Landscape Photography Workflow: Camera Settings and Problem Solving for Tide Pools

The thing about landscape photography is that every shot’s situation has its unique set of challenges. Just when you think it’s going to be simple to photograph something you’re familiar with, you run smack into a new set of challenges that you have not seen before. This is exactly what happened to me while I was photographing beautiful sea urchin on the Big Island of Hawaii.

I was eager to try out the Sony 70-200mm f/4 telephoto lens I rented from BorrowLenses to capture the brilliant details of these beautiful sea urchins. When I first saw them I thought, “No problem. I’ve photographed things under water before so this should be easy.” However, I realized that this was not going to be as simple as it looks. There were a set of problems that I had not faced before:

Combating Halos During Diffraction with Underwater Photography

My first attempt to photograph sea urchins was focused on a group of three that formed a nice triangle. When I tried to shoot the urchins, I realized that there was no way I could get the images sharp. When I zoomed in close, I realized that the light was diffracting and creating rainbow-like halos. You can see these in the images below.

The sea urchin didn’t look sharp to me, despite my settings saying that they should be. Then I realized I was combating halos.

Detail of the haloing effect.

I tried several potential solutions: different shutter speeds, different angles, waiting for the water to be still, even focusing manually…but nothing seemed to work. The halos were still a problem. I stepped back to consider what was causing these halos and I realized that the bright sun combined with the current position of the sea urchins in front of a bright background was creating a prism effect with reflected light. This effect was the cause of the halos.

The solution: I needed to find a different sea urchin and use a different perspective. I found one in shallower water surrounded by a darker background. In this environment, reflected light would not be a problem. Because the sea urchin was in shallow water, I was able to shoot it directly from above which then put the sun behind me. This minimized the softness created by these rainbow halos.

Settings Used to Maximize Depth of Field Without Sacrificing Exposure

I wanted to fill my frame with the sea urchin and the Sony 70-200mm f/4 lens allowed me to do that by getting within 2-3 feet of it when used with a crop sensor body, the Sony a6300. However, the depth of field was very narrow. To make matters worse, this urchin was constantly moving its tentacles. I needed to select a small aperture and high shutter speed to get everything sharply in focus. The question was, what is the correct value of aperture that I needed?

Cameras with electronic viewfinders and/or Live View will typically have a Focus Peaking menu setting that provides you with visual cues for what is in focus by detecting the edges of highest contrast in your scene and highlighting them. This can often be quicker and more accurate than relying on your eye alone and is a feature borrowed from the video industry. Here, I am using the red areas as my guides for determining sharpness.

The solution: I turned on my camera’s focus peaking function to determine exactly what areas of the sea urchin were in focus. I then adjusted my aperture to ensure that the entire sea urchin was in focus as indicated by the Red Focus peaking indicators. Once I knew the aperture, I selected the shutter speed to be 1/13s (the sea urchin was moving relatively slowly) and an ISO of 640 to get proper exposure. It is best to choose the setting you absolutely need at a certain value first (in this case, my aperture) and then adjust the other 2 settings (in my case, ISO and shutter speed) to compensate for any loss in exposure. If you change too many settings at once, you might get lost in your process.

I chose an urchin nestled against a dark background and in shallower water. This gave me a much better environment for getting a sharp, halo-less image.

Detail of the sea urchin. I used Focus Peaking to get the sharpest results possible for my settings.

When you’re out in the field, there is no one formula that provides the solution to every problem. Even if it’s something that worked in the past, this is no guarantee that it will work again. Out in the field, you must be able to think and figure out how to get around each problem. Field work is a great place for out-of-the-box thinking. Don’t get stuck on one scene. If I stuck to my original urchin, I might have walked away without any good shots that day. Look for a difference in contrast or position yourself differently in relation to the sun. Do you have an example where your go-to habits had to be dramatically adjusted, even for a subject you’re used to? Share your tips with us!

Jay Patel is a landscape and wilderness photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. His photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars, and advertising materials all over the world. He is the creator of a series of basic and apprentice-level video courses, which can be found on Visual Wilderness.

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