Underwater Photography

The Subtle Art of Close Focus Wide Angle

What is “CFWA”?

Wide angle photography offers viewers a peek into the underwater world and its landscapes that many will never experience. One thing that I noticed as I began photographing underwater was my ability to get close to an object or marine life and take its picture, while still maintaining the background, which I found out was a style called Close Focus Wide Angle, or CFWA.

This discovery really changed my photography technique and has become one of the predominant ways for me to shoot wide angle.

While the jellyfish in this image is obviously the “star”, maintaining the kelp forest background adds context and finishes this image.

CFWA is basically shooting wide angle but moving closer to the foreground subject, which will be your photo’s main focus. What better way to photograph a fish or sea fan in the foreground of the shot and get the amazing water column with kelp or some other structure in the background! Get two subjects for the price of one shot.

CFWA is not a hard technique to learn, especially if you have been shooting wide angle already, have the gear, and are used to the settings.

Below are some of the items you will need to update your system if you do not already shoot wide angle as well as some items that might interest you to try if you have already shot wide angle.

Gear needs

There isn’t much extra gear that you need if you are already shooting wide angle, but, if you are not, the must-haves for gear are a wide-angle lens for your camera, longer arms than needed for macro shooting, a dome port with extension ring that is specific to your lens, and one to two full-sized strobes.

I use a Tokina 10-17mm lens (which I love!), a Sea and Sea 6 ½ inch glass dome with an extension ring and two Sea and Sea D1 strobes.  I use A 5” arm at the housing attachment and an 8” arm that attaches to the strobe.  There is no need to go longer as many times you want to tuck right up against the dome sides and arms longer than 8” can make it hard to do.

Even smaller subjects can make great subjects for CFWA, like in this shot of a sea hare. Don’t be afraid to explore some new lighting techniques for your main subject!

There are many times that I will actually use (4) 5” arms because I do not need to go any further than right at the dome or I might even use (3) 5” and (1) 8” on the right side as I tend to shoot a lot of vertical shooting.

An add-on item that has improved my shots is a glass mini-dome which allows you to get your strobes tucked closer to the dome to better light the main subject. Also, you can also set up a wide snoot on one or both of your strobes to direct the lighting at the subject instead of a diffused cone which may or may not direct light the subject.

I use a Saga 4” mini glass dome and I’ve set up a basic plumbing coupling from Home Depot for a basic wider snoot for one to two of my strobes when the need comes up for more direct lighting.

Strobe Positioning/Power

The fun thing about CFWA is you get to really push the limits of how you want to light your foreground subject with your strobes.

It can be as basic as just positioning each strobe to butt up to each side of your dome if the subject is right in front of your lens and move away from the dome the same distance as your subject from your lens.

A fun technique I have started working with is taking one strobe, usually my left strobe, and seeing how the subject is lit by maybe raising it up and to the side of the subject for a more side lighting while keeping the right one just against the dome for filler light.

“Get close, and then get closer!”

I have even positioned the left strobe over the subject, pointing down, when the background is darker, and I am not needing as much of the background detail.

Two strobes is not required and I have, many times, shut one of my strobes down or set the power to the lowest it will go, so your subject’s details pop. Depending on your settings, you can increase or decrease the strobe power to get the desired lighting on your subject with the below camera settings.

Camera Settings

The great thing about CFWA is, since you are fully lighting your foreground with your strobes, you can pretty much concentrate your settings on the background.

Whether I am using my wide-angle dome or my mini-dome, I will usually set my shutter speed to a minimum of 1/125th to cover any movement issues with the subject and my ISO, depending on the darkness of the water, to ISO 250.

F-stop gets a little more complicated, depending on the water quality/darkness, the dome choice, and the effect you want for the background.  The basics would be F8 and up for a sharper background and F6.3 and below for a short depth of field. If you are using a mini dome, I have noticed, the largest F-stop you want to go to is F11 or you will get some blurring around the edges.

What to Shoot?

Your choices of what to shoot are endless!  I look for subjects that are in a good position where I can highlight them and hopefully get that killer blue/green water column alone or maybe some kelp, bait ball or even other divers in the background.  Your foreground subject could be a large nudibranch, a sea hare, a perfectly placed starfish or a cooperating fish or larger animal that is not too skittish.

Final Thoughts

CFWA is a nice technique to break up your wide angle shooting of UW landscapes, offering more options when a perfect subject presents itself to be showcased. I have enjoyed changing my focus from wide angle to CFWA and it has been great trying out different lighting techniques to showcase my vision of the subject.

CFWA can also add depth and perspective to an image that might otherwise be flatter and less three-dimensional. Although it can be difficult with some skittish animals, patience pays off with this technique. If you’re just getting started in CFWA, starting with stationary subjects like coral or sea anemones can help you pick it up. Give it a try!

Michelle Manson
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