Visit us on Facebook Visit us on Instagram


Articles by Gayle Van Leer, a user of Beneath the Surface products

September 1, 2013

Natural Light

Summer with its long daylight hours means more time to dive with the sun and for us here in Southern California it also means our water warms up into to the high 60’s. Don’t laugh, that’s downright tropical to us year round regular divers! At least in the top 25 feet or so becomes a warmer zone, below that you will be thinking drysuit is a good idea. Also means blue water close to shore more often than not and some good chances for getting some great natural light photos even when the visibility is short of 20’.

I will remind you again that I am not shooting with strobes, but with “continuous” lighting via two Sola lights, a 2000 and a 1200 and I am using a Sony RX100 point and shoot camera. Large objects that are not close, I just can’t light properly so I go to natural light. I have gotten fairly good results in the “warm zone”, that upper 30’.

In the accompanying photos, the diver in the kelp was shot about a half mile off shore in 30’ or so of water on a day where the visibility was probably 25’. The other three photos were taken at a near shore location in 10-20’ of water on a 10-15’ visibility day. The shark was probably the deepest, and in kelp as well so less light was coming through, whereas the schooling fish were closer to 10’ deep. You should be aware of where the sun is in relation to you and your subject. The effect you get is entirely different so think about what you are trying to achieve as you compose your shot.

Excellent example of this are the photos of the schools of Sargo (the larger fish) and Salema . Taken probably 20’ from each other within 5 minutes of each other, the results are completely different. I was moving along slowly with the Salema who kept flowing around me as I kept shooting at different angles trying to capture the sunbeams. I was basically shooting directly into the sun. After a few minutes I paused and turned to see if my dive buddy was still behind me and instead found the Sargo not 10’ away. They seemed to be following me as I was following the Salema! Turning my camera on them (sun now at my back), they allowed me to approach quite close while swimming along with them. I was glad to have the small lightweight set up of the BTS tray and arms. Not only is it easier to push through the water one handed while following a school of fish closely, probably was less intimidating to the fish as I shoved it at them! Even though I was close enough to use my lights on the sargo in this case, I would not have been able to evenly light all the fish in this photo so for me natural light was still the best choice.

Camera settings: For these natural light only shots I set the IOS at 400. The huge sensor in my camera gives an advantage of being able to shoot at 400 with barely any noise apparent. I keep the white balance on “Auto”, set the camera on shutter priority mode and put the shutter speed at 250. To freeze sunbeams you need to have a fast shutter speed. These settings work for my particular camera and situation, you may need something different with your camera.

Happy shooting!

June 22, 2013

The Ocean is full of surprises!

San Clemente Island (SCI) is one of my favorite places to dive in all of Southern California. With its stunning kelp forests as a kelp forest should be, where a bad vis day is still 30+ feet and days with 100’ visibility are not uncommon, I jump on every chance I can to get out there.  If you saw the iMax film about kelp forests, yep most of it was shot at SCI.

SCI is the southernmost of the eight California Channel Islands. It lies 55 nautical miles (nm) south of Long Beach and 68 nm west of San Diego. The island is owned by the Navy and has been used for training for many years. Through a cooperative program with the public the waters off certain parts of the island are “open” for boating, diving and fishing when training is not taking place. (read more details here We occasionally come across long submerged small and medium sized ammo shell casings due to this Naval history.

For the last 6 years I have enjoyed Memorial Day Weekend at San Clemente Island onboard my favorite local charter boat, the Horizon. With terrain that varies from sandy bottom to rocky bottom to sheer walls, the waters are teeming with rich life from large schools of various bait fish and what tends to chase them, to macro subjects, to the rare such as the common island resident but rarely seen elsewhere, elusive rainbow scorpion fish. They are shy and tend to hide in cracks and crevasse SCI is full of. The size of the Beneath The Surface frame is perfect for stalking these beauties.

Three years ago my dive buddies and had the shark community a buzz with a documented sighting of a Sand Tiger shark. On this most recent trip, a thresher shark darted right by me so fast I was not sure what it was until the boat crew asked us upon surfacing if any of us had seen a thresher shark underwater because one leaped out of the water very near our bubbles!  Wow!

