Underwater Cathedrals: Shooting Magnificent Kelp Forests
By Douglas Klug
All images © Douglas Klug
When underwater photographers want to show off the beauty of the underwater world in a way that appeals to both viewers who have been there and those who haven’t, nothing pleases the crowds more than a stunning seascape. In Southern California, this type of shot will almost always include the region’s signature beauty: an underwater show of light and motion created by the combination of sunlight, motion, and a healthy kelp forest. Often referred to as an “underwater cathedral,” being inside the kelp forest might evoke thoughts of being inside some ancient European chapel built with stained glass windows, while sunlight shines through the colored panes of glass. Shifting light, sunbeams, and constantly changing colors make the kelp forests of Southern California some of the most beautiful images for an underwater photographer to produce. Done right, these images have the potential for that magic combination of light, color, motion, and life.
Shots like this aren’t just crowd pleasers though. They capture the essence of what its like to dive through the three-dimensional world of the kelp forest. For underwater photographers from around the world, visiting Southern California to shoot these images is often a bucket-list experience. Shooting in the kelp forest for stunning wall-worthy images can be a fun challenge to any underwater photographer’s skills. It takes a little understanding of the ocean conditions, your camera’s functions and lighting, and finally a bit of patience waiting for the right moment to unfold. Read on for some tips and tricks on different types of shots you might want to capture if you’re hoping to dive and photograph Southern California’s iconic underwater cathedrals.
Southern California Ocean Conditions
Though there are several places to dive the SoCal mainland from beach or boat, the healthiest kelp forests and cleanest waters are always going to be at either the northern or southern groups of the California Channel Islands. The islands can offer days with exceptionally clear water in the 100’ (30M) range, but the average visibility over the year is probably closer to 20’-30’ (6M to 10M). Unfortunately for many divers wanting to explore the Channel Islands, these diving locations are not “warm water” destinations and will require a 7mm wetsuit and hood or even a dry suit all year round. The summer months, though warmer and more comfortable to divers not used to cold-water diving, are often associated with thick fog known as “June gloom” among locals. There are no sunbeams in the kelp forest without clear blue skies, so stack the odds in your favor. The clearest water in SoCal tends to start in the late summer or fall and carries through into the early winter. This is also when the fog layer usually gives way to sunshine and blue skies. If you’ve never been diving in Southern California, it might surprise you that some of the best kelp forest shooting is in October, November, December, January, and even into February. The water is coolest during these months, but the daytime skies are blue and the sea stays clear, unless winter storms roll through. Here are some examples of images taken during the January and February months:
Tides, Depth, and “Pockets”
Giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, is the species of algae the makes up the classic kelp forest. Biologists tell us that it can grow to over 100’ (30M) in length, but that doesn’t mean you're going to want to shoot it from 100’ (30M) deep. The kelp forest needs sunlight and generally grows best at depths of 30’ (10M) and shallower. Those 100’ long sections just stretch out across the surface, soaking up that sunlight, and forming an overhead canopy.
Under the canopy, the forest can be so thick a diver can barely pass through or form “pockets” of open water. For the best shooting, seek out these “pockets” and experiment with the angles of the sunlight from above. The thicker portions of the forest, or kelp leaves shifting in the surge, can even help to frame an image for the photographer, as in these images.
The kelp canopy will vary dramatically in thickness with the tides. At low tide it can become quite thick, but at high tides the kelp will “stretch out” and less of it will be lying across the surface. Another reason the winter months provide for better kelp forest shooting is that they bring the “king” tides with the greatest highs and lows for the year. Shooting these seascapes is generally considered a wide-angle shot, and most modern wide-angle lenses are quite forgiving to the photographer in shallow water. Working at depths of 15’ to 20’ (5M to 7M), the lens captures enough from top to bottom that the image appears to encompass the entire ocean. Low tide also shows off the emerald colors of the forest because the sunlight is cutting through the thickest part of the kelp canopy. The left image below shows off high tide shooting in the kelp forest during a winter, with the kelp stretched out towards the surface. The right image shows a low tide shot with the thick kelp canopy spread out across the surface and the sunlight filtering through with emerald colors.
