Chasing the Light: Chapter 2
Aaron Noah M.
Location: Al Aqah, UAE

A camera is a device that captures light.  Whether you possess the latest digital SLR, a 1966 Leica M3, a rare 18th century camera obscura, or even just a cheap disposable, the idea is still the same: you allow a portion of light to enter a mechanism and then you record an image.  A simple enough concept, but after that it gets tricky.  There is an entire lexicon of technical barriers such as “ISO”, “megapixels”, “f-stop”, “shutter speed”, “RAW format”, “flash-sync”, “meter mode”, “white balance” and “HDR” that can get in the way of you and your picture.  It’s easy to get lost in the finer aspects of photography, but when it comes down to it, it is the basic elements that require the most attention: composition and light.

But I’m still trying to sort that out.  Chasing the Light chronicles a shot-by-shot camera journey of the Gulf region landscape and my modest attempts to capture a hint of its spirit.

Perhaps I should call this chapter “Chasing the Fish” instead, as this last weekend I gave the Nikon and the desert a rest and opted for a swim in the Indian Ocean.  I brought along a Fujifilm FinePix XP10, which is not specifically designed to be an underwater camera but rather it’s an all-around sports compact than can be submerged to depths of up to three meters.

You have to get up early to get the best snorkeling out of Snoopy Island but hangovers from the previous night’s Gulf Vantage BBQ almost prevented Praveen, Phil, and I from making it to the beach on time.  Ideally you want to start around 7:00am when the tide brings a variety of animals into the area, including the occasional sea turtle or reef shark.  After that, the critter count and water clarity decreases with each passing hour, with 11:00am being the approximate end of the good viewing.  We managed to drag ourselves out there by 9:45am, which was a bit late, but early enough to at least give it a try.

This was the first time out with the Fujifilm, so I just needed to gauge the limitations of the camera…and the operator!  As with most point-and-shoot cameras, setting up was easy enough; I really only had the choice of two modes to worry about: SR (scene recognition) Auto and Underwater Mode.  No apertures or shutter speeds to fuss over, which is just fine by me when I’m trying to snorkel and operate a camera at the same time.  Click.

Al Aqah Beach

Praveen gets ready to snorkel at Al Aqah

Test shot.  Yep, the camera works.  You can see Praveen trying on his gear near the shore.  The aperture is a bit limited, so it can’t close it down past F/6.7 on wide angle (and F/8 on telephoto), so open landscape shots like this will probably not be the camera’s forte.  Even so, it did a respectable job.  That’s ok, I needed the Fujifilm for someplace I wouldn’t dare drag the Nikon SLR: the water.

This time of year the Indian Ocean is just like warm bathwater, so we dove right in and slowly kicked our way out to Snoopy Island.  I’m a lazy swimmer and opted to rent a lifejacket for the duration; this afforded me the frequent rest stops that I needed and also allowed me to float on the surface to make any adjustments to the camera.  The early morning swim out to the rock is more of an effort than it appears from the shore, with a 100 meter or so long stretch of open water (approximately four meters deep) before reaching the stony shallows of the island.  By the time we got out there both Phil and Praveen were envying my bright orange lifejacket.  Click.

Aaron with gaudy snorkel gear

Aaron with gaudy snorkel gear

Sure looks funny though.  I didn’t exactly “blend in” to the environment looking like that!  At least the camera was working just fine underwater.  It was now time to look for fish.  I’ve snorkeled Snoopy Island before and during those occasions there were fish everywhere, but this time around I think our slightly late start meant fewer numbers.  It took a bit of searching.  Click.

Here fishy fishy!

Here fishy fishy!

A few fish.  Wait a minute, what’s with the big shadow in the top left corner?  Ah, next time I should shoot with my fingers out of the way.  It was only until after I got out of the water that I could see that.  Between the mask, the ocean, and the angle of the light, it was near impossible to see anything on the LCD screen on the back of the camera.  Framing a shot was out of the question, so the best I could do was point in the right direction and hope to get good cropping results later on.  Click.

A school of fishy critters

A school of fishy critters

That’s better.  And not too bad considering the volume of water between me and my subjects.  For more color I would have needed more light.  Without a fat flash that the pros use, I’d have to find depths more shallow and I’d need to get closer to the critters.  Click.

Arabian Surgeon Fish

Arabian Surgeon Fish

I had to chase this one down, with three or four attempts before finally landing a shot.  Nice colors on the fish but the background is very blah.  Next time out I need to keep that in mind.  I also need to consider a different floatation device.  Strapped into the puffy life jacket I was constantly in motion with the waves.  It also limited my range since I was unable to dive down.  I might consider getting an inflatable raft or maybe just one of those foam “pool noodles” that allows more freedom to dive when needed.

Most of the photos I took that day were rubbish.  My favorite shot didn’t even have any fish in it.  My best attempt was the photo at the top of the article.  It’s reminiscent of some trippy album cover from the 1960s or 1970s, and somehow I managed to get a nice soft natural vignette, although the top left looks a bit darker…might have been my finger again!

Still, it was nice to be out there, floating in the sea with the Hajar Mountains in the background.  This scene beats a day at the office anytime.  Click.

Floating in the sea near Snoopy Island

Seaside paradise

Yeah, that’s it.  I even like the drop of water on the lens that causes a blur on the left side; it reminds me that I had just surfaced the turquoise waters to take a photo of this wonderful landscape.  We left the beach quite tired that day, but all three of us can’t wait to get back into the sea and start exploring again.

Summary

I’ve never had so much fun failing at photography.  In the process I learned a great deal which should help on the next snorkel trip.  There’s a part of me itching to go out and buy a professional underwater setup, but for the number of times I’ll be swimming in the sea this year, I really can’t justify the hefty wad of cash required.  The Fujifilm FinePix XP10, as the name implies, is just “fine” for my level of involvement.  In fact, despite some limitations, I’m quite happy with its performance.

It’s the operator that needs some tuning!  I will work on improving the conditions for achieving better photos, including choosing times and locations more carefully, as well as freeing myself for dives by using a new means of floatation.  I was going to include camera information on the photos, but for some reason I was getting strange readings on these files from Photoshop.  On all of the photos it was registering a focal length of 6.63mm (which I later found out is equivalent to around 36mm on a 35mm camera) and a shutter speed of 1 second.  If it really was one second, that could explain many of the blurry shots, but I have a feeling that is some kind of file info error.