I could go on and on as to what I have seen there over time, but perhaps the most unexpected thing I have seen was what one of my dive buddies found sitting literally right under the boat this Memorial Day trip, a torpedo, no not a torpedo fish (lots of those around too), an actual torpedo! A clean shiny torpedo, not down there very long and looking so out of place in a beautiful pristine kelp forest. One of our fellow dive buddies on the trip is a very knowledgeable retired navy officer that knew it was a lost training torpedo. With the words INERT LOAD stenciled on it we were fairly certain we were not all going to blow up if someone disturbed it. Apparently they are supposed to float to the surface at the end of the exercise. Whoops, not this one.  We suspect that the other “out of place object” anchored in 80’ of water not that far away was also connected to the exercise….. but no one is disclosing the details to us anyway. The Navy apparently retrieved the torpedo the day after our dive buddy called in the coordinates to the proper party.  It made the news in San Diego.

So you never know what you might stumble across in the ocean! If you have never been to SCI, get out there although you are way more likely to find a torpedo fish than an actual torpedo!

Happy shooting!

March 6, 2013

Neutral buoyancy…for your camera  

We know as divers that our sport is equipment heavy, and not just in the actual amount of equipment diving entails, but clearly in the actual amount it weighs. Your camera equipment is no exception with even the small light weight compact cameras “gaining weight” by the time you add on a tray, the housing, lights and even leash you use to prevent losing it while using.

While our gear on land is heavy, it becomes “weightless” in water thanks to the design of our buoyancy compensator device (BCD or BC) and things like dry suits for us cold water divers. Our cameras on the other hand basically remain nearly as heavy while under water as above water and after an hour of trying to hold a heavy camera steady that is trying to tip forward or backwards or down, you are going to feel it in your hands and wrists. Good luck about shooting with one hand!  Until such time someone invents a camera BC, our choice is to use closed cell non-crushable foam available at marine supply stores. Round blocks in two sizes designed specifically for attaching on various brands of underwater camera arms also are available from underwater camera equipment suppliers.

The design of the Beneath The Surface tray and frame is ideal for placement of foam to balance the camera.  It allows you to put it right on the top where you need it. Because I had some of the round blocks that slip onto metal arms available, I slid two on the center bar, and then filled the rest of the space by cutting one of my smaller blocks in half with a hack saw and zip tying those to the bar. I finished off with one large block I zip tied onto each arm near where they connect to the frame. 

With just these 5 blocks the camera is now just slightly negative in water even with the heavy 10X converter on the housing or the super wide angle converter and I can shoot with one hand if need be to get into a tight spot, or if I need the other hand free to hold back kelp or some other object.

I plan on replacing  the smaller block halves with those of a larger block when I can obtain another one.  That should pretty much get it right where I want it. I think you want the camera to be slightly negative just to help hold it steady when working in super macro or when there is some surge.

Happy shooting!

February 3, 2013

On Being A Stalker, as in a Fish Paparazzi  

One thing I have always liked doing is getting close up fish faces and the eyes of the larger fish. You can have a lot of fun with this and if you are patient and approach the fish in a slow non-threatening way you will get good results. Clearly the fish that are camouflage wait and strike types are easier to approach. Others are just plain skittish and you will have little luck but most all can be approached to a certain degree. By learning a bit about the behavior of the local fish where you will be diving you too can get good results.

I am often asked what camera and other equipment I use when people see my photos. Although equipment is very important, one of my standard answers to that question is the best way to improve your photos is make sure your buoyancy is rock solid and you can remain nearly motionless in the water while holding your camera as well as being able to shift your position by using very small movements of your body and fins. Having a neutrally balanced camera rig will go a long way towards helping that buoyancy which is one of the reasons I am so pleased with my Beneath The Surface tray/frame set up. It was light weight from the beginning and the bar along the top allows for attaching trim foam to get it to that neutral buoyant state. I have mine now balanced to the point where I can shoot one handed underwater even with the heavy glass of either a 10X diopter or a large wide angle wet lens. Shooting one handed is a huge asset when trying to get in real close to a fish because the camera can be maneuvered without your entire body having to also be close.

Most fish I have found the best way to approach a fish is from slightly below and at an angle slightly to the right or left of the headon angle. I think the fish feel safe if they can “keep an eye” on you and that side angle allows them a quick escape vs. directly headon where they have to turn to run. This works for the smaller fish too, but many of the wall dwellers and hole dwellers like gobies and fringeheads, you basically have to just plant yourself and wait for them to come back out of the hole. Know that if you come up from behind or above they will almost always bolt.

