Guides & Tutorials

Diving in Kelp with an Underwater Camera

I get asked all the time what is my favorite type of diving and I always say the same thing – diving in kelp!  Diving in an underwater kelp forest is like being the only person in a forest, with the sunlight streaming through the top canopy and fish swimming in the water column. The only sound you hear is the crackling and popping the ocean seems to make.

My favorite part of kelp diving is spending, often more than half of my dive, poking around in the stalk as I work my way up to do a safety stop to see if I can find critters hiding in the leaves. I will always try to find a stalk tall enough that I can work my way shallow and will in some instances, jump from stalk to stalk looking for treasure.

As an underwater photographer kelp offers your camera endless opportunities to be happy. When I first started diving with my DSLR with arms and strobes it was a bit intimidating in big, thick stalks, even though I was very comfortable diving in the kelp. I noticed that my strobe arms were magnets for having a strand grab the clamps and basically make me come to a standstill while I was finning. In other cases, I’d be taking a picture in the kelp and I’d look at my photo on the back screen only to discover that either part of the photo was dark or the whole shot would be blown out.  Over the years I’ve learned a few basics when using a camera in the kelp.

Diving in kelp offers you endless subjects to photograph whether it’s photographing the actual kelp leaves, especially the ones that are brand new and still growing, or the critters that make their home in the stalk.

Here are my tips for maneuvering around the stalks with an underwater camera rig:

  1. Streamline your gear – You’ll want to make sure that your dive setup is very streamlined, making sure your gauge and alternate air source are attached to your BCD.
  2. Take a knife – I always carry a knife with me, not necessarily to cut the kelp (but it could be used for that if you can’t snap it in two) but kelp tends to attract abandoned fishing line and I want to make sure that I’m prepared for self- detangling if the need arises. A knife should have a knife pocket and not be attached to your calf or BCD where it can snag kelp strands.
  3. Keep your camera close – When carrying your camera thru the stalks, its best to keep your camera directly in front of you right below your chest. In some cases, if the space is narrow, I’ve actually extended my arm thru the space between two stalks with my camera sideways so that it will go before I do.  If a strand get tangled on your strobe arms or strobes, stop and gently remove it from the camera. The best course of action anytime there’s kelp entanglement is – Stop, see where you are tangled and slowly work the problem.

    The best course of action anytime there’s kelp entanglement is – Stop, see where you are tangled and slowly work the problem.

  4. Shoot manual output on the strobes – I used to shoot TTL but I quickly learned that when diving in kelp, TTL was not the best option for me. When I would be setting up a shot, either one of my strobes would be hidden in the kelp causing my shot to be half dark or the TTL would compensate and overexpose the photo. I stopped using the TTL converter and make sure that my strobes are set to manual so they fire no matter what so I then can set the level of power that I want for each individual strobe.

So what’s the best option to shoot in kelp – macro or wide angle?

The greatest thing about kelp, is that you can do both macro and wide angle photography. Kelp has so many hidden treasures of all sizes. I’ve found tiny nudibranchs laying their eggs on the leaves, kelp crabs hiding inside the kelp strands jumping from one leaf to another, and huge basketball sized sea hares stuck to a leaf just hanging around. Lately, I’ve been setting up for close focus wide angle (CFWA) which allows me to tuck my strobes in closer to the dome so that I can minimize the chance of my strobe not lighting the subject.

Setting up for your shot when you do find treasure can be a challenge as the kelp and your treasure is ever moving, with current, surge and the critter constantly trying to avoid you. So if you find a subject, try getting your settings dialed in outside of the kelp before you dive in and spend your time frustrated, eventually losing your chance to nail the shot.

For wide angle and close up wide angle I want that blue (or green) background so I’ll tend to push my F stop to F11 and bump up my ISO to 250/325 if it’s dark, which is pretty common when cruising through the kelp.  I always tend to keep my shutter at 1/125s but will bump it up a bit if I’m after those god rays coming through the leaves.  For macro, there’s really not much difference whether you’re shooting in kelp or on a reef, so F18 and up,  1/125th and depending on how dark it is, 250 for ISO.

I’m continually amazed how much life there is hiding in the kelp. Diving there on a regular basis has pushed me to want to preserve our kelp forests and all the homes it provides to marine life in California waters. Next time you have the opportunity to dive in kelp, take a part of your dive and just spend some time in a stalk or two – you’ll be amazed at the different little critters you’ll find hiding under a leaf or inside the strands.

Michelle Manson
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