Cameras, Lighting, and Shooting Techniques
Unlike other types of seascape shots, capturing the essence of the kelp forest is one of the most difficult underwater shots to accomplish. An extreme range of lighting, from the bright sun to the deep shadows under the canopy, is present in almost every shot. A camera with a broad “dynamic range” is a must to make the most of kelp forest shooting, but any camera can capture the beauty with a little work. Consider shooting at slower shutter speeds, like 1/60 or 1/80 of a second to let some natural light in. Shift angles as you shoot, using portions of the forest or canopy to block portions of the sun, until you get those signature sunbeams exploding from the surface.
You can shoot the kelp forest with or without strobes. Since even the clearest kelp forest waters have some particulates, when shooting with strobes you’ll want to point your strobes outward at least 45 degrees. These seascapes are far too big to light the entire reef with strobes, but you can use your strobes to fill in shadows and freeze motion at slower shutter speeds. These two images were shot seconds apart in the same section of forest. They show how angles can block out portions of the canopy to create the “right” sunburst, while using natural light to result in a stunning sunburst, and how the strobes can fill in those shadows to light the reef in the foreground.
Don’t underestimate the value of strobes and their “fill lighting”’ to bring out subjects in the foreground. Some underwater photographers refer to this as a “hero” that adds depth to their seascape image. This image shows of the concept in a kelp forest.
Close focus wide angle shooting in in the kelp forest can create a dramatic image. You can light the foreground with strobes or use natural light. You can shoot from the bottom to capture the canopy or shoot in the water column to highlight sunlight and blue water.
When shooting wide to capture the essence of the kelp forest, don’t forget to turn the camera sideways from time to time. A vertical frame shows off the beauty of the kelp forest in a different light and gives more of a stretch towards the surface. Here’s some examples:
Finally, don’t forget that you can still shoot the kelp forest on those days when the water isn’t so clear. Kelp macro shots make amazing abstracts as they show off the concentric geometric shapes of the new-growth kelp bladders. With the constant motion of surge twisting and turning the new growth kelp, no two kelp macro shots are ever the same. Even the leaves, with their rippled texture and the small creatures that craw across them, make appealing images. You can shoot these types of shots with strobes at high speed and high aperture to set them with a black background, or under natural light to keep the ocean’s colors.
Patience & Perseverance
Diving and shooting in the kelp forest can be a challenge. The water is cold, even on the best day. Visibility can great but can also be poor, and it can change from one day to the next. Yesterday’s conditions aren’t necessarily a prediction of what’s to come. There can be surge, changes in lighting, and even entanglement hazards in the thick kelp. Shooting in this environment takes patience and perseverance. Despite this, almost any diver willing to accept these challenges can capture images of the kelp forest. The depths are entry-level and don’t require special gasses or training. The canopy might be considered and “overhead environment,” but clears easily with bubbles from an ascending diver. Shooting here doesn’t require the perfect buoyancy of a master diver. There are no worries about reef damage here because most shooting is “on the fly” from the mid-water column. As you swim through the forest, slow down and observe the reef while pausing in the “pockets” to find a nice seascape. I like to call this “camping out” and its why underwater photographers don’t make very good dive buddies.
While you’re camping, watch the oceans motion and how it plays with the canopy and lighting or the new growth kelp if you’re shooting macro. Time your shots as the forest creates sunbursts from above or twists the kelp into pleasing shapes. Wait and watch for what might swim through the forest as you watch. Your patience might drive your dive buddy crazy, but it will pay off in the end, sometimes rewarding the photographer with the perfect combination of light, motion, color, and life.
Douglas Klug is a SCUBA diving instructor and underwater photographer in Santa Barbara, CA. Doug has been diving California’s Channel Islands for over 30 years and has logged thousands of dives in the kelp forests around Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Island. Doug specializes in underwater photography within the kelp forest environment. Doug’s photo-essays have been published in print world-wide, including articles in California Diving News, DAN Alert Diver, and Dive Training. Doug’s images have been used in numerous print and digital formats including use by the US National Park Service, US National Marine Sanctuary, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Google, and Microsoft. Doug even does live talks on underwater photography for dive clubs and museums in Southern California. In addition to underwater photography and other SCUBA courses, Doug even teaches a SCUBA course on Southern California Nudibranch Identification for divers who want to learn the names of some of the coolest “macro” critters on kelp forest reefs.
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