I am shooting with continuous lighting. If you shoot video you would also be using this same approach. What I do is turn on the light before I aim the camera at the fish so that the act of turning on the light itself does not scare the fish away. I then slowly raise the camera up and aim at my subject. Next step is to start moving in very slowly with as little movement as possible and while not holding my breath, I try to exhale as few bubbles as possible until I get off a few shots. After I get my shots I then back away just as slowly trying not to disturb my subject any more than I have already by shining bright lights in its face.



Meet some of the Southern California locals, face to face, and eye to eye!

January 1, 2013

About my camera and lighting system

I had not planned on upgrading my Nikon P7000, a first generation of their flagship point and shoot camera line but when I realized that my $200 credit with Sony was going to expire at the end of the year I took a look at their product line. I had not released that they had released a new point and shoot camera, the DSC-RX100, in July that has set new standards for compact cameras so much so it even made Time Magazine’s top 20 inventions of 2012. A quick check of camera reviews on underwater photography websites and I was convinced that this little camera had also caught the attention of the underwater world by storm with three manufactures already having released housings and the reviews being glowing.

Needing no further convincing, I purchased the camera along with the Nauticam housing.  Despite adjusting and adjusting I was never able to get my P7000 with its Ultralight tray and arms neutrally buoyant underwater and wanted to try something different. Part of the out of balance issue is the weight of the wet lenses I like to use, a 5x macro diopter and a wide angle, both of which are big weighty chunks of glass. With this new housing I also got the wet lens adapter ring that allows you to swing your wet lens out of the way when not in use rather than screwing and unscrewing underwater and putting the lens in your pocket between uses. Those of you that use wet lenses will recognize the beauty of such an adaptor immediately.  

As someone that shoots with continuous lighting, and for the past year and a half those lights being one Light & Motion Sola 1200 and a Big Blue flashlight, the Ultralight arms were simply over kill for the lightweight lights I am using. My new goal was to find something lightweight that could be balanced to be neutrally buoyant underwater with wet lenses attached.

First Impressions, Beneath The Surface product

Having seen the Beneath the Surface travel trays at a trade show, I liked the lightness and the balance of how it felt in your hands and the design with the bar across the top for attaching accessories and foam seemed very logical.  Okay I also have to admit, the pink handles caught my eye too since that is my signature color and I will quickly be reminded should I stray to another color even for one item.

Shawn Gibbs the owner of the company quickly fixed me up with exactly the parts I needed after I sent pictures of my existing Nikon rig and the measurements of the Nauticam RX100 housing. The parts all fit together perfectly with the quality of the manufacturing being second to none. The quick release on the arms is simple to operate, secure and very handy. Not only is this new rig more compact than my Nikon rig, it is a pound and a half lighter. Even before getting into the water for the first time I was impressed.

Balancing and first use

Just guessing at how much foam I would need, I pulled two pieces of the larger foam off my Ultralight arms and slid them onto the top bar. I then sawed in half one piece of the smaller sized foam and zip tied those two pieces to the top bar in the remaining space thus creating a solid line of foam across the top bar.  Upon first use in the water I found it to be nearly neutrally buoyant just from this initial guess. Given how much experimenting I had to do with the Ultralight setup and the fact I never got it right, I was impressed.

Shooting with one hand!

When putting the rig together initially I put the camera in the center of the frame. I quickly found however for my small hands with 5mm gloves I could not hold the handle and reach the camera controls and putting my hand between the camera and the handle was awkward. With nothing to lose, I moved the housing all the way to the right knowing I can still get the housing open easily because of the way the latch spins. To my delight, that worked like a charm and not only can I now reach the controls while holding the handle, the rig is balanced enough from the foam I have already applied that I can shoot with one hand! I have never been able to hold my Nikon with one hand for more than a few seconds it was so front heavy.

An unexpected bonus by moving the housing to the right, when I now swing the wet lens out of the way, it neatly lays on the opposite handle’s soft rubber thus the glass is protected from scratching and  I can lightly put a finger on it to keep it steady and out of the way.  Also unexpected, the rig is still reasonably balanced despite so far only being set up with one arm. Even moving the wet lens back and forth, I am still able to easily hold the camera with one hand. With only a few dives with this new rig, I can already see the potential, both in the camera and how the balance and lightness of the tray system is going to positively affect the ease of use of this amazing little camera.

Next chapter, final balancing once 2nd arm and light added.