod their heads back and forth, opening and closing their mouths showing their pearly whites. Generally the rarer the eel, the more shy it is so you must move slowly and patiently and look like you are just out for a Sunday stroll before they’ll let you get close. But our favorite friends, the white mouth moray and the yellow margin moray are happy to hang around and watch you try to get your auto focus to target their head as it moves back and forth - certainly reminiscent of an old game involving ducks moving back and forth in front of you. They make great practice for your future of following fish around, and that’s “a whole ‘nother” article.
When you’re in Hawaii, remember that our coral reefs are geologically young reefs and geographically isolated reefs which has several consequences for an underwater photographer. The first is that they are unique in all the world! Being young means that they are generally less productive and more susceptible to damage. Photographers have the worst reputation for being reef damagers - don’t contribute to it. As photographers, we are usually ambassadors for the ocean, showing our work to people who wouldn’t otherwise experience it. In Hawaii, it’s critical to practice good reef etiquette. Being geographically isolated means that the reefs are less diverse than other areas of the world and less abundant in coral species. As photographers, this means that there is probably a nearby rock or other substrate available to you to rest your hand or camera on making the process of taking your photo much easier. Make sure you know what your body is doing at all times and you’ll have an easy time taking magical photos of “Mr. Big and Ms. Little” to impress your friends back home with. So in Hawaii, when you hear the question “Macro or Wide Angle?”, the answer is “Yes”.